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The right-wing groups behind renewable energy misinformation
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The right-wing groups behind renewable energy misinformation
A conversation with journalist Michael Thomas.
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Independent journalist Michael Thomas did a deep dive into the methods and misinformation used by right-wing groups to rally community opposition to renewable energy projects. In this episode, he discusses what he found and how climate advocates can fight back.

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Text transcript:

David Roberts

It's easy to find stories in the media these days about communities blocking solar, wind, and other clean energy projects. This has prompted an enormous amount of discourse about NIMBYs and the challenges of permitting projects. What's often left out of the discourse — and almost always left out of those stories — is how such community groups receive organizational help and money from billionaire-funded right-wingers.

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Across the country and the internet, there are hundreds of conservative think tanks, groups, and individuals working to stir up community opposition to renewable energy with misinformation and lies. With virtually no public scrutiny, they have secured state-level policies restricting renewable energy siting in dozens of states.

Michael Thomas

Independent journalist Michael Thomas set about to learn more about these right-wing groups. He joined anti-renewable-energy Facebook groups, combed through the tax filings of various right-wing think tanks, and tried to trace funding sources. He published the results in his own newsletter, Distilled.

I'm excited to talk to him about what he found: the groups involved, the tactics they use, the policies they've helped pass, and the best way to fight back.

All right then, with no further ado, Michael Thomas. Welcome to Volts. Thank you so much for coming.

Michael Thomas

Thanks for having me. I've been a longtime reader and I'm a fan of the Volts podcast. So really happy to be here.

David Roberts

So for some reason you decided to jump in and immerse yourself in the world of anti-renewable-energy people and organizations and communications online. Before we jump into the specifics, what led you to this? Did you get sort of pulled in bit by bit or did you decide to do a project on this at some point?

Michael Thomas

Yeah, it was honestly not that intentional. I was reading a lot of stories over the summer about NIMBY opposition to local solar and wind projects and was following a lot of the discourse and debate over the permitting reform bill. And one story caught my attention that was about a group of residents on the east coast that were trying to block an offshore wind farm and a substation that was going to be put on land to bring the power to land. And it appeared to be just a normal resident group, kind of the classic NIMBY arguments that they were worried about property values or didn't like the site of the wind farm.

And then I read this subtle, just one line mention of a think tank that I had heard of, the Caesar Rodney Institute, and this is a part of a much larger group of think tanks that have been funded for years by fossil fuel companies and far-right billionaires. So I started looking into it and discovered that they were very involved in the effort and giving some of these resident groups money to fund lawsuits and support. And so I started to report on that story, and it kind of got me deep into the world of climate misinformation and clean energy misinformation, and I just really became curious about what was going on and if there was a bigger story here, and ended up working on a series of stories over the last month and a half. And I learned a lot in the process.

David Roberts

Yeah, this is a theme I'll return to later, but it really in some sense should not come as a surprise to anyone that this network of anti-renewable energy, "citizen groups" across the country is being funded and coordinated by right-wing operators. Like, of course it is — you know, the Tea Party was — like, we've just learned that over and over again. But it just seems like the pro-renewable energy forces, the pro-climate forces, just kind of sleep on that and just kind of don't pay attention to it, just kind of let it run in the background.

So it's a little insane that it's not a bigger point of discussion among green types. So I'm glad you did this and I'm glad we're talking about it. So one of the things you did, God bless you, is wade into Facebook and join a bunch of anti-wind and solar groups — Good Lord — so tell us what messages about renewable energy are they emphasizing in these groups? Like, what are the consistent themes?

Michael Thomas

Yeah, so I clearly know how to have a good time by joining all of these groups and sifting through the posts. So as context, I was doing this reporting on local opposition and learning about some of these think tanks. And I learned in that research that a lot of these resident groups are organizing on Facebook groups and pages. And that makes sense if you look at the demographics of these groups, they tend to be a lot of boomers and a lot of people who are very active on Facebook. And so I joined a few of them at first.

And then in the groups there are often reshares of posts and other groups. And so by joining three or four, I quickly started to see that there were way more of these groups than I had initially expected. And in total I ended up finding about 40 groups. I joined all of them and just started scrolling through and looking at the posts and taking screenshots and taking notes and trying to understand how do the people that are in these groups communicate about clean energy? What are the common narratives? Because there are usually between 500 and 2,000 people in these groups, so we're talking about tens of thousands of people in very small communities that are receiving this messaging.

So it's I think, really important...

David Roberts

And of course, you know, just to point out the obvious, these are probably the hard core and they take those messages and spread them word of mouth to many, many thousands more, right?

Michael Thomas

Totally.

David Roberts

It's a much larger audience than just the members.

Michael Thomas

Yeah, it's also — I think — really important to note that these tend to be the most civically engaged people. So on TikTok, a video might go viral about how great solar panels are, but if the people watching that video don't show up to the county commission meeting, then it doesn't really matter necessarily. Or it does matter, but it's not as effective. So these are a lot of people who are retired or who are very engaged in their communities. And so what starts on Facebook quickly bleeds into town halls and county commission meetings. And often the discourse is really intense and really emotionally charged.

But to answer your question of what sort of themes and messages I saw, there was a range of posts. Some of them were misleading claims about clean energy. Like, an example that I saw a lot of was that solar panels and wind turbines are made using rare earth materials and they're made in China, and China uses a lot of coal. And so the implication is that clean energy is not actually that clean and it's not good for the environment, which, of course, the status quo energy system we have today that relies on fossil fuels, is terrible for the environment, kills millions of people a year, and is wreaking havoc on our environment.

