Big Green & Big Money: The Nature Conservancy Caught Green-Washing Corporate Pollution
By Thomas Neuburger
"The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is one of those potentially game-changing solutions. The TPP is a trade agreement designed to promote economic growth by enhancing trade and investment among twelve TPP partner countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including the United States…. It's not often that large-scale opportunities arise to help protect our planet. And surprisingly enough, the TPP, if it is done right, can offer a valuable way forward."
—Carter Roberts, President and CEO of World Wildlife Fund, in Conserving Nature Is Good Trade Policy, February 28, 2014
"When you're the only one in the world with money, everything in the world is for sale."
People have been having second thoughts about the effectiveness (and even the goals) of a number of "Big Green" organizations for a while. Some are remarkably good — 350.org seems to be one of the best, and the national Sierra Club has also conducted itself rather well for a fair stretch of years.
On the other side of the coin are groups like World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). As you can see from the quote above, the WWF is fully aligned with the goals of corporate America, meaning the goals of predatory capitalism.
Why his statement is a white wash — or in this case, a green wash — is captured in the phrase "done right." When has any corporate trade giveaway been "done right"? One could call anything a "potentially game-changing solution," including the Trump presidency, if it were "done right."
Corporate-aligned, and to a large extent mainstream-Party-aligned environmental and climate groups too often show the same priorities as the mainstream Party itself — corporate donors first, organizational loyalty second, and public-benefiting policy eighth and last.
Today it's the The Nature Conservancy's turn in the barrel.
What Is The Nature Conservancy?
The Nature Conservancy is an older organization — the original group was founded in 1915 — and it has changed its mission and its stripes several times over the years. You can read about that history here. Today most people think of The Nature Conservancy as a "green" (environmentally friendly) organization that purchases land in order to protect it from despoilage. As a result of its many purchases, The Nature Conservancy is now the "largest environmental non-profit organization by assets and revenue in the Americas," and perhaps in the world, with assets topping $7 billion in land and other real estate holdings.
The Nature Conservancy is, by any measure, rich beyond the dreams of any other "eco-friendly" liberal non-profit.
It's also not what it seems, or presents itself as being.
The Nature Conservancy Caught Green-Washing Corporate Pollution
Here's more on how TNC operates, from SourceWatch, written in 2008 and quoted here:
The group eschews political work in favor of the relatively noncontroversial project of buying land. Calling itself “Nature’s real estate agent,” the Nature Conservancy purchases private land and then sells it to state and federal agencies, often, according to its critics, at a considerable mark-up. Last year, the group violated its apolitical policy to concoct the compromise rewrite of the Endangered Species Act with a secret coalition of corporations and trade associations, including the National Homebuilder’s Association and timber giant Georgie-Pacific. The group is led by John Sawhill, former energy aide to Nixon and Ford and a fanatical proponent of nuclear power, who has enjoyed lucrative positions on the boards of Procter & Gamble, North American Coal Company and Pacific Gas & Electric. [emphasis added]
It's corporate ties are many. Wikipedia notes this (links in the original, emphasis added):
The Nature Conservancy has ties to many large companies, including those in the oil, gas, mining, chemical and agricultural industries. As of 2016, its board of directors included the retired chairman of Duke Energy, and executives from Merck, HP, Google and several financial industry groups. It also has a Business Council which it describes as a consultative forum that includes Bank of America, BP America, Chevron, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, Duke Energy, General Mills, Royal Dutch Shell, and Starbucks. The organization faced criticism in 2010 from supporters for its refusal to cut ties with BP after the Gulf oil spill.
Writer and activist Naomi Klein has strongly criticized The Nature Conservancy for earning money from an oil well on land it controls in Texas and for its continued engagement with fossil fuel companies.
For a more complete list of TNC's corporate partners, read this now-deleted web page, "Working With Companies—Companies We Work With," from TNC own site. It's stunning.
I would think the people at Duke Energy, BP, Dow Chemical and Shell Oil think they're getting their money's worth for their engagement with TNC.
