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The Real Climategate: Conservation Groups Align with World’s Worst Polluters

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Major environmental groups are coming under criticism from within their own ranks for taking positions that some say are antithetical to their stated missions of saving the planet. In the latest issue of The Nation magazine, the British journalist Johann Hari writes, “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…In the middle of a swirl of bogus climate scandals trumped up by deniers, here is the real Climategate.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Last year’s failed Copenhagen climate summit put the divide between rich and poor countries on full display. The US and China were criticized for refusing to accept major emissions cuts, while the US and other Western nations led opposition to the principle of climate reparations — compensating poorer countries for the devastation of global warming.

But another divide appears to have worsened in Copenhagen, and that’s a divide within the environmental movement itself. Major environmental groups are coming under criticism from within their own ranks for taking positions that some say are antithetical to their stated missions of saving the planet.

In the latest issue of The Nation magazine, the British journalist Johann Hari writes, “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…In the middle of a swirl of bogus climate scandals trumped up by deniers, here is the real Climategate,” he says.

Well, Johann Hari joins me here now from London, England. He’s a columnist for the London Independent. His article for The Nation is called “The Wrong Kind of Green.”

We’re also joined from Washington, DC by journalist Christine MacDonald. She used to work for one of the groups discussed at length in Johann Hari’s article. She worked for Conservation International, or CI. But she’s since written a book criticizing CI, as well as other environmental groups, for taking stances she suggests have been heavily influenced by corporate donors and partners. The book is called Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad.

Several major environmental groups are criticized in both Johann Hari’s article and Christine MacDonald’s book, the foremost being Conservation International. We contacted CI about appearing on our broadcast, but they declined our request.

Johann Hari, let’s start with you in London. What do you mean by “the wrong kind of green”?

JOHANN HARI: Well, I was pretty shocked in Copenhagen. For the past few years, I’d been reporting from all over the world about the effects of global warming, in places like Bangladesh, where already people are dying; Darfur, where the genocide began when the water dried up and people began killing themselves for what remained; or the Arctic, where since the year I was born, 1979, 40 percent of the summer sea ice is gone and, in my lifetime, we will live to see a point, on the current rate, when the North Pole is a point in the open ocean that can be reached by boat. And I always imagined, when I was doing that reporting, that these big groups like Conservation International or the Nature Conservancy had my back in Washington and had the back of all the people I was seeing who were dying as a result of this. So it was really strange to go to Copenhagen and see how these groups, in fact, often behind closed doors, but when the European green groups saw what they were doing, and the American green groups, who don’t take money from polluters, saw what they were doing, came to me and said these groups are campaigning for (a) a system that will cause the rainforest to die sooner than global warming requires or global warming would cause, and they are dismissing the real solutions to global warming as unworkable or politically unrealistic.

And so, I began on this journey thinking, why would this happen? Why would these groups who are funded, to some degree, by ordinary good Americans, concerned with this great crisis — why would they be behaving this way? And the only explanation that anyone can come up with is that they take money from the worst polluters in the world. They are dependent on the worst polluters in the world.

Now, if you try to imagine this in any other sphere, you realize how odd it is. Imagine if Amnesty International was dependent, just to write human rights reports, on funding from Dick Cheney, the Burmese junta and Robert Mugabe. Imagine if the NAACP ran because every time Rush Limbaugh made a racist comment, he gave them some money as a little bit of reputational insurance. We would all see that that was a corrupt model of working.

That is how the big conservation groups have begun to work, since the 1980s, as Christine shows in her excellent book. And it’s become normal. And that process has really corrupted those groups from the inside. It means that when it comes to really big issues, they are advocating things that are, at best, way short of what the science says we need and, at worst, actually covering up for some of the worst polluters.

AMY GOODMAN: Johann Hari, you write in your piece in The Nation magazine — you give a history. You start by talking about the president of the National Wildlife Federation in the early 1980s, Jay Hair.

JOHANN HARI: Yeah. He was the person who initiated this idea of taking money from groups like Shell and BP. Now, you’ve got to understand, these were groups that were committing environmental atrocities across the world. They were — it is not an exaggeration to say they were the single-worst polluters. Now, these groups 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.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Christine MacDonald, you have written a book, Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad. Now, this is not just you doing research about an issue you got interested in, but it’s about your own — it begins with your own experience at Conservation International, at CI. Can you explain what the group is — and, by the way, we did invite them on the broadcast — and, well, how you came to, well, become a kind of whistleblower within this environmental group?

