THE BANKRUPTCY OF one of the largest domestic coal producers in the country has revealed that the company maintains financial ties to many of the leading groups that have sowed doubt over the human causes of global warming.
The disclosures are from Cloud Peak Energy, a Wyoming-based coal mining corporation that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on May 10. The company had been battered by low coal prices, including in international markets cultivated by the firm.
The documents in the court docket show that the coal giant gave contributions to leading think tanks that have attacked the link between the burning of fossil fuels and climate change, as well as to several conservative advocacy groups that have attempted to undermine policies intended to shift the economy toward renewable energy. The documents do not include information on the size of the contributions, yet, taken as a whole, the list of groups Cloud Peak Energy helped fund are indicative of how the company prioritized pushing climate denialism. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
The contributions are revealed in a filing that lists recipients of grants, creditors, and contractors. The document shows that Cloud Peak Energy helped fund the Institute of Energy Research, a Washington, D.C.-based group that has dismissed the “so-called scientific consensus” on climate change and regularly criticizes investments in renewable energy as a “waste” of resources.
Several of the groups that receive funding from Cloud Peak Energy have used aggressive tactics to attempt to discredit environmentalists. The Center for Consumer Freedom, one of the groups listed in the coal company’s filing, is part of a sprawling network of front groups set up by a lobbyist named Rick Berman geared toward attacking green groups such as the Sierra Club and Food & Water Watch as dangerous radicals.
Other organizations quietly bankrolled by Cloud Peak Energy have directly shaped state policy. The company provided funding to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that provides template legislation to state lawmakers. The model bills promote the fossil fuel agenda. One model bill declares that there is a “great deal of scientific uncertainty” around climate change; others are designed to repeal environmental regulations on coal-burning power plants.
The Montana Policy Institute — a local libertarian think tank that promotes a discredited claim that world temperatures are falling, not rising, and questions whether humans cause climate change — also received funding from the firm.
Cloud Peak Energy, the filing shows, funded Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-backed group that mobilizes political opposition to Democratic politicians and climate regulations. The mining firm also financed Crossroads GPS, a “dark-money” group that funneled millions of undisclosed dollars into Senate races in support of GOP politicians during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. The Western Caucus Foundation, which supports congressional efforts to deregulate the mining sector and sell off public lands for energy development, received funding as well.
Many of the political dollars listed in the filing appear routine among coal industry firms. The Wyoming coal firm provided financing to an array of trade groups, including the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, the National Mining Association, and the American Coal Council, that lobby legislators on mine industry priorities.
Many political organizations are organized as 501(c) nonprofits, an Internal Revenue Service designation that allows donors to remain anonymous. Bankruptcy filings, which force companies to open their books, provide a rare window into secret political donations.
In 2016, Greg Zimmerman, an environmental activist, stumbled upon a presentation titled “Survival Is Victory: Lessons From the Tobacco Wars.” The slide deck was the creation of Richard Reavey, a vice president for government and public affairs at Cloud Peak Energy, and a former executive at Phillip Morris. Reavey argued that fossil fuel firms, particularly coal, should emulate the tactics of big tobacco, which similarly spent decades battling scientists and regulators over claims that its product harmed public health.
In the New York Times coverage of the episode, Reavey told the paper that his firm “has never fought climate change — never fought it, never denied it or funded anyone who does.” The bankruptcy filing from last week, however, suggests otherwise.
“Can you hear me?” Greta Thunberg asks the 150 members and advisers in the U.K. Houses of Parliament. She taps the microphone as if to check if it’s on, but the gesture is meant as a rebuke; she’s asking if they’re listening. She asks again later in her speech. “Did you hear what I just said? Is my English O.K.? Is my microphone on? Because I’m beginning to wonder.” There is laughter, but it’s unclear if it’s amused or awkward. Thunberg is not smiling. She’s here to talk climate; a catastrophe is looming, her generation will bear it, and she knows whom to blame. “You did not act in time,” she declares.
Castigating the powerful has become routine for the 16-year-old. In December, she addressed the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Poland; in January she berated billionaires at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Her London speech was the last stop of a tour that included meeting the Pope. (“Continue to work, continue,” he told her, ending with, “Go along, go ahead.” It was an exhortation, not a dismissal.)
Just nine months ago, Thunberg had no such audiences. She was a lone figure sitting outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm, carrying a sign emblazoned with Skolstrejk for Klimatet (School Strike for Climate). She was there for a reason that felt primal and personal. While Thunberg was studying climate change in school at the age of 11, she reacted in a surprisingly intense way: she suffered an episode of severe depression. After a time it lifted, only to resurface last spring.
“I felt everything was meaningless and there was no point going to school if there was no future,” Thunberg says. But this time, rather than suffer the pain, she decided to push back at its cause, channeling her sadness into action. “I promised myself I was going to do everything I could do to make a difference,” she says.
Inspired by the survivors of February 2018’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla., she began a weekly schoolwork strike every Friday, turning to social media to implore politicians to support and take steps toward halting carbon emissions. Since the U.N. Climate Change Conference in December, Thunberg’s Twitter following has grown by nearly 4,000% to reach 612,000; many have also followed her lead offline, striking to demand change. “Before, I never really spoke when I was in my lessons or with my classmates,” she told me shortly after her London speech. “But now I am speaking to the whole world.”
