Conservation Groups & Corporate Cash: An Exchange

By Various Contributors & Johann Hari

March 10, 2010

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

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Christine Dorsey, National Wildlife Federation
Kevin Koenig, Amazon Watch
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?

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Amazon Watch

Kevin Koenig, Ecuador Program Coordinator

Congratulations to Johann Hari for the courage to 'out' what many have been whispering about for a long time. While we all want to see a stop to deforestation and real progress in addressing climate change, the approach of the BINGOs has been to double down on market-based solutions, a questionable approach given that the market, its drivers, and its defenders (the IFIs for example) are some of the same culprits responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place.

Many of the industry friendly stopgap measures the BINGOs are advocating for don't meet the threshold for emissions reductions that scientists are telling us are needed to keep the temperature rise from surpassing 2C. And many treat forests as mere carbon concessions, at the expense of biodiversity, and indigenous rights. Given that the tipping point for forest collapse is as close as 2-10 years away, this is no time for compromise, or false solutions.

A market-based offset system that equates fossil carbon with biotic carbon is little more than carbon laundering, and the BINGOs should be wielding their power to address the drivers of climate change and deforestation, as well as advocating for indigenous rights protections that reflect the traditional and current role indigenous peoples play in preserving their rainforest territories.

We invite these organizations to address the drivers of climate change and deforestation, and make indigenous rights central to their climate change agenda. Several BINGOs, in the run up to COP 15, committed to what in essence is a 'No Rights, No REDD' position. Given the absence of any meaningful or substantive language referencing indigenous rights--let lone guaranteeing them--in the Copenhagen Accord, these groups should be speaking out and withdrawing their support for REDD unless basic inalienable principles like FPIC (Free, Prior, Informed, Consent), are included.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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