CHRISTINE MacDONALD: Well, in 2006 I was offered a job working with Conservation International’s international communications program, doing media training in the developing world. Conservation International is based in Washington, but it operates only in mostly developing countries, in forty countries around the world, where there’s a lot of biodiversity. And I had been very interested — as a general assignment reporter, I had been gravitating toward environmental stories for many years, and I had lived in Latin America and seen a lot of environmental problems firsthand in the developing world, so I thought this was a dream job. I was very excited about taking this job.

And I knew that Conservation International worked with corporations before I started working there. And I thought, just like many, many members of the public, that this was a wonderful idea, that environmentalists could help influence corporations to do the right thing and to improve their track record. But quickly, I mean, within weeks, within days of arriving there, I realized that it seems that the corporations have had more of an influence on these nonprofit groups than they have had on the corporations.

For instance, the public — you know, if you look at opinion polls, people have a high degree of respect for environmental groups and really think of these groups as grassroots organizations that are representing the public. But many of these organizations operate more like corporations today than they do nonprofit, grassroots organizations. Their presidents — their leaders are called president and CEO, and they make tremendously good salaries that put them in the top one percent of US taxpayers. The average salary for a CEO in many of these organizations is between $400,000 and $500,000 a year. And then there are people like Steve Sanderson, who runs the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo and a whole lot of international conservation programs, he also has a $225,000 a year expense account.

And they spend most of their time — when I worked at CI, the CEO, Peter Seligmann, and the Russ Mittermeier, the president, were hardly ever, ever, in the building. They would show up for the — every three months for the planning meetings that would take place, but the rest of the time they spent — they spent much of the rest of their time traveling around the world, often in the company of CEOs or retired moguls and Hollywood stars. They often traveled on private jets that the corporations provided for them. They often rented yachts and Land Rovers, which are gas-guzzling vehicles, in order to wine and dine and show some of the most beautiful and pristine places in the world to their corporate donors, in order to — you know, in order to fundraise, which is a good thing, and it’s not that they aren’t doing some good work with the money they received, but when you step back and look at all of the polluting companies, the most polluting companies in the world give money to these organizations. And at the end of the day, the corporations have gotten a much better deal.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you see it affecting their work? How do you see it compromising their environmental work?

CHRISTINE MacDONALD: Oh, in many ways, these environmental groups run satellite PR offices for these corporations. So, oftentimes the corporations cozy up to environmental groups because either they’ve had — there’s been some kind of accident or tragedy, and they need to repair their reputation, or they’re going for a big contract or they want to build a project.

For instance, in Bolivia several years ago, there was —- BP was looking to build a pipeline that would go straight through virgin rainforest. And of course there was a lot of opposition on the ground and from other environmental groups. And a lot of large environmental groups, such as World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy, first came out against this plan to build the pipeline. But then BP came up with a plan to provide several million dollars in funding for conservation projects, and World Wildlife Fund and several of the other groups changed their position and backed the BP pipeline in order to obtain these funds.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Christine MacDonald -—

CHRISTINE MacDONALD: That’s just one of many examples

AMY GOODMAN: — who is author of Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad, and Johann Hari. He is a reporter with the London Independent, has written this very interesting piece, “The Wrong Kind of Green.” We’re going to come back to both of them in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests today are Johann Hari, who has just written a very interesting piece in The Nation magazine called “The Wrong Kind of Green,” and Christine MacDonald, who’s written the book Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad.

Johann Hari, your article cites the comments of G77 climate negotiator Lumumba Di-Aping at the Copenhagen climate summit. He compared the action of some major environmental groups to the CIA and KGB during the height of the Cold War.

    LUMUMBA STANISLAUS DI-APING: Never thought that one day I will accuse a civil society of such a thing. Diving the G77, or helping divide G77, is simply something that should be left to the CIAs, the KGBs and the rest. It’s mind-boggling. And I say this having been the beneficiary of absolute support from civil society. Many of you may not know this. I come from southern Sudan. We’ve been through wars for almost 90 percent of our lives since independence. So I’m not sure what happened exactly to the civil society that I know, or at least knew.

AMY GOODMAN: That was G77 climate negotiator Lumumba Di-Aping at the Copenhagen climate summit. Johann Hari, can you respond to his comments?

