Climate change is going to dramatically alter life on the planet in the coming decades. Just how dramatically will depend on how aggressively governments and businesses move to correct the practices that over the past century have filled the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Unfortunately, some bad actors are not only failing to address the crisis, they’re actively exacerbating it. Here’s a list of America’s worst offenders, from fossil-fuel industry magnates, to investment gurus, to the president himself.
Trump has been a godsend for the fossil-fuel industry, gutting the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of the Interior while stocking each agency with former fossil-fuel-industry executives and lobbyists. He has auctioned off millions of acres of public land to oil-and-gas drilling and rolled back close to 100 environmental regulations, paving the way for 200 million more tons of carbon to be pumped into the atmosphere per year. But Trump insists he’s one of the good guys. “I’m an environmentalist,” he said last fall after bailing on a climate-focused meeting of the G-7. “A lot of people don’t understand that. I think I know more about the environment than most people.”
Since taking the helm of the EPA in 2018, Wheeler has curtailed the agency’s ability to use scientific data when establishing regulations, rolled back clean-water protections that prevented polluters from dumping chemicals in streams and wetlands, and waged campaigns to strip numerous emissions regulations — from checks on methane to tailpipe-exhaust restrictions in California. He came to the EPA after spending years as a fossil-fuel-industry lobbyist. “Wheeler is the embodiment of the anti-regulatory ‘deep state’ in Washington,” Ken Cook, president of the nonprofit advocacy organization Environmental Working Group, told us in 2018. “He’s playing the long game. And that’s exactly what makes him so dangerous.”
The billionaire executive chair of News Corp. and founder of Fox News, Murdoch started a network of media properties that has been instrumental in the propagation of climate-change skepticism, both in America and abroad. As climate-fueled wildfires decimated his home country of Australia, Murdoch’s outlets spread disinformation — The Australian dismissed the fires as “nothing new.” It’s even worse in the U.S., where Fox News has been a platform for climate deniers for years. In 2019 alone, its guests called climate science “fake,” argued the climate is bound to change “with the Earth rotating at 1,000 miles per hour,” and claimed that pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere couldn’t be bad because “we exhale carbon dioxide.”
Billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, who directs the Mercer Family Foundation, have spread millions of dollars across America’s most influential climate-science-denying groups, including the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute. Tax filings made public in December showed they scaled back such donations in 2018, but they did send more than $8 million to Donors Trust, a Koch-funded dark-money group, and $300,000 to the Oregon Institute for Science and Medicine, whose founder Arthur Robinson, an “alt-science” pioneer, once said increasing CO2 levels would result in a “host of beneficial effects” for the environment.
The “Oracle of Omaha” is a little shortsighted when it comes to the climate crisis. The billionaire financial guru has long been pumping money into the fossil-fuel industry, and it doesn’t look like he has plans to stop. In 2019, Buffett invested $10 billion in Occidental Petroleum’s interest in the Permian Basin, marveling to CNBC how “incredible” it is that the region is producing 4 million barrels of oil a day. He’s rationalized his climate-killing investments by arguing that his first priority is to enrich his shareholders, not save the environment. Nevertheless, Buffett has described the climate crisis as “an incredibly important subject.” Thanks for your concern, Warren.
Koch Industries pumped more than 25 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2017, according to a University of Massachusetts study, more than Chevron, BP, and a host of other fossil-fuel-industry powerhouses. Charles, 84, and his brother David (who died in 2019) began funding climate denial long before the crisis went mainstream. In 1991, Charles’ Cato Institute hosted a conference for skeptics titled “Global Environmental Crisis: Science or Politics?” They continued to work to prevent congressional action on climate change for decades, founding and funding anti-science advocacy groups like Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners. As Kochland author Christopher Leonard wrote for The New York Times in 2019, the Kochs’ “unrivaled” political influence machine “has been employed to great effect to ensure that no government action is taken to control greenhouse gas emissions.”
Ebell has made a career out of casting doubt on climate science (though he has no scientific training himself), most notably through his role at the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank that has taken millions from the fossil-fuel industry. In 2016, he led Trump’s transition team at the EPA, helping to put in place a team to dismantle Obama’s policies, and he has continued to advocate for harmful rollbacks like replacing the landmark Clean Power Plan with weaker regulations.
The founder and former CEO of Murray Energy saw his coal behemoth — which, as America’s largest privately owned coal company, produced 76 million tons of coal annually — go bankrupt in 2019, but Murray’s influence extends beyond his floundering dirty-energy company. For years, he pumped money into a diverse portfolio of conservative groups that continue to push disinformation about the climate crisis. Murray also had an oversize influence on Trump’s climate policy, donating $300,000 to his inaugural committee before handing the president a literal wish list of rollback requests, many of which were dutifully carried out by the administration.