As the movement has attracted attention, Thunberg’s life has been transformed. She never expected the whirlwind of interest, saying it was initially tricky to convince other students to join her action. “I just went ahead and decided to plan it, even if I were alone,” she says, with a persistence that has yet to waver.
Thunberg attributes her determination to her diagnosis of Asperger’s, a mild form of autism spectrum disorder. “It makes me see the world differently. I see through lies more easily,” she says. “I don’t like compromising. For me, it’s either you are sustainable or not — you can’t be a little bit sustainable.” Her openness about her diagnosis, and willingness to share about her experiences of depression, anxiety and eating disorders, are another reason why many see Thunberg as a role model. “To be different is not a weakness. It’s a strength in many ways, because you stand out from the crowd.”
Not that all of the attention has made her terribly impressed. She indulges a brief smile at a mention of President Barack Obama’s tweet in praise of her, but she returns quickly to her larger message. “I believe that once we start behaving as if we were in an existential crisis, then we can avoid a climate and ecological breakdown,” she says. “But the opportunity to do so will not last for long. We have to start today.”
After the round of European appearances in April, I join Thunberg and her father Svante on the two-day, 1,200-mile journey back to Stockholm from London. As one of our trains prepares to depart from Brussels at 6:25 a.m., she takes a photo to share with her 1.6 million Instagram followers before putting on an eye mask for a nap. Five minutes into the journey, a man stops to ask if he can take a photo with the sleeping teenager, saying she has inspired his own daughters. Svante politely replies, “When she wakes up, in Cologne.”
There’s a certain retro glamour in the phrase—redolent of an era when train travel was an elegant indulgence, rather than a time-consuming headache compared with going by air. But for Thunberg, the cost in convenience is marginal compared to the greater savings in carbon emissions. She’s not alone. In what her father jokingly calls the “Greta effect,” German and Swedish rail operators have reported a year-on-year rise in passenger numbers. Moreover, Swedish airports have seen fewer flyers since September, in part attributed to a phenomenon Swedes call flygskam, or “flying shame.”
It’s impossible to know if travelers with places to be and schedules to keep are really following the lead of a 16-year-old, but Thunberg is widely credited with setting an example. “People are taking their cues from Greta,” says Naomi Klein, activist and author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. “There’s something very hard to categorize about her, and I think because she’s not looking for approval and is not easily impressed, people don’t know what to do with that.”
Thunberg has been greatly influenced by Klein’s work and has welcomed her support. But Klein thinks the teenager doesn’t really need anyone’s advice. “I don’t think I would deign to tell Greta what she should do in the future. She is following her own path with such clarity, and she has tremendously good instincts.”
We arrive at Thunberg’s school 10 minutes late for class, barely two hours after stepping off the train at Stockholm Central and stopping briefly at home for breakfast. Paradoxically, while ditching school is the animating action of Thunberg’s campaign, working hard in class has become an oasis. Conjugating verbs in French class and trying out different instruments in a music lesson have a certain familiarity that addressing Popes and Presidents doesn’t. Glimmers of the surreal outside world appear occasionally—Thunberg has had the peculiar experience of quoting herself when answering questions on current affairs in class—but life at home is mostly unremarkable. In her spare time, she likes cooking vegan food and playing with her two dogs. “Sometimes I feel like it’s not happening, because it’s like two completely different worlds. Here I am just a quiet girl, and there I am very famous,” she says during a break on a school playground, surrounded by woodland.
She manages to live in both worlds, studying for a test and then writing a speech, finishing her homework and organizing a strike. Unlike most global figures, Thunberg doesn’t have a staff; her parents do what they can to maintain a sense of normalcy for her and her 13-year-old sister, Beata, though Svante no longer answers the phone unless it’s a trusted contact.
Meantime, there is a Greta effect within the home too. Svante and Thunberg’s mother Malena Ernman have given up meat, installed solar panels on their home and stopped traveling by air—decisions they made because they tired of arguments with their stubborn daughter, Svante likes to joke. It’s been a major shift for Malena, an opera singer who no longer flies abroad to performances. “Once she realized the consequences of that lifestyle, she was easy to convince,” Thunberg says, sounding more like a parent than a child.
I end my week with Thunberg as she participates in a strike outside the Swedish Parliament on a sunny Friday, where a crowd of around 100 people come and go, joining the strike throughout the day. The group includes people of all ages, from a 10-year-old girl who spent a week making her own replica of Thunberg’s sign, to a group of grandparents who met through joining the strike. Thunberg is still exhausted from her European trip, but she feels comfortable here—among people passionate about environmental issues, speaking democratically about their ideas. She knows action on climate change won’t happen instantly, but she’s prepared to dedicate years to this cause, even if life in the public eye has its drawbacks. “When I grow up, I want to be able to look back and say that I did everything I could,” she says. “I think that more people should feel like that.”
Since she came to prominence, Thunberg has been the target of negativity, trolling and even threats. Right-wing commentators and climate-change deniers have called her a “PR puppet” who is paid by a global network of billionaires to spread a “left-liberal” message. Others have criticized her stern appearance and “monotone voice,” a characteristic shared by many on the autism spectrum.
“It’s quite hilarious when the only thing people can do is mock you, or talk about your appearance or personality, as it means they have no argument, or nothing else to say,” she says, reading some negative replies she’s received to a recent tweet. “I’m not going to let that stop me,” she says, “because I know this is so much more important.”
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