And these are solutions that are orders of magnitude better, but certainly not perfect. So they're sort of driving a wedge in some of that. And another similar one is that wind turbines kill birds. Of course, famous argument against wind. So you'll see memes like if this was a bird that had been killed by oil spill, this image would be all over the front page news. And that one spread like wildfire. Like that thing had tens of thousands of shares.

David Roberts

Oh, yes, you get the hypocrisy of the mainstream media in there too. You you're hitting all the buttons.

Michael Thomas

Exactly. And then another that starts to get us into the — from misleading to just lies — is that the wind turbines or solar panels are going to destroy property values. So we're talking about 25%, 50% declines in your property value. And this is, of course, famously shared by Donald Trump in a, I think, RNC meeting a couple of years ago where he says wind turbines cause cancer and if you live near them — BANG — 50% drop in your property values. So...

David Roberts

Let's just pause to note that Donald Trump is just perfectly squarely in the demographic to be receiving these messages.

Michael Thomas

Totally. And interestingly, he's been against wind energy for years. I mean, his goes back to like, 2012.

David Roberts

It's a golf course, right?

Michael Thomas

I think in Scotland there was a golf course that they were going to set up wind turbines near, and so he's been spreading this misinformation longer than most people. So that was a really common one — the property value argument. Of course, again, numerous studies have shown that there's either minimal or no impact on property values when clean energy projects go into a community. But there is one London School of Economics study, which is a big name, very reputable source, that found that it dropped by I think it's something like 8% or 10% that gets shared a lot in these communities and by some of these influential anti-clean-energy thought leaders.

And important to look at that study and the actual details of it, because if you do, it found that there were only three homes that they looked at. So we're talking about a sample size of three. And again, if you look at much larger sample sizes, there is no evidence that it really hurts property values. And then the last two that I'll share, kind of archetypes of posts I saw, one was the "wind turbine on fire" post.

David Roberts

Yes, I love... They love those "wind turbine on fire" pictures. I see those all the time, even on Twitter.

Michael Thomas

Yeah, and I was really surprised to see these at first. I actually hadn't ever seen an image of a wind turbine on fire or a video. But when I'm scrolling through these groups, they're like every ten posts or something. And I started to think like, oh my God, this stuff is dangerous. Like, if a wind turbine caught fire and it falls down, you can see where it would scare you. So I looked into the data to see how common this was, and of course, I found that the Department of Energy has done a study on this.

They found that I think in 2017, there were something like 50,000 wind turbines in the country, and only 40 of them had a safety incident like this. So it's an incredibly rare event that is made to seem very common and therefore really scary to imagine a project like that going up in your community. And then the last one that I'll share, this is kind of a famous anti-wind piece of misinformation, was posts about wind turbine syndrome. This is something that I had never heard of before, and I'm clearly in different communities. And so this is based on a 2006 study that found that there were a number of people living near wind farms that would develop headaches and nausea.

And this study spread like crazy. And there have been something like 20 or 25 peer-reviewed studies on this since then, and none of them have been able to replicate the same findings. None of them have found any association between wind turbines and negative health effects.

David Roberts

I feel like I remember one out of England where they had like, wind turbine syndrome, and then they did like, a community comparison in another community. They went in early and paid residents, they basically paid residents, like, a small percentage of the profits of the wind farm, you know, to buy them in. And there was no wind turbine syndrome at all in the second community.

Michael Thomas

Interesting.

David Roberts

Weirdly. A little money can ward off of that particular syndrome, it seems.

Michael Thomas

So one interesting thing that I found in some of this research on wind turbine syndrome is that there's one exception that I found where people do start to develop negative health effects, and that's if they've already read information about wind turbine syndrome or about the negative health effects. And so it's actually really sad because a lot of people are posting this stuff and they're reaching a lot of communities that may or may not end up with wind turbines. And there's a great story in BuzzFeed a year or two back that was written by Joseph Bernstein, and he interviewed a lot of people. And in the end, he kind of concludes the story, saying that as he started to talk to more people and he was sleeping in his hotel near the wind farm, he suddenly started to hear it, and he suddenly started to be driven crazy.

It's unfortunate because I think a lot of people will probably have that placebo or start to be affected by those — in their community.

David Roberts

That is so darkly hilarious. So let's talk a little bit about how these groups organize. I mean, it's not like these random groups of misinformed and irritable boomers know instinctively how to organize, how to communicate, how to get results, how to block things at the state level. So how's — Let's talk a little bit about the people who are helping them. And you did a piece specifically about this guy named John Droz Jr. Tell us a little bit about him. He's helping these groups organize. What is he kind of telling them? What sort of advice is he giving to these groups?

Like, presumably he's on the lookout for these groups and in communication with all these groups. What's his message to them?

Michael Thomas

Yeah, so John Droz is certainly one of the most interesting people I've ever reported on. I learned about him as I was wading into the misinformation in some of these communities. I started to see a lot of posts to this guy's website, and I went and looked at the site, and it just has tons of resources on how to block a wind project or a solar project in your community. And they're incredibly effective tools. All, of course, styled in bright red fonts and, like, Comic Sans font and PDFs, but just like, packed with dense, probably really great information if you're trying to kill a project.

But stylistically, certainly interesting. So some backstory on John Droz. In 2011, he was a retired real estate investor, spent most of his career buying and flipping real estate in North Carolina. And that year, he learned about this bill that was going through the state legislature, debating what to do about sea level rise that was coming and how to adapt to that as a state. So Droz, who has no background in climate science or climate adaptation or anything related, creates 125 slide PowerPoint titled "Our Sea Level Policy: From Science or Lobbyists?". And he goes through and basically debunks NOAA.

