CORPORATE SPONSORED GREENS UNDERMINE THE CLIMATE MOVEMENT PART I

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20 march 2010

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The Wrong Kind of Green

By Johann Hari, The Nation, March 22, 2010

How conservation groups are bargaining away our future

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.

Environmental groups used to be funded largely by their members and wealthy individual supporters. They had only one goal: to prevent environmental destruction. Their funds were small, but they played a crucial role in saving vast tracts of wilderness and in pushing into law strict rules forbidding air and water pollution. But Jay Hair--president of the National Wildlife Federation from 1981 to 1995--was dissatisfied. He identified a huge new source of revenue: the worst polluters.

Hair found that the big oil and gas companies were happy to give money to conservation groups. Yes, they were destroying many of the world's pristine places. Yes, by the late 1980s it had become clear that they were dramatically destabilizing the climate--the very basis of life itself. But for Hair, that didn't make them the enemy; he said they sincerely wanted to right their wrongs and pay to preserve the environment. He began to suck millions from them, and in return his organization and others, like The Nature Conservancy (TNC), gave them awards for "environmental stewardship."

Companies like Shell and British Petroleum (BP) were delighted. They saw it as valuable "reputation insurance": every time they were criticized for their massive emissions of warming gases, or for being involved in the killing of dissidents who wanted oil funds to go to the local population, or an oil spill that had caused irreparable damage, they wheeled out their shiny green awards, purchased with "charitable" donations, to ward off the prospect of government regulation. At first, this behavior scandalized the environmental community. Hair was vehemently condemned as a sellout and a charlatan. But slowly, the other groups saw themselves shrink while the corporate-fattened groups swelled--so they, too, started to take the checks.

Christine MacDonald, an idealistic young environmentalist, discovered how deeply this cash had transformed these institutions when she started to work for Conservation International in 2006. She told me, "About a week or two after I started, I went to the big planning meeting of all the organization's media teams, and they started talking about this supposedly great new project they were running with BP. But I had read in the newspaper the day before that the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] had condemned BP for running the most polluting plant in the whole country.... But nobody in that meeting, or anywhere else in the organization, wanted to talk about it. It was a taboo. You weren't supposed to ask if BP was really green. They were 'helping' us, and that was it."

She soon began to see--as she explains in her whistleblowing book Green Inc.--how this behavior has pervaded almost all the mainstream green organizations. They take money, and in turn they offer praise, even when the money comes from the companies causing environmental devastation. To take just one example, when it was revealed that many of IKEA's dining room sets were made from trees ripped from endangered forests, the World Wildlife Fund leapt to the company's defense, saying--wrongly--that IKEA "can never guarantee" this won't happen. Is it a coincidence that WWF is a "marketing partner" with IKEA, and takes cash from the company?

Likewise, the Sierra Club was approached in 2008 by the makers of Clorox bleach, who said that if the Club endorsed their new range of "green" household cleaners, they would give it a percentage of the sales. The Club's Corporate Accountability Committee said the deal created a blatant conflict of interest--but took it anyway. Executive director Carl Pope defended the move in an e-mail to members, in which he claimed that the organization had carried out a serious analysis of the cleaners to see if they were "truly superior." But it hadn't. The Club's Toxics Committee co-chair, Jessica Frohman, said, "We never approved the product line." Beyond asking a few questions, the committee had done nothing to confirm that the product line was greener than its competitors' or good for the environment in any way.

The green groups defend their behavior by saying they are improving the behavior of the corporations. But as these stories show, the pressure often flows the other way: the addiction to corporate cash has changed the green groups at their core. As MacDonald says, "Not only do the largest conservation groups take money from companies deeply implicated in environmental crimes; they have become something like satellite PR offices for the corporations that support them."

It has taken two decades for this corrupting relationship to become the norm among the big green organizations. Imagine this happening in any other sphere, and it becomes clear how surreal it is. It is as though Amnesty International's human rights reports came sponsored by a coalition of the Burmese junta, Dick Cheney and Robert Mugabe. For environmental groups to take funding from the very people who are destroying the environment is preposterous--yet it is now taken for granted.

