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Conservation Groups & Corporate Cash: An Exchange

Johann Hari’s piece “The Wrong Kind of Green” takes mainstream environmental groups to task for selling out their principles, often in exchange for money from the worst polluters. Posing the question, “How do we retrieve a real environmental movement, in the very short time we have left?” Hari argues that we have no choice but to confront the movement’s addiction to corporate cash and its penchant for environmentally destructive political deal-making–even if doing so requires having a “difficult and ugly fight.” We invited a range of green groups mentioned in the article to respond to Hari’s arguments in this special online forum, which concludes with Hari’s reply. Readers may also be interested in the web letters written about the piece.   –The Editors

Christine Dorsey, National Wildlife Federation
Leah Hair, National Wildlife Federation
Phil Radford, Greenpeace
John Adams, Natural Resources Defense Council
Kieran Suckling, Center for Biological Diversity
Carl Pope, Sierra Club
Bill McKibben, 350.org
Karen Foerstel, The Nature Conservancy
Johann Hari, The Nation

National Wildlife Federation

Christine Dorsey

The Nation‘s cover story “The Wrong Kind of Green” is an irresponsible and toxic mixture of inaccurate information and uninformed analysis. The author, who did not contact the National Wildlife Federation for this story, has written a work of fiction that hardly merits a response, except that it stoops to a new low by attacking the reputation of the late Jay Hair, a former CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, whose powerful legacy of conservation achievement speaks for itself.

In case The Nation is interested in publishing facts, the National Wildlife Federation is funded primarily by the generous donations of 4 million members and supporters. Corporate partnerships for our educational work account for less than 1/2 of 1 percent of our funding. Our dedicated staff, volunteers and state affiliates fight tirelessly to take on polluters, protect wildlife habitat, promote clean energy and educate families about wildlife and the importance of spending time outdoors in nature.

What will The Nation do next, blame polar bears for global warming?

National Wildlife Federation

Leah Hair

In “The Wrong Kind of Green” Johann Hari made outrageous and entirely false statements about my late husband, Dr. Jay Hair.

Jay died in 2002 after a five-year battle with an incurable bone marrow cancer. He devoted his life, with all his considerable passion, courage and intelligence, to protecting this planet. Jay never betrayed that mission in order to “suck millions,” as the article claimed, from oil and gas companies. During Jay’s tenure as president of the National Wildlife Federation, corporate contributions never exceeded 1 percent of NWF’s budget.

In 1982 Jay established NWF’s Corporate Conservation Council to create a forum for dialogue with Fortune 500 leaders. Prior to this controversial initiative, almost the only place business and environmental leaders met was in court. Jay took considerable heat, but he understood that the enormity of our environmental challenges required that all sectors–private, governmental, NGO, religious–be involved and talking to one another.

The Council was funded solely by its members; NWF’s budget was not drawn upon to create the Council, nor did corporate money from the Council seep into NWF’s regular budget.

In 1989 the Exxon Valdez spilled 10 million gallons of Prudhoe crude. Jay was the first national environmental leader to go to Prince William Sound to draw attention to the social and environmental devastation. Under Jay’s leadership, NWF initiated the class action lawsuit against Exxon for punitive damages. He protested on the floor of the Exxon stockholders meeting. If Exxon or anyone else thought that Corporate Conservation Council membership bought them “reputation insurance,” per Mr. Hari, for “an oil spill that had caused irreparable damage,” they clearly were mistaken.

Jay was only 56 when he died. Had he lived, he would have continued to be a passionate and courageous voice on behalf of our imperiled planet.

Your sloppy reporting smeared the reputation of a fine man. You owe an apology.

Greenpeace

Phil Radford, Executive Director

“The Wrong Kind of Green” points to three principles that could make environmental advocacy groups stronger and the world a safer place for our children. First, avoid the perceived or real conflicts of interest created by taking corporate money. Second, start with what must be done to save the environment, not with what we think we can eke out of an unfriendly Congress. Third, the way forward will be bottom-up, shutting and stopping coal plants. I couldn’t agree more.

