Groups Fighting Climate Change Efforts Also Spearheading Critical Race Theory Hysteria

The right-wing think tanks and activist groups behind the recent conservative surge of interest in the teaching of structural racism in schools are using their climate change playbook.
July 16, 2021, 2:29pm
A man holds up a sign during a rally against "critical race theory" (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021.
A man holds up a sign during a rally against "critical race theory" (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021. Photo via Getty Images

The right-wing think tanks and activist groups pushing the idea that Critical Race Theory is a Marxist plot to destroy America also want you to think that the climate emergency is being exaggerated and fixing it will demolish the economy.

“They’re trying to spread doubt on the issue of climate change, they’re trying to spread doubt on the history of racism in the U.S.,” Connor Gibson, a former researcher with Greenpeace who writes the newsletter Grassrootbeer Investigations, told VICE News.

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 The ultimate goal of these campaigns, say people who track the spread of conservative ideas and the wealthy interests who fund them, is to prevent fundamental social and economic change.

“It’s about maintaining status quo power structures,” says Judd Legum, who writes a newsletter called Popular Information that investigates political and corporate influence.

Critical Race Theory, a previously obscure academic discipline explaining how and why racism is embedded in our legal system and other institutions, has become an obsession of conservative activists, Republicans, and rightwing media in recent months. 

There are now efforts in at least 27 states to restrict the teaching of structural racism in schools, according to the education site Chalkbeat. Mentions of “Critical Race Theory” on Fox News went from 226 in April, to 537 in May, to 901 in June, the group Media Matters calculated

Much of the current Critical Race Theory hysteria is due to one person: Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who popularized the term after appearing on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show last year.

“The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘Critical Race Theory,’” he tweeted this March, later explaining to the Washington Post that “if you want to see public policy outcomes you have to run a public persuasion campaign.”

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Rufo is currently a senior fellow with a think tank called the Manhattan Institute, which over the years has received millions of dollars from the likes of ExxonMobil, the oil-funded Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, and the family foundation of Breitbart News funder Robert Mercer, according to DeSmog’s review of public tax forms. 

Manhattan has published numerous studies and statements over the past two decades calling human-caused climate change a myth. But the group mostly acknowledges these days that industrial activity is driving global temperature rise.

However, this April, just days after the institute announced Rufo would be leading the organization’s newly created “Initiative on Critical Race Theory,” fellow Manhattan senior fellow Mark P. Mills published an article in the Wall Street Journal questioning the idea that climate change is causing heat waves, raising U.S. temperatures, shrinking Greenland’s ice sheets, or causing much in the way of economic damage. 

The Manhattan Institute didn’t respond to a media request from VICE News.

Many of the other groups attacking Critical Race Theory are also highly skeptical of solutions to climate change. A think tank called the Heritage Foundation, which previously employed Rufo, describes Critical Race Theory as a “Marxist analysis” whose proponents aim for “the replacement of all systems of power.”

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The Foundation met this spring with lawmakers from several states to discuss legislation that would restrict the teaching or discussion of Critical Race Theory. Heritage, which has received millions of dollars from the oil and gas industry, is a former member of a prominent climate denier group called the Cooler Heads Coalition and as recently as 2016 was calling global warming “a contentious and unproven scientific theory.”

Earlier this year it published an op-ed in USA Today acknowledging that climate change is happening but that attempts to solve it, such as bringing in restrictions on oil and gas, would cause “higher energy bills and a weaker economy.”

The American Enterprise Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the State Policy Network, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation are also examples of conservative groups fighting simultaneously against Critical Race Theory and solutions to climate change.

“One common denominator is money,” said Legum, who recently revealed that these and more than a dozen other organizations engaged in anti-Critical Race Theory efforts have received close to $13 million from an obscure entity known as the Thomas W. Smith Foundation. The foundation was started by a former hedge fund founder in Florida.

 Roughly $400,000 of that funding total has gone to Turning Point, a conservative youth group whose founder Charlie Kirk last month said that the “idea of white privilege is a racist idea.” Earlier this year, in response to a question about climate change, Kirk said “Can you prove it’s caused by humans?”

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Some conservative groups are now making the connection between climate and Critical Race Theory explicit. 

“It’s pretty clear at this point that the Global Warming Solutions Act isn’t about the environment,” argued the Ethan Allen Institute this month in response to climate legislation recently passed in Vermont. “It’s about restructuring our government policy and our economy along the lines of Critical Race Theory using environmental concerns as a convenient façade.”

“So to recap,” the group’s president Rob Roper wrote last week, Vermont’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help address the climate emergency “will be anti-individual responsibility, anti-capitalist, and anti-White. Can’t wait to see it!”

Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter.