HERE’S A SHORT LIST of people on the front lines of climate change: the residents of Tuvalu, the Maldives, and other island nations facing rising oceans; the Arctic Inuit, whose food supply and way of life is threatened by melting sea ice; Africans at risk from even more devastating droughts. What do they have in common? Answer: They’re all people of color. In the United States, too, “unemployment and economic hardship associated with climate change will fall most heavily on the African American community,” according to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
So why, then, does the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one of the nation’s most storied civil rights groups, organizer of the Freedom Rides and the 1963 March on Washington, attack those who want to curb global warming? ExxonMobil, which in 2003 gave CORE $40,000 ($15,000 was earmarked for “global climate outreach”), would obviously like to avoid any appearance that its products and policies are a slow-moving assault on poor people of color. How better than to turn the accusation around? In that bit of public relations jujitsu, CORE has been most useful. To those familiar with CORE’s recent history, its allegiance to ExxonMobil comes as no surprise. In 1968, Roy Innis seized control of CORE and moved the group to the far right. Innis has been accused by founder James Farmer and other black leaders of renting out CORE’s historic reputation to corporations like Monsanto and ExxonMobil. (CORE even mounted a counterprotest to environmentalists picketing an ExxonMobil shareholders’ meeting.) “We all want to protect our planet,” says CORE spokesman (and Roy’s son) Niger Innis. “But we must stop trying to protect it from minor or illusory threats—and doing it on the backs, and the graves, of the world’s most powerless and impoverished people.” Niger Innis has also said that the terms “eco-imperialism” and “eco-slaughter” should be household words.
Helping CORE form these talking points is its senior policy adviser, Paul Driessen, the author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death, who also works with several other ExxonMobil-funded groups. At a 2004 ExxonMobil shareholders’ meeting, Driessen referred to CORE as “one of America’s oldest and most respected civil rights organizations” and called for greater funding for the group.
I met Driessen at AEI’s Michael Crichton event. He looked like every other white, middle-aged wonk in the room. He promptly told me I had a homework assignment, reached into his briefcase, and pulled out a copy of Eco-Imperialism, which pictures a starving African child on the cover. Environmentalists, presumably, are responsible for such suffering. With a courtly flourish, Driessen inscribed the book, “To Chris, to get you started on your own search for truth, science, and human progress.” Tucked inside was his CORE business card.