The Seeds of the Corporate Funded Climate Disinformation Campaign, the 1971 Lewis Powell Memo


Although numerous articles on this website have acknowledged that responsible scientific skepticism is a positive force in the advancement of science, as we have explained in numerous articles under the category of  “disinformation campaign” there has been a well-funded climate change disinformation campaign that since the 1980s has been engaged in the following ethically dubious tactics including:

  • Lying or reckless disregard for the truth about climate science,
  • Cherry picking the science by focusing on unkowns while ignoring what is well-settled in climate science,
  • Cyber-bullying and ad hominem attacks on scientists and journalists,
  • Manufacturing bogus, non-peer-reviewed climate science through the creation of  ideologically motivated conferences and publications,
  • The use of ideological think tanks to promote the views of climate change deniers through their media outreach, speakers bureaus, publications, and conferences,
  • The use of front-groups and fake grass-roots organizations, known as Astroturf groups, to promote the views of climate change deniers that hide the real parties in interests,
  • Making specious claims about “bad science” that are based upon the dubious assumption that no conclusions in science can be made until everything is proven with high levels of certainty.

This website contains numerous articles on the many ethical problems with the corporate and free-market fundamentalist foundation funded climate change disinformation campaign that was in full bloom by the  mid-1980s. These articles examine the tactics of the disinformation campaign through an ethical lens that distinguishes it from responsible scientific skepticism.  See, for instance:

The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: What Kind Of Crime Against Humanity, Tort, Human Rights Violation, Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing Is It? Part  One: Is The Disinformation Campaign a Crime Against Humanity or A Civil Tort?

Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign:  Introduction to A Series. Ethical Analysis of Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Reckless Disregard for the Truth, (2) Focusing On Unknowns While Ignoring Knowns, (3) Specious Claims of “Bad” Science, and (4) Front Groups..

Ethical Analysis of Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Think Tanks, (2) PR Campaigns, (3) Astroturf Groups, and (4) Cyber-Bullying Attacks.

Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign

The climate change disinformation campaign that arose in the 1980s was part of what sociologists call a countermovement, that is a movement that arises when elements of society are threatened by social movements that are perceived to potentially adversely affect their interests.

An environmental countermovement arose in the United States in response to the rise of the modern environmental movement which was born in the late 1960s in response to among other things, the publications in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and a growing number of highly visible pollution events including the Santa Barbara oil spill and the fire in the Cuyahoga River in 1969.  After Silent Spring, many more citizens understood that toxic substances were widely distributed throughout the world at levels that could harm human and animal health.

The beginning of the modern environmental movement in the United States has often been pegged by environmental historians to Earth Day on April 22, 1970. On the first Earth Day in New York City tens of thousands of people concerned about environmental issues marched and paraded in lower Manhattan and many thousands attended speeches in Union Square Park. New York City was only one of hundreds of locations throughout the United States where Earth Day events took place on April 22, 1970.

The rapid rise of the modern environmental movement that was undeniable by April 1970 was perceived to be a threat to many members of the US business community, As a result, soon after the first Earth Day in 1970, the environmental countermovement began to organize. Sociologist Robert Brulle summarizes the rise of countermovements as follows:

Counter-movements originate as the change movement starts to show signs of success by influencing public policy, and threatening established interests. The elites of these interests then respond to these threats by fostering countermovements to protect their interests by opposing or challenging social movements. ….The countermovement organizations that emerge take the form of elite driven efforts to mobilize economically impacted populations, or populations that share similar interests of ideologies. [Brulle]

Many sociologists and environmental historians also attribute the speed of the rise of the environmental countermovement to a 1971 memo of Lewis Powell to the US Chamber of Commerce that was based on the claim that the American free enterprise system was under attack from the social movements that arose in the 1960s including the environmental movement.

Powell was a corporate lawyer, a former president of the American Bar Association, and a board member of eleven corporations, including Philip Morris and the Ethyl Corporation, a company that made the lead for leaded gasoline. Powell had also represented the Tobacco Institute, the research arm of the tobacco industry, and various tobacco companies. Within two months after his 1971 memo, President Richard Nixon nominated Powell to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served for fifteen years.

