Beware environmental wolves in sheep's clothing!

Beware wolves in sheep's clothing! Photo: public domain.
Beware wolves in sheep's clothing! Photo: public domain.
What do the Australian Environment Foundation, the Renewable Energy Foundation and the Global Warming Policy Foundation have in common? They are all fiercely anti-environment, writes William Laurance - and we must beware their 'eco-doublespeak'.
... media strategy included targeting "older, less-educated males" and using scientists as spokespeople to take advantage of their high public credibility.

George Orwell would have appreciated the Australian Environment Foundation. That's because Orwell was a master of doublespeak - where words take on purposely obscure or opposite meanings.

Despite its name, the Australian Environment Foundation is not pro-environment. In fact, I consider it anti-environment, at least by the prevailing definition of that term.

For instance, the AEF opposes wind farms, many mainstream efforts to combat climate change, and what it labels "green thuggery- such as initiatives to make cattle ranching more environmentally benign via the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

World Heritage Sites - who needs them?

In Australia, the AEF likes the Tony Abbott government's efforts to remove World Heritage listing for 74,000 hectares of native forests inthe Tasmania Wilderness World Heritage Area, to promote industrial logging.

In fact, the AEF likes it so much that it's written to all of the members of the 21-nation World Heritage Committee, urging them to back the government's bid when they consider it in Doha, Qatar this month.

If the government is successful, it will only be the second time in history that a natural World Heritage site has been de-listed.

A recent director of the AEF is Alan Oxley, an industrial lobbyist and former Australian trade ambassador who's spearheaded opposition to numerous environmental initiatives around the world.

The AEF was established in 2005 by the libertarian Institute of Public Affairs, which has received funding from a number of oil, mining and industrial corporations and is closely affiliated with Australia's Liberal Party - 'Liberal' in this case being another term that would make Orwell proud, as the Liberal Party is decidedly conservative.

Clearly it's a growth industry ...

Environmental front groups like the AEF are flourishing today. In her book 'Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism', Sharon Beder described how corporations and industry associations often use front groups to put their views into the mouths of others whom they portray as independent scientists or public interest advocates.

Such front groups are especially common in the United States, says Beder. For instance, Dow Chemical contributed to ten different front groups, including:

... media strategy included targeting "older, less-educated males" and using scientists as spokespeople to take advantage of their high public credibility.
  • the Alliance to Keep Americans Working;
  • the American Council on Science and Health;
  • Citizens for a Sound Economy; and
  • the Council for Solid Waste Solutions.

Other avid funders of front groups include the oil giants Chevron, Exxon and Mobil, tobacco company Philip Morris and the chemical firms Du Pont and Monsanto.

Global warming - target 'older, less-educated males'

A number of front groups have targeted measures to combat global warming. For instance, the Information Council on the Environment, which was actually a front group for the coal industry, was founded to "reposition global warming as theory (not fact)", according to its internal documents.

Its media strategy included targeting "older, less-educated males" and using scientists as spokespeople to take advantage of their high public credibility.

Another high-profile front group is the Global Warming Policy Foundation, chaired by the well-known UK climate sceptic, Lord Nigel Lawson.

Speaking before the Foundation last November, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard described global warming as "exaggerated" and said those who advocated for climate action were "zealots" and "alarmists".

The Foundation recently relinquished its tax-free status as a UK education entity after it was shown clearly to be functioning as a climate-sceptic lobby group.

The UK is also home to the Renewable Energy Foundation, which describes itself as "a registered charity promoting sustainable development for the benefit of the public by means of energy conservation and the use of renewable energy."

But in fact it is a fierce opponent of renewable energy, wind turbines in particular, and a supporter of fossil fuel power generation - as a quick look at its press releases will confirm.

Smoke and mirrors

Environmental front groups often rely on a veil of secrecy. For instance, another group closely affiliated with Alan Oxley, World Growth International, lobbies against a range of environmental initiatives while actively defending corporate oil palm and timber interests.

The New York Times says the group is "known for creating corporate campaigns presented as grass-roots efforts". Oxley consistently refuses to reveal who funds World Growth, asserting this is "immaterial".

I publicly slammed Oxley for this tack in a 2012 debate at Australian National University (you can see a summary of my concerns in this 2012 talk at Stanford University).

The misleading practices of some front groups can get them into legal entanglements. For instance, the Australian Vaccination Network was forced to change its name under New South Wale's fair-trading act when it became apparent that it was actually an anti-vaccination lobby group that trumpeted the now-debunked idea that certain vaccinations cause autism.

A 'growth-first approach to carbon neutrality'

George Orwell would probably have been tickled to see the art of doublespeak used so effectively by environmental front groups today. But not all such groups try to fly under the radar.

One of my favourites is the now-defunct organization GreenCEASE, which attacked a bevy of environmental organizations while advocating a "growth-first approach to carbon neutrality".

I may not have liked their stance very much, but at least I knew where they were coming from.


William Laurance is a Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia. He also holds the Prince Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation at Utrecht University, Netherlands

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