For forty years, Greenpeace has maintained our financial independence, refusing money from corporations.

A few years ago, Greenpeace and our allies decided to stop deforestation in the Amazon by “convincing” the major industries driving the problem to cease and desist. We would then permanently lock up the forests by securing financing from rich countries. When we discovered that cattle ranching was one of the primary drivers of deforestation, Greenpeace activists throughout the United States and Europe nudged Nike and Timberland to cancel their contracts with leather company causing deforestation. A few cancelled contracts later; the major ranching companies agreed with Greenpeace Brazil to a moratorium on any ranching that causes deforestation.

It doesn’t matter if you work with companies or governments, as long as you are independent, start with the ecological goal, work globally with governments or companies to change the game, and ultimately bring your opponents to a place where they’ll lobby for your law or can’t withstand it.

It is difficult to imagine a way forward on global warming that gets at the root of the problem–coal, the number one cause of global warming pollution–without a plant-by-plant fight to shut down coal. Some have approached coal with an attitude of “if you cant beat them, join them.” The Sierra Club and Greenpeace have a different approach: “beat coal until they join us.”

Natural Resources Defense Council

John Adams, professor of political science, University of Pennsylvania

I read your article “The Wrong Kind of Green” and was disappointed with your comments about Jay Hair, now dead eight years. I have no knowledge of any contributions made from oil and gas to NWF, but what I do know is, Jay was a dedicated environmentalist, and to the best of my knowledge, he did not sell out on any issues. I find it very troubling that someone who cannot defend himself is made the center of this article without many facts backing up the charges.

Center for Biological Diversity

Kieran Suckling, Executive Director

Johann Hari’s article follows upon stories in the Washington Post and E&E which ask similar questions: Why do so many of the large U.S. environmental groups appear to take their lead on climate policy from Congress and the White House? Why do they appear to lack a bottom line on climate policy? He is puzzled by the quick endorsement of weak climate bills, lauding of the Obama administration’s regressive position at Copenhagen, and claims that Copenhagen was a success.

What motivates such positions is unclear. But this much is very clear: as a political strategy, such positioning has been a failure. Congress and the White House have taken progressively weaker positions since early drafts of Markey-Waxman. They are giving ground in the face of corporate opposition and see little reason to move towards environmental groups who have already endorsed weak positions and signaled that they will endorse even weaker positions.

Similarly, it was a strategic mistake to press Congress to pass comprehensive climate legislation by pitting it as the alternative to Clean Air Act regulation. The result of that strategy could be (and was) predicted from the outset: climate deniers would latch onto the sense that Clean Air Act regulation is a bad idea and climate supporters (such as Kerry) would feel they have cover to use the Clean Air Act as a bargaining chip to win conservative votes. We would not be looking at such vehement opposition to Clean Air Act and such confusion about its working in the media, had the larger environmental groups been clear from that the outset that the Clean Air Act is effective, should be used to its fullest to combat global warming, and that any new legislation must be additive to the Clean Air Act, not in opposition to it.

Climate and wildlife scientists have convincingly shown that we must reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions to 350 parts per million from our current level of 387 ppm if we are to avoid runaway global warming and the extinction of polar bears, corals and thousand of other species. The Center for Biological Diversity has joined with groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and 350.org to establish this as a bright line criteria for endorsement of any climate legislation, policy, or international agreement. It is not a negotiable position because the conditions which support life on Earth are not negotiable.

While pushing for new, comprehensive legislation, the Center believes it is imperative that we simultaneously use existing environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act to begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions now and updating land and wildlife management plans to ensure imperiled species are able to survive the level of global warming that is already locked in. We’ve had many successes in this arena and, as Hari describes, recently petitioned the EPA to scientifically determine the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases), just as it does for other criteria air pollutants. We believe that level is 350 parts per million or less.

Hari correctly describes the aggressive, public opposition to having EPA determine this safe level by a faction within the Sierra Club. Even worse, this faction tried to convince other environmental groups to support a congressional vote to prevent the EPA from determining the safe level of greenhouse gas pollution. The scientific determination of a clear greenhouse gas emission target is not in the interest of those who have endorsed vastly weaker targets.

