Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt has given $29,000 over the past six years to politicians who could be lumped in with the “liars” on climate change that he denounced this week.
Schmidt’s donations to eight Republican legislators since 2008 have become part of Google’s complicated relationship with the American Legislative Exchange Council, the powerful conservative policy organization colloquially known as ALEC.
Earlier this week, Schmidt sent ripples through Silicon Valley when told a syndicated radio show host that Google would end its membership with ALEC, saying it was among groups who were “literally lying” about climate change. Within days, word came that Facebook, Yahoo and Yelp announced that they had either ended or were planning to end their connection to the influential organization, whose 200 member companies have 33 million employees. None of those tech companies would publicly or pointedly attribute to their departures to differences over global warming.
But severing ties with ALEC wasn’t just a moral issue for Google. It was a business decision.
The Internet search giant has become one of America’s biggest funders of large renewable power projects, so far investing more than $1.5 billion in solar and wind projects. And ALEC – which is funded by Exxon, Chevron and the oil-rich Koch brothers – has been trying to roll back renewable power laws in state after state.
Google’s willingness to tolerate that contradiction demonstrates just how badly the company wants to make inroads with conservatives, said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at the Public Citizen watchdog group.
“That just tells you that Google’s number one priority is getting access to powerful individuals,” Slocum said. “Google likes to present itself as this company that goes about things in a totally different way. And that’s not the case. They’re playing the same influence games as everyone else does.”
Google’s senior energy policy counsel spoke at ALEC’s most recent annual meeting held in July in Dallas. Other speakers included representatives from the free market Reason Foundation as well as the Heartland Institute, a leading force among climate-change skeptics or “denialists.”
And despite their commitment to renewable energy, Google employees and the company’s political action committeegave $699,195 since 2008 to members of the “climate denier caucus” in Washington – the name given to politicians who oppose regulations to curb emissions by Forecast the Facts, an environmental activist group which compiled the list.
Google has helped build wind farms in California, Iowa, Oregon and Texas. It has poured money into large-scale solar power plants – including the massive Ivanpah plant in the Mojave Desert – that are bringing California closer to its goal of getting 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2020. Another Google-funded effort would build a series of underwater electricity transmission lines along the Atlantic coast to hook up offshore wind farms.
ALEC, in contrast, has worked for years to remove or weaken state laws that require the use of renewable power. On energy issues, many clean-power advocates consider the group little more than a front for oil companies. If adopted by state legislators, ALEC’s model legislation would discourage the solar and wind projects that Google funds, critics say.
ALEC does not deny climate change, said spokesman Bill Meierling. The organization just opposes government mandates that force people to use a particular technology, he said.
“The requirement is the challenge,” Meirling said. “We believe that renewable energy should expand according to market demand.”
However, environmentalists note ALEC doesn’t demand fossil fuel companies relinquish billions of dollars in federal tax breaks.
The dichotomy between ALEC positions and Google’s investments placed the company – and Schmidt in particular – in an odd place. Schmidt has been vocal for years about the dangers of global warming. In June 2013, Schmidt said at conference “You can lie about the effects of climate change, but eventually you’ll be seen as a liar.”
He echoed those remarks Monday during an appearance promoting his new book on Diane Rehm’s syndicated call-in show.
“Everyone understands climate change is occurring and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place,” Schmidt said Monday on the show. “And so we should not be aligned with such people – they’re just, they’re just literally lying.”
But that didn’t stop Schmidt from donating $7,500 to lawmakers like Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), whose official website states “there is also some disagreement among scientists as to whether global warming – regardless of its cause – would result in a net benefit or detriment to life on earth.”
Hatch received more money than any of the other seven GOP legislators who received checks from Schmidt, according to Forecast the Facts.
“We would like to see Eric Schmidt align his political giving with what his political values are,” said Brant Olson, a campaign director of Forecast the Facts, which is focused on the climate change issue.
Google declined to comment on this story.
If corporations who talked tough about combating climate change would stop funding “climate deniers,” politicians in Washington and in state capitols around the country would act on the issue, Olson said. However, 25 percent of the nation’s state legislators are members of ALEC; 90 percent are Republican, according to ALEC.
Business leaders, particularly in the tech world, traditionally try to work both sides of the political street, on many issues, analysts say.
Last year, Schmidt, who is worth $9.3 billion according to Forbes magazine’s list of billionaires, gave $32,300 to both the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee within a six-week period.
“He’s covering his bases,” said Gabriela Schneider, a spokeswoman for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that analyzes the intersection of money and politics. “When you’re playing the long game in politics, you never know who is going to be in power the next year – or the year after that.”
Last year, Sunlight received a $2.1 million grant from Google.org, the company’s charitable arm, to help make information about local government more transparent.
Other tech companies have a similarly complicated relationship with ALEC. For the past four decades, ALEC has created policy on myriad topics – from the Stand Your Ground self-defense laws that spread to 25 states to voter identification requirements and tax policy. The group’s free market approach often aligns with the libertarian economic streak that is prominent in Silicon Valley.
Luther Lowe, public policy director for the San Francisco-based review site Yelp, said ALEC was very helpful in helping to craft legislation that would make “it tough to bring meritless lawsuits against individuals that have shared their honest opinions online.” Nevertheless, Lowe said this week that Yelp let its membership expire several months ago, “given that our very specific goal was achieved.”
ALEC officials told The Chronicle this week that they expect more tech firms to leave, soon, too.
“It pains me to say, but it’s not surprising,” ALEC spokesman Meierling told The Chronicle. “They (tech firms) are very coordinated and work together on the same policy initiatives so make sense. But we certainly would like them to be part of the discussion in the future.”
“But at the same time, I wish they were making their departure on fact rather than disingenuous campaigns by climate activists,” Meierling said. “We don’t have any anti-climate change policy. Or a climate denial policy.”
Climate activists find that claim dubious, noting ALEC once posted the “Top 10 Myths About Global Warming” on its website.
“Myth 1” was that ‘human activity is causing the Earth to warm,’ according to Nick Surgey, director of director of research at the left-leaning Center for Media and Democracy. ‘Myth 4’ was “extreme weather phenomena are increasing because of global warming.”
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