And all of these US agencies, science and all these peer-reviewed studies saying none of this is true and the sea level here isn't going to rise and climate change isn't happening and kind of puts in all of the classic climate denial in this thing. And he was incredibly effective at getting the ear of the Republican legislators. So he met with tons of them, gave this presentation to them and was even quoted in the Washington Post in an article. Somehow the Washington Post fact checking team didn't catch this. But there was a story that ran where he cited as a local physicist and as an opponent to this bill.

David Roberts

Kind of what you call a lay physicist maybe.

Michael Thomas

Exactly. So North Carolina eventually decides to vote against this bill. They don't take those climate adaptation measures. And this gets the attention of American Tradition Institute — ATI, which is a climate-denial think tank that became well known when they attacked some climate scientists like Michael Mann and spread a bunch of lies about him. And so ATI brings John Droz on as a senior fellow. And in 2012 they organized this now infamous anti-wind-energy meeting in DC with really a Who's Who of climate deniers and and a group of local residents around the country who are trying to block projects.

And there was a leaked memo from this meeting that I think is worth quoting from. Do you mind if I share a few minutes from this to give you a sense of what it has? So it leads: "The minimum national campaign goal is to constructively influence national and state wind-energy policies." Then they go on: "The goal is to cause subversion in the message of industry so that it effectively becomes so bad no one wants to admit in public that they are for it." — and they're talking about wind energy — "much like wind has done to coal by turning green to black and clean to dirty." Ultimate goal: Change policy direction based on the message.

David Roberts

How many dozens of sort of vaguely progressive campaigns have you seen that are out there just raising awareness, you know, with — the left loves to raise awareness — and this guy on the right is like screw awareness. We want to change policy! We are after policy changes!

Michael Thomas

Totally, and they were incredibly effective at this. So this is back in 2012 and Droz understood long before terms like Fake News or Alternative Facts became really popular. He knew that if you provided people with an alternative story or an alternative set of facts, some small percentage of the population is going to believe it. So rather than debate the little policy details and kind of get lost in the weeds and maybe make a large number of people mildly opposed to clean energy, they spread this misinformation that gets a very small number of people incredibly passionate and incredibly emotionally charged and believing lies about clean energy.

Things like: Wind energy is bad for the environment. That's an example of "turning clean to dirty", which is what he wanted to do.

David Roberts

Famously, Karl Rove's strategy, right? He's like, you find your opponent's virtues, what they're selling as their virtues, and go straight at them, right?

Michael Thomas

Totally.

David Roberts

You go straight at the merits and so you go after sustainability and you go after, you know, good for the economy and good for the environment.

Michael Thomas

Absolutely. So he ended up teaching all of these activists that were at the meeting and then in the ten years since then, he's taught thousands of people some of these tactics. And as I was going through all of his materials on his site and looking through old documents, I kind of started to write down John Droz's Rules for anti-wind opposition. And one of them that really stood out to me was this belief of his that in order to win, you have to have aggressive demands and stick to them. So it's all about holding your line and saying, we don't want a single wind turbine in our community. It's not about taking concessions like...

David Roberts

Wait, not preemptively conceding things, not going in saying: We're reasonable, we want to find a reasonable middle. Wow, interesting, interesting, interesting...

Michael Thomas

So they basically just say, we don't want a single project or a single turbine to go up. And this is part of what creates such a toxic discourse in local communities because there's no attempt at compromise, which is, I think, a really important thing for local communities when they're debating these things. And instead they aim for either outright bans of wind energy through these local ordinances or setback requirements that require a wind turbine to be cited something like 2000ft from a home or like 2000ft away from one another. And when you play this out, wind companies just can't create a project in a community like that. So it's an effective ban — but different language.

David Roberts

I was aware of this happening, but it's kind of amazing. So the Biden administration has these huge goals for offshore wind and has made a bunch of big announcements and started various processes. And since they have made announcements, they have been sued in every state on the coast. So just so listeners are aware of the scope of this thing, like, there are these anti-wind groups seated in every state where there's wind. So one of the things you wrote about in that story is none of the local media stories about these groups — you know, so like, they propose an offshore wind farm and some sort of like "earnest residence for good things" group starts.

And the local media inevitably treats these as spontaneous democratic uprisings of citizens. And it's not that hard — you don't have to dig that hard — to find out that they're all getting funding from the same sort of network. So, A: Do you have any diagnosis of what the hell is wrong with local media? Why won't they tell the story and then B: Tell us a little bit about the State Policy Network, the SPN, on the right and it's sort of network of funding.

Michael Thomas

Sure. So the State Policy Network and the group of think tanks that are members of this are really the core of the fossil fuel funded opposition and a lot of the things that we talked about earlier. So there's a group of, I think it's something like 50 think tanks. They're all set up as 501c3 nonprofits and they're in states across the country. And if anyone's read Jane Mayer's amazing book on this topic — Dark Money — about the Koch brothers efforts to try to prevent climate policy from passing in the country, you'll know that a lot of fossil fuel billionaires were involved in setting up these nonprofits.

So a lot of the think tanks in the State Policy Network were either co-founded with the Koch brothers or given initial seed funding by the Koch brothers, who run — I'm sure all of your listeners know — Koch Industries, one of the biggest fossil fuel companies in the country. And since then, the Koch brothers continue to fund a lot of these nonprofits. But so do dozens or hundreds of billionaires that are in other extractive and dirty industries around the country and don't want to see climate policy pass. So the State Policy Network is the organizer of all of this so that they can take learnings from one state and pass those through to the rest of the states.

