Below are letters from various environmental groups responding to our March 22 cover story, "The Wrong Kind of Green," by Johann Hari. Because space in our Letters column is limited, they have been abridged. For longer versions, go to "Conservation Groups & Corporate Cash: An Exchange."
Johann Hari’s "The Wrong Kind of Green" is an irresponsible and toxic mixture of inaccurate information and uninformed analysis. Hari, who did not contact the National Wildlife Federation, 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.
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 0.5 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?
CHRISTINE DORSEY, communications director
National Wildlife Federation
Johann Hari has made outrageous and false statements about my late husband, Dr. Jay Hair, who died in 2002 after a five-year battle with cancer. Jay devoted his life–and his considerable passion, courage and intelligence–to protecting this planet. He never betrayed that mission to "suck millions" from oil and gas companies. While Jay was 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 challenges required that all sectors–private, government, 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.
After the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, 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 an Exxon stockholders meeting. If Exxon or anyone thought that Corporate Conservation Council membership bought "reputation insurance," they clearly were mistaken.
Hari’s sloppy reporting smeared the reputation of a fine man. You owe an apology.
Thin on solutions, Johann 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 fewer 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 a Sierra Student Coalition anti-coal 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.
Hari also offered the false and offensive analogy that Sierra Club’s 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, spending four months reviewing Green Works. In the two years since the partnership began, no one has cited evidence that Green Works products do not meet the claims made for them. Rather, they are helping to increase consumer demand for green products.
Finally, we have always supported the deepest emissions cuts in line with the science and the 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 that led to the Supreme Court decision that spurred the EPA to begin regulating global warming pollution.
CARL POPE, executive director
"The Wrong Kind of Green" offers an inaccurate and incomplete picture of the role deforestation plays in climate change and the way environmental and conservation organizations are fighting for policies to address global warming. For the true story, see nature.org/climatechange.
KAREN FOERSTEL, director
Climate media relations
The Nature Conservancy
Johann Hari points to three principles that could make environmental advocacy groups stronger and the world a safer place for our children: (1) avoid the perceived or real conflicts of interest created by taking corporate money; (2) start with what must be done to save the environment, not with what we think we can eke out of an unfriendly Congress; (3) work 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 "persuading" the major industries driving the problem to cease and desist. When we discovered that cattle ranching was a primary driver of deforestation, Greenpeace activists in the United States and Europe nudged Nike and Timberland to cancel their contracts with leather companies causing deforestation. A few canceled 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 environmental organizations have approached coal with an attitude of "if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em." The Sierra Club and Greenpeace have a different approach: "beat coal until they join us."
PHIL RADFORD, executive director
Many thanks to Johann Hari for his kind words about our work. At 350.org we aren’t so much an organization as a campaign, and we look for allies everywhere. We’ve found them not only across the environmental spectrum but in churches, mosques, temples, sports teams and theater troupes. Our global day of action last October–which CNN called the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history–involved 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries. We worked easily worldwide with big green groups as well as thousands of organizers from tiny local campaigns and people who’d never done anything before.
We were a little surprised at how hard it was to get buy-in to our campaign from some of the big US environmental groups. But as Hari points out, history may have played a role–these groups were set up and scaled to fight much smaller battles, doing the noble work of saving particular canyons or passing conservation laws. It’s a whole ‘nother level to take on fossil fuel, the center of the economy. But even if the front office of the Sierra Club didn’t like what we were doing, its chapters across America and around the world engaged with the 350 campaign, helping pull off rallies and demonstrations. Which is good, because we’re a tiny outfit–a couple-dozen young people and one 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 is the amazing volunteers who make it happen everywhere–including in places you’re not supposed to be able to do this work. Check out the pictures at 350.org, and you’ll see that environmentalism is no longer only for rich white people. We 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 global warming: when we talk to our organizers in Addis Ababa or Beijing or Quito, they say that US legislation is vital before anyone else will take real steps. We’ve learned that it’s easier to rally people around bold, ambitious goals. The lobbying in Washington will go better if there’s a real movement pushing senators–and that movement can only be built behind legislation that would truly change the system.
The good news is everyone gets another chance to help out, all over the world. In collaboration with our UK friends in the 10:10 movement, we’ve set October 10 for a global Work Party with a 350 theme, with people around the planet putting up solar panels and insulating houses. The point is to send a 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 do your work in the Senate, the General Assembly or Parliament. If leaders won’t lead, we’ll have to lead for them. We hope everyone will join in, big groups and small. Working together is fun and empowering.
BILL McKIBBEN, 350.org
Johann Hari asks, Why do so many of the large 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 their quick endorsement of weak climate bills, their lauding of Obama’s regressive position at Copenhagen and their claims that Copenhagen was a success.
