In December 2016, gospel music stars descended on a local community center in Richmond, Virginia’s East Highland Park neighborhood. Hundreds of residents from throughout the area had answered the call to attend a concert marketed as an opportunity for enlightenment, both spiritual and environmental.
As a sea of hands waved through the air as eyes closed in prayer, what many in the crowd didn’t know was that they were the target of a massive propaganda campaign. One of the event’s sponsors was a fossil-fuel advocacy group called Fueling US Forward, an outfit supported by Koch Industries, the petrochemicals, paper, and wood product conglomeratefounded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.
The gospel program was designed to highlight the benefits of oil and natural gas production and its essential role in the American way of life. During a break in the music, a panel discussion unfolded about skyrocketing utility costs. The lobbyists and businesspeople on the panel presented a greater reliance on fossil fuels—billed as cheap, reliable energy sources—as the fix. Later, a surprise giveaway netted four lucky attendees the opportunity to have their power bills paid for them.
The event was one big bait and switch, according to environmental experts and local activists. Come for the gospel music, then listen to us praise the everlasting goodness of oil and gas. Supporting this sort of pro-oil-and-gas agenda sprinkled over the songs of praise, they say, would only worsen the pollution and coastal flooding that come with climate change, hazards that usually hit Virginia’s black residents the hardest.
“The tactic was tasteless and racist, plain and simple,” says Kendyl Crawford, the Sierra Club of Richmond’s conservation program coordinator. “It’s exploiting the ignorance many communities have about climate change.”
So in response to the Koch brothers’ attempt to sway their flocks, Wilson and others affiliated with black churches in Virginia have channeled their outrage into a new calling: climate advocacy. For Wilson, environmentalism has become a biblical mission.
“The climate is changing,” he says. “And it’s black folk in Virginia who will lose the most.”
The billionaire Koch brothers are one of the driving forces behind right-wing campaigns throughout the country. One of their primary activities is promoting fossil fuel production. According to Virginia environmental groups, that involves efforts to deny the existence of climate change and stifle renewable energy policies.