The good news, however, is that the Sierra Club is a diverse and dynamic organization. Many of its leaders (including board members and chapters) are strongly in favor the Center and the 350.org’s petition to cap greenhouse gas emissions. I agree with Hari that recent changes in Sierra Club management are promising and look forward to working with the organization to fully use the power of science, the Clean Air Act, and new legislation to reduce carbon dioxide to 350 part per million. That is unquestionably the task of our generation.

The questions asked by Hari will continue to be posed by astute reporters, and will be asked with increasing urgency as endorsement are lined up for a very weak Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill which will seek to increase oil drilling, continue coal burning and allow greenhouse gas emissions to increase past irrevocable tipping points. Whether one agrees with Hari’s answers or not, his questions are critical for our time. As environmental leaders, we would do well to take them as opportunities for self-reflection rather than defensive dismissal.

You can find more information on the Center for Biological Diversity’s efforts to combat global warming here.

Sierra Club

Carl Pope, executive director

While thin on solutions Hari’s story was so plump with distortions of reality that it might have been written by Lewis Carroll.

Hari’s silliest innuendo is that the Sierra Club is somehow less than aggressive in the fight against coal power. Sierra Club members have blocked no less than 119 coal-fired power plants in recent years and the organization is regarded by friend and foe as the most successful force in the critical effort to scrap coal power. On February 10, even climate scientist James Hansen pulled on a Sierra Club T-shirt and participated in Sierra Student Coalition anticoal rally at the University of North Carolina–one of dozens of such rallies our young activists have held in support of Hansen’s number one anti-climate disruption goal–to move America beyond coal.

The author also offered the false and offensive analogy that Sierra Club’s cause-related marketing partnership with Clorox’s environmentally friendly cleaning products was like Amnesty International being funded by genocidal war criminals. The Sierra Club had ensured that these products met the Environmental Protection Agency’s most stringent standard, “Design for the Environment,” spending four months reviewing Green Works to ensure that it deserved this designation. In the two years since the partnership began, no one has cited any evidence that Green Works products do not meet the environmental claims made for them. They are, rather, helping to increase demand for green products in the marketplace.

Finally, while there are legitimate disagreements between lawyers about the best legal strategies for cutting carbon emissions, we have always supported the deepest emissions cuts in line with the science and need to convert to a new clean energy economy. This includes cuts endorsed by the Center for Biological Diversity, with whom we often join in litigation. Indeed, it was the Sierra Club that helped bring the original suit which led to the Supreme Court Decision that spurred EPA to begin regulating global warming pollution.

350.org

Bill McKibben, founder

Many thanks to Johann Hari for an interesting piece, and for the very kind words about our work. Those of us at 350.org aren’t so much an organization as a campaign, and as such we’ve always looked for allies everywhere. And we’ve managed to find them not only across the environmental spectrum but, just as importantly, from less likely places–churches and synagogues and mosques and temples, sports teams and theater troupes. When we organized our global day of action last October–which CNN called “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history”–it involved 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries. Around the world we worked easily and cooperatively with lots of big green groups as well as thousands of organizers from tiny local campaigns, and people who’d never done anything at all.

We were, sometimes, a little surprised at how hard it was to get buy-in to our campaign from some of the big American environmental groups. This piece might explain some of the reasons, but we’re not privy to their councils in those ways. Our guess is that history had something to do with it too–it’s worth remembering, as Hari points out, that these groups were set up and scaled to fight much smaller battles, doing the noble work of saving particular canyons or passing remediating laws. It’s a whole ‘nother level to try and take on fossil fuel, the center of the economy. Using the Sierra Club as an example, it should be noted that even if the front office didn’t like what we were doing, chapters all across America and around the world engaged with the 350 campaign in really great ways, helping pull off rallies and demonstrations. The same was true of many other groups. Which is good, because we’re a tiny outfit–a couple of dozen young people and one rapidly aging writer, spread out across a big planet. Immodestly speaking, we’re good at what we do, but not good enough to replace other organizations. Our real strength, of course, is the amazing volunteers who make the work happen everywhere–including places you’re not supposed to be able to do this work. If you check out the pictures at 350.org, one of the things you’ll be struck by is the fact that environmentalism is no longer something for rich white people. Most of our colleagues are black, brown, Asian, poor, young–because that’s who most of the world is.

