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Alt-Right Climate Extremists Already Losing Ground With Trump Administration

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November 2016 march in Boston. Photo credit: Peter Bowden/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing two weeks ago, Trump's pick for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that:


"The risk of climate change does exist, and the consequences could be serious enough that action should be taken."

While still head of the oil-giant ExxonMobil a few short weeks ago, the same Rex TIllerson told a crowd gathered in London that:

"We [ExxonMobil] have long supported a carbon tax as the best policy of those being considered. Replacing the hodge-podge of current, largely ineffective regulations with a revenue-neutral carbon tax would ensure a uniform and predictable cost of carbon across the economy."

Given ExxonMobil's shady past when it comes to climate change, Tillerson's words are likely seen as empty rhetoric by many political observers. And considering Trump's recent executive orders to restart the process of constructing the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, it seems highly probable that is the case.

Despite what Tillerson's intentions may or may not be, I guarantee the Secretary of State's words sent a chill down the spine of Trump transition team members like Myron Ebell, who see a tax on carbon pollution as the devil incarnate, and outright deny that climate change is even a problem.

Late last year Ebell was elevated in stature after being appointed by then President-elect Trump to head his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) transition team. Ebell, whose views on climate change and environmental regulations are considered far-right even amongst the right-wing, has not enjoyed this much attention in years.

When the world started to wake up to the realities of climate change and world leaders of all political persuasions began taking the issue seriously, Ebell and the rest of the climate deniers were relegated to the fringe of the fringe, where their "proof" of the big climate hoax only found traction amongst a small audience of conspiracy theorists and white grumpy old men.

One can assume that Donald Trump, who stated in 2015 that he doesn't "believe in climate change," was seen as a Messiah to those running in Ebell's climate denier circles.

Unfortunately for Ebell, things just aren't going the way he envisioned. In an Ebell world, Trump and his top appointees would be out on the hustings pushing the climate denier talking points about how it was warmer in the Medieval warming period and that the United Nations is using climate change to take over the world.

Last week there were rumors that the Trump Administration had ordered the EPA to remove all mentions of climate change from the department's website. But by the afternoon on the same day that plan was suspended until further notice. "We've been told to stand down," an EPA employee told E&E News. It wouldn't be a stretch to suppose that this was a direct order from Ebell that was hastily reversed by some higher-ups.

Ouch.

Besides Tillerson, other top Trumpites (copyright pending) are softening their stance on the issue of climate change.

Trump's Energy Secretary pick Rick Perry, stated in his Senate nomination hearing the other week that:

"I believe the climate is changing. I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by man-made activity. The question is how do we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn't compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy, or American jobs."

Not the most ringing endorsement for action on climate change, but like Rex Tillerson's statements on the issue, a far cry from where Ebell and the alt-right environmental extremists want this new administration to be.

And nobody knows it more than Myron Ebell himself, that when it comes to the politics of climate change, words really do matter.

Myron Ebell is the product of a far-right think tank called the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) who for many years enjoyed a solid stream of funding from big oil companies like ExxonMobil and the notorious Koch Brothers.

Back in the day under the George W. Bush Administration, Ebell and the crew at CEI were right in the mix as the U.S. government and big corporations were looking for ways to weasel out of the United Nations Kyoto Protocol (an earlier rendition of the Paris climate agreement).

In 2003 for instance, Ebell claimed that:

"Kyoto is dead and has been dead, but that doesn't mean that it hasn't done some real damage and won't continue to do some real damage," "If global warming turns out to be a problem, which I doubt, it won't be solved by making ourselves poorer through energy rationing."

In 2007, Ebell headed a group called the "Cooler Heads Foundation" whose funding came from a network of supportive alt-right organizations, many of whom were recipients of big money from fossil fuel companies. Cooler Heads stated purpose was to "dispel the myths of global warming by exposing flawed economic, scientific, and risk analysis."

The impact of the work by climate deniers, the think tanks they worked for and the companies like ExxonMobil that funded them has been pretty devastating. These climate denial spin doctors had a major impact on the pace at which countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and China moved to take action on climate change.

But as superpowers like the U.S. and China finally started taking the issue of climate change seriously, the conspiratory stances of groups like CEI and Myron Ebell started to fall out of fashion. The microscope under which companies found themselves when it came to their carbon pollution outputs was intensifying. In 2006, ExxonMobil publicly announced that they had pulled their funding from CEI.

Down but not out, Ebell continued his climate denial crusade for the next decade.

Here's an absolutely devastating takedown of Ebell in 2006 by BBC host Jeremy Paxman, which I wrote about at the time and viewed as an epoch in the climate denial movement. The media was slowly but surely starting to wake up to the fact that people like Ebell had no actual qualifications in the science of climate change and were nothing more than spin doctors working at the behest of their big oil funders.

After enduring a decade on the fringe, Ebell is now in the spotlight again with his endorsement from Trump. But that spotlight seems to fading quickly by the looks of things. And while I am in no way optimistic that Trump and his team will do anything meaningful on the issue of climate change, it is a teeny-tiny victory that at the very least major players on team Trump like Rick Perry and Rex Tillerson are acknowledging that the problem exists.

But this tiny little glimmer of hope for people like me who've worked on the issue of climate change for more than a decade, is a serious body blow to someone like Myron Ebell who appears to be quickly being pushed under the rug by the Trump Administration, back to the alt-right fringe where he belongs.

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The huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about donations to the Amazon Fund. LeoFFreitas / Moment / Getty Images

By Sue Branford and Thais Borges

Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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