The New Dark Ages

Published Aug 8, 2023

Jess speaks with Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse about the influence of fossil fuel dark money in politics today.


Welcome to the New Dark Ages…or at least the age of Dark Money. The 2010 Supreme Court decision in the case of Citizens United vs the Federal Election Commission, often called Citizens United for short, ruled that the First Amendment stops the government from restricting what are known as independent expenditures on political campaigns. These independent expenditures are often used by corporations and special interest groups to propel candidates to electoral victory.

They’re also heavily used by the fossil fuel industry to elect candidates who will do the industry’s bidding to protect profits over people’s lives, and the health of our planet itself. Dark money has tilted the political landscape in favor of companies and groups with money to spend, and it can be hard for the public to trace its source. The actual donors are obscured by names that sound unrelated to the causes they’re boosting.

Now, of course the fossil fuel industry has deliberately mislead the public about the harms that come from burning their products – and releasing all of that stored carbon into the atmosphere to change the world’s climate – but in our post-Citizens United world they can and do spend beaucoup bucks to change the outcome of elections.

The Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for dark money to flow through our federal government, so I decided to talk with one of the Senate’s leading voices on getting fossil fuel dark money out of politics, Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.

I’m your host Jess Phoenix, and this…is science.

Jess: I'm joined today by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. Before he became a senator, he worked as a lawyer and as a United States Attorney, and the Attorney General of Rhode Island. Senator Whitehouse is well known for his continual efforts to push for government action on climate change. And for the last few years, he's been one of the strongest voices in Congress, advocating to get dark money out of politics and in particular, dark money from fossil fuel interests. Senator, thank you so much for speaking with me, and I'm excited to unravel the tangled web of funding that props up fossil fuels. And so, let's start with the basics. You're a lawyer by training, not a scientist. So, what was the catalyst for your efforts to amplify climate change as a political issue? Sheldon: When I got here to the Senate in 2007, the issue of climate change was actually being treated the way you'd expect it should be in a responsible legislative body. I think we had three separate significant bipartisan climate bills just in the Senate, and we had my... He became a really close friend of mine, John McCain, running for president with a perfectly respectable climate platform. And I was in the middle of all of that. And then bang, in January of 2010 came the Citizens United decision. And when I went back to talk to people after it about doing stuff on climate, they just scattered. Nobody wanted to do anything. And what happened is that the fossil fuel industry got its hands on, unlimited political spending thanks to Citizens United. And then because the courts never bothered to actually enforce the provisions of that decision, they've had the ability to not only spend unlimited amounts of money but spend it secretly. So, it's not ExxonMobil's political money. It gets lauded through donor's trust and it comes out through, I make jokes, Rhode Islanders for peace and puppies in prosperity, these complete front groups. But behind the scenes, they're talking to candidates, everybody knows what's going on. And with a hammer that big, they could make threats and promises that were both secret and highly convincing. And so, we haven't gotten a Republican senator on a serious climate bill since January of 2010, the date of the Citizens United decision. So, as I started investigating the climate problem, this was front and center and that drove me into looking at the dark money politics and the fake science and the whole front group armada. And I got a self-taught PhD in how to corrupt America by the fossil fuel industry. Jess: Okay. So, then just to kind of package this up for folks who may be listening to us who are more on the science side of things and less on the politics side, can you sort of simply define dark money for us? Sheldon: Dark money is political spending that can't be traced back to its true funder. So... Jess: Perfect. Okay. Sheldon: ...[inaudible 00:03:23] figure out that it's ExxonMobil or Marathon Petroleum or Peabody Coal, then it's not dark money, but if it's hidden, and if it comes through a front group then it's dark money. And I think probably at this point, everybody in America who has a television has had the experience of dark money because they've seen a political ad come up on their television in their living room, in their den, in their library, wherever. And they look at it and the ad says horrible things about somebody. And then at the end, it says, "This ad is brought to you by," and it's some group you've never heard of. That's your signal. You've just been invaded by dark money and it's probably fossil fuel dark money. Jess: So, Rhode Islanders for...was it peace, prosperity, and puppies? We gotta watch out for them. Okay. Sheldon: They're not a real organization. Jess: I know, shucks. I'll get rid of my donation check. So, okay. So, now you mentioned Citizens United, I know what Citizens United is. It's a Supreme Court decision in 2010 as you mentioned. So, why did this particular court decision have an effect on dark money around climate? Like, what was the mechanism at work here? Sheldon: It didn't have any effect, particularly legally with