One key battle that lies ahead for American groups is passing legislation to finally do something about our enormous contribution to the planet’s rapid warming: when we talk to our organizers in Addis Ababa or Beijing or Quito or pretty much everywhere in between, they say that American legislation is vital before anyone else will take real steps. Our movement-building history–beginning with the StepItUp campaign in 2007, which organized 1400 rallies in all fifty states–would indicate that it’s easier to try to rally people around bold and ambitious goals that would really safeguard our future. The lobbying in DC will go more easily if there’s a real movement around the country making senators feel at least a little inclined towards action, and that movement can only be built behind legislation that would truly change the system.

Copenhagen was a very serious drag–still, it was wonderful to see 117 nations endorsing the 350 target. True, they were the poorer and more vulnerable nations; we’ve still got persuade the real fossil fuel addicts. But the good news is everyone gets another chance to help out, all over the world. Working in collaboration with our UK friends at the 10:10 movement, we’ve set October 10 as the date for a global-scale Work Party, with people across the planet putting up solar panels and insulating houses, all with a 350 theme. The point is not that we’re going to solve climate change one house or solar panel at a time–unfortunately, that’s not mathematically possible. But we can use the occasion to send a distinctly political message to our leaders: we’re doing our work, why aren’t you? If we can get up on the roof of the school with hammers, surely you can find the strength to do your work in the Senate, or the General Assembly. If leaders simply won’t lead, then we’ll have to lead for them. We hope everyone will join in, from big groups and small. Working together is fun and empowering, or so we’ve found.

The Nature Conservancy

Karen Foerstel, director, climate media relations

The article “The Wrong Kind of Green” offers readers in inaccurate and incomplete picture of the role deforestation plays in climate change and the way in which environmental and conservation organizations are fighting for policies to address global warming. For the full story, visit www.nature.org/climatechange.

The Nation

Johann Hari, reporter

It is simply a fact that Jay Hair kick-started the process of environmental groups partnering with and taking money from the world’s worst polluters. It is also a fact that this process has been taken much further by other groups like Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy, and has ended with their missions becoming deeply corrupted, in ways I described in great detail in my article. This account of what has happened is not just my view–it’s the view of America’s most distinguished climate scientist, Professor James Hansen, the whistler-blower Christine MacDonald, and of virtually all the environmental groups that don’t take money from polluters.

I am perfectly prepared to accept that Hair was a fine person in his personal life and had some positive motives. Of course his early death is tragic. But many people who have made harmful misjudgments have also had some some admirable achievements in their lives. In public debate, we have to be able to expose the harm they did and show how it continues, or we cannot make sense of the world and prevent even more harm. Is John Adams seriously suggesting that since the dead cannot answer us, we should hold back in our criticism of their actions? How could any serious discussion of how the world came to be as it is take place under such an omertà?

The apology Leah Hair demands is in fact due from the “green” groups who have chosen to take polluter cash and have betrayed their own mission. If she wishes to preserve the best of her husband’s legacy rather than the worst, she should direct her anger at them–rather than at journalists honestly describing how this corruption began.

Rather than engage with the serious issues I raised, Carl Pope sadly plays the old politician’s trick of denying charges I did not make. Where did I say the Sierra Club doesn’t oppose coal? Nowhere. In fact, I did the opposite, writing that “there is an inspiring grassroots movement against coal power plants in the United States, supported by the Sierra Club.”

I went on to describe some plain facts–that under his leadership, the Sierra Club vehemently opposed a lawsuit to force the US government’s policies into line with climate science by returning us to 350ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Pope doesn’t even try to justify this in his response, even though it was the most serious criticism of the club in my article.

