Reality Check: Every now and then, especially when one is starting to feel optimistic that perhaps the tide is turning in the direction of science-based environmental policy, it's good to get a lesson in the way the world really works.
Last week we learned that internal memos originating at the Washington-based National Environmental Trust (NET) have been leaked to two Washington journalists and are now being subjected to a closer examination. [For the uninitiated, NET used to be called the Environmental Information Center before a $3 million gift last March from the Sun Oil-based Pew Charitable Trust fostered a name change and a move into swank new offices here in D.C. NET is a green propaganda outlet that excels in spreading scary tales about global warming, floods, droughts, and malaria epidemics, not to mention hormone disrupters and various other disasters-du-jour, through a carefully orchestrated mix of press events, advertisements, and a radio program called "NET News." NET activists call their work "public education campaigns."]
We haven't seen the memos in question, but they reportedly reveal NET's successes in getting reporters to promote the activist point of view during the December Kyoto summit. They also identify several highly placed individuals who called upon NET to draft and submit for publication newspaper commentary articles bearing their names. Among NET's op-ed clients: Michael Meacher, current Environment Minister for the United Kingdom; John Gummer, former UK Environment Minister; and Kenneth L. Lay, Chief Executive Officer of Enron Corporation (chief products: power plants, natural gas, pipelines).
In Washington, Robert Chatterton Dickson, press officer at the British Embassy, readily acknowledged that NET worked on op-eds for Environment Minister Meacher. Dickson further stated that Meacher's close involvement with environmental advocacy groups--even American advocacy groups--was "not unusual." At Enron headquarters in Houston, spokesperson Carol Hensley also confirmed NET's involvement in drafting Lay's op-ed and said it was placed through Knight-Ridder and appeared in a number of newspapers.
Hensley grew a little vague, however, when asked if Enron had other, more formal ties to eco-activist organizations. We thought perhaps Enron would like to go one-up on General Motors, who just last week announced that it was collaborating with another Big Environment faction, the World Resources Institute. GM and WRI are working together to "define a long-term vision for protecting the Earth's climate and the technologies and policies for getting there." Never mind that scientists don't yet know whether and in what way the Earth's climate needs protecting.
That Big Environment has become part of an Establishment that includes Big Industry and Big Government is nothing new, of course. But it bears repeating that environmental activist organizations, their claims to the contrary, are not representatives of the people. No one elected them. Cozy relationships between government officials and the leadership of environmental activist organizations, largely a white-collar, self-proclaimed intelligentsia, contributes to what is perceived as a widening gap between government and working-class citizens. We suggest that the UK Environment Minister take a peek at "Brassed Off!," a British film now in circulation that deals with the social impact of closing the British coal mines. At the end, one of the main characters gives a speech contrasting the endless compassion for seals and furry animals with the casual contempt extended to coal miners and their families.
In a perverse way, one could defend the collaboration between environmental groups and some of the very corporations they claim are degrading the environment. Corporate officers have a right, if not a duty, to advance stockholder interests by promoting a "happy to be green" public image and then negotiating the best possible deal when governments propose costly and unnecessary policies and regulations. If environmental pressure groups can squeeze out a little corporate funding in the bargain, well hey, it's the American way. We have no problem with that--just so they don't piously call it "saving the planet."
But we would also like to point out that Enron and other members of the Business Council on Sustainable Energy, a coalition of corporations promoting costly energy alternatives, will likely qualify for government subsidies stemming from the Kyoto agreement--Mr. Clinton's announced $5 billion program. Enron, for example, has solar and wind subsidiaries and wants to be a national/international marketmaker in CO2 permits. Promoting global warming is in Enron's best interests. Those who think otherwise probably still believe that DuPont, holding brand-new patents on CFC substitutes, hyped the ozone depletion scare out of a sense of civic responsibility.
From Great Britain last week we received reports of a more overt kind of activist involvement. Green groups are exerting pressure on BBC and Channel 4 program directors not to air any more programs by RDF Television, the independent company that produced the pathbreaking three-part Ch. 4 series "Against Nature" (See http://www.channel4.com/news/against_nature/index.html). The British public must not be permitted to hear any unorthodox views apparently, especially those that point to the moral bankruptcy of the environmental movement. Environmental activists also mounted a newspaper letter-writing campaign that ignored the series' economic and scientific points and simply labeled RDF producers a bunch of Marxists (among other things).
Meanwhile over at The Economist, tons of angry mail reportedly came in about "Environmental Scares," the quite sensible article that appeared in the magazine's December 20 issue (See TW2, Dec. 21-27). According to our source, most of the letters took the line that (a) environmentalists being wrong in the past doesn't mean they'll be wrong in the future, (b) the main reason forecasts of doom didn't come to pass was because of warnings by environmentalists, and (c) one shouldn't criticize environmentalists because they have the best of motives. Hardly a coherent point among them, but a great deal of outrage from people not used to receiving what they dish out to others--i.e. criticism. One even called The Economist "impertinent."
Although we sympathize with the media targets of these campaigns, we also think that such tactics often result in a revelation of sorts among journalists and television producers, who are taken by surprise when the campaign to enforce groupthink is directed at them.
Finally, the next environmental crisis is warming up in the wings. The January 13 San Jose Mercury News devotes a full-page to "Waves of Destruction: Asteroid Impact Would Swamp Coasts." According to science writer Glennda Chui, a giant asteroid hitting the Earth will not only produce "months of darkness, global crop failures, and large-scale wildfires set by a rain of molten debris" but "scientists have simulated one more scary consequence: gigantic tidal waves that could kill millions, and even erase small coastal nations, in just a few hours." (Haven't we heard this one before?) There is, of course, some probability that an asteroid will strike the Earth at some point, in some century. They have in the past. But for this crisis to really have legs, watch for activists to find a way to link asteroid impacts to the sins of Western consumers.
The circus continues.
TW2 is compiled by SEPP Research Associate Candace Crandall