David versus Goliath: a fossil fuel fightback

William Todts — May 31, 2023

Are climate activists part of an elite ploy against the people? Are green groups foreign agents paid for by dark forces?

There are now stories across a mix of obscure, tabloid and serious media trying to answer that question. The context for this is the aftermath of the Qatargate scandal where a petrostate, in the guise of a fake NGO, bribed EU politicians.

T&E too is now attracting scrutiny. Enquiring or explaining how we are funded is entirely legitimate; being accused of being “worse than communists” in the pay of the Chinese Communist Party, as we were recently by an MEP, is manufactured outrage. 

The greater scrutiny is a consequence of climate being such a hot topic. It is also part of an ongoing backlash. The EU has just approved a series of new climate laws, turbocharging electrification and climate action on aviation and shipping. It is the most ambitious economic transformation plan in the EU’s history. 

T&E has long been a vocal advocate for many of the measures that have now been adopted. Because of that, Politico dubbed us the top green influencers in Brussels. We spoke out loudly against engines, biofuels and e-fuels for cars, upsetting powerful interests in the process. They’re now striking back.

The fossil industry’s final stand

If green groups are to get their way, the fossil industry faces extinction. With their billions in profits, political power and hordes of lobbyists, fossil, engine and biofuel groups are grasping their last chance to halt, or at least slow down, the transition. 

In the US, the play is to get Trump reelected. In Europe, it is to reverse the EU Green Deal. Denying climate change is real, or opposing climate action, is no longer a winning strategy. At least in public. Which is why opponents of climate action are changing tack to discredit the technologies, policies and advocates that cause them the most trouble. 

The objective is for corporate lobbyists to reclaim their cosy monopoly relationship with decision makers. To succeed, NGOs need to be either discredited or defunded, or ideally both. And so narratives are now being crafted, portraying green groups as in the pay of shady and foreign interests. To back up those claims, fossil “detectives” started investigating NGO funding, hoping to uncover some scandal.

Only, there is nothing to uncover. T&E is a 30 year old federation of 50+ civil society organisations in 24 European countries. Like most NGOs, we are completely transparent in publishing details of our funders and funding. We have no secrets and for good reason: public trust is vital to our mission. 

We are proud of the way we are funded. Philanthropy gives us the resources to pursue our mission without having to ask corporations for money. Some of our funders are Europe based, others US based. Many of them operate globally. The way we are funded gives us the very freedom of speech our opponents so dislike.

Another narrative that’s being peddled by fossil operatives is that “green lobbyists” are “powerful” players, subverting the EU’s democratic processes.

This is as malicious as it is absurd. Power is the ability to say, “do what I want, or else”. If you own factories, employ thousands of people, contribute to a country’s economy, and have the ability to pay campaign contributions, or own media groups, then you have power. NGOs, categorically do not have that kind of power. 

As for T&E, our influence is in large part due to us being pragmatic environmentalists. We are not looking to “overthrow capitalism”. We believe in science and reform and work in alliances to create win-wins for consumers, business, workers and the environment.

It would be easy to dismiss the attacks on civil society as just noise. Unfortunately, there’s more to it. There is now a concerted effort to paint civil society as a threat to democracy. The EU Commission is mulling a proposal to create a foreign agents register. Hopefully the initiative will focus on the real threat: efforts by petrostates like Russia and Qatar, or totalitarian regimes like China, trying to subvert our democracies.

Using the Qatargate petrobribery scandal to label green NGOs as foreign agents would be outrageous. That is the Russian way. It would be shameful for the EU and its mainstream political parties to go down this path right at a time when Ukranians are dying to be part of Europe’s democracy. 


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