respect to climate. It had particular effect with respect to climate because the fossil fuel industry so badly needed the ability to spend this unlimited money. So, it was the practicality of the fossil fuel industry being presented with bipartisan action happening in the Senate, enormous amounts of public attention being devoted to climate science. It's not just something buried in the, you know, back office work of ExxonMobil scientists. It was now out there in the world and you had these conferences of the parties meetings and there was a lot going on in order to knock it all down. This tool really mattered to them and that's why it became a fossil fuel tool because they needed it. But any other big industry could use it. And it wouldn't surprise me as we mess around with some of the big platforms like Facebook and Google and Meta they call it now, and others, that they use the same. Any big special interest can use this tool, hide who they are, make wild but credible threats, and then spend what looks to politics like big money but for big industries like that is chump change. Jess: So, that's dangerous on a number of levels and, you know, know, it seems like it could affect potentially every aspect of our lives. So, pretty important for people to understand what this decision actually did. And so, a great wrap-up. Sheldon: It's that Congress may not limit spending in politics unless the contribution goes directly to the candidate or is coordinated with the candidate. Jess: Yeah, that's wild. Because I mean, that's just like opening the floodgates. So, okay. So, then that makes me wonder with the current Supreme Court makeup of justices who seem to be more pro-fossil fuels, at least most of the current justices seem to be that way. And they seem to be more against listening to scientific evidence about climate change. So, what's our best hope for meaningful, lasting government action to reduce the negative human impacts on the climate future? Sheldon: Well, that's a multi-part question. Let me start with the court. The court is a very serious problem in this space. This is the United States Supreme Court that dark money built and they spent years building it. They put enormous amounts of money through the Federalist Society to generate a suitable list for the big dark money donors. They put a lot of money through the Judicial Crisis Network to run ads, funded by the dark money donors to support the justices that were on the Federalist Society list chosen by the dark money donors. Once they were on the court, they bring in fleets of dark money groups to write what are called amicus briefs to steer the appointed justices in the right directions. And now, we also know that the right-wing billionaires are giving the Federalist Society justices the time of their lives with fancy vacations around the world and private jet travel and free holidays and all of that. So, you've got the whole mess related to the court on that side. And the court has proven itself immensely loyal to dark money interests. It has done its job. They were well selected to do the job because they have done it. And one of the ways that they've done it is to try to cut down on the government's ability to protect public safety against polluters. Jess: Yeah, I mean I know about the Cuyahoga River catching fire back in the day, and it really scared a lot of people into acting on fossil fuel pollution issues. But it seems like we haven't had something that can galvanize the public's attention the same way, even with knowing that there's science backing up that human-caused activities are fueling climate change. And these wildfires that we see, and there's so many examples. But it doesn't seem like anything is really crystallizing in the public's mind as like, "We all have to get behind this, forget whoever's on the court or whoever's in Congress or whoever's in the White House. We have to get something done." Sheldon: Well, I've had a bunch of hearings in the budget committee about what's coming at us because of climate change and how dramatic the economic impact is gonna be. And some of the areas, the warnings that we've heard for years are actually starting to make themselves manifest. So, wildfires, for instance. Wildfires used to have a season and they used to have a range. The season and the range have both expanded dramatically. In some cases, the season is now year-round. And we're getting to a point where we have insurance companies leaving the State of California, your state because the wildfire risk is too great. They can't offer home insurance any longer. And if they can't offer home insurance in areas where there might be a wildfire, it's really hard to get a mortgage in those areas. And that makes it really hard to sell your house. And that has a really dramatic effect on property values. And the same thing is happening in Florida and in Louisiana along the coasts where the risk of a serious flood impedes the ability of the insurance industry to provide coverage, which means you can't get a mortgage, which looks forward 30 years, so you're looking at flooding 20 years out. So, those things are actually starting to happen. And I think that's the first really hard economic signal into the U.S.A. of what's been apparent to anybody paying attention for years. Jess: Yeah, I mean we've lived it here. The time is now for us to start reaping what we've sown. And so, one thing, you know, that I've heard a lot in my work as a scientist who talks to the public a lot, and I'm sure you hear it as somebody who represents the people. You just hear over and over that these days climate change is a single-party issue. But you and I, we both know that's not true. There are people from all sides of the political spectrum who realize that this is a problem. So, like, can you give us some information about bipartisan efforts to advance