By Alphonsine Mousseau. Global Warming. Published at Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019 - 10:58:40 AM.
Myron Ebell stood in bright sunlight as President Trump stepped into the Rose Garden and spoke. “In order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens,” Trump said to rowdy applause, “the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord.” Ebell was hot, sunburned and very pleased. He was witnessing history that he had helped make.
For nearly two decades, Ebell has led the Cooler Heads Coalition, an umbrella group of tax-exempt public charities and other nonprofit organizations in the vanguard of efforts to cast doubt on the gravity of climate change and thwart government efforts to address it. Coalition members have called climate science a hoax and denounced environmentalists as “global-warming alarmists.” They have written letters, blasted out emails, pressured lawmakers, sponsored seminars, appeared on television and made a documentary movie.
It was all part of a wave that crested with Trump’s rejection on June 1 of the Paris agreement, a landmark accord by nearly 200 countries in 2015 to limit greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
“He made the decision. We helped create the circumstances,” Ebell told The Washington Post. “When you are persistent, good things can happen.”
The story behind the coalition illuminates the influential, little-known role that tax-exempt public charities play in modern campaigns to sway lawmakers and shape policy in the nation’s capital, while claiming to be nonpartisan educational organizations. It also offers insight into the forces behind a Trump decision that infuriated scientists and environmentalists, mystified U.S. allies and went against the advice of some major corporations.
Ebell, a 64-year-old veteran of Washington’s policy wars, is director of energy and environmental policy for a libertarian nonprofit organization called the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), which helped start the Cooler Heads Coalition in 1997. The coalition, with a rolling membership of more than three dozen groups over the years, describes itself on its website as “informal and ad-hoc,” and focused on education.
Interviews, tax filings, internal documents and news accounts show that its members are well funded and dedicated to advancing a conservative, free-market agenda. The Post found that the coalition is part of a far larger network of tax-exempt nonprofit groups, linked by ideology and funding, that supported Trump while disparaging Democrat Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential campaign.
The Cooler Heads have received more than $11 million in donations over the years from coal and oil companies. They’ve taken in tens of millions more from nonprofit foundations, such as those controlled by the wealthy Koch brothers, and the Scaife and Mercer families, according to interviews and Internal Revenue Service filings. Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University, said that members of the Cooler Heads Coalition are allied with trade groups, public relations companies and lobbyists working to influence public debate about global warming.
“Public charities serve as so-called independent think tanks, providing analysis to create the appearance they are independent, third-party voices,” Brulle said. “It becomes so complicated and so sophisticated. This is how modern politics operates.”
Long dismissed as cranks by mainstream scientists and politicians in both parties, Ebell and his Cooler Heads colleagues were embraced last year by the Trump campaign. Ebell served as the transition director at the Environmental Protection Agency. This spring, he leveraged those connections to arrange a White House briefing in opposition to the Paris agreement, according to an email from Ebell to participants that was obtained by The Post.
“Thank you for agreeing to be part of the basket of deplorables,” he wrote in an April 18 email. “The purpose of the meeting is to present our views on why President Trump should keep his campaign commitment to withdraw from the Paris Climate Treaty.”
Such advocacy is in effect supported by American taxpayers, because contributors to groups organized under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code can deduct donations from their taxes, which means less revenue for the federal government. Under IRS rules, such organizations may not devote a substantial part of their work to lobbying. But the laws are vague and hard to enforce. And the IRS provides little oversight, because it is financially strapped and has too few auditors. Agency officials are also wary of enforcing prohibitions on political activity, after the conservative backlash triggered by the agency’s focus on tea party groups several years ago, according to knowledgeable officials.
In interviews, Ebell acknowledged that Cooler Heads advocacy “does bleed into political persuasion and lobbying.” But he said such activity is common in Washington and, in the case of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, does not violate IRS or lobbying restrictions, because it does not constitute a substantial portion of its work.
Ebell, who according to tax filings earned $115,000 in 2014, also played down the influence of the group’s funders, saying that CEI and other organizations choose their policy positions before seeking contributions. “Yes, we do talk to industry,” he told The Post. “No, there is no overarching direction from anyone.”
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