‘The real Climategate’: how some big environmental NGOs sell out

Johann Hari has written, in The Nation, an extremely provocative and important expose of the behaviour of some of the big environmental and conservation NGOs in the US. It’s an illuminating account of how efforts by the originally well-intentioned to work with big corporates can end up with them losing their way – and their integrity.

Why did America’s leading environmental groups jet to Copenhagen and lobby for policies that will lead to the faster death of the rainforests–and runaway global warming? Why are their lobbyists on Capitol Hill dismissing the only real solutions to climate change as “unworkable” and “unrealistic,” as though they were just another sooty tentacle of Big Coal?

At first glance, these questions will seem bizarre. Groups like Conservation International are among the most trusted “brands” in America, pledged to protect and defend nature. Yet as we confront the biggest ecological crisis in human history, many of the green organizations meant to be leading the fight are busy shoveling up hard cash from the world’s worst polluters–and burying science-based environmentalism in return. Sometimes the corruption is subtle; sometimes it is blatant. In the middle of a swirl of bogus climate scandals trumped up by deniers, here is the real Climategate, waiting to be exposed.

I have spent the past few years reporting on how global warming is remaking the map of the world. I have stood in half-dead villages on the coast of Bangladesh while families point to a distant place in the rising ocean and say, “Do you see that chimney sticking up? That’s where my house was… I had to [abandon it] six months ago.” I have stood on the edges of the Arctic and watched glaciers that have existed for millenniums crash into the sea. I have stood on the borders of dried-out Darfur and heard refugees explain, “The water dried up, and so we started to kill each other for what was left.”

While I witnessed these early stages of ecocide, I imagined that American green groups were on these people’s side in the corridors of Capitol Hill, trying to stop the Weather of Mass Destruction. But it is now clear that many were on a different path–one that began in the 1980s, with a financial donation.

The Nation invited the groups criticised in Hari’s article to respond, with some interesting results. For example, while the National Wildlife Federation protests that only 0.5% of its donations are corporate, one of the excellent letters responding to the article points out that the NWF’s tax return shows that corporations in fact account for 17% of its income.

I dug up a New York Times article in which (as Hari also recounts) the Sierra Club ridicules efforts to get the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants:

David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel at the Sierra Club, said the petitioners’ view [to the Supreme Court, that the Clean Air Act should cover GHGs as “critical” pollutants] is in the minority and that the document is headed to “well-deserved bureaucratic oblivion” at EPA.

“It’s truly a pointless exercise,” Bookbinder said. “And while 350 may be where the planet should end up, the [National Ambient Air Quality Standards] is not the mechanism for getting there.”

Hari asked the Sierra Club to explain this position. It did not respond.

He quotes other who saw how these groups behaved in Copenhagen.

“At Copenhagen, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” says Kevin Koenig of Amazon Watch, an organization that sides with indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin to preserve their land. “These groups are positioning themselves to be the middlemen in a carbon market. They are helping to set up, in effect, a global system of carbon laundering…that will give the impression of action, but no substance. You have to ask–are these conservation groups at all? They look much more like industry front groups to me.”

Democracy Now has a follow-up interview with Hari and Christine MacDonald, who after working for Conservation International, has written a book, Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad.

Here Hari offers another illuminating quote:

Now, these [corporate interests] are very clear about why they give money, when they speak in their unguarded moments. For example, Michael G. Morris, the head of American Electrical Power, an appalling group, one of the worst polluters in America, told the Washington Post, “You know, when Greenpeace say we give money, because we want to carry on burning coal, because we want to carry on polluting, you betcha.” They’re very clear about it. The only people who aren’t clear about it are the groups taking the money.

About David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.
This entry was posted in Environment, Our war on the atmosphere and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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