There's no longer doubt in the expert scientific community that the earth is warming and that human activity plays a big part in it, but you wouldn't know that if your information sources were the many articles, papers and reports on the topic published by the John Locke Foundation.
The conservative think tank founded and funded primarily by Art Pope has worked with prominent climate-change denier groups like the fossil fuel-funded Heartland Institute—which includes John Locke Foundation policy analyst Roy Cordato among its advisers—to scuttle regulatory action on greenhouse gas pollution.
In North Carolina, the JLF is trying to roll back a law that sets modest requirements for utilities' use of renewable energy. Last year, groups backed by Pope poured nearly $2 million into key races, which helped the Republican Party capture the General Assembly for the first time in 100 years. The John Locke Foundation, which counts the millionaire discount-store mogul Pope among its board members, released its agenda for the new legislative session. Near the top of its wish list? "Repeal SB3."
Senate Bill 3 is a law that the General Assembly passed in 2007 setting minimum requirements for electric utilities' use of renewable sources of power—what's known as a Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard, or REPS.
Some environmental groups criticized the bill for setting weak goals; it also picked up some controversial provisions—including one regarding the financing of new coal and nuclear plants—as it made its way through the legislative process.
Despite its drawbacks, though, SB3 at least represents a step toward cleaning up the energy sector in North Carolina, where more than half of all electricity is now generated from heavily polluting coal plants.
But the John Locke Foundation criticizes SB3 for discouraging the use of coal, which it calls "relatively inexpensive," while promoting wind and solar power, which it calls "high-cost." However, that analysis ignores coal power's externalities—the costs not included in its price.
Those costs include reduced life expectancy and increased hospital admissions from pollution, as well as loss of IQ from mercury contamination. A report released last year by the Clean Air Task Force titled "The Toll From Coal" estimated that in 2010, coal pollution was responsible for 681 deaths, 487 hospitalizations and 912 heart attacks in North Carolina alone.
Then there are the costs of global warming due to coal plants' enormous greenhouse gas emissions, such as rising sea levels inundating North Carolina's coast. But the JLF doesn't consider climate disruption worthy of consideration. Instead, Locke has published numerous reports and articles claiming that global warming is a "pseudoscientific fraud" that has been "terribly discredited," to quote one of its bloggers. The group has also helped promote Americans for Prosperity's "Hot Air Tour" attacking global warming science, and sponsored numerous appearances in the state by prominent global warming deniers.
Scrapping SB3 is also among the recommendations from the North Carolina chapter of Americans for Prosperity. The national AFP group—founded by conservative activist and oil billionaire David Koch of Kansas-based Koch Industries—counts Art Pope among its four directors. In addition, Pope's family foundation has given $1.3 million to the AFP Foundation, AFP's sister group.
However, Pope says he has nothing to do with the groups' work on global warming, an issue about which he says he has no expertise. He also says he played no role in their decision to target SB3.
"I think that climate change and global warming represent important public policy and scientific debates," Pope says. "I think the John Locke Foundation is playing an important role in that."
Although Locke has been flexing its financial muscle against clean energy, its anti-science message has gained little traction in North Carolina, which the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has called one of the region's leaders in promoting a more sustainable energy future.
SB3 is credited with providing a critical boost to North Carolina's burgeoning renewable energy industry—a bright spot in a state where the unemployment rate still hovers over 9 percent.
"Scrapping SB3 would be cutting off our nose to spite our face, because it's been a real economic stimulus," says state Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, one of the Legislature's leading environmental advocates.
Clean energy jobs in North Carolina grew by 22 percent last year and are now found in all 100 counties, according to the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association's (NCSEA) latest industry census. Today the state is home to more than 1,100 businesses dealing in renewable energy and efficiency that together employ more than 12,500 people.
While other policies, including the state's clean energy tax credit and federal stimulus funds, have nurtured that growth, SB3 has been the single most helpful, according to NCSEA.
"Our state's REPS has been a driving force behind North Carolina's emerging clean energy economy," says Julie Robinson, the group's communications director.
And it's not only North Carolina environmental groups that have been unreceptive to Locke's anti-science message. The state's two big investor-owned utilities, Progress Energy and Duke Energy, have acknowledged the reality of global warming and taken steps to comply with SB3's standards. They don't want to see those efforts upended now that they've entered into long-term contracts with renewable energy providers.
"We would not support such a quick reversal in public policy," Progress Energy spokesperson Mike Hughes says. "Policy that involves significant investments, such as renewable energy, should be focused on the long term. An abrupt change would be very disruptive to the development of viable renewable energy projects in the state."
Hughes reports that his company, which recently announced plans to merge with Duke Energy, is already working to let legislators know that it doesn't support any changes to SB3. And when the utilities speak, the General Assembly tends to listen: Research by the watchdog group Democracy North Carolina has shown that utilities are among the state's mightiest political forces, exercising influence via hefty campaign contributions, tax payments, gifts to nonprofits and direct lobbying.
That kind of power, even the Pope network has a hard time countering.