David Kaiser, a scion of the Rockefeller family who steered one of its philanthropies into a pitched confrontation with the company that provided the family’s prodigious wealth, died on Wednesday at a family home on Mount Desert Island, Me. He was 50.
The cause was glioblastoma multiforme, a cancer of the brain, his wife, Rosemary Corbett, said.
As president of the Rockefeller Family Fund, and as an official of Just Detention International, a group dedicated to fighting sexual abuse in prisons, Mr. Kaiser pursued twin passions: combating climate change and reforming the criminal justice system.
His climate work took one of the family’s most prominent charitable organizations in a highly unusual direction for any philanthropy: scrappiness. It was all the more unusual for a great-great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, to confront Exxon Mobil, a successor company to the Rockefeller oil monopoly.
Mr. Kaiser’s actions, with the support of his family, upended the generally polite world of philanthropy, the journalist and climate change activist Bill McKibben said in an interview. “It’s hard enough to get anyone to take on powerful interests, but when they’re the powerful interest from which your family derived its wealth, that’s really brave,” Mr. McKibben said, adding, “I can’t think of anything like it in history.”
The fight, involving revelations about Exxon’s past research into climate change and its efforts to muddy the waters about global warming, has prompted protests, government investigations and lawsuits. Exxon Mobil counterattacked, in public statements and court filings, with accusations that the Rockefellers had masterminded a conspiracy against it.
John Passacantando, a consultant to philanthropies and a longtime activist on climate change issues, said in an interview that Mr. Kaiser’s actions had “done more to change the landscape in the climate fight than anything I have seen in 30 years.” The decision to take on Exxon, he said, was “almost Shakespearean.”
John D. Rockefeller’s heirs have long been uncomfortable with Exxon’s legacy and the effects of fossil fuels on the planet, but they have generally addressed those concerns in quiet meetings with company executives and by submitting shareholder proposals calling for environmental action.
The shift began in 2014, when the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, one of the family’s larger philanthropies, announced that it would drop fossil fuels from its portfolio. The announcement, coming just before the United Nations climate change summit meeting in New York City, gave an attention-getting boost to the environmental movement by encouraging institutions and individuals to shift money from fossil fuels to more sustainable forms of energy.
Then, in 2016, the Rockefeller Family Fund, under Mr. Kaiser’s leadership, announced its own divestment in an even more pointed way, taking aim at what it called Exxon Mobil’s “morally reprehensible conduct.”
“Evidence,” it said, “appears to suggest that the company worked since the 1980s to confuse the public about climate change’s march, while simultaneously spending millions to fortify its own infrastructure against climate change’s destructive consequences and track new exploration opportunities as the Arctic’s ice receded.”
The evidence cited in the divestment announcement was developed, in part, with Rockefeller money.
In 2015, after mining corporate archives, The Los Angeles Times published an investigation into the company’s history of climate research, working with students from the Columbia University journalism school, whose program received more than $500,000 from the Rockefeller Family Fund and a lesser amount from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Inside Climate News, an environmental journalism organization that also received money from Rockefeller philanthropies, produced its own in-depth report the same year. Activist groups, many of which received Rockefeller funding as well, then kicked off an initiative known as #ExxonKnew.
Next came lawsuits. With the family’s encouragement, a number of state attorneys general, drawing on the journalists’ reporting, began their own investigations of Exxon Mobil, starting with one in 2015 by New York’s attorney general at the time, Eric T. Schneiderman. Three years later, New York sued the company, accusing it of violating shareholder protection statutes and other laws; Exxon won the case last year.
(A case brought by Maura N. Healey of Massachusetts over deceptive advertising and consumer and investor protection laws, filed in 2019, is pending. Minnesota and the District of Columbia have recently announced lawsuits of their own.)
Mr. Kaiser took a personal stand. With Lee Wasserman, the Rockefeller Family Fund’s director, he wrote a two-part essay in The New York Review of Books in 2016 that laid out in detail Exxon’s research and its financing of climate-change contrarianism.
Mr. Wasserman said in an interview that Mr. Kaiser had known that the fight would lead to trouble. “We received all sorts of threats from the company’s allies,” he said, including subpoenas from Congress. “David never flagged.”
In its defense, the company argued that for more than a decade it had recognized the threat of climate change and the need to fight it. Exxon has also said that in the mid-2000s it stopped financing organizations, including the Heartland Institute, that promote climate-change denial. Exxon’s early research, the company has said, has been wrongly characterized.
Mr. Kaiser said that everything the Rockefeller Family Fund had done was protected by the First Amendment. The fund had “exercised its freedom of speech in expressing our repugnance at Exxon-Mobil’s behavior,” he said.
He added: “We have exercised our freedom of association by talking with like-minded public-interest advocates about how best to educate the public about the realities of climate change. And we have exercised our right to petition the government for redress of grievances by informing elected officials about our concerns that in the course of its climate science campaign, Exxon may have violated the law.”
According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications, 57 percent of Americans polled in 2019 said that fossil fuel companies had a great deal or a moderate amount of responsibility for damage caused by climate change, and 53 percent supported making fossil fuel companies, rather than taxpayers, pay for global warming damages.
David Walter Kaiser was born on July 27, 1969, in Cambridge, Mass., to Neva Rockefeller Goodwin and Walter Kaiser. His mother, who survives him, is a distinguished fellow at Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center. His father, who died in 2016, was a professor of English and comparative literature at Harvard University.
In addition to his wife and his mother, Mr. Kaiser is survived by two daughters and a sister, Miranda Kaiser.
Mr. Kaiser graduated from Columbia University in 1991 with a degree in American history. He and Ms. Corbett met in 2011 through the online dating service OkCupid. They discovered a shared interest in criminal justice reform, Ms. Corbett recalled, and Mr. Kaiser seemed startlingly open.
“I asked what the worst thing he’d ever done in a relationship was — and he told me!” she said. “I thought he was being so transparent, but there was a lot he wasn’t telling me.”
What he had left out was that he was a Rockefeller. She said that when he did tell her, months later, she wanted to break off the relationship; she was unable to see, she said, how “a person with a working-class background and leftist politics could possibly have a successful relationship with someone from a family of such privilege.” They married in 2012.
In late 2018, Mr. Kaiser began experiencing episodes of forgetfulness, which led to his diagnosis early the next year. Ms. Corbett said that in recent months he had told her: “Of course I wish my life were going to be longer. I wish I could see who the girls will turn into.” But, she said, he added, “I’ve also been an extremely lucky person — more lucky than most.”