Are Conservation Groups Subverting Action on Global Warming?

This may be slightly off task for PT, but the latest issue of The Nation magazine has a disturbing article suggesting that US environmental groups have been co-opted by the corporations whose activities they purport to oppose.

The article, by Johann Hari, shows how conservation organizations such as the National Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy have accepted millions of dollars from companies like Shell and British Petroleum in return for touting their supposedly “green” activities and soft-pedaling their not-so-green activities. Thus, the World Wildlife Fund defends IKEA against (accurate) charges that some of its furniture is made from trees harvested from endangered forests, and the Sierra Club endorses supposedly green products from Clorox without serious investigation.

Also, not mentioned by Hari, the Environmental Defense Fund has gotten into bed with Walmart, repeatedly praising them for marketing organic foods and where possible buying locally. You may read a puff piece, The Great Grocery Smackdown, by Corby Kummer, in The Atlantic here. I am inclined to agree with one or two commenters to the Kummer article: Walmart puts the squeeze on everyone and now is starting in on local farmers. The main effect of its foray into organic foods may be to put even more local businesses out of business. A smallish contributor to EDF for decades, I have been concerned for months about their entanglement with Walmart, and Hari’s article has all but convinced me to drop them in favor of some other similar organization – if I can find one.

Hari also takes carbon offsets to task. If you have enough money, then you can pay somebody not to cut down trees in South America and continue your usual profligate behavior at home, all the while priding yourself on doing something for global warming. Unfortunately, the person you have paid not to cut down trees can simply take the money and cut down some other trees somewhere else, and Greenpeace has evidently documented precisely such behavior. Carbon offsets at best have negligible value and at worst make us think we are doing something when we are not. Indeed, if the donors do not reduce their consumption of energy and the donees continue to cut down their trees, then in reality we have made absolutely no progress toward reducing global warming. (Hari says that the carbon offset has actually doubled emissions, but I think that is incorrect or poorly worded.)

Hari’s article should not be surprising in a country that can barely take a baby step toward universal health insurance because its Congress has likewise been co-opted by giant corporations. But, as Hari notes, if we are right about global warming, then a disaster is in the making, and incrementalism will not solve the problem. We may kill a few tens of thousands of our citizens by not moving fast enough on health insurance, but we can cause worldwide disaster by not moving fast enough on global warming. The climate we have today is the climate in which we and our institutions have evolved, and we change it at our peril.

Hari sees a ray of hope in the new leadership of the Sierra Club (which elects its own leaders) and in the founding of, an organization about which I intend to learn more. In the meantime, I am very much inclined to take Hari’s advice and “shun” organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Update, March 28, 2010, 4:10 p.m., MDT: Since I get The Nation on paper and rarely read the website, I overlooked an exchange here between Hari and some of his critics.