Founded in 1892 by John Muir to “make the mountains glad,” the Sierra Club is the oldest and arguably the most powerful environmental group in the nation. But its concerns are no longer limited to the happiness of the highlands. Once dedicated to conserving wilderness for future human enjoyment, the Sierra Club has become an anti-growth, anti-technology, anti-energy group that puts its utopian environmentalist vision before the well-being of humans.
Some of its leadership positions are held by activists with radical ties and even violent criminals. The Club has done well preserving a “mainstream” image, despite its increasingly radical bent. And with an annual budget of roughly $100 million, the organization has the money and power to push that radical agenda.
The Sierra Club advocates a number of extremist policies that put the organization odds with the scientific community. For instance, the organization advocates an end to obtaining energy from ANY fossil fuel sources, nuclear power, or large-scale hydroelectric projects even though leading climate change scientists note that wind and solar aren’t enough to meet our energy needs. The Sierra Club also stirs up controversy regarding genetically modified foods, though the scientific consensus is that there’s no evidence GMOs are harmful.
To fund its radical activist agenda, the Sierra Club gathers funding from a suspicious maze of donations, including funding from an off-shore shell company based in Bermuda. Even more alarmingly, U.S. taxpayers are funding a portion of the Sierra Club’s extremist activities—the organization’s lawsuits against the EPA have netted the organization almost a million dollars in attorneys’ fees paid by the Department of Justice.
Now that the Sierra Club has joined with a coalition of environmental activist groups, labor unions, and other left-liberal groups to form the Democracy Initiative, the Sierra Club has an even more powerful platform to promote its radical agenda.
Path to Radicalism
The Sierra Club was originally founded in 1892, but grew dramatically under the leadership of radical activist David Browser in the 1950s and 1960s. Browser advocated a form of eugenics: “Childbearing [should be] a punishable crime against society, unless the parents hold a government license… All potential parents [should be] required to use contraceptive chemicals, the government issuing antidotes to citizens chosen for childbearing.”
The Club moved even further toward extremism when it elected animal liberation extremist Paul Watson to its board of directors in 2003. Watson founded the ultra-radical Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) in 1977 after being booted from Greenpeace (which he also co-founded) for espousing violence in the name of the environment. Watson and his Sea Shepherds — declared pirates by the Chief Judge of the 9th United States Circuit Court of Appeals — sail the high seas, terrorizing the fishing industry by sinking ships and endangering lives. “I got the impression that instead of going out to shoot birds, I should go out and shoot the kids who shoot birds,” says Watson (as quoted in Access to Energy, 1982). Unsurprisingly, Watson told the animal rights magazine SATYA that his “ten commandments” include Number One: “Don’t bring any more humans into being. There are enough of us.”
In 2003 Watson announced that he was openly “advocating the takeover of the Sierra Club,” claiming to be just three votes shy of controlling a majority of the group’s 15-member board. During the Sierra Club’s 2004 election season, Watson allied himself with candidates endorsing strict limits to legal immigration. Promising to “use the resources of the $95-million-a-year budget” to address both immigration policy and animal-rights issues, Watson actively promoted his chosen slate of candidates. While he lost in a record turnout, Watson remained on the Sierra Club’s board until 2006.
Watson is now an international fugitive, with Costa Rica seeking his extradition to face charges relating to a 2002 incident where he allegedly used his ship to ram a Costa Rican boat he says was running an illegal shark finning operation. In 2012, Watson was detained by officials in Germany in relation to the incident, but skipped bail and fled the country. In July 2012 Interpol issued an international request for his arrest. Japan has also flagged Watson with Interpol for arrest. The country accuses Watson of “breaking into [a] vessel, damage to property, forcible obstruction of business, and injury” in 2010.
Suing for Profit
The Sierra Club is no stranger to the courtroom. It’s one of many environmental groups that have colluded with federal agencies in “sue and settle” lawsuits.
In these cases, environmental activists sue the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), arguing that the agency is taking too long to issue a particular regulation or that the agency isn’t meeting a specific legal requirement. The EPA can then either defend itself in court or settle with the environmentalists. In several cases the EPA issued a consent agreement to settle cases the very same day activists filed their lawsuits.
In many cases, if the environmentalists are successful in suing the EPA, the groups’ attorneys’ fees are paid by the federal government. According to a 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office, between 1995 and 2010, taxpayers reimbursed the Sierra Club to the tune of $966,687.
