It may look as if Democratic governors — not climate change activists — are driving the campaign to “fill the void” left by President Trump’s exit from the Paris agreement, but that’s not necessarily the impression left by behind-the-scenes emails.
Shortly after the June 1 launch of the U.S. Climate Alliance, a senior aide to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee warned Climate Nexus Executive Director Jeff Nesbit that some governors were considering withdrawing from the multistate coalition aimed at meeting the targets of the global warming accord.
“Can you call me asap?” Sam Ricketts, director of Mr. Inslee’s Washington, D.C., office, asked in a June 5 email. “Sounds like we states have some particular, and substantively very valid, concerns about how this coalition is messaged. If not met I think states will pull out.”
“OMG, come on. I’ve been dealing with this all weekend,” Mr. Nesbit responded. “We’re not messaging it incorrectly at this point. But yes, I’ll call you.”
It turns out that the governors who descended this week on the Bonn climate summit had plenty of help — not just from state aides, but also from a kind of shadow staff supplied by climate change advocacy groups and funded by liberal foundations in support of the ambitious foreign policy effort.
A cache of emails obtained via open records requests by Competitive Enterprise Institute senior fellow Chris Horner shows state employees relying on activists for organizational and communications work in what he described as “outsourcing government off the books.”
The relationship raises questions about whether the governors have crossed an ethical line by bringing in privately funded advocacy groups to help staff a multistate operation — apparently at no charge — and whether their time and resources constituted a gift that would need to be disclosed to the public.
“It is inarguable. They are being given very expensive staff time and services,” said Mr. Horner. “These governors should immediately release all details about the collusion with these groups, who themselves have a lot to answer for.”
The alliance of 14 states and Puerto Rico is led by Mr. Inslee, California Gov. Jerry Brown and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Their offices did not respond immediately Tuesday to requests for comment.
“In all three of those states, a gift is anything of value,” Mr. Horner said in an email. “The gifts here include a report, and PR services yielding, for example, a New York Times story promoting their ‘leadership.’ We see they met to discuss private offers to hire staffers to be at politicians’ disposal.”
Who’s in charge? Who’s paying?
It’s not uncommon for governors to seek out the expertise of think tanks, universities, corporations and advocacy groups when preparing policy initiatives on matters such as energy, education and the economy.
But the email traffic from Mr. Inslee’s office indicates that activists play an outsize role in not merely advising but also running the day-to-day operations of the “bipartisan coalition of states,” which includes one Republican: Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker.
The U.S. Climate Alliance website is operated by climate activists, not state staff, judging from another email exchange between Mr. Ricketts and Mr. Nesbit.
“How come governors aren’t even listed on the website?” Mr. Ricketts asked in a June 5 email.
Mr. Nesbit replied: “They will be! I promise. It’s controlled by WWF [apparently referring to the World Wildlife Fund]. They’re melting down over there. I’ll make sure the 9 governors are listed ASAP.”
Mr. Nesbit also wore the hat of press secretary, saying he needed to send a joint statement from Mr. Inslee, Mr. Brown and Mr. Cuomo to The New York Times.
“Do you have it? Is it approved? Is Inslee available to talk to the NYT and others today before Trump does his Rose Garden ceremony at the WH?” Mr. Nesbit asked in the June 1 email.
According to Mr. Nesbit, Climate Nexus, a sponsored project of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, provided its services free of charge and without a contract.
“We worked with them at no cost just as we work with a wide range of groups,” Mr. Nesbit said in an email to The Washington Times.
In September, the alliance issued a 12-page report that included extensive data from the Rhodium Group on the economic output and net greenhouse gas emissions of the 14 member states compared with the rest of the states.
Who compiled and paid for the report? Not Rhodium, according to a spokeswoman, although The New York Times described it at the time as “a new study by the research firm Rhodium Group.”
“U.S. Climate Alliance state staff put together the report using data that the Rhodium Group produced as part of previous projects which were funded by private philanthropy,” Rhodium spokeswoman Hannah Hess said in an email to The Washington Times.
The Rhodium Group is headed by former Hillary Clinton campaign climate and energy adviser Trevor Houser, who also co-directs the Climate Impact Lab.
‘A tsunami of Pulitzers’
Even before Mr. Trump announced his intention in June to exit the 2015 Paris climate accord, state employees in California, New York and Washington had discussed enlisting the help of outside advocacy groups.
Aimee Barnes, senior adviser to Mr. Brown, proposed reaching out to the Georgetown Climate Center, Under2 Coalition and others, saying that “it can’t always be us staff running around trying to corral each other for sign on.”
“We are fortunate that at the moment there are many resources keen to be at our disposal to support us further, but in order to make the best use of them, we need to tell them what we need,” Ms. Barnes said in a May 5 email.
Mr. Ricketts responded in a May 9 email by noting, “Theres of course a plethora of advocate and funder interest,” adding, “we can approach the different groups (G-town, Rhodium, UNF, whomever) about which of them will play a roll.”
A week later, Georgetown Climate Center Deputy Director Kathryn Zyla provided an update in an email sent to state staffers and climate change advocates.
“We also wanted to let you know that we are working with the Georgetown IT department to develop a platform that can assist this group with communications and shared resources, and will keep you posted. (Please let us know if you have any thoughts on key features for that platform.),” Ms. Zyla said in a May 16 email.
GCC spokesman Chris Coil said the group had no contract with the states. “We support state engagement on climate change (as we have done on a bipartisan basis for many years) free of charge,” he said.
Inslee senior adviser Chris Davis put in a plug for Ann McCabe and her team at the Climate Registry, calling them in a June 5 email “great partners who’ve covered our costs for COPs and provided extraordinary on site services and support.”
The Bonn climate summit, which runs through Friday, is officially known as COP23, or the 23rd session of the Conference of the Parties, an annual event sponsored by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The 2015 Paris Agreement, a nonbinding accord calling for signatory nations to lower emissions in order to hold temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius this century, was hammered out at COP21.
Those attending COP23 included Mr. Brown and Mr. Inslee, as well as fellow alliance members Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who participated in a Monday panel on “U.S. state-driven climate leadership.”
“The U.S. Climate Alliance has a message for the world: We are here. We are your allies on climate change,” the alliance said in a Nov. 6 press release, which listed a Climate Nexus staffer as the contact.
Mr. Trump said he would withdraw from the Paris agreement unless the conditions were changed, saying it puts the U.S. economy at a “very, very big economic disadvantage.”
Is enlisting climate activists to assist state staff a problem if they are both acting at the direction of the governor? Mr. Horner asked how the media would react if, for example, the Koch brothers provide staffing on behalf of a Republican governor.
“This would unleash a tsunami of Pulitzers and hysteria if the political parties or priorities were changed,” said Mr. Horner. “Here is a real test for ‘good government’ activists — is this all right if the ‘right’ politicians and donors pushing the approved agenda outsource government?”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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