climate change legislation and to get dark money out? Like, there has to be some sort of light at the end of the tunnel here. Sheldon: Not much around Congress, I'm afraid to say. I mean, the American public can decide this by electing candidates who will act on climate. And if we have a majority the way we did recently, we passed a pretty significant climate bill in the Inflation Reduction Act. So, you know, we can and will do these things, but to count on Republican support is at this point hopeless. If you go down to the level of mayors and county commissioners and some governors, then you can find Republicans who will talk seriously about climate change. But when they get near Congress, they learn very quickly that that is where the shadow of the fossil fuel industry falls over the Republican Party. And if they want to get re-elected, they better get in line and talk to Bob Inglis, a Republican congressman about what happens to your former career when you don't get in line. So, it's highly localized around Congress because that's where their worries are. And you can really watch the behavior change as somebody from the Republican Party steps into the shadow of the fossil fuel industry arriving in Congress and poof, everything they've ever said or thought about climate evaporates. Jess: It's a bit troubling, to say the least. But we met in person before, and you mentioned that there are some folks who are Republicans who are household names in some instances who actually are working to try to solve climate issues. So, do they... Sheldon: We're trying. Jess: Okay. Sheldon: We're trying, but it's hard. Probably the next big thing to look for will be a carbon border adjustment. Bill Cassidy is working with me on that issue and is getting ready to announce a Republican bill. There are several other Republican senators who are working with him, with a small group of Democrats that I manage. And that could happen and that could be a big deal. But we're gonna have to solve this in pieces. You know, we've got the Inflation Reduction Act, that'll help a little. If we do a really good carbon border tariff, that will help, if we really enforce the hell out of methane leaks, which now we treat as if it's interesting, but we should treat it as if it like, was a fire or a crime in progress and send the first responders right away to plug the leak or drop a cease and desist order on whoever is responsible. I mean, ultimately I think with the proper pricing of the carbon menace, we can solve this, but it's just really, really hard to work around the amount of fossil fuel dark money that is out there. I'll give you one number and then I'll shut up. The International Monetary Fund has calculated in its last iteration of a peer-reviewed methodology study that they do, that the effective subsidy for fossil fuel in the United States alone every single year is $660 billion. That's what the industry floats on, a subsidy from everybody else in the country of $660 billion. Now, to protect a subsidy like that, you need to make sure Congress doesn't take it away because economic theory says that should be gone. Conservative economic theory says that should be gone. Simple justice says that should be gone. So, you need to defend it. And if you are protecting a $660 billion annual prize, how much does it make sense to spend? Jess: Yeah, I mean it's almost unlimited what you're willing to do to protect that. I mean, I just think about it, what kind of research could we do with $660 billion, not just on the climate, but on, you know, cancer and just really massive things that we should be prioritizing, but instead, that's what we're subsidizing. That makes me angry as an American. Sheldon: It should. And the bulk of the $660 billion, this is a cash payment, it's actual harm to people. It's trying to monetize actual harm. It's the injuries that people sustain. It's the lost farms, it's the flooded homes, it's the health-care emergencies. It's the whole array of costs that the IMF has looked at that are put on other Americans by the fossil fuel industry in order to be able to continue to pollute for free. Jess: Well, I mean, I think the thing that's shocking to me, as a scientist and a citizen is that it's climate change, the effects that we have of climate change on society are equal opportunity. I mean, it's going to harm people with fewer resources, more, but just because you're wealthy doesn't mean that your home won't burn down if there's a wildfire right near you. I mean, we saw that in Malibu with the Woolsey Fire in 2018. These things will hurt and kill and devastate every part of life as we know it on Earth. So, I think that's where it's a little shocking that people wanna make it a partisan issue because it's not, it's a human issue. Sheldon: And it understates things too, because not everything can be monetized. What if there's a bird species, let's say the red knot, right? It's a cool bird that flies all the way from Brazil to Delaware nonstop. You know, 747s have trouble flying from Brazil to Delaware nonstop. And this bird can do it. It's only about the size of my fist. It's not a big bird. One day it's gonna show up and the eggs that it eats on the beach from the horseshoe crab are not gonna be there because climate change has disrupted everything. And then it's gonna be really hard for red knots to survive. And let's say we end up with a world in which there is no longer a red knot, it's extinct. Put a price on that. Most people would say zero because nobody makes money off it. But a world in which we lose species that the Good Lord put on this planet just like us, and suddenly they're gone and they're kind of little heroes if they can fly from Brazil to Delaware, for Pete's sake, to lose all of that, thanks to fossil fuel, and have them get away with it and not even have to like count that as part of their