Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
The Nature of the Beast: Fossil Fuel Corporations, the Cornwall Alliance, and Climate Change Denial | Righting America

by Scott Howland

Scott Howland is a doctoral student at the University of Dayton in the Department of Religious Studies. Scott earned his BA in Psychology from Holy Cross College in South Bend, IN, and his MA in Theological Studies from the University of Dayton. His work focuses on the history of American Christianity’s engagement with the issue of climate change over the course of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. His work takes an interdisciplinary approach, drawing heavily from the fields of dialectical materialism, twentieth century French psychoanalysis, and the study of radical emancipatory politics. 

Portrait of Charles Koch by Gavin Peters (2019) via Wikimedia Commons

In his internationally renowned work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century,  Thomas Piketty posits that extreme economic inequality can only be sustained—that is, without being answered by reform or revolution—if there are in place “apparatuses of justification.” He states, 

if inequalities are seen as justified, say because they seem to be a consequence of a choice by the rich to work harder or more efficiently than the poor, or because preventing the rich from earning more would inevitably harm the worst-off members of society, then it is perfectly possible for the concentration of income to set new historical records. (263-264)

The existence of such “apparatuses” can hardly be disputed; the notion that wealth rightly belongs to those who possess it, no matter the means by which they acquired it or the needs of others around the world, is certainly well within the mainstream of contemporary thought, especially in North America and Europe. Ideas such as this did not, however, permeate contemporary culture on their own. They are derived, developed, and distributed by corporations, government offices, “independent” think-tanks, etc. 

In order to support their primary goal of sustained economic inequality, these apparatuses must extend their reach into other areas of socioeconomic and political thought. Today, one of the most pressing issues into which these apparatuses have thrust their talons is the climate crisis that now threatens nearly every aspect of life on Earth.

See, for example, the Cornwall Alliance, which has its origins in the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (ISA), which emerged on the scene in 2005, after Rick Warren and other prominent evangelical figures had come out in support of efforts to combat anthropogenic climate change. In response, the ISA “was launched to oppose action on carbon emissions and to deny the existence of climate change.” One of the primary founders of the ISA was Paul Driessen, who has worked as a consultant for ExxonMobil, mining corporations, and the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT). In 2006, the ISA was relaunched as the Cornwall Alliance, and “with the new name came a redesigned website, highly produced web videos, and an organized network of churches to distribute climate change denying propaganda to hundreds of pastors around the country.”

The public face of the Cornwall Alliance is filled by E. Calvin Beisner. Beisner holds a B.A. in interdisciplinary studies in religion and philosophy, an M.A. in economic ethics, and a Ph.D. in Scottish History. In addition to being the founder and national spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance, Beisner is also “a policy advisor at the Heartland Institute, an adjunct fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty; an adjunct scholar of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow; [and] a fellow of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.” Prior to his position with the Cornwall Alliance, Beisner was an “associate professor of historical theology and social ethics at Knox Theological Seminary… Before Knox he taught for eight years at Covenant College as associate professor of interdisciplinary studies in economics, government, and public policy.” In his role at the Cornwall Alliance, Beisner has 

written [12] books, edited over 30, contributed to over 35, and published thousands of articles, popular and scholarly, has lectured at universities, seminaries, conferences, and churches in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, and testified as an expert witness on the ethics and economics of climate change and climate and energy policy before committees of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, briefed the White House Council on Environmental Policy, and presented a paper to a scholarly colloquium on climate change of the Pontifical Institute for Justice and Peace at the Vatican in Rome. 

In 2014 the Heritage Foundation honored Dr. Beisner with the Outstanding Spokesman for Faith, Change, and Stewardship Award at the Ninth International Conference on Climate Change.

The Cornwall Alliance takes great efforts to keep its funding sources a secret; their website is even registered with a service that makes its source information invisible to users. While there are no records that directly cite the funding sources for the Cornwall Alliance, investigations have revealed the complex network through which they receive their funding. In order to understand the flow of money through this network, one must start with the Cornwall Alliance’s parent organization, The James Partnership. The James Partnership, The Cornwall Alliance, and “Resisting the Green Dragon” (the primary project of the Cornwall Alliance), are all registered to the same address in a business park in Virginia, just outside of Washington D.C. 