The Powell memo criticizes corporations for their lack of vigor in responding to the challenges to free enterprise that were growing in the beginning of the 1970s and calls for a much more aggressive response from the business community that it claims is needed to protect fee enterprise from criticism from college campuses, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. (Powell Memo)

The memo specifically recommended that businesses:

  •  Designate a member of senior management who has responsibility to fight attacks on the free enterprise system,
  • Expand the role of business organizations to fight the threats of the free market including the US Chamber of Commerce which has the time, finances, and organizational capacity to powerfully unify the response of the business community,
  • To counter criticism of the business community from college campuses, business organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce should support scholars who will defend the free enterprise system, develop speakers and support speakers’ bureaus that will counter the liberal rhetoric coming from college campuses, subject textbooks to ideological review, insist on equal time for speakers exposing the views of the business community for speakers on campuses, insist that college faculties be balanced by those who will defend the free enterprise system, request that graduate schools of business include courses that support the free enterprise system, encourage local chambers of commerce to provide the views of the business community in high schools, establish staff who work with the media to communicate to the general public the views of the business community, monitor and criticize television programs that unfairly criticize the free enterprise system and where appropriate file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission, monitor radio and other media and pressure them to cover the views of defenders of the free enterprise system, support scholars who support the free enterprise system to publish in scholarly journals, establish incentives for scholars to publish defenses of free enterprise in books, papers, and pamphlets, spend more money on advertising that expressly supports the free market system.
  • Much more aggressively support politicians who support the interests of the business community.
  • Become much more involved in the judicial system to support the interests of the business community by, among other things, filing litigation and amicus curiae briefs in important cases.
  • Harness the power of corporate shareholders to advance the interests of the business community.
  • Dramatically increase finances in support of opposition to those threatening  unfettered markets including increasing the staff of organizations like the Chamber of Commerce to engage in this work.
  • Much more aggressively defend the free enterprise system by among other tactics linking personal freedom to free enterprise.

Shortly after the Powell memo was sent to the Chamber of Commerce in 1971, much more aggressive tactics in defending the free enterprise system by the business community became evident including the following:

