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This conservative group is tired of being accused of climate denial — and is fighting back

(AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Facing a loss of high-profile corporate sponsors, a conservative state-level policy group — the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — threatened action in recent weeks against activist groups that accuse it of denying climate change.

Attorneys for ALEC sent letters to Common Cause and the League of Conservation Voters asking them to immediately “cease making false statements” and “remove all false or misleading material” suggesting that ALEC does not believe in global warming.

The activist groups refused the request, saying ALEC’s advocacy of legislation on climate issues and its public discussion of the topic support their claims.

The legal demands from ALEC follow an exodus of some of its best known corporate members, including Google, British Petroleum, Facebook, Yahoo and Northrop Grumman. Activist groups had pressured these corporate sponsors in recent years to abandon their support for organizations that they believe oppose action to stem climate change. Google publicly connected its decision to stop funding ALEC to the climate change issue. 

The legal spat is an escalation of the conflict and suggests ALEC is feeling the heat of the activist groups’ efforts. It also suggests a new risk to organizations that rely on the donations from companies that do not want to be associated with organizations accused of denying that human activity is warming the atmosphere at an alarming rate.

The dispute comes at a time when conservative states and lawmakers and some energy sectors — especially coal interests — are also amping up their battle against the Obama administration’s push to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, a move that will shift the nation toward more use of natural gas and renewable energy.

In a separate example that echoes ALEC’s plight, Southern Co., the country’s fourth-largest electric utility, recently decided to quietly drop its funding for controversial scientist Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, a solar physicist at the the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory who has challenged the consensus view that links recent climate change to man-made greenhouse gases. Some of Soon’s research came under question following revelations that he did not disclose that this work was paid for by fossil-fuel interests, including Southern, which operates coal-fired utility plants.

The company had been underwriting Soon’s research through a grant to the Smithsonian-affiliated laboratory where the scientists works, but the company has decided to end the relationship later this year, a spokesman confirmed. Soon declined a request to comment.

Lobbyists for the industry say they no longer focus on questioning scientific consensus.

“The science issue just isn’t as salient as it once was,” said Scott Segal, who represents energy interests at Bracewell & Giuliani. Debate over climate science was “all the rage” in the past, he said. “But today, the key issue is whether proposed regulations cost too much, weaken reliability or are illegal.”

ALEC officials insist that their nonprofit state-level policy organization does not deny climate change and that they have been overhauling their organization to be more transparent and more welcoming to divergent views. ALEC’s attorneys cite the organization’s model legislation, distributed to state lawmakers, acknowledging that “human activity has and will continue to alter the atmosphere of the planet,” which “may lead to demonstrable changes in climate.”

Environmental groups, however, have been increasingly worried about the role played by ALEC, which is made up of several thousand mostly GOP state legislators and financed by several hundred corporate and foundation members. The group has a successful track record of designing and passing state level legislation on issues such as gun rights, criminal justice and voting rights.

In a letter last week, attorneys for Common Cause cited the model legislation as evidence that its complaints about ALEC are “entirely consistent with how ALEC has discussed, characterized, and approached the issue of climate change.”

In 2013, ALEC offered the “model legislation,” still available on its Web site, to state legislators saying that the science was uncertain about the role of human activity in changing the atmosphere. The model resolution noted that “such activity may lead to deleterious, neutral or possibly beneficial climatic changes. Further, a great deal of scientific uncertainty surrounds the nature of these prospective changes, and the cost of regulation to inhibit such changes may lead to great economic dislocation.”

“We don’t think ALEC or organizations like it are done attacking progress on climate change,” said Kert Davies, a longtime environmental activist who now leads a small non-profit called the Climate Investigations Center, which has distributed documents showing that industry funding has flowed to scientists who publicly dispute climate change. “It is hard to imagine these organizations turning a corner and suddenly being open to an honest discussion of real environmental policy.”

Along with Common Cause, the League of Conservation Voters has repeatedly criticized ALEC for pushing legislation to undercut renewable energy, such as solar and wind power. A 2014 campaign sought the defeat of Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), a former ALEC board member who said during a debate last year that they he does not believe climate change “is a fact.”

Common Cause and LCV officials said the legal demands from ALEC would not alter their position.

“We don’t appreciate the attempt to silence LCV just because we disagree with ALEC’s positions,” said David Willett, LCV’s senior vice president for communications. “Usually if someone wants to get serious about tackling climate change, they ask about working with us, they don’t threaten to sue us.”

In addition to the model legislation, environmental groups point to ALEC’s national meetings. At ALEC’s December meeting in Washington, for example, two speakers led a seminar emphasizing the ways in which carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere provide benefits to the environment and the economy over time. One of the speakers, Craig Idso, said he does not deny climate change but disagrees with the dire consensus view of international scientists convened by the United Nations.

“We all think carbon dioxide has an impact on climate, it’s a question of how much of an impact,” said Idso, former director of environmental science at Peabody Energy, the coal company. He currently chairs a small climate science think tank.

ALEC officials don’t dispute that skeptical presentations have occurred at meetings in the past, sometimes under sponsorship from energy interests. But they insist that ALEC, under new leadership, welcomes debate, including new members who support renewable energy, a carbon tax and other measures to curb global warming.

ALEC’s efforts comes at the same time as a number of major corporations — including some in the fossil-fuels industry — are seeking to avoid taking positions on climate change that are at odds with mainstream science.

ALEC came in to the public eye following the shooting a few years ago of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. The organization backed model gun rights bills similar to the controversial “Stand Your Ground” law first passed in Florida.

Since then, corporate funders have been pressured to leave as Common Cause and other organizations complained it is little more than a lobbying shop for corporate interests, a charge ALEC has long denied.

Last year, ALEC refashioned itself, naming a new chief executive, Lisa B. Nelson, and announcing it would drop gun rights and other controversial social issues from its portfolio to concentrate on issues of economic liberty.

Nelson and her team also vowed to make the secretive organization more transparent.

“There is a new ALEC now that is interested in dialogue and discussion. It is a big sandbox, and there is room for a lot of ideas,” says Bill Meierling, ALEC’s vice president for public affairs. But, he said. ALEC won’t tolerate guilt by association. That is why lawyers at the Washington firm representing ALEC — Webster, Chamberlain & Bean — sent letters demanding immediate retraction of statements suggesting ALEC denied climate change.

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