Tax records show that the James Partnership has received much of its funding from an organization called the Donors Trust. The Donors Trust “is a not-for-profit company that distributes millions of dollars in grants each year to groups, organizations and projects that are ‘dedicated to the ideals of limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise,’” many of which are committed to denying anthropogenic climate change and “the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions.” It has been described as “the dark-money ATM of the right.” Donors Trust operates differently than normal “family foundations” and other similar charitable organizations. Donors Trust is a “donor-advised fund,” which means that “the people who donate to Donors Trust don’t get final say over how their money is spent. But they get to recommend where their cash goes, and in exchange for giving up some control, they get a bigger tax write-off than they would with a family foundation.” The basic sales pitch used by Donors Trust goes something like this: 

Rich folks can give to Donors Trust and rest easy knowing that their millions will continue bankrolling the conservative movement long into the future, even after their death. They don’t have to worry that, after they die, their heirs and trustees will use their bucks for causes they would never support . . . Donors Trust promises its funders that conservative money stays with conservatives.

Donors Trust has drastically increased the amount of money it has taken in over the last several years: “in 2003, grants to DT totaled just $1.03 million. Between 2012 and 2013, contributions and grants to DT went up from $45.9 million to $103.4 million.” While many of the contributors to Donors Trust choose to stay anonymous, it has been reported that the largest regular contributions have come from Donors Capital Trust (DCT) and the Knowledge and Progress Fund (KPF). DCT is Donors Trust’s sister organization, and operates within the same ideological framework; DCT contributed $57,799,525 to Donors Trust between 2001 and 2017. Then there is KPF, which is a Koch Family Foundation (Koch Industries of course is America’s largest privately-owned energy company). Between 2001 and 2017  KPF donated $17,320,000 to Donors Trust, while also giving 5,450,000 to DCT. 

Then there is the Donors Capital Fund (DCF), which “distributed some $170 million to conservative causes, many of which deny the science and impacts of human-caused climate change or the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions” in the years between 2002 and 2013. Similar to Donors Trust, most of “ DCF’s income comes from unknown private entities with some $347 million of untraceable and unknown income since 2005.” An important side note: one of the “key recipients” of DCF is the Heartland Institute, which is the organization that helped bring into being the ISA (and thus the Cornwall Alliance), and which is one of the organizations for whom Beisner serves as a “policy advisor.” Heartland has received a total of 17 million dollars from DCF. 

Let’s summarize. The Donors Trust has raised hundreds of millions of dollars – from folks like the Kochs – to fund organizations that deny human-caused climate change and that seek to prevent government action to address climate change. One of these entities is the James Partnership, the parent organization of the Cornwall Alliance, which is devoted to spreading climate-change-denial propaganda to evangelical pastors and churches. 

And how much money has the James Partnership received from Donors Trust? The James Partnership received $1,309,000 from Donors Trust between 2009 and 2015—ninety-nine percent of its total funding during that time. These numerous funding connections to the fossil fuel industry and its efforts to shape the discourse on environmental issues are more than sufficient evidence to support the claim that the Cornwall Alliance acts as an apparatus of justification for climate change denialism and thus the perpetuation of the capitalist system that continues to accelerate the present climate crisis. 

But the Cornwall Alliance has additional connections that further bolster this claim. Let’s go back to the Cornwall Alliance’s relationship with CFACT. CFACT is run by Philip Rothbard, and has as its purpose the proliferation of free-market economics and limited government, and is a big supporter of efforts to fuel climate change denialism. It has been found that CFACT is directly funded by the fossil fuel industry. The five largest financial donors to have given money to CFACT are: Donors Trust ($7,855,387), The Carthage Foundation ($1,565,000), the Sarah Scaife Foundation ($1,495,000), Exxon Mobil ($582,000), and Donors Capital Fund ($395,000). While the Cornwall Alliance claims to have no ties to CFACT, it turns out that  Calvin Beisner serves as a CFACT board member, and the two groups share a common fundraising firm.

It is clear, after the analysis presented above, that the Cornwall Alliance, with its direct links to the fossil fuel industry, right wing think tanks, and conservative billionaires, is a textbook example an apparatus of justification. While Cornwall targets American Evangelicals with its relentless propaganda, it serves not the best interests of American Evangelicals but, instead, the financial and political gain of the one percent. That is to say, the Cornwall Alliance operates in service of the ruling class, with the intention of, as George Monbiot puts it, “allowing the rich to seize much of our common wealth, to trample to the rights of workers and to treat the planet as their dustbin.” (1)

Editor’s Note: In April Answers in Genesis is sponsoring a “Climate Change” conference at Ark Encounter, one purpose of which is to counter the “climate despair paralyzing the younger generations or the alarmism of the media and many scientists.” It is not surprising that the Cornwall Alliance’s Calvin Beisner will be one of the featured speakers. Apparatus of justification, indeed.