The Center for Biological Diversity describes this behavior accurately as throwing “climate science out the window,” and Jim Hansen–the very man Pope waves as a papal authority–describes it as “shocking” and “abominable.” So, yes, the Sierra Club opposes coal in many places and at many times–but it is a matter of record that when there was a lawsuit to ensure the dramatic scale- back we need to preserve a safe climate, they lined up with former Bush administration members to mock and condemn it. I would like to hear Pope offer a serious explanation, rather than name-calling about Lewis Carroll.

Pope also gives an account of the Clorox scandal that is contradicted by his own staff. As Christine MacDonald exposes in her book Green, Inc., the company approached Pope and said they would give the Sierra Club a cut of their profits if they could use the club’s logo and brand on their new range of cleaning products. MacDonald reports that Pope gave the go-ahead without making a rigorous effort to check they were genuinely more green than their competitors. The club’s own toxics committee co-chair, Jessica Frohman, was very clear about this, saying: “We never approved the product line.”

It is a disturbing example of how corporate cash has perverted the behavior of even as admirable a green group as the Sierra Club–and may be the reason why Pope is being replaced with a leader from the more serious and science-based wing of the environmental movement. Its members certainly deserve better than this.

If there are so many “inaccuracies” in my description of TNC, why can’t they name a single one? Do they think the banal propaganda they link to is an answer?

Yet this is not the only glaring hole in these responses (apart, of course, from the arguments of Greenpeace, who refuses polluter cash). Do none of these people feel any concern that the leading environmental groups in America are hoovering up cash from the worst polluters and advocating policies that fall far short of what scientists say we need to safely survive the climate crisis? Do they really think there is nothing to discuss here?

http://www.thenation.com/doc/20100322/forum

· Slide Show: The Wrong Kind of Green

“Our objective is to save humanity and not just half of humanity. We are here to save mother earth. Our objective is to reduce climate change to [under] 1°C. [above this] many islands will disappear and Africa will suffer a holocaust. The real cause of climate change is the capitalist system. If we want to save the earth then we must end that economic model. Capitalism wants to address climate change with carbon markets. We denounce those markets and the countries which [promote them]. It’s time to stop making money from the disgrace that they have perpetrated.”

Evo Morales, December 16th, 2010, Copenhagen Climate Summit

POST COP15 | TIME TO BE BOLD | NO MORE COMPROMISE: http://timetobebold.wordpress.com/

‘The Wrong Kind of Green’

The Wrong Kind of Green

BY JOHANN HARI

This article appeared in the March 22, 2010 edition of The Nation.

In the middle of a swirl of bogus climate scandals trumped up by deniers, here is the real Climategate, waiting to be exposed.

March 4, 2010

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. At Copenhagen, some of the US conservation groups demanded a course of action that will lead to environmental disaster–and financial benefits for themselves. It is a story buried in details and acronyms, but the stakes are the future of civilization.

When the rich countries say they are going to cut their emissions, it sounds to anyone listening as if they are going to ensure that there are fewer coal stations and many more renewable energy stations at home. So when Obama says there will be a 3 percent cut by 2020–a tenth of what the science requires–you assume the United States will emit 3 percent fewer warming gases. But that’s not how it works. Instead, they are saying they will trawl across the world to find the cheapest place to cut emissions, and pay for it to happen there.

Today, the chopping down of the world’s forests is causing 12 percent of all emissions of greenhouse gases, because trees store carbon dioxide. So the rich governments say that if they pay to stop some of that, they can claim it as part of their cuts. A program called REDD–Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation–has been set up to do just that. In theory, it sounds fine. The atmosphere doesn’t care where the fall in emissions comes from, as long as it happens in time to stop runaway warming. A ton of carbon in Brazil enters the atmosphere just as surely as a ton in Texas.

If this argument sounds deceptively simple, that’s because it is deceptive. In practice, the REDD program is filled with holes large enough to toss a planet through.

