Has the Natural Resources Defense Council Abandoned its Core Mission?

Originally published by The Kennedy Beacon on Substack

On Friday, April 19, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) launched an attack against independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In an open letter, the prominent environmental group called on Kennedy to abandon the 2024 race in favor of Joe Biden’s reelection.

“Honor our planet, drop out,” read the letter, published as a full-page ad. The ad continued, “RFK Jr. has chosen to play the role of election spoiler to the benefit of Donald Trump – the single worst environmental president our country has ever had.”

Kennedy would certainly agree with the latter, choosing to run for president in part because he is uniquely qualified to tackle environmental issues – infinitely more so than Trump or Biden.

The New York Times was quick to amplify the ad through an article published the same day the ad was released.

Noted in the article, almost as an after-thought, was Kennedy’s long list of accomplishments in the environmental movement, including, with Riverkeeper, helping to clean up the Hudson River, and, together with the Waterkeeper Alliance, closing a landfill polluting New York’s water supply.

Kennedy worked with the NRDC for nearly three decades as senior attorney, opposing President George W. Bush’s disastrous environmental policies. In 2017, Kennedy blasted Trump’s nominations of ExxonMobil executive Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and Oklahoma’s Attorney General Scott Pruitt, friend of oil and natural gas industry giants, as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head.

But the letter played down Kennedy’s accomplishments and made no mention of his common sense environmental platform; the NRDC instead resorted to ineffective and inappropriate name-calling (science-denier and anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist) to justify spurning their former colleague.

One need not speculate that politics and money are likely primary motivators behind this unconvincing campaign to jettison Kennedy from the Democratic environmental institution. The NRDC’s letter clearly identifies itself as “paid political advertising,” funded by the NRDC Action Funddescribed by Politico as the organization’s political arm.

NRDC was founded in 1970 by Whitney North Seymour Jr. and Stephen Duggan, environmental lawyers who successfully prevented Consolidated Edison from constructing a new hydroelectric power station along the Hudson River. Despite the appeal of renewable hydroelectric energy, the plant was to be built into Storm King Mountain, threatening local fish species and hiking routes. Along with David Sive, Seymour and Duggan represented a dozen citizens in Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission, a landmark case “credited with launching the modern environmental movement,” according to the Marist College Environmental History Project.

Image source: Scenic Hudson via the Bard Center for Environmental Policy

Following their victory, Seymour, Duggan and Sive sought funding from the Ford Foundation to launch the NRDC to pursue broader environmental defense efforts. There were, however, strings attached, as recounted by Daniel Berman and John T. O’Connor in their 1996 book, Who Owns the Sun? People, Politics, and the Struggle for a Solar Economy. The foundation offered NRDC seed funding on the condition that it appoint as trustees oil-rich conservatives and Laurance Rockefeller, who was a backer of the defeated Con Ed power plant alongside his brother, then-New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. Laurance’s leadership position at the NRDC granted him the problematic ability to influence the activities of the nascent organization, including “coerc[ing] the NRDC into dropping its controversial strategy of suing corporations,” as noted by Michael Barker in a 2008 paper. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund began funding the NRDC shortly thereafter.

Today, the NRDC is run by president and CEO Manish Bapna, who took office in 2021 after a 25-year career across the World Resources Institute (WRI), the World Bank, and global consulting firm McKinsey & Company. 

Ironically, among WRI’s recent benefactors are some of the world’s most prolific corporate polluters (such as 3MBASFChevron, and DuPont); the usual suspects, Pfizer and BlackRock; and powerful nongovernmental organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Economic Forum. Many of these same companies are clients of McKinsey & Company, notorious for so-called “greenwashing, whereby a company makes a false claim about something it is doing for a good cause, such as environmental preservation.”

But it’s not just industry guiding NRDC’s “activism.” Chief Science Officer Ticora V. Jones was previously Biden’s chief scientist at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), nominated to the position in November 2021. USAID was described in Cold War Anthropology: The CIA, The Pentagon, and the Growth of Dual Use Anthropology as a cover organization for both domestic surveillance and foreign regime change operations on behalf of the CIAMatthew Tejada, senior vice president of environmental health, joined NRDC from Biden’s EPA. Executive Director Christy Goldfuss led multiple White House climate programs in the Obama-Biden White House. Senior vice president for climate and energy Jackie Wong previously worked for McKinsey & Company and as a senior Obama-Biden advisor.

NRDC trustee, Lynn Price, was lead author on multiple key reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the primary organ behind the “climate change orthodoxy,” as Kennedy has put it. [Kennedy’s perspective on climate change has evolved over time, including his advocacy for regenerative agriculture, as written about in The Kennedy Beacon.]

Moreover, there’s little reason to believe there is any meaningful separation between NRDC proper and its multiple pro-Democratic party political wings, including NRDC Action Votes and NRDC Action Fund PAC. Despite being “an affiliated but separate” organization, the NRDC Action Fund is overseen by the NRDC’s Center for Campaigns & Organizing, led by members of the main organization’s executive team. 

In addition to sharing multiple board members, the organizations share a president and CEO in Bapna, who has attended multiple meetings at the Biden White House. One such meeting led the House Oversight Committee to raise concerns over possible ethics violations as it was organized by Gina McCarthy, Bapna’s predecessor at NRDC who took a job as Biden’s inaugural “climate tzar.” McCarthy previously served as head of the EPA in the Obama/Biden administration. In June 2022, McCarthy called on social media companies to “prevent the spread of inaccurate information about climate change and clean energy,” opening the door to accusations of encroaching on First Amendment-protected free speech due to her role as a government official.

While the NRDC has undoubtedly done important work over the years to defend the environment and native communities from pollution, its function has shifted to supporting Democratic candidates and policies—those like the Democratic Party’s “Green New Deal”—which serve the Big Environment industry more than the environment itself. 

The NRDC’s vitriolic spurning of Kennedy, one of their own, whose environmental track record speaks for itself, demonstrates the extent to which the current political divisions in America have caused strident political priorities to supersede the organization’s core mission.

Liam Sturgess is an investigative reporter for The Kennedy Beacon. He is also a writer for the Canadian Covid Care Alliance and founder of White Rose Intelligence. He was the founding co-host and producer of the Rounding the Earth podcast, and publishes a Substack series called Microjourneys.