subsidy, it's really pretty evil what they're doing. Jess: So, I bet when you went to law school, you weren't thinking that you'd be telling stories about the red knot, you know, to members of the media. But here you are and life takes us in some pretty interesting directions. And so, you know, I know you've done some pretty neat panels with scientists, like climate science folks, like Michael Mann and Joseph Francisco from Penn State. And you know, I know Michael Mann a bit, and their work has been really important in helping us understand climate change and the reality that we're dealing with and will deal with. So... Sheldon: Yeah. Well, Michael's terrific. He's been like a triple threat. He started out as a climate scientist and then he started looking at, "Well, why is all this climate denial happening?" And he started studying the apparatus of the climate denial machine, and that took him into dark money. And now, he has also studied the dark money apparatus of the fossil fuel industry. And when they first started picking on him, when he was just a mild-mannered scientist down at the University of Virginia, I think they lived to regret it because they set a very, very tough terrier who has been at them ever since. Jess: Yeah. I mean, scientists are nothing if not persistent. And so, you get this perspective of conversing with scientists, reading our work, you know, collectively, and then also trying to make policy around that. So, what roles do you see for scientists in the work to get rid of dark money in the climate space and really any space that touches science, which is almost every space? Sheldon: Well, I think continuing to report on it and get through peer review so that it becomes part of a really solid public record is very, very important. I think the public understands how nasty dark money is, how corrupting it is in our politics. And I hope that they come to understand that every single Republican, every chance they get, votes to protect the corrupting effect of dark money. They protect the dark money apparatus every single time. On the other hand, every single democrat, every time we get a chance votes to clean it up, we vote to get rid of this mess. And I think the more the people come to understand that this is a product of one party and that it has measurable effects in terms of doing specific harm in areas like climate as well as doing general harm as a corrupting influence in the democracy we're so proud of then I think, you know, tell those stories and the stories pile up and it begins to have a really big effect. I mean, Michael and others, Naomi Oreskes, Robert Bruhl, there's a whole bunch of them who've become really expert at tagging the climate denial operation to the fossil fuel industry. And their work is really impressive. It's been underappreciated, but it's really, really important. History will log them as heroes. Jess: That's a good encouragement for scientists to get into the arena. And I always tell people that the scientific method is apolitical, but science is political because who gets funding? You know, that depends on who has the political levers to pull. And so, if you want your science funded, you better make sure that you have folks in elected positions who understand the value of what science brings to the table. Sheldon: Yeah. Unfortunately, there's another famous saying, when you take science and add politics, what you get is politics. Jess: Yes. It is a very strong dilutant. Totally. And so, I mean, we've heard the calls, right, for years now. "Get out the vote, engage with your local government and, you know, understand how to weed out good information from bad." What would you like to see the American public do to stay current with the government's efforts to mitigate climate change or lack thereof? Sheldon: Demand an end to dark money and politics. If you're in a group demand that your group make that same demand. For too long, even environmental groups didn't take dark money, seriously, didn't count it as an issue. They'd talk about polar bears and they'd talk about bleaching coral, but they wouldn't talk about the dark money that was the weapon of the fossil fuel industry to harm the polar bears and harm the reefs. So, they've learned and now they're in the fight mostly. But there are plenty of other groups who are also harmed by this highly, highly corrupting right-wing, dark money apparatus that has infiltrated itself into government very, very broadly, mostly through the Republican Party. And people need to get mad about that and make sure that they're fighting back and that the climate stuff is taken seriously. I mean, it should not be acceptable to be a climate denier any longer. It's too harmful, it's too real, it's too immediate and it's too damaging to your friends and neighbors. Jess: Yeah, I think that's really valuable insight. I mean, you're basically saying that this is we the people, we have to take steps to make sure that we fix what's broken. And at this point, it's not just the political system, it's the environment, it's basically falling apart here. The business as usual doesn't exist anymore. So, I... Sheldon: You've gotta be better at spotting fakery too. As individual citizens now that fooling us and tricking us and hiding facts from us has become an industry, we as consumers of that need to be much more skeptical and pay a lot more attention and, you know, try to push things back through their sources. You know, if something's funded by donor's trust, it's probably corrupt. Because donor's trust has no reason to exist other than to launder off the identity of the donor so that when the fake entity reports who funded it, they say donor's trust and nobody... "Well that's not Marathon Petrol and that can't be bad." You see, you know, the Heritage Foundation and the Heartland Institute and all these phony baloney