Florida is one of America’s most vulnerable states when it comes to climate change, but you wouldn’t know it from how its Republican senators have punted on the issue. When he was governor, Scott even had the words “climate change” and “global warming” removed from official reports. Though both men took a small step forward in 2019 by acknowledging climate change is real, they both bashed the Green New Deal and prescribed, as Rubio put it, “adaptive” solutions to a “manageable” problem. This is to say: solutions that don’t upset the fossil-fuel industry. Rubio and Scott both have a 100-percent approval rating from the Koch-backed climate-denial group Americans for Prosperity.
Since joining Trump’s Department of the Interior, Bernhardt has shown complete deference to the wishes of the extractive industries that he long served as a fossil-fuel-industry lobbyist (clients included Halliburton and the U.S. Oil and Gas Association). In 2018, he led an effort to strip protections from 9 million acres of the imperiled sage-grouse habitat, opening up the land to oil drilling. More recently, his department has worked to lease portions of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for, you guessed it, more drilling — a decision so destructive that even a number of major banks have vowed not to fund oil-and-gas operations there. Executives with the Independent Petroleum Association of America, one of Bernhardt’s former clients, were recorded in 2017 bragging of their “direct access” to Bernhardt and of having “conversations with him about issues ranging from federal land access to endangered species.”
An 80-year-old professor emeritus of physics at Princeton, Happer has deep ties to the Heartland Institute, one of the most influential pushers of climate denial in the U.S. In 2018, he joined Trump’s National Security Council, but his plans to discredit the government’s own climate reports were so extreme the White House rejected them for fear they might hurt Trump’s ability to get re-elected. Happer resigned from the administration in 2019, but the man who once compared the demonization of CO2 to the “demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler” hasn’t quit pushing climate denial. He appeared at a Heartland Institute forum to counter the U.N.’s climate conference last December, where he called the climate movement “a bizarre environmental cult.”
The longtime Republican senator literally wrote the book on climate denial (The Greatest Hoax) and is best known for presenting a snowball on the Senate floor as evidence that climate change isn’t real. The 2015 stunt is only the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg. Inhofe, who has introduced bills to gut the EPA (which he once likened to the Gestapo and, in 2017, claimed was “brainwashing our kids”) and been a regular fixture at high-profile climate-denial conferences, now has a network of disciples carrying out his agenda. EPA head Andrew Wheeler used to work in Inhofe’s office, as did the agency’s chief of staff, Mandy Gunasekara, who encouraged Trump to leave the Paris Agreement. “It gives me comfort,” Inhofe told The Washington Post of his former staffers who are now influencing Trump’s environmental policy. What’s fueling Inhofe’s climate denial? In 2012, he cited the Book of Genesis, arguing that humans aren’t “able to change what [God] is doing in the climate.” It could also be that he’s received more than $2 million in donations from fossil-fuel interests over the course of his congressional career, with his biggest donors being Koch Industries and Murray Energy.
Billionaire Texan and Republican mega-donor Kelcy Warren is the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, the Energy Transfer Crude Oil Pipeline (which extends the DAPL into Texas), and several other terminals across North America. The DAPL and the ETCO have sprung several leaks — including a 4,998-gallon spill in Tennessee in 2017 — while another pipeline, Rover, spilled 2 million gallons of drilling fluid into Ohio wetlands, one of several of that pipeline’s environmental violations. Warren has pushed to expand despite the leaks — including a move to double the capacity of the Dakota Access — and quipped in 2018 that two activists who drilled holes in an empty pipeline should be “removed from the gene pool.”
Jorjani first worked for the DOI during George W. Bush’s presidency, a tenure that included a stint counseling for Deputy Secretary Lynn Scarlett, who in 1997 compared environmentalism to Marxism in its restriction of individual rights. He later went to work for the Charles Koch Institute and served as a general counsel for the Koch-funded Freedom Partners, which doled out millions to conservative politicians and causes, including deregulating the fossil-fuel industry. Since joining Trump’s DOI as solicitor, Jorjani has issued several controversial legal opinions, including one allowing mining companies to set up shop near Minnesota’s Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness, which had been protected under the Obama administration, and another shielding energy companies whose operations killed protected birds. “The way Interior has acted under the Trump administration is the textbook definition of a political cartel, using state resources to help special interests,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said. “It sure looks to me like Mr. Jorjani has been a key member of the cartel.”
[Editor’s note: A quote attributed to Charles Koch that was in this original version of this post, stating that his donor network “made more progress in the last five years than I had in the previous 50” was incorrectly stated to be about tamping down federal climate action. It was about the network’s general activities]