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Pushing Toxic Chemicals and Climate Denial: The Dark Money-Funded Independent Women’s Forum
By Stacy Malkan
The Independent Women's Forum is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that has taken money from tobacco and oil companies, partners with Monsanto, defends toxic chemicals in food and consumer products, denies climate science and argues against laws that would curb the power of corporations.
IWF began in 1991 as an effort to defend now Supreme Court Justice (and former Monsanto attorney) Clarence Thomas as he faced sexual harassment charges. The group now says it seeks to "improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty."
A key message of IWF is to shift the blame for health or environmental problems away from corporations and toward personal responsibility—for example arguing that parents, not food companies, are to blame for America's obesity problem.
Funding by right wing billionaires and corporations
According to data collected by Greenpeace USA, IWF has received more than $15 million in funding since 1998, largely from right-wing foundations that promote deregulation and corporate free reign.
IWF's leading contributors, with donations topping $5.3 million, are Donors Trust and Donors Capital Funds, the "dark money ATM of the conservative movement" connected with Charles and David Koch. The funds channel money from anonymous donors, including corporations, to efforts that champion corporate agendas, as a Greenpeace investigation established.
IWF has also received $844,115 in combined donations from Koch family foundations. Other top funders include the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, Randolf Foundation (an offshoot of the Richardson Foundation) and Searle Freedom Trust—all are leading funders of climate-science denial, according to a Drexel University study.
ExxonMobil and Philip Morris are among IWF's funders, according to documents from the UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents Library. Phillip Morris named IWF in a list of "potential third party references" and "those who respect our views."
The book "Merchants of Doubt" by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway described IWF as one of the "seemingly grass-roots organizations" funded by the Phillip Morris Corporation that focuses on "Individual Liberties," "Regulatory Issues," or both.
Rush Limbaugh has donated at least a quarter of a million dollars to IWF, according to this report in The Nation: "Guess Which Women's Group Rush Limbaugh has Donated Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars to? Hint: it's the one that defends him whenever he launches into a sexist tirade."
Kellyanne Conway, White House advisor and former Trump campaign manager, is an IWF board member. Directors Emeritae include Lynne V. Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney and Kimberly O. Dennis, president of the board of directors of Donors Trust and president and CEO of Searle Freedom Trust.
Nancy M. Pfotenhauer, a former Koch Industries lobbyist, left Koch Industries to become president of IWF in 2001 and she later served as vice chairman of IWF's Board of Directors. She has a long history of promoting dirty energy and pushing for deregulation of polluting industries.
IWF's agenda closely follows the lobbying and messaging agenda of tobacco, oil and chemical industry interests. Following are some examples:
Argues 'standard Phillips Morris PR'
"Clearly, the FDA doesn't intend to punish women, simply for their gender. Yet, that's precisely what's going to happen if women are limited to smoking cessation products that biologically cannot provide them with the help they need to quit traditional cigarettes," IWF wrote.
In response to the IWF letter, Stanton Glantz, Ph.D., professor of medicine at the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, said, "This is standard Philip Morris PR. There is no independent confirmation that IQOS are safer than cigarettes or that they help people quit smoking."
Denies climate science
Jane Mayer reported in The New Yorker: "The (Koch) brothers have given money to more obscure groups, too, such as the Independent Women's Forum, which opposes the presentation of global warming as a scientific fact in American public schools. Until 2008, the group was run by Nancy Pfotenhauer, a former lobbyist for Koch Industries. Mary Beth Jarvis, a vice-president of a Koch subsidiary, is on the group's board."
A Denver Post story reported in 2010 that IWF "thinks global warming is 'junk science' and that teaching it is unnecessarily scaring schoolchildren." Through a campaign called "Balanced Education for Everyone," IWF opposed climate science education in schools, which the group described as "alarmist global warming indoctrination."
Promotes toxic chemicals / Partners with Monsanto
IWF is a leading messenger for promoting toxic chemicals as nothing to worry about, opposing public health protections and trying to build trust for corporations like Monsanto. According to IWF's "Culture of Alarmism" project, sharing information about hazardous chemicals in consumer products leads to "wasted tax dollars, higher costs and inferior goods for consumers, fewer jobs … and a needlessly worried, less free American populace."
In February 2017, Monsanto partnered with IWF on an event titled "Food and Fear: How to Find Facts in Today's Culture of Alarmism," and an IWF podcast that month discussed "How Monsanto is Vilified by Activists."