So most recently, a group of bills that I saw that passed through the State Policy Network was some of the preemption bans on local governments that wanted to ban natural gas in buildings. So it's no coincidence that all of those preemption bans had similar, or in some cases the exact same language. It's a combination of the State Policy Network and then ALEC, the American Legislative... — I'm going to butcher the acronym — but there's basically the State Policy Network doing the 501c3 kind of research and then ALEC writes the policy and gives it to legislators to pass. So that's some background on state policy.

David Roberts

That's worth just emphasizing briefly. It's not just that these groups get sort of standardized scripts and directions for how to oppose things. There's a whole network of right wing groups that has these sort of model bills, model legislation, model for every level of government, so that these groups don't have to investigate policy or write their own policy, right? They just take the template and change a few keywords. So it makes things very easy. It's very easy for these groups. Every step is worked out for them. PS.: It's the American Legislative Exchange Council that is incredibly difficult to remember.

Michael Thomas

Yes, thank you.

David Roberts

Probably on purpose, right? I mean, it's meant to be bland and forgettable.

Michael Thomas

Yeah. Jane Mayer read this article where she did some reporting on the State Policy Network. And there was an internal meeting between these think tanks where the head of State Policy Network described their strategy and their model, like "The Ikea of Conservative Policy" where you just, like, grab all your parts and pieces and assemble them...

David Roberts

Exactly!

Michael Thomas

...yourself and then pass the bill.

David Roberts

All you need is the Allen wrench and everything else is there for you.

Michael Thomas

She's also described that kind of ecosystem as — like an assembly line where groups fund colleges first and universities that do research on something like climate policy or climate science. So the Koch brothers are giving millions and millions of dollars to universities and then the think tanks take the ideas from those universities and they turn them into policy ideas. And then ALEC and legislators that have been given money by these billionaires, they craft the actual policy and the legal language and then they fund the politicians who end up voting for those and it becomes an assembly line of conservative and anti-climate policy.

David Roberts

It's like a vertically integrated Ikea that owned its own supply chain and like its own customers, you know what I mean? It's like a full ecosystem. And so this seems notable, right? So why doesn't the media note it? I mean, it's a little insane. It seems like the first thing you'd do if you ran across one of these citizen groups, is be like, I wonder where this came from. Who's funding these people? But they don't even seem to ask.

Michael Thomas

Yeah, and it's important because the State Policy Network think tanks are setting up campaigns and are giving legal support to these groups. So they're very much intertwined and it's very much an effort by the fossil fuel industry through these nonprofits to block this policy. Just to give an example, one of the groups I'm currently writing a story on, Caesar Rodney Institute, they sent out 35,000 mailers in 2018 to residents all along the coast that were going to see one of these wind projects. And they sent them all of the misinformation that I mentioned earlier that I saw in these Facebook groups and then also a call for financial support.

And they ended up raising $50,000 from these residents. They got 700 residents to join the group that they set up that had a very local grassroot name to it. It's like, Save Our Coast. And so now this group can in some ways legitimately say that we have 700 residents from the community who don't want this project to exist when they've really manufactured that opposition using money from fossil fuel companies to do it. So, of course, Caesar Rodney Institute got an award from the State Policy Network for this. It was one of the best communications campaigns of 2020.

David Roberts

And it is too. I hate it. You hate to say anything positive about this, but this is all brilliant. I mean, it's all so well done. Well done evil.

Michael Thomas

It's incredibly effective. And so to your question of why the local media in these communities aren't covering this, I think this is a part of the larger story of the collapse of local news in America. So there's a part of this that is the story of these hedge funds, or what are known as Vulture Funds, who go and buy up local papers and gut them, fire all the journalists. And suddenly a newsroom that used to have 20 people has two people, and they just graduated from college. So that's not going to produce the best reporting. And then you also have a media environment that is encouraging really quick stories, getting stuff out every single day and not doing deep reporting.

So it's just hard to catch this when you get a press release. You turn that press release into an article and hit publish two hours later and that's the environment we're in.

David Roberts

Well, it seems like a concerted — I mean, I'll return to this later. I don't want to get into it now. — But it seems like a concerted effort to push this information so that local journalists had access to it could be done, say, by a clever billionaire on the left. But before we get to that, one of the twists of messaging lately is something you call Woke Washing. Let's just touch on that briefly. This is from something that the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which is one of these right wing think tanks in the State Policy Network. Another incredibly forgettable name, but it's one of the campaigns they're running. Tell us a little bit about what Woke Washing means.

Michael Thomas

Yes. So Emily Atkin — Heated, another Substack publication — and I ran a story recently about the Texas Public Policy Foundation, or TPPF, and one of the things that we looked at was how they're using environmental laws to block offshore wind projects. And a couple of the laws they're using are NEPA and the Endangered Species Act. And it's worth noting that TPPF in the Trump years was basically attacking these same laws, saying that they're preventing the country from building the energy that it needs and they're destroying the economy.

David Roberts

The right has been attacking those laws since the sixties and seventies when they were passed, right?

Michael Thomas

Yeah. So TPPF took a pretty dramatic turn when Biden got in office and has suddenly become one of the biggest advocates for the Endangered Species Act and NEPA. And most recently, they funded a group of local fishermen on the East Coast who wanted to sue the Biden administration over their offshore wind leases. And in the lawsuit, they didn't make a lot of commercial claims. It wasn't necessarily about the fishing. It was really all about how these wind farms were going to further endanger the North Atlantic right whale, which is an endangered whale — of course an endangered species and needs to be protected.

But there's a whole process that a lot of environmental groups like NRDC and Conservation Law Foundation have signed off on and signed an agreement with the developers of these projects. And there are a lot of measures taken to make sure that the construction of these projects don't further endanger those whales, but TPPF is suing the Biden administration using these laws and really just trying to slow these projects down. So the term Woke Washing came up when we interviewed a disinformation expert, and she used this term to describe when far right groups use the language of justice to basically fight for injustice and against environmental law.