This pattern was bad enough when it affected only a lousy household cleaning spray, or a single rare forest. But today, the stakes are unimaginably higher. We are living through a brief window of time in which we can still prevent runaway global warming. We have emitted so many warming gases into the atmosphere that the world's climate scientists say we are close to the climate's "point of no return." Up to 2 degrees Celsius of warming, all sorts of terrible things happen--we lose the islands of the South Pacific, we set in train the loss of much of Florida and Bangladesh, terrible drought ravages central Africa--but if we stop the emissions of warming gases, we at least have a fifty-fifty chance of stabilizing the climate at this higher level. This is already an extraordinary gamble with human safety, and many climate scientists say we need to aim considerably lower: 1.5 degrees or less.

Beyond 2 degrees, the chances of any stabilization at the hotter level begin to vanish, because the earth's natural processes begin to break down. The huge amounts of methane stored in the Arctic permafrost are belched into the atmosphere, causing more warming. The moist rainforests begin to dry out and burn down, releasing all the carbon they store into the air, and causing more warming. These are "tipping points": after them, we can't go back to the climate in which civilization evolved.

So in an age of global warming, the old idea of conservation--that you preserve one rolling patch of land, alone and inviolate--makes no sense. If the biosphere is collapsing all around you, you can't ring-fence one lush stretch of greenery and protect it: it too will die.
You would expect the American conservation organizations to be joining the great activist upsurge demanding we stick to a safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: 350 parts per million (ppm), according to professor and NASA climatologist James Hansen. And--in public, to their members--they often are supportive. On its website the Sierra Club says, "If the level stays higher than 350 ppm for a prolonged period of time (it's already at 390.18 ppm) it will spell disaster for humanity as we know it."

But behind closed doors, it sings from a different song-sheet. Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, in Arizona, which refuses funding from polluters, has seen this from the inside. He told me, "There is a gigantic political schizophrenia here. The Sierra Club will send out e-mails to its membership saying we have to get to 350 parts per million and the science requires it. But in reality they fight against any sort of emission cuts that would get us anywhere near that goal."

For example, in 2009 the EPA moved to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, which requires the agency to ensure that the levels of pollutants in the air are "compatible with human safety"--a change the Sierra Club supported. But the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the EPA to take this commitment seriously and do what the climate science says really is "compatible with human safety": restore us to 350 ppm. Suckling explains, "I was amazed to discover the Sierra Club opposed us bitterly. They said it should not be done. In fact, they said that if we filed a lawsuit to make EPA do it, they would probably intervene on EPA's side. They threw climate science out the window."

Indeed, the Sierra Club's chief climate counsel, David Bookbinder, ridiculed the center's attempts to make 350 ppm a legally binding requirement. He said it was "truly a pointless exercise" and headed to "well-deserved bureaucratic oblivion"--and would only add feebly that "350 may be where the planet should end up," but not by this mechanism. He was quoted in the media alongside Bush administration officials who shared his contempt for the center's proposal.

Why would the Sierra Club oppose a measure designed to prevent environmental collapse? The Club didn't respond to my requests for an explanation. Climate scientists are bemused. When asked about this, Hansen said, "I find the behavior of most environmental NGOs to be shocking.... I [do] not want to listen to their lame excuses for their abominable behavior." It is easy to see why groups like Conservation International, which take money from Big Oil and Big Coal, take backward positions. Their benefactors will lose their vast profits if we make the transition away from fossil fuels--so they fall discreetly silent when it matters. But while the Sierra Club accepts money from some corporations, it doesn't take cash from the very worst polluters.

So why is it, on this, the biggest issue of all, just as bad?
It seems its leaders have come to see the world through the funnel of the US Senate and what legislation it can be immediately coaxed to pass. They say there is no point advocating a strategy that senators will reject flat-out. They have to be "politically realistic" and try to advocate something that will appeal to Blue Dog Democrats.

This focus on inch-by-inch reform would normally be understandable: every movement for change needs a reformist wing. But the existence of tipping points--which have been overwhelmingly proven by the climate science--makes a mockery of this baby-steps approach to global warming. If we exceed the safe amount of warming gases in the atmosphere, then the earth will release its massive carbon stores and we will have runaway warming. After that, any cuts we introduce will be useless. You can't jump halfway across a chasm: you still fall to your death. It is all or disaster.

