Feeling the Heat, InsideClimate News Finally Admits #ExxonKnew Collusion Between AGs and Activists

The activists behind the #ExxonKnew campaign are going into full defense mode after the Wall Street Journal and Reuters exposed “closed door” meetings between anti-fossil fuel activists and state attorneys general, meetings that the AGs tried to keep hidden from public scrutiny.

In an article published this morning, InsideClimate News (ICN) finally pulled back the curtain on at least some of the collusion and coordination behind the #ExxonKnew campaign, making sure to argue throughout that this sort of thing happens all the time and that no one should be too concerned about it.  According to ICN, major environmental groups are “working behind the scenes to prod state investigators probing Exxon for climate fraud” — part of a broader effort that, ICN concedes, extends back “to at least 2012.”

The admission came just days after a damning editorial in the UK Financial Times, a newspaper which supports strong government action on climate change. According to the FT, ICN’s reporting “fell well short” of being credible and should not have been used by the state AGs to justify their investigation. The newspaper also called the actions of the state AGs an “alarming” and “extreme” attack on free speech that will “undermine the cause that they aim to support.”

Today’s damage control from ICN confirms earlier research from Energy In Depth and many other groups that have linked the current investigations of climate policy dissent with a little-known activist strategy meeting in La Jolla, Calif., four years ago. As ICN writes:

“A four-year, coordinated strategy by environmental organizations to hold ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel corporations legally accountable for climate change denial has come to fruition, as state attorneys general have teamed up to launch investigations into possible climate fraud.

“The advocacy efforts stretch back to at least 2012, when the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Climate Accountability Institute brought together about two dozen scientists, lawyers and legal scholars, historians, social scientists and public opinion experts for a two-day workshop in La Jolla, Calif., titled “Climate Accountability, Public Opinion, and Legal Strategies.” They discussed a strategy to fight industry in the courts, after years of concentrating on public relations and policy fights, and they sought to use “the lessons from tobacco-related education, laws, and litigation to address climate change,” according to a report on the 2012 workshop.” (emphasis added)

ICN also acknowledged its own role in the campaign. Referencing a January 2016 strategy meeting first reported by the Wall Street Journal, ICN writes:

“The environmentalists’ January meeting was hosted by the Rockefeller Family Fund, The Wall Street Journal first reported. (The Rockefeller Family Fund awarded ICN a grant of $25,000 for general support in July 2015.)” (emphasis added)

Of course, the Rockefeller funding for ICN’s work didn’t come out of nowhere.  David Sassoon, ICN founder and publisher, previously served as a consultant to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) and, as the New York Times reported, ICN is “an outgrowth of Mr. Sassoon’s consulting work for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a philanthropic group that emphasizes climate policy.”

These two Rockefeller funds (RBF and RFF) also bankroll the groups who participated in the 2012 meeting in La Jolla, where the #ExxonKnew strategy was formulated. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund alone has strong financial ties to ICN, having given the group $800,000 in the past three years.

Stepping Up the PR Campaign

It’s fitting that ICN would be the first to characterize these recent developments as part of activists’ attempts to “step up” their coordinated campaign. Last week, as the controversy over green groups secretly working with state AGs continued to grow, ICN penned a defensive statement of the campaign, claiming the meetings were “widely considered routine.”

Bizarrely, ICN positioned itself against what it called “mainstream media outlets” that had reported on the meetings and the attempts by state officials to keep the details under wraps.

Today’s story struck a similarly defensive tone.

ICN quoted Peter Frumhoff from the Union of Concerned Scientists, who said his participation in one of the secretive meetings was purely about his role as a “scientist.” Frumhoff added: “I was invited to brief the attorneys general that gathered on March 29 on my work, and that is what I did.” ICN also included comments from R.L. Miller of Climate Hawks Vote, a group that is part of the official ExxonKnew campaign, according to a website run by 350.org.

Although ICN did mention how the New York Attorney General’s office told a meeting participant “to not confirm” that he attended “or otherwise discuss the event,” it omitted the Common Interest Agreement between New York and Vermont officials to not disclose any information about the collaboration.

ICN’s dismissiveness aside, government officials strategizing on how to avoid public disclosure of their work has raised even more ethical questions about the broader #ExxonKnew campaign.

In fact, despite coverage in the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and the Washington Free Beacon, the Vermont Attorney General’s office is still refusing to provide details.

“I’m not going to talk about the working groups or what activities they’re engaged in,” Wendy Morgan with the Vermont Attorney General’s office recently told Watchdog. Morgan began to defend the use of common interest agreements, but stopped herself. “I’m sorry, I should probably have declined answer any questions for you,” Morgan said.

Curiously, the author of ICN’s latest installment, Phil McKenna, once received a $10,000 stipend to be part of an environmental journalism program at Middlebury College. His work was directed by Bill McKibben, who is arguably the most prominent activist calling for governments to launch investigations of climate policy dissent.

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