The Club has also profited from lawsuits under California’s Proposition 65 “bounty hunter” law.
The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology notes that one of Sierra Club former executive director Carl Pope’s “major accomplishments” is his co-authorship of California’s infamous Proposition 65, which requires any product containing one of several hundred “known carcinogens” to bear a warning label — even if the chemical appears in concentrations so low that adverse health effects are likely to be nil or negligible.
Prop 65 has a “bounty hunter” provision to encourage frivolous lawsuits by trial lawyers looking to cash in on any product containing a listed “carcinogen” and lacking a warning label. Prop 65 “violators” can be fined up to $2,500 per day, per violation, and plaintiffs can collect up to 25 percent of the total take. Between 2000 and 2010, nearly $90 million went to pay attorney fees, with another $33 million going to plaintiff organizations or groups designated by plaintiffs.
Between 2000 and 2002, one California group called As You Sow (AYS) reaped more than $1.5 million playing the Prop 65 lawsuit game. Former Sierra Club President and current board member Larry Fahn is also AYS’s executive director. A self-described “leading enforcer of Proposition 65,” As You Sow functions as a litigation machine, conjuring up lawsuit after lawsuit. The group has sued everyone from scuba gear manufacturers and retailers to the makers of nail care products.
Under Fahn’s leadership, AYS routes its Prop 65 money to some of the most radical groups around, including the Rainforest Action Network and the Ruckus Society (both co-founded by Earth First! godfather Mike Roselle), as well as California affiliates of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Waterkeeper Alliance and David Brower’s Earth Island Institute.
The Sierra Club is one of the best-funded environmental activist groups with over $79 million in assets on its last tax return.
Tracing the murky maze of donations almost requires a finance degree. An exposé by the Washington Free Beacon uncovered that Klein Ltd., a company incorporated in Bermuda that exists solely on paper, donated millions of dollars to the Sea Change Foundation.
The Sea Change Foundation then passed a massive amount of money to the Sierra Club Foundation—a total of $5.45 million in 2012 alone.
Ron Arnold, author of Undue Influence: Wealthy Foundations, Grant-Driven Green Groups, and Zealous Bureaucrats That Control Your Future, described the strategy to the Free Beacon:
A number of Big Green donors have chosen offshore foundations for government-guaranteed anonymity… Several countries have become favorites in the no-disclosure-required industry, notably Bermuda, Panama, and Liechtenstein.
SeaChange also donates money to the Tides Foundation, which behaves less like a philanthropic organization than a legal front for laundering donations that might otherwise draw scrutiny. Tides has collected over $200 million since 1997, most of it from other foundations, and in turn uses that money to fund environmental activist campaigns. This way, more mainstream foundations can donate to more radical causes without a money trail. In 2011 alone, Tides gave over $600,000 to the Sierra Club, including $300,000 to “Research education and organizing of dirty fuels.”
The Club also received $50 million from billionaire former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg for its anti-coal work.
“Beyond” Energy Campaigns
“They’re cheating themselves if they keep believing this fiction that all we need is renewable energy such as wind and solar.”
– James Hansen, former NASA climate change scientist to the Associated Press
One of the Sierra Club’s primary goals is to shrink our energy portfolio to only include renewable resources such as wind and solar. The Club runs campaigns aimed at eliminating the use of fossil fuels, including “Beyond Coal,” “Beyond Natural Gas,” and “Beyond Oil.” Ending the use of fossil fuels isn’t enough for the Club, however. The Sierra Club also opposes the use of nuclear power and large-scale hydropower. Currently, “Sierra Club-approved” energy sources contribute less than 5% of the power in the United States and adoption of their unrealistic energy policy would mean disaster for family budgets and the economy.
Coal receives the brunt of the Sierra Club’s anti-energy activism. The organization claims it is responsible for shutting down proposals for 167 proposed newer and more efficient coal power plants and is working on shutting down the rest of the country’s coal plants. The “Beyond Coal” campaign employs full-time staff “working on nothing but figuring out how to shut down these plants.”
After Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 6 Administrator Al Armendariz was forced to resign from his post after a video surfaced of him likening the agency’s approach to the fossil fuel industry to the crucifixion of Turkish civilians during the Roman Empire, the Sierra Club hired him to become its Senior Campaign Representative for the “Beyond Coal” initiative.