So you're using the language of the environmental movement to prevent its goals.

David Roberts

God, it's effective too, because some of these concerns are not baseless. Like you say, if you're going to protect the right whale, you do need to take measures. So if any of these groups cared about constructively engaging — The concerns are plausible enough that I can see how they work quite well.

Michael Thomas

Yeah.

David Roberts

It's very devious.

Michael Thomas

It's also another example of where these groups are pushing for the far extreme solution and not compromise. So in these lawsuits, the end of them says that the plaintiff's request or the plaintiff's claim is that they want all projects that are associated with this new streamlined offshore lease program that was started in the Obama years. They want all of those projects to be stopped entirely. So that's every single offshore wind project in America, and we're talking about tens of gigawatts of power. And so they're not asking for what the environmental groups asked for when they were trying to protect the right whale, which is just some mitigation efforts and some changes to how they were going to construct the farm. They're trying to kill every single project in America.

David Roberts

Organizing these groups — these citizen groups on Facebook — is of course not the only way of reaching people on Facebook. There's also just Facebook ads. So in that respect, let's talk about PragerU, Prager University — it makes me laugh to say the word university associated with this, but nonetheless that's what it's called. Tell us about Prager and PragerU and the sort of revelation that one of their co-founders have and how they sort of implemented that in practice.

Michael Thomas

So PragerU is a nonprofit media company that was started by Dennis Prager, who was a conservative radio host, still is, but has been doing this for about 30 years. And when I was in these local opposition groups on Facebook, I noticed a lot of their videos popping up and so I wanted to dig in and learn more about PragerU. I watched a lot of YouTube and have for many years, and so I was already a little bit aware of the channel because...

David Roberts

They're everywhere.

Michael Thomas

Yeah.

David Roberts

It's everywhere.

Michael Thomas

Anyone who spends time on YouTube will say that.

David Roberts

They come up on my feed. My son sees them fly by all the time. They're ubiquitous.

Michael Thomas

Yeah, they target eleven and twelve year old. You see these stories, parents around of like, what is this group doing sending my son these ads of PragerU? So I looked at their YouTube channel and tried to find all the videos that were related to climate and energy, ended up finding about 20 of them. And the titles of these videos kind of give away the message like, it's so simple. One of them is: "Fossil fuels: Greener than you think". The whole message of this video, which is delivered by Alex Epstein, who wrote a book called The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, is that fossil fuels are clean, they're good for the environment, and that everything you've heard from environmentalists is wrong.

And other videos include claims that clean energy is really bad for the environment. These are delivered by people like Michael Shellenberger and Bjørn Lomborg, and they're again making misleading claims based on real problems like wind turbines kill endangered birds, or clean energy projects are built using materials that create environmental harm.

David Roberts

One of the interesting things you mentioned in the story is that they were sort of big into the straight up climate-denial business, but then Facebook and Google passed policies saying you can't do the straight up climate-denial anymore. And that sort of created a pivot. Talk about that a little bit.

Michael Thomas

Yeah, so after many years of creating videos with claims like, there's no evidence that CO2 causes climate change, which is of course not true, Facebook and Google changed their policies not to limit their videos. So their videos are still on these platforms, but they limited the ability for them to use ads to promote them. So I looked at Facebook's ad transparency tool and I looked through PragerU Form 990 IRS documents, and I found that they were spending tens of millions of dollars per year promoting videos on Facebook and Google.

David Roberts

Wild.

Michael Thomas

That's in part how they were able to reach 100 million people with these videos about climate change, fossil fuels being good, clean energy being bad. And I also looked into where they got the money because PragerU is a nonprofit and trying to figure out, like, is there any connection here between fossil fuel companies? And sure enough, what I found was that in 2013, PragerU received a $6.25 million grant commitment from the Wilks brothers in Texas who started FracTech, a fracking company, and they gave them a huge amount of funding to make their videos. It's worth, just for reference, pointing out that PragerU at the time was bringing in about $400,000 a year.

So this is a huge amount of money for them at the time. And as a part of this, two members of the Wilks family joined the board. And then shortly afterwards, they started making these videos about climate change and clean energy and fossil fuels. And the members of the family were still on the board while they were making them.

David Roberts

Yeah, but then to get back to the policy, the anti-denialism policy, they sort of have pivoted. And this seems like — it's hard not to see the whole right as a school of fish sometimes — but it seems like they've all kind of pivoted away from the hard denialism toward the kind of Shellenberger-style, Lomborg-style "green energy isn't green" message.

Michael Thomas

Yeah. And PragerU has definitely started to do this and they are basically able to get around the new policies by Google and Facebook that have limited their ability to spread those pure climate denial videos and are now promoting the videos that say that clean energy isn't good for the environment, which, of course, is going to be almost impossible for these tech companies to regulate. Because what's the difference between a legitimate NPR story about a problem that we really need to figure out and need to solve around the environmental impact of some of this mining for rare-earth materials and the impact it's having on local communities? What's the difference between that and PragerU's video pointing it out but turning a little bit of spin and maybe putting some misleading claims in it?

David Roberts

Yeah, it's one thing to police outright falsehoods, but you really cannot police good faith, right? There is no algorithm for separating good faith from bad faith claims in these videos. So there's no real way to systematically — it seems to me, I mean, maybe you've thought of something else — but it seems to me like there's just no systematic way to stop this stuff or block it or even flag it. There's no real mechanism to do anything about it directly. Am I wrong about that?