groups that have been stood up to propagate mostly fossil fuel lies. And if you take that as, you know, like something real, then you've really done yourself a disservice. And frankly, we even have editorial pages that don't bother to separate out what's a real group that's putting in an op-ed versus a phony front group. And frankly, if you go to "The Wall Street Journal" editorial page, it is a phony front group. It's part of the operation. So, we... Jess: Okay. So, then I have to ask this because I've had folks come up to me and say, "Well, climate scientists are just funded by Big Green." Because they basically are claiming that dark money interests like somehow there are environmental organizations that have the same level of funding influence that these... Yeah, and what do you say to that? Like, what is your response if someone says, "You're just being paid off by Big Green?" Sheldon: So, there is a pretty well-established topic of evil-doers engaged in propaganda, which is to accuse their adversaries, the people who are fighting them of exactly the conduct that they are engaged in. And if you're clever, you even do that first, so that then when somebody comes along and points out that Big Oil is funding phony front groups to create fake science, it's already baked into the public view that Big Green, whatever the hell that is, is spending billions of dollars to create phony science. And now, the human brain says, "Okay, penalty against both sides, I can't figure this out. Let's move on to something else." It dilutes and diffuses the truth of what you're up to if you're up to no good. And frankly, these guys who are up to no good are very, very clever about it. And so, they go straight to that kind of weird mirroring strategy of accusing the other side of what you yourself are up to so that when you're called out it just looks like, okay, offsetting penalties. Jess: Yeah, that's a good way to explain it because I've had to tell people, I said, "Well, I've done climate research." And they say, "Well, you were just paid off by Big Green." And I said, "All of the climate research I did was volunteer. I didn't get paid a dime." And then they have nothing to say. It's like that takes away the argument. And there are scientists who get paid to study climate change, but I have yet to see Big Green writing any fancy paychecks personally or to my colleagues. Sheldon: I don't know many scientists who are driving around in Range Rovers and you know, Mercedes-Benzes. This is not... I don't know a lot of people who go into science for the money. Jess: Very few of us, I would say. You know, my 2014 Chevy Volt and I are doing great. So... Sheldon: [inaudible 00:27:50] wish I should have the same cars. Jess: Yeah, totally. And so, look, it's been an excellent conversation and I do have one last question for you. And I really appreciate you taking the time because I know you're very busy, especially these days. So, I ask all of our guests on "This is Science" this question and it's because of our name, which is the Union of Concerned Scientists. So, you're not a scientist, but I'm gonna assume you have some concerns. So, Senator Whitehouse, why are you concerned? Sheldon: Zettajoules. Zettajoules. Do you know what a joule is? It's the unit of measure of heat energy. A zettajoule is that with 21 zeros behind it, it's an enormous number. The entire energy production and use by the human species on planet Earth adds up to half a zettajoule, okay? Jess: Okay. Sheldon: For the price of the fossil fuel component of that half zettajoule of energy that we use and enjoy, we are putting 14 zettajoules of heat every year into the oceans. It is a nearly 30 to 1 magnifier of ocean heat compared to stoves and cars, and factories. And all the uses that we make of human energy with the result of the oceans are warming at the rate of three to four Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs' worth of heat energy per second. And if we think that we're gonna get away with that for very long, it's just crazy. So, think zettajoules. Jess: Yeah. That's great. I love it. Every time I ask that question I get wildly different responses. But zettajoules is like the most succinct one that I've gotten, so well done to you for that. And I really appreciate you being a guest here with us and keep being that strong voice for our climate and for getting rid of dark money because it's just icky. It just really taints everything in our lives and we as a people, we deserve better. And so, I really appreciate you out there, you know, fighting the good fight to make sure that we do better whenever we can. Sheldon: Yeah. And I appreciate the Union of Concerned Scientists who are a wonderful, wonderful ally of truth and science.

Now, just to be clear there ARE scientists who profit from denying peer-reviewed climate science. Fortunately, they’re in the minority. The vast majority of climate scientists agree on the devastating effects (and the human causes) of climate change.

Here at UCS, we value our supporters very highly. Whether you’re a student, a nature lover, a science aficionado, or a scientist, your support and participation in our initiatives to engage science in our democratic process is crucial. You make this show and all of our work possible! If you’re a scientist, engineer, economist, or public health expert, consider joining our Science Network! Our members work for equitable, evidence-based policies to serve the public good. We want you to join us and help stop the flow of dark money in politics. Visit to join.

Special thanks to Nancy Stephens for introducing me to Senator Whitehouse. Thanks also to Brian Middleton, Omari Spears, Rich Hayes, and Suzanne Shaw for production help, and to Anthony Eyring for the multimedia magic. As always, hasta luego science lovers!

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