One of the stranger conspiracy theories against climate science is that corporate interests are pulling all the strings so that “Big Green” can get rich from action against climate change. Of course, it’s no secret that industries related to fossil fuels have lobbied for the exact opposite, pushing to avoid any significant climate policy.
So what American industries spend to lobby Congress on this issue?
Drexel University’s Robert Brulle used lobbying reporting laws to find out. Not every penny spent on persuading congresspeople has to be reported—and a lot of political activities, like think tank funding, don’t count as lobbying. But spending on lobbying itself has been tracked in the US since a 1995 law mandated it. Brulle was able to sift through climate-related expenditures between 2000 and 2016, sorting the entities into groups.
The result: “Big Green” is being massively outspent by fossil fuel industries.
In total, Brulle found that about $2 billion was spent on climate lobbying over that time period. For context, that’s just under four percent of all reported lobbying.
A miscellaneous grab-bag of industries accounts for 30 percent of that spending, but the top identifiable group is electrical utilities, coming in at 26 percent. The fossil fuel industry is next, at 18 percent. The transportation industry kicked in 12 percent, and agriculture, forestry, and general business groups (like the Chamber of Commerce) add up to another eight percent.
Environmental advocacy groups, on the other hand, accounted for just two percent. And the renewable energy industry—perhaps the closest thing to “Big Green”—contributed just four percent of the total.
Parsing these numbers can be tricky. Brulle emphasizes that you can’t just assume all electrical utilities, for example, were lobbying to oppose climate policies; some utilities with cleaner energy mixes have supported other policies that stood to benefit them. Still, environmental groups and the renewable industry have been vastly outspent by industries that you would expect to largely align on the other side of climate policy debates.
The call of legislation
Perhaps more interesting is the change in lobbying expenditures over time. While the total from “green” groups was four percent of all lobbying, individual year percentages varied from less than one percent to fully nine percent. Why? Since the point of lobbying is to influence legislation, spending goes up when relevant bills are under consideration and drops again when things are quiet.
In the early 2000s, Republicans controlled Congress and the White House, and few climate-relevant bills were introduced with any hope of passage. Later in George W. Bush’s presidency, Democrats gained majorities in Congress, and climate change drew more interest—several bipartisan emissions cap-and-trade bills almost passed. By the time the Obama administration was in charge, lobbying reached its peak amid heightened congressional activity. The 2010 election brought the “Tea Party” wave of Republicans that retook control of the House of Representatives, and this group largely rejected the existence of climate change. That put a damper on climate bills and hearings; as a result, lobbying expenditures on the issue dropped by nearly half the next year.
We don’t know exactly what these lobbyists said or how influential their messages were, but we see how much of this expensive ear-bending is going on. And we can be sure that if Congress gets serious about climate policy again, lobbyists will answer the call.