Michael Thomas

No, I think this is just a really hard problem to solve. I think that there's definitely ways to prevent some of it or there's better solutions out there between some of these tech companies. Like the last couple of weeks has shown us with Twitter that there's a lot of different approaches that tech companies can take before being legally required to do something. Facebook and Google have said that they're going to flag climate misinformation. They aren't doing a great job — have a lot of room for improvement. They've said that they won't let people spend to promote climate denial in their videos.

But then now you have Twitter and Elon Musk just unleashing a free-for-all of what he says is free speech but in a lot of cases is hateful rhetoric and in the case of climate change, just misinformation and lies and unsurprisingly, people like Jordan Peterson have come back and are posting a lot of stuff about climate change with claims like CO2 is good for the environment and climate change isn't happening. And so I think there's definitely a lot that these tech companies can do and Twitter is evidence that what they do has a real impact and can limit some of the spread of these ideas. But another thing that I ran across in some of my research — that some tech companies have started to experiment with — is this idea of pre-bunking where you basically expose people to facts about climate change before they click a link that has known misinformation on it.

David Roberts

Yeah.

Michael Thomas

And this comes out of some research out of Yale, I believe, and the impact of that in some studies seems to be good, but definitely not perfect and doesn't change people's opinions in a big way. So it's definitely not a panacea.

David Roberts

We here on the left come to this dilemma again and again, which is you don't just want to be thinking about how to suppress other people's speech. That's an uncomfortable kind of place for us to be. That's not you know, you're constantly sort of dancing up against ethical quandaries and people who make those videos, what are you going to argue with them about whether it's good faith or bad faith. They can say it's good faith and — you know what I mean — so there's no — it seems like the root of trying to suppress their speech is fraught.

I mean, A: ethically fraught, and B: on a practical level just doesn't seem to be very possible. But then, of course, you read all these studies about misinformation which tell you that once this kind of information is in someone's head, it is almost impossible to root it out. No matter how many good facts you throw in the wake of bad facts, it's almost impossible to change people's minds. And you read all these studies that, say, being exposed to these talking points again and again, even in the context of seeing them debunked, lodges them in your freaking head.

So you end up — even if you see a thing debunked again and again — the talking point sticks in your head and you end up sort of like believing it. So it's this horns of a dilemma that the left is on again and again, which is misinformation seems to work, but there doesn't seem to be any reliable way to stop or suppress it.

Michael Thomas

Yeah, there's a famous study on this that I'm sure you're referring to, which is around some ads that Listerine ran in the 70s where they internally knew that Listerine wouldn't do this, but they ran these ads that said that by using Listerine mouthwash, you could prevent the common cold. Or if you got a cold, it was a really good remedy. And they sold tons of listerine this way. They ran all these TV ads with moms telling their kids, come on over, need your listerine. So the FTC caught them and sued them and ended up making them, as a part of the lawsuit, run ads that basically said, sorry, we were wrong and correct the claim. This is definitely a different time of...

David Roberts

Imagine!

Michael Thomas

...communications and regulation, but even after running this multimillion dollar campaign to sort of correct the record, people, when they were surveyed, still believed that Listerine would prevent or was a good remedy for the common cold. And it was something like 80% of people still believed that Listerine had these effects. So this is a famous study in misinformation science and it just speaks to how difficult it is to change people's minds once that information has hit them.

David Roberts

Yeah, so I guess here's where I kind of come around on this. If we think that trying to get tech platforms to uniformly impose standards of accuracy on all the trillions of bytes of information that pass through them seems kind of impossible, and changing people's minds after they've already seen this stuff is very difficult. It just kind of seems like the only solution you're left with is do the opposite, right? Get good information into people's hands. So here's my question to you, and there's no good answer to this question, so I don't expect you to have one.

But on the right, okay, you've got these billionaires. They funnel tons and tons of money and establish this broad network of think tanks, which then go on to share lessons about how to oppose these things they don't like, which they funnel down to local groups, which are more or less kind of disguised as spontaneous citizen groups. And you got other people on the right, got Prager alone spending like $20 million in the last four or five years on Facebook ads so that they become — they get their message out ubiquitously on Facebook. So, as we've discussed, there's this entire coherent ecosystem of right wing — and this is of course — all of this is just clean energy entering this ecosystem.

But this ecosystem goes way back. They've been building this forever. They've been using it against all the things they don't like. This is just sort of like clean energy getting absorbed into that Borg. So my question is, what is the analog on the left among people who support renewable energy? Is anybody — are there any billionaires? Where are the billionaires? Is there a network of think tanks that I'm not aware of? Are there astroturf groups, pro renewable energy astroturf groups? Is there someone spending $20 million on pro-renewable energy Facebook ads? Is any of this mirrored on the left?

Michael Thomas

So I think one of the good things that the climate movement has going for it is that the facts are on the movement side and the science.

David Roberts

It's such a tiny weapon, Michael. That's the least effective weapon in the whole war.

Michael Thomas

I mentioned it, though, because I think that there's a lot of free media, if you will, that comes by reporters and documentaries and all this stuff that has really brought climate change into the public's awareness in the last ten years. I think that is largely a result of media going back, of course, to The Inconvenient Truth and some of the advocacy of Al Gore. But now Netflix has all of these documentaries. Whenever I talk to my friends who are not in this world, they'll tell me that they learned about clean energy and climate change from a Netflix documentary.

But to me — to more directly answer your question, like more overt attempts to change minds or to influence advocacy. There's a YouTube channel that I've been watching for the last year that's become pretty popular called Climate Town and it's a John Oliver, Steven Colbert style of humor all focused on climate change and clean energy and the fossil fuel industry's attempts to block clean energy. Rollie Williams started this channel and had a career in stand up comedy and decided to use his skills to fight the good fight. And his videos have hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of views spreading messages like my first time when he made a video about the negative health impacts of gas stoves and talking about alternatives like induction cooktops.