JOHANN HARI: I think we need to, first of all, stress something really important: we are not talking about all American environmental groups. It is really important for people to know, if they want to know where to give money to, where to campaign with. Greenpeace,, Friends of the Earth do not accept corporate donations and, as a result, do not have a compromised position on the climate science.

Now, Lumumba was absolutely right that the behavior of the big corporate green groups — Conservation International, TNC, and, I’m afraid, to a lesser but still significant degree, the Sierra Club — is very compromised in terms of their approach to policy.

I think there are two ways, two areas, that you can see this in. One is their lobbying within the United States. The climate science, contrary to all the denialism that’s been pumped out over the past few months, is actually really clear. By 2020, we need a 40 percent cut on the emission of warming gases into the atmosphere on 1990 levels, if we are going to have a 50 percent chance of preventing catastrophic global warming. Now, the problem is, up to — the reason for that is that’s how we stay the right side of a two-degree Centigrade rise in temperatures.

Now, I know at first that doesn’t sound like very much. If you go out one day and, you know, you go out for a picnic, and it gets colder by two degrees or gets hotter by two degrees, you don’t feel that bothered. But the global climate is not like a picnic. It’s more like your body. If your body temperature increased by two degrees and didn’t go back down, you would die. It’s worth bearing in mind, the gap between where we are now and the last Ice Age is only six degrees Centigrade. We are setting ourselves on course to go that far in the opposite direction, in just a century on some projections. Now, to understand how big that is, the last time the world warmed that rapidly, by six degrees, was 251 million years ago, and the result was almost everything on earth died. The only thing that survived was a pig creature that had the earth to itself for another 50 million years.

So the climate science is pretty clear, is pretty shocking, and it’s not being supported by these groups. The cut that we need is absolutely clear. And yet, when we need a 40 percent cut, these groups are cheering on pitiful three percent cuts as wonderful, great progress, brilliant, when they should be standing apart from the system and saying these cuts are woefully inadequate, they’re way short of what the climate science tells us we need, and they will set us on a path to disaster. Now, it’s hard to see why they would be so wantonly throwing aside climate science, other than the fact that they take money from these polluters.

And it manifests itself in very strange ways. The Center for Biological Diversity, who you quoted in your headlines, a terrific group who, again, don’t take any money from corporations, launched a lawsuit after the EPA ruling which said that the levels of warming gases in the atmosphere had to stay within a safe level for human habitation. So they launch a lawsuit saying, OK, the climate scientists tell us very clearly it needs to be 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide. That’s what the climate science says. The Sierra Club launched a lawsuit against it and lined up with people from the Bush administration in news stories, saying this was ridiculous, this was unrealistic, this couldn’t happen.

Now, these groups claim they’re operating within something called “political reality.” They say, “We have to acknowledge the political reality of what we’re passing in Washington.” What they don’t seem to realize is, in a conflict between political reality and physical reality, physical reality will win. You can’t stand at the edge of a rising sea or a supercharged hurricane and say, “I’m sorry, Joe Lieberman says I can’t deal with you today.” We either deal with the atmosphere’s demands or we live with the consequences. That’s one area. So they’re supporting woefully inadequate targets. They’re cheering them on. They’re handing out placebos to the public, saying this is fine, this is great, we just need another Democratic victory, and it will all be OK, when they should be amplifying our anger.

The second issue is more complex to explain and buried in acronyms, which I apologize to your viewers for, but is really important. It’s called REDD. It’s the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation program. And it’s the absolute centerpiece of how we’re going to build a global agreement to get beyond this. It failed at Copenhagen. It’s going to have to be there in any agreement. And at the moment, it’s based on a very worrying bargain supported by Conservation International and these other groups.

When you’re told that you’re going to get a cut, when Barack Obama says we’re going to cut emissions by three percent in the United States by 2020 — woefully inadequate, that’s his promise — you will naturally assume, as an American citizen, “Alright, so we’re going to have fewer coal power stations, more wind power, more solar power, more tidal power.” That’s not true. Under the way REDD works supported by these lobbying organizations, what happens is they can go anywhere in the world, and they can put what they call a cut anywhere and count it as part of America’s domestic cuts. So, for example, 20 percent of current emissions come from the cutting down of rainforest, because trees store carbon out of the atmosphere. So what they’re saying is, so if we pay for that deforestation to not happen, that will count as part of our cuts. At first it sounds fine. The atmosphere doesn’t care whether the carbon comes from, you know, a coal power station in Milwaukee or a rainforest in Congo. It doesn’t care. Problem is, there are so many holes in this system that you can throw a planet through it, and these groups have been supporting those holes.

