Transparency: reflections from across the pond

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Most of you will have caught wind of the recent Heartland Institute scandal, in which a prominent scientist and climate activist, Dr. Peter Gleick, leaked the climate sceptical group’s confidential strategy documents. The story has unleashed a furious response in the scientific and environmental communities and has a way to go before abating: Gleick, who obtained the documents illegally, faces severe rebuke and is poised to lose his job; the environmental blog  that first published the leaked papers may find itself the subject of legal action.

The controversy over how the papers were obtained unfortunately detracts from what they reveal: an act of high-level political obfuscation playing out against the backdrop of the US presidential race. As George Monbiot pointed out in his Guardian editorial, the Heartland Institute’s opaque funding and anti-science agenda parallel the Super PAC controversy, in which multimillionaires and companies are allowed to contribute unlimited sums to political and presidential campaigns, with little to no disclosure obligation.

The Heartland documents are proof of the direct involvement of large corporations in activities where most people would agree they should have no remit: General Motors, for example, and the science curriculum in public schools. GM claims that its donations were earmarked for a different project, but the real issue is the discrepancy between the company’s public façade and its private donations to a lobby bent on systematically discrediting climate science. The Heartland Institute, like many other outfits of its ilk, has charity tax status, and its mission statement to ‘discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems’, belies the group’s substantial budget and political reach. And indeed, with no legal requirement for this information to be disclosed to the public, it’s in the group’s best interest to remain secretive.

ClientEarth strongly believes in civil society’s participation in the democratic process and policy making, and NGOs and think tanks when operating properly are often the best means of giving the public a voice in the political and policy arenas. But the system relies on transparency to work. This problem is not only an American one: last week the UK Charity Commission allowed a UK climate sceptic think tank to keep its donor base confidential. One of ClientEarth’s main programmatic strands of work is dedicated to access to information within the European Union. Our governments should demand full transparency of charitable accounts so that real people’s voices aren’t drowned out by private interest.

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