How the Environmental Movement Morphed into the Climate Change Movement

Published February 10, 2016

“Network” has become a common last name for dozens of radical environmental groups, including the Rainforest Action Network, Pesticide Action Network, Climate Action Network, and many others, but the push to be part of a network is about more than puffery; it’s all about money.

Foundations funding the environmental movement are no longer satisfied with stand-alone groups saving the environment. They want to multiply the power of their grants by pressuring their grantees into coalitions of groups. These coalitions often take the form of networks that focus on climate change. Networks are better equipped to pool resources and are able to target more significant goals and influence governments to reshape the world economy and change human society.

The shift to climate change coalitions has caught the attention of academics. In 2015, the Oxford University Press published Climate Change and Society, in which 13 sociologists noted beginning in 2006 there had been a rapid increase in the number of organizations participating in coalition actions. By the end of 2010, “467 unique organizations had been identified as part of the national climate change movement,” wrote one contributor who provided a network diagram of the 467 organizations clustered into 21 coalitions.

Not surprisingly, the Climate Action Network, with its 900 global member groups, formed the largest coalition.

There has been little coverage of the fact grant-making foundations are the driving force behind the emergence of climate change coalitions. Millions of dollars have gone to the Climate Action Network from the Sea Change Foundation, the Energy Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Green foundations have increasingly been using prescriptive grants—charitable money accompanied with instructions and performance requirements—since 1992, when it was discussed at the Annual Retreat of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, a 200-member network of influential foundations.

‘Too Bad’

In a session featuring the Rockefeller Family Fund’s Executive Director Donald Ross, an official from another foundation asked Ross, Do you detect, though, a resistance in the larger organizations to becoming grant-driven?”

Ross replied, “They don’t have the media, lobbying, grassroots organizing, Washington[, DC] base, litigation, etc. all wrapped in one organization. I think that there are things that could be done. I think funders have a major role to play. And I know there are resentments in the community towards funders doing that. And, too bad.”

Not every environmental group has caved to foundation pressure to join coalitions and focus their efforts on climate change. In 1997, three Oregon activists, Jeff St. Clair, Tim Hermach, and Michael Donnelly, won a campaign to stop logging in a particular watershed and found themselves invited to a lavish reception in Portland, Oregon. The host was Ross himself, along with officers from two other large foundations. Ross and the two foundation leaders proposed to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to St. Clair, Hermach, and Donnelly as part of nationwide campaign. The plan was for the men to take their lead from public relations and media groups designated by the foundations.

St. Clair Hermach, and Donnelly asked what would happen if they said “no,” to which Ross replied, “You’ll never see a dime of foundation money.”

The Oregon activists didn’t like the idea of being the foundations’ puppets, and they didn’t want to move to Washington, DC. They told Ross they weren’t interested, and they walked out.

Motivated by Money

Few environmental groups have followed this example. Most have instead proven only too willing to follow donors’ instructions to join climate-change-focused coalitions that promote false global warming solutions, such as ending the use of fossil fuels or engaging in efforts to silence climate skeptics by cutting their funding and criminalizing their research.

Things have changed. Stand-alone environmental activist groups are being co-opted into coalitions and given new marching orders. By forming coalitions or networks focused solely on the single issue of fighting climate change, foundations and their grantees have greater power to impose social change than acting as a loosely knit environmental movement made up of hundreds of individual organizations and groups fighting for a variety of disparate goals.

Ron Arnold ([email protected]) is a free-enterprise activist, author, and commentator.