To understand the trouble with REDD, you have to look at the place touted as a model of how the system is supposed to work. Thirteen years ago in Bolivia, a coalition of The Nature Conservancy and three big-time corporate polluters–BP, Pacificorp and American Electric Power (AEP)–set up a protected forest in Bolivia called the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project. They took 3.9 million acres of tropical forest and said they would clear out the logging companies and ensure that the forest remained standing. They claimed this plan would keep 55 million tons of CO2 locked out of the air–which would, in time, justify their pumping an extra 55 million tons into the air from their coal and oil operations. AEP’s internal documents boasted: “The Bolivian project…could save AEP billions of dollars in pollution controls.”

Greenpeace sent an investigative team to see how it had turned out. The group found, in a report released last year, that some of the logging companies had simply picked up their machinery and moved to the next rainforest over. An employee for San Martin, one of the biggest logging companies in the area, bragged that nobody had ever asked if they had stopped. This is known as “leakage”: one area is protected from logging, but the logging leaks a few miles away and continues just the same.

In fact, one major logging organization took the money it was paid by the project to quit and used it to cut down another part of the forest. The project had to admit it had saved 5.8 million tons or less–a tenth of the amount it had originally claimed. Greenpeace says even this is a huge overestimate. It’s a Potemkin forest for the polluters.

When you claim an offset and it doesn’t work, the climate is screwed twice over–first because the same amount of forest has been cut down after all, and second because a huge amount of additional warming gases has been pumped into the atmosphere on the assumption that the gases will be locked away by the now-dead trees. So the offset hasn’t prevented emissions–it’s doubled them. And as global warming increases, even the small patches of rainforest that have technically been preserved are doomed. Why? Rainforests have a very delicate humid ecosystem, and their moisture smothers any fire that breaks out, but with 2 degrees of warming, they begin to dry out–and burn down. Climatologist Wolfgang Cramer says we “risk losing the entire Amazon” if global warming reaches 4 degrees.

And the news gets worse. Carbon dioxide pumped out of a coal power station stays in the atmosphere for millenniums–so to genuinely “offset” it, you have to guarantee that a forest will stand for the same amount of time. This would be like Julius Caesar in 44 BC making commitments about what Barack Obama will do today–and what some unimaginable world leader will do in 6010. In practice, we can’t even guarantee that the forests will still be standing in fifty years, given the very serious risk of runaway warming.

You would expect the major conservation groups to be railing against this absurd system and demanding a serious alternative built on real science. But on Capitol Hill and at Copenhagen, these groups have been some of the most passionate defenders of carbon offsetting. They say that, in “political reality,” this is the only way to raise the cash for the rainforests, so we will have to work with it. But this is a strange kind of compromise–since it doesn’t actually work.

In fact, some of the big groups lobbied to make the protections weaker, in a way that will cause the rainforests to die faster. To understand why, you have to grasp a distinction that may sound technical at first but is crucial. When you are paying to stop deforestation, there are different ways of measuring whether you are succeeding. You can take one small “subnational” area–like the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project–and save that. Or you can look at an entire country, and try to save a reasonable proportion of its forests. National targets are much better, because the leakage is much lower. With national targets, it’s much harder for a logging company simply to move a few miles up the road and carry on: the move from Brazil to Congo or Indonesia is much heftier, and fewer loggers will make it.

Simon Lewis, a forestry expert at Leeds University, says, “There is no question that national targets are much more effective at preventing leakage and saving forest than subnational targets.”

Yet several groups–like TNC and Conservation International–have lobbied for subnational targets to be at the core of REDD and the US climate bills. Thanks in part to their efforts, this has become official US government policy, and is at the heart of the Waxman-Markey bill. The groups issued a joint statement with some of the worst polluters–AEP, Duke Energy, the El Paso Corporation–saying they would call for subnational targets now, while vaguely aspiring to national targets at some point down the line. They want to preserve small patches (for a short while), not a whole nation’s rainforest.