  • The organizational counterattack of business in the 1970s was swift and sweeping — a domestic version of Shock and Awe. The number of corporations with public affairs offices in Washington grew from 100 in 1968 to over 500 in 1978. In 1971, only 175 firms had registered lobbyists in Washington, but by 1982, nearly 2,500 did. The number of corporate PACs increased from under 300 in 1976 to over 1,200 by the middle of 1980.(Bill Moyers, The Powell Memo: A Call-to-Arms for Corporations, September 14, 2012)
  • In 1972, three business organizations merged to form the Business Roundtable, the first business association whose membership was restricted to top corporate CEOs.The Business Roundtable quickly developed into a formidable group, designed to mobilize high-level CEOs as a collective force to lobby for the advancement of shared interests. Within five years the new mega-organization had enlisted 113 of the top Fortune 200 companies, accounting for nearly half of the economy. (Bill Moyers, The Powell Memo: A Call-to-Arms for Corporations, September 14, 2012) .
  • Business also massively increased its political giving — at precisely the time when the cost of campaigns began to skyrocket (in part because of the ascendance of television). The insatiable need for cash gave politicians good reason to be attentive to those with deep pockets. Business had by far the deepest pockets, and was happy to make contributions to members of both parties.(Bill Moyers, The Powell Memo: A Call-to-Arms for Corporations, September 14, 2012)
  • From the late 1970s to the late 1980s, corporate PACs increased their expenditures in congressional races nearly fivefold. (Bill Moyers The Powell Memo: A Call-to-Arms for Corporations, September 14, 2012)
  • Powell’s legal recommendations inspired “a multi-faceted, comprehensive, and integrated campaign” coordinated and funded by large corporations and rightwing foundations “to create taxpayer subsidized law firms… to rewrite American jurisprudence… advanc[e] their agenda before judges, lawyers, legal scholars, and government policy makers… [and] sought to assure control over the future direction of the law” by installing ideologically friendly faculty in law schools, as well as organizing and rewarding students with scholarships and clerkships under conservative judges, and placing those judges on the bench. (Jerry M. Landay, The Attack Memo that Changed the World)
  • The California Chamber of Commerce picked up on the Powell Memo and proposed what became in 1973 the Pacific Legal Foundation, the first of eight regional litigation centers. The Olin, Scaife, Bradley, Smith Richardson, and Coors’ Castle Rock foundations, and others, continue to underwrite these operations. , (Jerry M. Landay, The Attack Memo that Changed the World)
  • Huge corporations, including Powell’s Philip Morris, invested millions of dollars in the Chamber of Commerce’s National Chamber Litigation Center and other legal foundations to bring litigation demanding new corporate rights. In rapid succession, corporations and supporters funded the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Mid-Atlantic Legal Foundation, the Mid-America Legal Foundation, the Great Plains Legal Foundation (Landmark Legal Foundation), the Washington Legal Foundation, the Northeastern Legal Foundation, the New England Legal Foundation, the Southeastern Legal Foundation, the Capital Legal Center, the National Legal Center for the Public Interest, and many others.(Clements)
  • The number of companies with Washington lobbying offices grew from 175 in 1971 to 2,445 a decade later. Along with 2,000 different trade associations, businesses have a combined Washington staff of 50,000, plus 9,000 lobbyists and 8,000 public relations specialists.  (Smith. Who Stole the American Dream)
  • Since 1972 and continuing to the present, conservative foundations also heavily underwrite scores of institutes and policy centers that operate along the general lines proposed in the Powell memo. These agitprop operations are modeled on the Heritage Foundation, and include the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, and Citizens for a Sound Economy, the National Association of Scholars and Accuracy in Academe, Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center, and Reed Irvine’s Accuracy in Media. (Jerry M. Landay, The Attack Memo that Changed the World)
  • Business expanded its acquisition of media to help it control the message and viewpoint. Today six corporations control 97% of all media in the US. By insisting on the mandate of “balance” any unwanted fact or statement can be countered and diminished by claiming a need for equal time. These will generally be provided by the dozens of conservative think tanks and speakers. Television, radio and magazines are closely scrutinized for where and when to counter or insert business friendly news, information or preference. Most media today expends vast amounts of coverage on business and financial news. (Ron Sandahl)
  • Powell’s court opinion in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti shifted the direction of First Amendment law by declaring that corporate financial influence of elections should be protected as individual political speech. This directly set up Citizens United to become law. (Ron Sandahl).
  •  Huge corporations, including Powell’s Philip Morris, invested millions of dollars in the Chamber of Commerce’s National Chamber Litigation Center and other legal foundations to bring litigation demanding new corporate rights. By 1978, the millions of dollars invested in the radical corporate rights campaign began to pay off. The first major victory for the corporate rights advocates came in 1978, with a corporate attack on a Massachusetts law in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti. Several international corporations — including Gillette, the Bank of Boston, and Digital Equipment Corporation — filed a lawsuit after the people of Massachusetts banned corporate political spending intended to influence a citizen referendum. Justice Lewis Powell cast the deciding vote and wrote the 5–4 decision wiping off the books the people’s law intended to keep corporate money out of citizen ballot questions. For the first time in American history, corporations had successfully claimed “speech” rights to attack laws regulating corporate money in our elections. (Clements)
  • With that success, an emboldened corporate rights campaign next attacked energy and environmental laws. In the 1982 case of Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corporation v.Public Service Corporation of New York, utility corporations and the array of corporate legal foundations all argued that a New York law prohibiting utility corporations from promoting energy consumption violated the corporations’ rights of free speech. The corporations won again, and again Justice Powell wrote the decision for the activist Supreme Court that he had imagined in his 1971 Chamber of Commerce memo. Over a period of six years, Justice Powell wrote four key corporate rights( decisions for the Supreme Court. (Clements)
  • Although many new voices have emerged in the 40 years since it circulated Powell’s memo, the U.S. Chamber has expanded its leadership position within the corporate power movement, leading dozens of judicial, legislative and regulatory fights each year. Measured in terms of money spent, the Chamber is by far the most powerful lobby in Washington, DC, spending $770.6 million since 1998, over three times the amount spent by General Electric, the second-largest spender. At the same time, the Chamber has reinforced its lobbying power by becoming one of the largest conduits of election-related “independent expenditures,” spending over $32.8 million on Federal elections in 2010. The Chamber sponsors the Institute for Legal Reform, which has spearheaded the campaign for tort “reform,” making it more difficult for average people who have been injured, assaulted, or harmed to sue the responsible corporations. Along with well over a dozen legal foundations, the Chamber has also helped shape the powerful “business civil liberties” movement that has been a driving force behind the Citizens United decision and other judicial actions that have handcuffed regulators and prevented Congress from putting common-sense checks on corporate power. (Cray)

It is clear from the above that the climate change disinformation campaign is only one element in an organized effort of corporations and free market fundamentalists foundations to limit the power of citizen movements to protect human health and the environment when these movements threaten corporate profits or unregulated markets.


Brulle, R., 2000, Agency, Democracy, and Nature, MIT Press, p. 619


Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law


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