He is right to be puzzled: such positioning has been a failure. Congress and the White House have taken progressively weaker positions on climate change legislation and are giving ground in the face of corporate opposition. They see little reason to move toward environmental groups that have endorsed weak positions and signaled that they will endorse even weaker ones.
The Center for Biological Diversity has joined groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and 350.org to establish 350 parts per million as a bright-line criterion for endorsement of any climate legislation, policy or international agreement. It is not negotiable, because the conditions that support life on earth are not negotiable.
While pushing for new, comprehensive legislation, the Center believes it is imperative that we also use existing laws–like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act–to begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions now. And we must update land and wildlife management plans to ensure that imperiled species are able to survive the level of global warming that is already locked in.
We’ve petitioned the EPA to determine scientifically the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases), just as it does for other air pollutants. Hari describes the aggressive public opposition to the EPA’s determining this safe level by a faction within the Sierra Club, which has also tried to persuade other environmental groups to ask Congress to amend the Clean Air Act to prevent the EPA from doing this.
The good news is that the Sierra Club is diverse and dynamic, and many of its leaders and chapters are strongly in favor of the Center and 350.org’s petition. Recent changes in the Club’s management are promising, and I look forward to working with it to reduce carbon dioxide to 350 ppm. That is unquestionably the task of our generation.
The tough questions Hari asks will continue to be posed by astute reporters as environmental groups’ endorsements are being lined up for a very weak Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill–a bill that seeks to increase oil drilling, continue coal burning and allow greenhouse gas emissions to pass irrevocable tipping points. Hari’s questions are critical for our time. As environmental leaders, we would do well to use those questions for self-reflection rather than defensively dismiss them.
For the Center’s efforts to combat global warming, see biologicaldiversity.org/programs/climate_law_institute/index.html .
KIERAN SUCKLING, executive director
Center for Biological Diversity
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 [big nongovernmental organizations] has been to double down on market-based solutions, a questionable approach given that the market, its drivers and its defenders 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 tell us are needed. 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 two to ten years away, this is no time for compromise or false solutions.
We invite these organizations to address the drivers of climate change and deforestation, and make indigenous rights central to their climate change agenda. In the run-up to Cop 15, several BiNGOs committed to a "No rights, no REDD" [reducing emissions from deforestation and deregulation] position. These groups should be speaking out and withdrawing their support for REDD unless basic inalienable principles like FPIC (free prior informed consent) are included.
KEVIN KOENIG, Ecuador program coordinator
It is a fact that Dr. Jay Hair kick-started the process of environmental groups taking money from the world’s worst polluters. It is also a fact that this process has been taken much further by groups like Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy, ending with their missions becoming deeply corrupted, as I reported. My view is also the view of America’s most distinguished climate scientist, Professor James Hansen; of whistleblowers from inside these organizations; and of the environmental groups that don’t take money from polluters.
I accept that Hair was a fine person in his personal life and had some positive motives, and of course his early death is tragic. But people with otherwise positive motives can make horrific misjudgments. In public debate we have to be able to criticize the harm people have done, and show how it continues, or we cannot prevent more harm. The apology Leah Hair demands is in fact due from the "green" groups that are taking ever more polluter cash and betraying their own missions. If she wishes to preserve the best of her husband’s legacy, she should direct her anger at them, not at journalists honestly describing how this process began.
Carl Pope, rather than engage with the issues I raised, sadly plays the old politician’s trick of denying charges I did not make. Where did I say that the Sierra Club doesn’t oppose coal? Nowhere. I described the facts–that under his leadership, the Sierra Club vehemently opposed a lawsuit to force government policies into line with basic climate science by returning us to 350 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Pope doesn’t try to justify or explain this, although it was my single largest charge against the Sierra Club.
The Center for Biological Diversity describes this behavior as "throwing climate science out of the window," and Jim Hansen–the 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, as I said in my article. But it is a matter of record that when there was a lawsuit to ensure the dramatic scale-back in coal we need to preserve a safe climate, its spokesmen and legal counsel lined up with former Bush administration members to deride it. I would like to hear Pope offer an explanation for this, instead of name-calling.
Pope also gives an account of the Clorox scandal that is, alas, inconsistent with the facts. A corporation approached Pope and said it would give the Sierra Club a cut of its profits if it could use the Club’s logo on its new bleach. As Christine MacDonald exposes in her book Green Inc., Pope gave the go-ahead without making any effort to check that the bleach was genuinely greener than its 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.
There is something lacking from many of these responses. Do these people feel no concern that America’s leading environmental groups are hoovering up cash from the worst polluters and advocating policies that fall far short of what scientists say we need to survive the climate crisis safely? Is this the best response they can muster?