New Hampshire Climate Denier’s Work Has Powerful New Audience: His Brother, the Governor

Left, Michael Sununu. Right, Chris Sununu

Michael Sununu, a lobbyist, consultant, and businessman from New Hampshire, has for years been voicing doubt about the science behind human-induced climate change. Just last November, for instance, he claimed in an op-ed for a major New Hampshire newspaper that climate scientists “fudge the data for their agenda” as “Mother Nature is still driving climate change.”

With clients in the energy and utility sectors, it would perhaps be easy to dismiss Sununu’s views as interest-based and financially motivated. In the past he even led an energy start-up based on coal. 

But this vocal climate science denier is suddenly in a unique position to influence public policy. His brother, Chris Sununu, now occupies New Hampshire’s highest office — governor. 

And following his sibling’s election last November, Michael Sununu wasted little time inserting himself into debates on climate change policy in the state. 

Governor’s Brother as Climate Denier 

Read the interview with Michael Sununu: "I'm not claiming to be a climate scientist"In January, the right-leaning, free market think tank The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy (Bartlett Center), published a 21-page document authored by Michael Sununu, in which he attacked a recent report by the New Hampshire Coastal Risk and Hazard Commission (NHCRHC) warning of threats to the state’s coastal communities from climate change-related impacts. 

The commission, created through a bi-partisan bill passed by the New Hampshire Senate in 2013, labored for three years on its final report and received inputs from a variety of scientists, public officials, and local representatives.

The commission’s report mapped the vulnerabilities of the state’s 17 coastal communities, based on sea level rise between 0.6 and 2 feet by 2050, with greater flooding and destructive impacts during extreme storm surge events. Coupled with warmer oceans, the report also predicted an increase in the severity of coastal storms.     

Michael Sununu’s response to that report slammed the commission’s recommended steps to protect the state’s coast. The commission, he argued, inflated the risks facing New Hampshire. “The justification for these costly actions is based on flimsy evidence, exaggerated claims, and a profound ignorance of the natural evolution and cycles of our climate systems,” he wrote. 

Sununu called the report “alarmist hand wringing,” that would “expand government and strangle development in the Seacoast area.” According to him, “The apparent goal of the authors is to prod state legislators, bureaucrats and local officials to institutionalize acceptance of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in state law and state regulations.” 

Dave Anderson, policy and communications manager the Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog organization monitoring attacks by fossil fuel interests on renewable energy, sees Sununu’s report as typical climate change denial. Pointing to the use of tropes common in denier circles, such as “alarmism,” Anderson commented: 

What people should be alarmed by is Michael Sununu and the Bartlett Center’s politically motivated efforts to demean the local officials and academic experts who work on the frontlines of climate change every day. We need to work together to ensure seacoast communities are protected from extreme precipitation, sea level rise, and storm surge.”

In an interview with DeSmog, Michael Sununu said his report, neither solicited nor paid for by the Bartlett Center, was written to raise questions about the commission’s work, stating, “My aim was to provide decision makers with all relevant data so that they are better informed as they make decisions based upon the NHCRHC’s report.” 

Still, Michael Sununu’s closeness to the highest office in the state may portend a shift in New Hampshire’s climate change policies. Sununu confirmed to DeSmog that he has shared a copy of his report with the office of his brother, Governor Chris Sununu, and each of the state’s legislatures. 

And this is precisely what concerns local scientists and activists. 

Who Is Michael Sununu?

Michael Sununu’s report says nothing of his background and financial interests, though he told DeSmog he was “not claiming to be a climate scientist.” 

Coming from a well-connected political family, he is the son of John Sununu, former New Hampshire Republican governor and White House chief of staff under President George H. W. Bush. 

According to state business records, in 2009 Michael Sununu co-founded Profile Strategy Group, a lobbying and political consultancy firm based in Concord, New Hampshire. He’s also a manager with Sununu Enterprises and Sununu Partners LLC, both companies registered for “business development consulting services,” and owns several other investment companies.

While Michael Sununu is not registered to lobby in New Hampshire, a panel he moderated at Anselm College in 2014 gave some clues about his business clients. At the start of the panel, called “New England’s Energy Future,” Sununu was introduced as working in “strategic advising and planning and project development for large corporations and medium size firms” with clients in “energy and infrastructure industries, including major electrical utilities.”

