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Exclusive: Influential UK net-zero sceptics funded by US oil ‘dark money’

Net Zero Watch says it won’t take cash from fossil fuel investors – but we discovered a funder with millions in oil

Peter Geoghegan
Adam Bychawski Peter Geoghegan
4 May 2022, 11.00am
Steve Baker MP, a trustee of the lobby group, has led the opposition to the government's net-zero policies.
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Tommy London / Alamy Stock Photo

An influential Tory-linked lobby group leading the backlash against the UK government’s net-zero policy has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from an oil-rich foundation with huge investments in energy firms, openDemocracy can reveal.

The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), which also campaigns as Net Zero Watch, has also received more than half a million dollars through a fund linked to the controversial billionaire Koch brothers.

The GWPF has long refused to disclose its donors and claims it will not take money from anyone with an interest in an energy company.

But tax documents filed with US authorities and uncovered by this website reveal the network of dark money behind it for the first time – including the $30m shares in 22 companies working in coal, oil and gas that are held by one of its donors.

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Shadow climate secretary Ed Miliband said: “US right-wing groups with links to big oil are desperate to stop action against the climate crisis. Now they are trying to extend their reach into UK political debate."

A registered UK charity, the GWPF is one of the most vocal groups in British politics opposing the government’s ‘net zero’ plans and has been at the forefront of recent calls to restart fracking.

The Tufton Street-based group’s trustees include former chancellor Nigel Lawson and Steve Baker, who leads the ‘Net Zero Scrutiny’ group of backbench Tory MPs and was recently criticised for sharing a paper by the group that denied the climate crisis.

Over four years the GWPF’s US arm, the American Friends of the GWPF, received more than $1.3m from US donors. At least $864,884 of this has been channelled to the UK group, with some being held back for expenses.

Of the £1.45m that the GWPF has received in charitable donations since 2017, at least 45% has come from the US. 

American ideological groups are trying to interfere in British democracy

The Global Warming Policy Foundation’s US ‘friends’ group did not have to declare the sources of this so-called ‘dark money’ – but openDemocracy has discovered through the filings of other groups that:

  • Between 2016 and 2020 the American Friends of the GWPF received $620,259 from the Donors Trust. Described as a “dark money ATM” for the US political Right, the secretive trust has given hundreds of millions of dollars to more than 100 groups working to cast doubt on the scientific consensus behind climate change.

  • The Donors Trust has received millions from the Koch brothers, who inherited their father’s oil empire and spent hundreds of millions of dollars funding the climate denial movement before David Koch’s death in 2019. More recently, it received nearly $4.8m from America First Works, a non-profit closely tied to Donald Trump that contributed millions to his failed 2020 reelection bid as well as to campaigns to restrict mail voting. The GWPF told openDemocracy that the Donors Trust was simply a “middleman, matching donors to those seeking funding” and that it was “able to vet [donors with which it was matched] in line with our funding policy”.

  • The GWPF also received $210,525 in 2018 and 2020 from the Sarah Scaife Foundation – set up by the billionaire libertarian heir to an oil and banking dynasty. The US-based foundation has $30m worth of shares in 22 energy companies including $9m in Exxon and $5.7m in Chevron, according to its financial filings. It has bankrolled numerous conservative causes, including the right-wing Daily Caller news site and the Heritage Foundation think tank.

“It is disturbing that the Global Warming Policy Foundation is acting as a channel through which American ideological groups are trying to interfere in British democracy,” said Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the LSE Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

Founded by Lawson and university lecturer Benny Peiser in 2009, the GWPF has long been accused of promoting climate denialism.

Last week, Peiser made the unfounded claim that Putin has “colluded with the green movement in Europe and all over the world”. 

The GWPF – which Greenpeace UK said has “spent the last twenty years campaigning to preserve our addiction to fossil fuels” – has become increasingly prominent in recent years.

The group was forced to set up a new non-charitable organisation for its political lobbying in 2014 after the Charity Commission found its stance on climate change breached charity rules.

Labour MP Graham Stringer sits on its board of trustees, while two of Global Warming Policy Foundation’s staff recently became advisers to Tory MP Craig Mackinlay. Another trustee, Terence Mourdant, is a long-standing Tory donor who gave £25,000 to Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign

Steve Baker, who joined the GWPF last year and has called on Boris Johnson to resign over partygate, is a long time admirer of US libertarians. He has previously received expenses-paid trips to conferences organised by US conservative groups that have been accused of opposing environmental action.

‘Net Zero Watch’

In October last year, the UK government announced its strategy for reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. 

The same month, the GWPF’s campaigning arm – the similarly-named Global Warming Policy Forum – rebranded itself as Net Zero Watch, a name it continues to use alongside the original moniker.

In a statement announcing the change, Peiser claimed that in a “net zero future you will be poorer and colder” and “that a political backlash is long overdue” in response to the policy.

Net Zero Watch has repeatedly claimed that the cost of living crisis is the result of net-zero policies. In a report published in March, it said that renewable energy is responsible for the crisis and called for the government to reintroduce coal power plants and restart fracking.

Climate policy researchers said that the group is spreading “misinformation and propaganda” about net zero rather than providing analysis. 

Net Zero Watch has found allies in Parliament among a group of 20 Tory MPs and Peers, who formed the Net Zero Scrutiny Group,  a cadre of backbench Conservative MPs modelled on the European Research Group that has emerged as a staunch critic of Boris Johnson’s net-zero plans.

Net Zero Scrutiny Group members include former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey; Robert Halfon, a former schools minister; and Tory peer Peter Lilley, who is a former trustee of the GWPF. 

Craig Mackinlay and Steve Baker, the MPs leading the group, are regularly quoted on press releases from Net Zero Watch and have repeated some of its lines on the economic cost of net zero word-for-word.

In February, Harry Wilkinson, currently head of policy at Net Zero Watch, and Ruth Lea, a former GWPF trustee, began working for Mackinlay as parliamentary advisers. Wilkinson has previously tweeted that “The ‘climate crisis’ is a religious belief, nothing to do with science.”

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The GWPF shares its Tufton Street address with a number of anonymously funded think tanks who have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to climate change mitigation policies. 

Earlier this year, Nigel Farage announced he was forming a new campaign for a referendum on net zero.

Farage’s financial backers include the private equity billionaire Jeremy Hosking who openDemocracy recently revealed has huge financial interests in fossil fuels. 

The GWPF disputed that the Sarah Scaife Foundation has an interest in oil companies, telling openDemocracy: “The wealth that ultimately created the Scaife Foundation was created at the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth. It would be ludicrous to suggest that three generations on, it represents an oil company interest.”

Steve Baker MP said: "I understand the GWPF has already given a response to these allegations, which appear to be ridiculous.

It is an extraordinary fact that the same newspapers and commentators who would usually be the first to protest any kind of poverty are wasting the public's time with these attempts to distract from the real issues at hand. It would be better if the political world focused their attention on how our current energy strategy has driven up energy prices and contributed to the terrible cost-of-living crisis that so many are experiencing.”

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