So that's one channel. He's recently partnered with nonprofit Climate Changemakers that does climate advocacy and trains people on how to be effective advocates in their local community and also in federal politics.

David Roberts

I was going to say like the missing piece — what would happen on the right is, if a promising YouTuber emerged and got hundreds of thousands of clicks for spreading their message, they would be descended on by a swarm of people, giving them money and setting them up so that they could do it on a bigger level forever and never have to worry about money again. They would be immediately absorbed into the right wing money train.

Michael Thomas

Right? Yeah.

David Roberts

Where's the analog for that? That's what's missing. It's not, you don't have tons of creative, interesting young people out doing cool things. Where is the infrastructure of money and organization that finds them, elevates them, supports them, connects them with one another?

Michael Thomas

Yeah.

David Roberts

Where is that, Michael? I don't know why I'm demanding this with you.

Michael Thomas

Well, I will also just make a shameless plug and say that I am launching a YouTube channel in the coming weeks and am planning to produce Vox style explainers to kind of speak to your alma mater. I think their YouTube channel is amazing and reaches millions of people.

David Roberts

It's fantastic.

Michael Thomas

And what I'm planning to do is turn some of these investigations that I've done on PragerU for example — is going to be the first video — and try to get them in front of large audiences and put in a lot of production value to it. So I'm hoping to be able to sort of counter some of those messages.

David Roberts

Well, let's talk in a year and see if any left wing billionaires have gotten in touch with you. After you do that for a while, I'd be very curious.

Michael Thomas

Yeah, another effort that I think is really valuable and again to talk about your alma mater Vox. I was recently reading some stories in their column Future Perfect about the future of plant-based diets and really talking about the environmental and other ethical harms that are caused by the meat and dairy industry. And I noticed as I was reading that that project has been supported by donors and so I know that Vox doesn't take any money and then let those donors...

David Roberts

Including some uncomfortable donors...

Michael Thomas

Oh, interesting.

David Roberts

Future Perfect got a lot of money from Sam Bankman-Fried. That's a whole different subject.

Michael Thomas

Oh no, really?

David Roberts

Just goes to make my point, like even when we try to do the "left wing billionaire funds — good messages things", it somehow still turns into a dumpster fire. We need better billionaires, I think.

Michael Thomas

Yeah, or no billionaires might be the best solution.

David Roberts

Billionaires working toward a world where there are no billionaires.

Michael Thomas

Yeah, but yeah, I think — to just get to your point, I don't think that environmental groups have figured this out. And I think that the right is so much more effective at getting people emotionally charged. And I think evidence of this is if you look at some of the local communities where these fights are happening over clean energy, even though there's so much information out there on the benefits of clean energy and the problem of climate change. In the example I saw most recently of a community in Michigan, last week, this community polled at like 55% of people support clean energy in their community.

But someone sent me an image of the township meeting where they were voting on it, and there was hundreds of people packed in an auditorium and this Person told me...

David Roberts

Were they old and white, Michael?

Michael Thomas

They were all old and white, and only three of those hundreds of people were there to support the clean energy project. So I think that speaks to how much emotion plays in this. Like if you hear about how clean energy has some benefits and it might provide some tax base for your school — it's like you might feel like you support it, but you're not going to feel as emotionally charged as if you see a picture of a wind turbine on fire or think that it's going to cause your kids cancer. And unfortunately, that's what the right is doing.

David Roberts

I've said this so many times on this podcast, might as well say it again, intensity wins in politics. This is a point you're sort of making again and again. Like a large group of mildly supportive people is useless in the face of a small group of intensely motivated people because intensely motivated people make noise and politicians hear noise. Politicians cannot distinguish large groups from small groups. All they hear is noise. And if you make a lot of noise, you win. And this is something I talked with David Fenton, the left PR guy on a pod a while back, and this is something he told me again and again.

Like in the green groups, there are millions, hundreds of millions of dollars floating around through these groups and they produce endless sort of studies and white papers and reports and do sort of behind the scenes policy work, but they just don't spend on propaganda — to use the charged term for it. They don't go out and spend $20 million buying Facebook ads. And the point he made is like, it's not that expensive to buy a bunch of ads on Facebook to buy an ad in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal to buy ads to carpet the sort of metro stations in DC where policymakers are walking around. It doesn't cost that much and they have a bunch of money.

They just are not habituated to act that way. And so I hope that, among other things, your work here sort of showing how this ecosystem works and showing how well it works, will just, like, knock someone's head together who's funding these left groups and cause them to get in the business of communicating and trying to change the public's mind instead of just putting out facts like you say, like good reports, like spreadsheets on the tax impacts and just hoping people take those facts and translate them themselves into emotion. You've got to give people the emotion. You've got to do some communicating and propagandizing and we're doing none and they're doing an amazing amount coordinated across the entire country.

Michael Thomas

Can I ask a question of you and see what are your thoughts on an effective version of this on the left that I've seen that's very controversial?

David Roberts

Oh, sure.

Michael Thomas

So I haven't made up my mind on this debate. But something that has been hotly debated in the climate community over the last year is a lot of the rhetoric around the world is ending; climate change is going to wreak havoc on the planet; your kids lives are going to be terrible because of climate change. These like kind of over the top types of rhetoric. I listened to Adam McKay on your podcast — he came on a couple of times — and the second time when he was talking about Build Back Better, I was just struck by how he was kind of taking this extreme stance of climate change and at the time I was thinking Build Back — or the Inflation Reduction Act rather — was a great bill.