An insider who is employed by a leading green group and has seen firsthand how this works explained the groups’ motivation: “It’s because they will generate a lot of revenue this way. If there are national targets, the money runs through national governments. If there are subnational targets, the money runs through the people who control those forests–and that means TNC, Conservation International and the rest. Suddenly, these forests they run become assets, and they are worth billions in a carbon market as offsets. So they have a vested financial interest in offsetting and in subnational targets–even though they are much more environmentally damaging than the alternatives. They know it. It’s shocking.”

What are they doing to ensure that this policy happens–and the money flows their way? Another source, from a green group that refuses corporate cash, describes what she has witnessed behind closed doors. “In their lobbying, they always talk up the need for subnational projects and offsetting at every turn and say they’re great. They don’t mention national targets or the problems with offsetting at all. They also push it through their corporate partners, who have an army of lobbyists, [which are] far bigger than any environmental group. They promote their own interests as a group, not the interests of the environment.” They have been caught, he says, “REDD-handed, too many times.”

TNC and Conservation International admit they argue for subnational accounting, but they claim this is merely a “steppingstone” to national targets. Becky Chacko, director of climate policy at Conservation International, tells me, “Our only interest is to keep forests standing. We don’t [take this position] because it generates revenue for us. We don’t think it’s an evil position to say money has to flow in order to keep forests standing, and these market mechanisms can contribute the money for that.”

Yet when I ask her to explain how Conservation International justifies the conceptual holes in the entire system of offsetting, her answers become halting. She says the “issues of leakage and permanence” have been “resolved.” But she will not say how. How can you guarantee a forest will stand for millenniums, to offset carbon emissions that warm the planet for millenniums? “We factor that risk into our calculations,” she says mysteriously. She will concede that national accounting is “more rigorous” and says Conservation International supports achieving it “eventually.”

There is a broad rumble of anger across the grassroots environmental movement at this position. “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.”

So it has come to this. After decades of slowly creeping corporate corruption, some of the biggest environmental groups have remade themselves in the image of their corporate backers: they are putting profit before planet. They are supporting a system they know will lead to ecocide, because more revenue will run through their accounts, for a while, as the collapse occurs. At Copenhagen, their behavior was so shocking that Lumumba Di-Aping, the lead negotiator for the G-77 bloc of the world’s rainforest-rich but cash-poor countries, compared them to the CIA at the height of the cold war, sabotaging whole nations.

How do we retrieve a real environmental movement, in the very short time we have left? Charles Komanoff worked as a consultant for the Natural Resources Defense Council for thirty years before quitting in disgust recently. He says, “We’re close to a civil war in the environmental movement. For too long, all the oxygen in the room has been sucked out by this beast of these insider groups, who achieve almost nothing…. We need to create new organizations that represent the fundamentals of environmentalism and have real goals.”

Some of the failing green groups can be reformed from within. The Sierra Club is a democratic organization, with the leadership appointed by its members. There are signs that members are beginning to put the organization right after the missteps of the past few years. Carl Pope is being replaced by Mike Brune, formerly of the Rainforest Action Network–a group much more aligned with the radical demands of the climate science. But other organizations–like Conservation International and TNC–seem incapable of internal reform and simply need to be shunned. They are not part of the environmental movement: they are polluter-funded leeches sucking on the flesh of environmentalism, leaving it weaker and depleted.

Already, shining alternatives are starting to rise up across America. In just a year, the brilliant 350.org has formed a huge network of enthusiastic activists who are demanding our politicians heed the real scientific advice–not the parody of it offered by the impostors. They have to displace the corrupt conservationists as the voice of American environmentalism, fast.

This will be a difficult and ugly fight, when we need all our energy to take on the forces of ecocide. But these conservation groups increasingly resemble the forces of ecocide draped in a green cloak. If we don’t build a real, unwavering environmental movement soon, we had better get used to a new sound–of trees crashing down and an ocean rising, followed by the muffled, private applause of America’s “conservationists.”

About Johann Hari

Johann Hari is a columnist for the Independent in London and a contributing writer for Slate. He has been named Newspaper Journalist of the Year by Amnesty International for his reporting from the war in Congo. more…

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