- Vermont's GMO labeling law is stupid. (The Spectator)
- Sinister GMO labeling will cause grocery costs to skyrocket. (IWF)
- Anti-GMO hype is the real threat to the well being of families. (National Review)
- General Mills caved in to the "food police" by removing GMOs. (USA Today)
- Chipotle is stuffing their non-GMO burritos with nonsense. (IWF)
- Reasonable moms need to push back on the mom shaming and guilt tripping organic food narrative. (IWF podcast)
- GMO critics are cruel, vain, elite and seek to deny those in need. (New York Post)
- Educating celebrity moms about GMOs with Monsanto's talking points (IWF)
Champions corporate-friendly "food freedom"
IWF attacks the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as "government nannies," for example describing the agency as "food Marxists" and "completely out of control" for issuing voluntary guidance to food manufacturers to cut sodium levels.
A June 2017 IWF event tried to stoke fears about public health guidance.
In 2012, IWF launched a "Women for Food Freedom" project to "push back on the nanny state and encourage personal responsibility" for food choices. The agenda included opposing "food regulations, soda and snack food taxes, junk science and food and home-product scares, misinformation about obesity and hunger, and other federal food programs, including school lunches."
On obesity, IWF tries to shift attention away from corporate accountability and toward personal choices. In this interview with Thom Hartmann, Julie Gunlock of IWF's Culture of Alarmism Project argues that corporations are not to blame for America's obesity problem but rather "people are making bad choices and I think parents are completely checking out." The solution, she said, is for parents to cook more, especially poor parents since they have a worse problem with obesity.
Attacks moms for trying to reduce pesticide exposures
IWF pushes industry messaging, using covert tactics, in attempt to ostracize moms who are concerned about pesticides; a prime example is this 2014 New York Post article, "Tyranny of the Organic Mommy Mafia" by Naomi Schafer Riley.
Under the guise of complaining about "mom shaming," Riley—who is an IWF fellow but did not disclose that to readers—attempts to shame and blame moms who choose organic food.
Riley's article relied on information from industry front groups that she falsely presented as independent sources:
- Riley described Academics Review—a front group funded by the agrichemical industry and started with the help of Monsanto to attack the organic industry and critics of GMOs—as "a nonprofit group of independent scientists."
- Riley used the Alliance for Food and Farming, a food industry front group, to counter "the most common mommy worry—pesticides" with the message that pesticides are nothing to worry about.
- A key source, Julie Gunlock, was identified as an author but not as an employee of IWF and Riley's colleague.
Partners with chemical industry front groups
IWF partners with other corporate front groups such as the American Council on Science and Health, a leading defender of toxic chemicals with deep ties to Monsanto and Syngenta. ACSH is funded by chemical, pharmaceutical, tobacco and other industry groups.
- In a February 2017 IWF podcast, ACSH and IWF "debunked Rachel Carson's alarmism on toxic chemicals."
- ACSH was "fully behind" IWF's "culture of alarmism letter" opposing efforts to remove hazardous chemicals from consumer products.
- IWF events attacking moms who are concerned about toxic chemicals, such as this "hazmat parenting" event, featured ACSH representative Josh Bloom and chemical industry public relations writer Trevor Butterworth.
As many journalists and articles have pointed out, IWF also partners with many other Koch-funded activist groups that deny climate science and push the deregulatory agenda of corporations.
For further reading:
The Intercept, "Koch Brothers Operatives Fill Top White House Positions," by Lee Fang (4/4/2017)
The Nation, "Meet the 'Feminists' Doing the Koch Brothers' Dirty Work," by Joan Walsh (8/18/2016)
Center for Media and Democracy, "Most Known Donors of the Independent Women's Forum are Men," by Lisa Graves (8/24/2016)
Center for Media and Democracy, "Confirmation: the Not-so-Independent Women's Forum was Born in Defense of Clarence Thomas and the Far Right," by Lisa Graves and Calvin Sloan (4/21/2016)
Slate, "Confirmation Bias: How 'Women for Judge Thomas' turned into a conservative powerhouse," by Barbara Spindel (4/7/2016)
Truthout, "Independent Women's Forum Uses Misleading Branding to Push Right Wing Agenda," by Lisa Graves, Calvin Sloan and Kim Haddow (8/19/2016)
Inside Philanthropy, "The Money Behind the Conservative Women's Groups Still Fighting the Culture War," by Philip Rojc (9/13/2016)
The Nation, "Guess Which Women's Group Rush Limbaugh has Donated Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars to? Hint: it's the one that defends him whenever he launches into a sexist tirade," by Eli Clifton (6/12/2014)
The New Yorker, "Covert Operations," by Jane Mayer (8/30/2010)
Oxford University Press, "Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics," by Ronnee Schreiber (2008)
Inside Philanthropy, "Look Who's Funding This Top Conservative Women's Group," by Joan Shipps (11/26/2014)
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Tracy L. Barnett
Sources reviewed this article for accuracy.
For Sicangu Lakota water protector Cheryl Angel, Standing Rock helped her define what she stands against: an economy rooted in extraction of resources and exploitation of people and planet. It wasn't until she'd had some distance that the vision of what she stands for came into focus.
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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.
"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
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If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
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"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
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