But after this conversation I'm wondering if that rhetoric is needed and if the sort of emotionally charged language is maybe more effective than some of the debates around permitting reform around the policy and all that. But I guess just to ask the question, do you think that some of that rhetoric and the exaggeration maybe of how bad climate change will be, is effective?

David Roberts

I, like you, am ambivalent about it. I think my take is it's a little bit like one hand clapping. I think fear does motivate people. I think the idea that fear doesn't motivate people is just ludicrous. Like fear motivates people to do all sorts of things. But you need — I mean this is — the problem is on both the right and the left, it's just much easier to oppose things and it's just much easier to gin up emotion in opposition to things. This is one of the reasons that the climate activist movement sort of seems drawn inexorably to fighting pipelines and fighting things and fighting wells and all these things because you can get people in the streets for that.

That's why the Keystone Pipeline, despite its sort of irrelevance in the grand carbon picture, sparked a whole giant march and a whole giant movement because people are fired up by opposing things. And the riddle to me, which I do not know the answer to, is how, if you're a PragerU or if you're a left wing billionaire, how to spark passion and real fire in favor of things. In favor of building things, right? Because we got to pivot now to building things. You know this we've been talking about this online. The whole movement needs to pivot to building a shitload of stuff like we got to build faster and more than we've ever built in our lives.

And so how do you create passionate fired up support such that people will go to these meetings and yell and scream in support of building things? And I just hate to end this podcast on a note of bafflement but I really don't know. Do you have any ideas?

Michael Thomas

Like you, I am not overly optimistic on some of this but I think there's probably enough cynicism or pessimism out there. So maybe just to end on some inspiring note, I think the most recent abundance movement or supply side progressivism that some of the folks like Derek Thompson at the Atlantic and Ezra Klein at New York Times now are talking about is really important. I think that the left has probably become too skeptical of technology and in some cases for really great reasons. But I think that we need to start talking about a really beautiful and amazing future that we can build.

And we need to continue to focus on how much harm there will be from climate change and how bad it could be. Because I do think fear motivates. But we also need to give people that picture of the future. That's inspiring. And I think some nonprofits that are starting to do this in terms of communications and policy or groups like Rewiring America and other groups that are talking about how the clean energy transition represents one of the most amazing opportunities to really build this beautiful, clean future that could raise incomes for people and make all of our lives a lot better.

And I don't think that we talk about the benefits of that or paint that picture for people. Because if we built this sort of clean energy utopia that I think is in a lot of our optimistic vision, we would be talking about ideally not sitting in traffic for nearly as many hours as we do if we built great public transit. Like if you've ever been to countries like Japan or the Netherlands, you know that there's this other model that we can have and it's incredible. Like sitting on a train reading a book instead of sitting in traffic sucking up nitrogen dioxide emissions is pretty incredible.

And to be able to save millions of lives by reducing fossil fuel pollution and to hopefully use the clean energy transition as a way to shift power and give it to the people who don't have power and who have been marginalized. I think that represents this incredible utopia that we probably don't talk about it enough and I think that that can be motivating and can get some people to act. So I won't put my own but in there — that sort of naive optimism.

David Roberts

I'm struggling to contain my own but there. So we'll leave it there in a happy place. If there are any liberal billionaires out there listening, that's a good place to channel your money. If not there somewhere else. Please do something. Please witness this network of moneyed groups and intellectual launderers and quasi local groups that have mobilized against you and do something.

Michael Thomas

Absolutely. And maybe just to make one more call to action that I think everyone can do — to share a really quick story. Over the holidays, I decided I was finally going to talk about climate change more with my family and talk about some political topics.

David Roberts

I hope you read all the articles "How to Talk to Your Family about Climate Change". There's about 5000 of those out there.

Michael Thomas

I did. And I was honestly a little skeptical of some of this, but had been hearing this from people like Dr. Katherine Hayhoe and the importance of talking about climate change. And so I brought this up and also the importance of plant based diets and how bad the conditions for that turkey that we ate were and how it was in a terrible environment, which was a little bit uncomfortable as the turkey was sitting there — to maybe just paint a picture of my Thanksgiving. But my brother pulled me aside the next day and he's much more conservative and hunts a lot and does not talk to people about climate change often so very different politics than me.

But he was really pushing back and asking me some questions and I was answering and not really holding back and talking about climate change. And he called me a couple of days later and he said, hey, so I was looking into getting a new car and I was planning on just getting this truck. But after our conversation I got really excited about electric vehicles and so I'm getting an EV and he sends me a text a couple of days later with a picture of this new car. And then I saw him another couple of days later and he says, after our conversation, I was just thinking a lot about the importance of eating less meat.

And so I decided I'm going to start eating less meat and I'm going to start talking to my friends about it because they don't really hear about this stuff as much. And I think it's important. And of course, I'm like sobbing happy tears at this point, but it was this really beautiful moment and I think that's something that we can all do, even if we don't have a billion dollars. We can just talk about the stuff and talk about the benefits of climate action and clean energy with our friends and our family.

David Roberts

Yeah. Each one teach one. Thank you, Michael, for diving into this squalid area and wading through bad YouTube videos to bring us all this information. And thanks for coming on.

Michael Thomas

Thanks so much for having me. It was a really fun conversation.

David Roberts

Thank you for listening to the Volts podcast. It is ad free, powered entirely by listeners like you. If you value conversations like this, please consider becoming a paid Volts subscriber at volts.wtf. Yes, that's volts.wtf, so that I can continue doing this work. Thank you so much and I'll see you next time.

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Volts

Volts

Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)