In 2009 he also co-founded AgLorax, a company trying to use coal gasification to make farm fertilizer, though Sununu confirmed the company is no longer in business. 

Energy Interests on the Bartlett Center Board

Sununu’s report also did not disclose the Bartlett Center’s own ties to the energy and utilities sector.

Yet DeSmog has found links between members of its board of directors and those industries, with several of the center’s directors or their employers lobbying on behalf of companies including the Propane Gas Association of New England, North American Power & Gas, New Hampshire Transmission LLC, the New England Power Generators Association, National Grid, and Unitil Corporation.

Additionally, Sununu’s report says nothing of the Bartlett Center’s funding sources or associations.

A 2013 report by Granite State Progress, a New Hampshire progressive advocacy group, found that the Bartlett Center is tied to the Koch-funded denier organizations State Policy Network and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)

DeSmog’s own review of the Bartlett Center’s tax returns confirms that between 2008 and 2012 it received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Donors Capital Fund, a secretive Koch-related entity previously dubbed the “dark money ATM” of the U.S. conservative movement. In 2011 the Bartlett Center received an educational grant from the now-defunct Charles Lamb Charitable Foundation, which was directly run by the Koch brothers and their associates at Koch Industries

Governor Sununu and Climate Change

A spokesperson for Governor Chris Sununu did not return DeSmog’s multiple requests for comment on this story. Yet sources familiar with New Hampshire’s political circles expressed deep concern over his brother’s stances toward climate change and newfound access to the state’s most powerful office holder. 

Others point to the Bartlett Center’s own tight links of the new governor. One of its directors is no other than Chris and Michael’s other brother, James Sununu, who partners with Michael in the family businesses. Another director is Jamie Burnett, a Principal in Michael Sununu’s lobbying firm Profile Strategy Group. Burnett, a former political director in the state for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, is a registered lobbyist in the state who served as Chris Sununu’s campaign adviser. 

A third director, Jayne Millerick, now works as Governor Sununu’s chief of staff. Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Bartlett Center, serves as the governor’s interim budget director.

Arlinghuas did not respond to DeSmog’s requests for comment.

Judging by some of the governor’s own remarks on his campaign trail, critics may have real reasons to worry. In February last year, the New York Times reported that then-candidate Chris Sununu denied there is scientific consensus about the reality of human-caused climate change. 

In one of his campaign debates, Sununu doubled down on this position: “Is it [climate change] man-made or not? Look, one thing I do know: Nobody knows for sure.” Yet when confronted by a citizen during another campaign event about his climate views and ties to fossil fuel money, Sununu said he’s not a climate change denier, calling such an accusation “nonsensical.”  

State Commission Rebukes the Sununu Report

Officials and scientists in New Hampshire are now viewing Michael Sununu’s position with real concern, as evidenced by a response letter sent by prominent members of the New Hampshire Coastal Risk and Hazard Commission to the Bartlett Center. Signed by commission chair Cliff Sinnott and several past and present state legislators, the letter expresses “surprise and disappointment” at Sununu’s report. 

By publishing the report, the Bartlett Center lends unwarranted credibility to a minority perspective which sees no threat from future coastal flooding and no need to prepare,” they write. 

The letter questions why Sununu did not raise any of his criticisms during the commission’s many opportunities for public input, reminding the Bartlett Center that the commission’s final report was adopted unanimously by its 37 bi-partisan, multi-stakeholder members.   

Responding to Sununu’s central critique, the letter states that it dealt not with the probabilities of risks from climate change to New Hampshire’s coast but with its possibilities: “As the Commission explained in its report, the scenarios represent a range of plausible future sea levels.”  

Scientists in the state are also hitting back. Dr. Cameron Wake, Research Professor of Climatology and Glaciology at the University of New Hampshire and a contributor to the commission’s report, offers Michael Sununu a challenge. 

If he really wants to debate the science seriously, I invite him to publish an article in the peer-reviewed journals,” Wake said. “That’s where you debate the science. But until now, he has made zero contributions to that literature.”   

Read DeSmog's interview with Michael Sununu.

Main image: Left, Michael Sununu. Right, Chris Sununu, New Hampshire Governor. Credit: Chris SununuCC BY-SA 4.0