If I can just give you one example that illustrates it quite well. They set up a pilot project in Bolivia for this. TNC funded it with money from —-

AMY GOODMAN: The Nature Conservancy.

JOHANN HARI: —- British Petroleum, American Electrical Power, PacifiCorp, very dodgy polluters, as you can tell. What they did is they said, “We’re saving this area of rainforest in Bolivia. That means 55 million tons of carbon won’t go into the atmosphere. That’s 55 million tons of prevented global warming gases. So, in return, PacifiCorp and American Electric Power can emit 55 million tons somewhere else in the world.”

When Greenpeace went to study what happened, they found out it had all been a scam. The area that was protected was preserved, it’s true. But the logging companies just went to the next area down and logged there. Indeed, in some instances, they used the money they’ve been paid to not log in that rainforest in order to go into the next place and log even more. That problem is called leakage. Basically means you appear to be preserving a rainforest, but all you’re doing is displacing the cutting of the rainforest from one area to another. But yet, in return, that company will still emit more back in the United States. So what you’re doing is a system that appears to be dealing with global warming, but is in fact locking in and spurring more global warming. It’s very dangerous. And it’s hard to see how a sincere environmental organization, rather than one that was being funded by polluters, would support anything of the kind.

AMY GOODMAN: Johann Hari, you quote Jim Hansen, the world-renowned climatologist from the NASA Institute — the Goddard Institute for Space Studies of NASA. You start by referring to Sierra Club’s chief climate counsel, David Bookbinder, ridiculing the center’s attempts to make 350 parts per million a legally binding requirement. He said it was a “truly pointless exercise” and headed to “well-deserved bureaucratic oblivion.” And you ask, “Why would the Sierra Club oppose a measure designed to prevent environmental collapse? The Club didn’t respond to my requests for an explanation,” you said. But you went on to say, “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.’”

Now, could it be that groups don’t have to receive this money, it’s just kind of insider Washington mentality, even if it’s in the rest of the world, like with the health insurance debate, that they accept the premises of the opposition and they don’t want to go outside of a very small range of what they can ask for, they just don’t believe they can get things done?

JOHANN HARI: I think you’re absolutely right. That is part of it. It’s part of a political culture. Jim Hansen, great man, is not alone. Virtually everyone who doesn’t work for these corporate environmental groups, and a lot of people who do, can’t understand this behavior, except as a result of the combination of corruption and exactly what you say, a kind of dysfunctional political culture.

But again, I don’t want to leave your viewers with a downer, because it’s really important they understand, it doesn’t have to be this way. Here in Britain, we’ve had a really good example of how you work very differently on environmental change, and it works. Instead of trying to work within a corrupt system, instead of constantly praising the pathetic efforts of our governments, a huge coalition of people here in Britain took direct action. An organization called Climate Camp, a very loose, democratic organization, began to physically blockade new airports and coal power stations. They said, “We will not let this pass.” They stood in front of coal trains. And when they were arrested, they said they were acting in their own self-defense, and a jury of their peers acquitted them, saying they were right, this is an emergency, we have got to act.

And it’s had an amazing effect. All new coal power stations in Britain are under very serious political trouble. They probably won’t happen. And airport expansion, that was seen as absolutely dead cert, supported by all the main political parties, is now dead in the water.

The model of compromise compromise, praise the Democrats, say how wonderful they are, even when they’re kicking you in the face, doesn’t work. The model of really directly taking to the streets, the way that change has always happened in America and in all of the world — Martin Luther King did not praise every peripatetic morsel that came from the Democratic Party. He called people to the streets, and they fought for it. And it took a long time.

But it’s also important for people to understand —-

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve got five seconds.

JOHANN HARI: —- there’s a difference from the civil rights movement, as well. We need to adopt those tactics — oh, OK. Well, in that case, I won’t say it.

AMY GOODMAN: Johann Hari, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

JOHANN HARI: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: We will link to your article. He writes for the London Independent. His latest article, “The Wrong Kind of Green,” in The Nation magazine. Also thanks to Christine MacDonald, author of Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad.

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