But it gets worse. More recently comes this, from Bloomberg Green in a report entitled "These Trees Are Not What They Seem: How the Nature Conservancy, the world’s biggest environmental group, became a dealer of meaningless carbon offsets":
At first glance, big corporations appear to be protecting great swaths of U.S. forests in the fight against climate change. JPMorgan Chase & Co. has paid almost $1 million to preserve forestland in eastern Pennsylvania. Forty miles away, Walt Disney Co. has spent hundreds of thousands to keep the city of Bethlehem, Pa., from aggressively harvesting a forest that surrounds its reservoirs. Across the state line in New York, investment giant BlackRock Inc. has paid thousands to the city of Albany to refrain from cutting trees around its reservoirs.
JPMorgan, Disney, and BlackRock tout these projects as an important mechanism for slashing their own large carbon footprints. By funding the preservation of carbon-absorbing forests, the companies say, they’re offsetting the carbon-producing impact of their global operations. But in all of those cases, the land was never threatened; the trees were already part of well-preserved forests.
Rather than dramatically change their operations—JPMorgan executives continue to jet around the globe, Disney’s cruise ships still burn oil, and BlackRock’s office buildings gobble up electricity—the corporations are working with the Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental group, to employ far-fetched logic to help absolve them of their climate sins. By taking credit for saving well-protected land, these companies are reducing nowhere near the pollution that they claim. [emphasis added]
JPMorgan, Disney and BlackRock are certainly getting their money's worth for their engagement with TNC.
The Nature Conservancy initially defended this practice, an indictment in itself. (Note the use of "creative" in the first sentence below. A less corporate-frienly publication might have used the word "fraudulent.")
Now, with an increasing number of companies looking for creative ways to cut emissions, the nonprofit has accelerated its work on carbon projects. But a review of hundreds of pages of documents underpinning those projects and interviews with a half-dozen participating landowners indicate that the Conservancy is often preserving forested lands that don’t need defending.
“For the credits to be real, the payment needs to induce the environmental benefit,” says Danny Cullenward, a lecturer at Stanford and policy director at CarbonPlan, a nonprofit that analyzes climate solutions. If the Conservancy is enrolling landowners who had no intention of cutting their trees, he adds, “they’re engaged in the business of creating fake carbon offsets.”
The Conservancy defends its carbon-offset projects, saying that all adhere to peer-reviewed methodologies developed by independent registries and that each project is validated by third-party auditors. “We have absolutely no motivation to not achieve real climate solutions,” says Lynn Scarlett, chief external affairs officer at the Conservancy.
TNC has since backtracked, claiming it's now "conducting an internal review of its portfolio of carbon-offset projects," according to a Bloomberg followup piece.
Kudos to Bloomberg and Ben Elgin, the writer of both articles, for this exposé. Shame on TNC for the practice itself, and shame on them for their tardy (publicity-forced?) response. The original exposé was published in December. The announcement of TNC's "internal review" appeared only this month.
What To Make of This?
It would be easy (and safe) to take a non-cynical approach and say The Nature Conservancy got sloppy, got caught, and eventually got religion.
But really, it's almost impossible not to read this as a willing corporate-aligned front group and green washing organization knowingly cheating the public on behalf of its mega-rich "partners," then pretending to be surprised when the news they were desperate to hide broke into the public light. If it quacks like a duck, as they say, it's a willing corporate-aligned front group.
But there's a larger takeaway. The Nature Conservancy is not alone in scamming the public by pretending to be the right kind of green while chasing the wrong kind. As noted above, the WWF was a TTP advocate and likely will be again if Biden resurfaces some flavor of that Obama-loved abomination. The League of Conservation Voters was a notorious endorser of Republicans, like Susan Collins in 2014 when Shenna Bellows, a much more progressive candidate, was mounting a viable challenge. There are other well-funded "Big Green" front groups like them.
The problem is very broad. Everything Big Money touches, it transforms, digests and destroys. When you're the only one in the world with money, everything in the world is for sale. Big Money cannot be coddled or cooperated with. It can only be bowed to or defeated.
(I've launched a Substack site to greet the post-Trump era, the age in which the aggregated Democratic Party will show what it's made of. You can get more information here and here. If you decide to sign up — it's free — my thanks to you!)