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On Friday, multi-billionaire, industrialist and political donor David Koch died in his home in Southampton, New York. He had been suffering with long term cancer which he developed earlier in life. Koch has been an important but generally behind-the-scenes player in American politics since the 1980 Presidential race, in which he stood to be the Vice President on the Libertarian Party ticket. His real influence came as one half of the Koch Industries’ notorious ‘Kochtopus’ – a term used to signify an extensive web of monetized support for (usually) right-wing politicians, think tanks, advertising, lower taxes and climate change denial under the umbrella of ‘free markets.’
David’s brother, Charles, made the statement on Friday, saying “It is with a heavy heart that I announce the passing of my brother.” Charles was the closest of David’s brothers, with the two of them owning roughly 40 percent each of the family business, following a bitter family dispute. Associated Press describe criticism of the Koch brothers, with detractors seeing the pair as “the embodiment of fat-cat capitalism and the corrupting influence of corporate money in American politics.” The Financial Times describes Koch as “a pioneer of ‘dark money,” whilst June Mayer, author of the book ‘Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right’ describes the Kochs’ strategy as “vehemently opposed [to] the government taking any action on climate change that would hurt their fossil fuel profits.”
The longest lasting and most harshly felt effect of all of Koch’s myriad contributions to the global political economy will most likely be related to climate change. He notoriously funded climate change denial for much of his business life. This should come as no surprise given that, according to the Associated Press, his corporation was involved in “vast holdings in oil refineries, paper mills, fertilizer plants, cattle ranches and other ventures.” One of the only things that binds all of these practices together is their negative environmental impact. The Kochs’ lobbying of government and spreading of illegitimate climate science was motivated by profit for their business, and little else.
David Koch has also been described by some as a ‘philanthropist’ – often by those who share a similar ideology to him. It is true that he donated roughly $1.3 billion to various causes, including cancer research, education, and the arts. However, aside from any public relations benefits he will have been looking for (Koch was too astute to not consider that), this should be weighed up against the cost of climate change denial. The Economist’s own studies put their conservative estimate of the price of climate change being $4.2 trillion, but with the potential to increase far beyond $10 trillion if warming is faster than predicted or with small alterations to the discount rate. Koch’s charitable donations (which amounted to a little over two percent of his total wealth in 2019) pales in significance compared to the effect of the misinformation and policy promoted throughout his business career.
It is imperative to be conscious of the practices of the Koch Brothers, what their business strategy is, and to reiterate as clearly as possible that they are funding harmful misinformation for profit. Climate change is going to cause devastation to agriculture, sea levels rising and possibly eliminating whole countries, potential wars over natural resources and so much more. Politicians now must do do what politicians are not well known for; they have to think about the long term of the planet.