Editor's Note: As the Washington Post reports today, the major conservation group The Nature Conservancy faces "potential backlash as its supporters learn that the giant oil company and the world's largest environmental organization long ago forged a relationship that has lent BP an Earth-friendly image and helped the Conservancy pursue causes it holds dear." The Nation's Johann Hari recently investigated financial ties between environmental groups and environmentally unfriendly corporations for the magazine, offering a wider lens on the relationship between BP and the Nature Conservancy. Hari's piece appears below.
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."