By definition, if a bill can pass through today's corrupt Senate, then it will not be enough to prevent catastrophic global warming. Why? Because the bulk of the Senate--including many Democrats--is owned by Big Oil and Big Coal. They call the shots with their campaign donations. Senators will not defy their benefactors. So if you call only for measures the Senate could pass tomorrow, you are in effect giving a veto over the position of the green groups to the fossil fuel industry.

Yet the "conservation" groups in particular believe they are being hardheaded in adhering to the "political reality" that says only cuts far short of the climate science are possible. They don't seem to realize that in a conflict between political reality and physical reality, physical reality will prevail. The laws of physics are more real and permanent than any passing political system. You can't stand at the edge of a rising sea and say, "Sorry, the swing states don't want you to happen today. Come back in fifty years."

A classic case study of this inside-the-Beltway mentality can be found in a blog written by David Donniger, policy director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), after the collapse of the Copenhagen climate summit. The summit ended with no binding agreement for any country to limit its emissions of greenhouse gases, and a disregard of the scientific targets. Given how little time we have, this was shocking. Donniger was indeed furious--with the people who were complaining. He decried the "howls of disaster in European media, and rather tepid reviews in many U.S. stories." He said people were "holding the accord to standards and expectations that no outcome achievable at Copenhagen could reasonably have met--or even should have met."

This last sentence is very revealing. Donniger believes it is "reasonable" to act within the constraints of the US and global political systems, and unreasonable to act within the constraints of the climate science. The greens, he suggests, are wrong to say their standards should have been met at this meeting; the deal is "not weak." After fifteen climate summits, after twenty years of increasingly desperate scientific warnings about warming, with the tipping points drawing ever closer, he says the world's leaders shouldn't be on a faster track and that the European and American media should stop whining. Remember, this isn't an oil company exec talking; this is a senior figure at one of the leading environmental groups.

There is a different way for green groups to behave. If the existing political system is so corrupt that it can't maintain basic human safety, they should be encouraging their members to take direct action to break the Big Oil deadlock. This is precisely what has happened in Britain--and it has worked. Direct-action protesters have physically blocked coal trains and new airport runways for the past five years--and as a result, airport runway projects that looked certain are falling by the wayside, and politicians have become very nervous about authorizing any new coal power plants [see Maria Margaronis, "The UK's Climate Rebels," December 7, 2009]. The more mainstream British climate groups are not reluctant to condemn the Labour government's environmental failings in the strongest possible language. Compare the success of this direct confrontation with the utter failure of the US groups' work-within-the-system approach. As James Hansen has pointed out, the British model offers real hope rather than false hope. There are flickers of it already--there is an inspiring grassroots movement against coal power plants in the United States, supported by the Sierra Club--but it needs to be supercharged.

By pretending the broken system can work--and will work, in just a moment, after just one more Democratic win, or another, or another--the big green groups are preventing the appropriate response from concerned citizens, which is fury at the system itself. They are offering placebos to calm us down when they should be conducting and amplifying our anger at this betrayal of our safety by our politicians. The US climate bills are long-term plans: they lock us into a woefully inadequate schedule of carbon cuts all the way to 2050. So when green groups cheer them on, they are giving their approval to a path to destruction--and calling it progress.

Even within the constraints of the existing system, their approach makes for poor political tactics. As Suckling puts it, "They have an incredibly naïve political posture. Every time the Dems come out with a bill, no matter how appallingly short of the scientific requirements it is, they cheer it and say it's great. So the politicians have zero reason to strengthen that bill. If you've already announced that you've been captured, then they don't need to give you anything. Compare that to how the Chamber of Commerce or the fossil fuel corporations behave. They stake out a position on the far right, and they demand the center move their way. It works for them. They act like real activists, while the supposed activists stand at the back of the room and cheer at whatever bone is thrown their way."

The green groups have become "the mouthpiece of the Democratic Party, regardless of how pathetic the party's position is," Suckling says in despair. "They have no bottom line, no interest in scientifically defensible greenhouse gas emission limitations and no willingness to pressure the White House or Congress."

It will seem incredible at first, but this is--in fact--too generous.

[This is the first part of a two-part article]


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