How harmful would “shut[ting] down these plants” actually be for the U.S.? Considering that the country receives 37 percent of its energy from coal, and that we’re sitting on the largest reserve of coal in the world, the answer is “disastrous.” So much for energy independence.
Natural Gas Flip-Flop
The Sierra Club says it supports the conversion of existing coal plants to natural gas as a “bridge until fuel until renewable energy is the predominant energy source.” But once actual plans to increase natural gas use are actually underway, the Sierra Club backs away from its alleged support. In response to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement of a new natural gas power plant, the Sierra Club’s New York “Beyond Coal” spokeswoman said:
Our families can’t afford more dirty fuels like gas and coal that pollute our air and water, disrupt the climate and lead to more frequent and increasingly deadly extreme weather events….The families still struggling to recover from Superstorm Sandy know we can’t wait to build a clean energy economy in New York. It’s time to transition away from the dirty fuels of the past and make the Empire State a national renewable energy leader.
Double Standards on Fossil Fuel Alternatives
If the Sierra Club opposes all fossil fuels as “dirty,” it should favor nuclear energy as a way of producing reliable energy without producing carbon emissions. Yet the organization also claims that “Nuclear is not the answer.”
The extreme position that wind and solar can produce all the energy the world needs is opposed by even the most fervent climate change scientists. Four of the world’s top climate change scientists sent a letter to politicians and environmental groups stating “realistically, they [renewable energy sources] cannot on their own solve the world’s energy problems.” Instead, the scientists call for an increased use of nuclear power to meet the worlds’ growing energy needs.
Ironically, one of the Sierra Club’s key arguments against nuclear power is that it’s “propped up by government subsidies.” However, wind and solar power (the only energy sources strongly supported by the Sierra Club) are not currently viable without massive government subsidies.
Nuclear subsidies are estimated to be at least 0.7 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Meanwhile, solar energy receives about 96 cents per kWh in subsidies. An analysis of subsidies in California found that the state spent twice as much on subsidies for solar power as it did on nuclear power. Wind subsidies are also much higher than those for nuclear energy—5.25 cents per kWh.
The Sierra Club also tries to scare individuals away from supporting nuclear power by arguing that it is unsafe and increases the risk of a terrorist attack. Dr. Kerry Emanuel, an Atmospheric Scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, responded to such criticism of nuclear power:
No energy system is without downsides. We ask only that energy system decisions be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st-century nuclear technology.
Unrealistic Belief in Solar and Wind Energy
Of all the renewable energy sources in the United States, water currently provides the most electricity. Hydropower is the largest source of energy for Northwestern states Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. If you reasonably assumed that the Sierra Club would favor hydropower, however, you’d be wrong.
Hydropower isn’t subject to the intermittency problems of wind and solar—there are times when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, but a river never stops flowing. It’s also much cheaper to produce. But the Sierra Club has actively lobbied against large-scale hydropower because the plants could disrupt fish habitats.
Oddly, the Sierra Club strongly supports wind power, despite the fact that wind farms have been blamed for the deaths of roughly 1.4 million birds and bats each year—including many endangered species. In fact, reports show that wind farms were responsible for the deaths of at least 67 bald or golden eagles from 2008-2013, and a study by government biologists predicts that number is probably much higher. Though each death of a bald eagle is a violation of federal law, the Obama Administration says it will allow some wind energy companies to kill or injure bald and golden eagles for up to 30 years without penalty.
Wind can provide an excellent supplement to fossil fuels, but it’s impossible to fully replace fossil fuels using current turbine technology. An average wind farm takes up roughly 4,000 acres and requires 25 wind turbines as tall as 30 story buildings—a huge expanse of land. There also isn’t an adequate way to store wind energy yet for long-term use when the wind doesn’t blow, meaning wind energy farms have to be used in conjunction with other forms of energy to deliver power to customers 24/7.
Solar has also been beset with a number of problems. Aside from the high-profile bankruptcies of government-subsidized firms like Solyndra, new reports are circulating of wide-spread defects in solar panels. Solar panels are supposed to last for roughly 25 years, but many are already failing after two years. Solar energy also requires the highest amount of government subsidies to function and is extremely inefficient. There is also evidence that large-scale solar farms are also a hazard to birds.
Despite the Sierra Clubs purported support for solar energy, it has sued to stop solar energy projects from going forward. In Sierra Club v. California Energy Commission, the Club alleged that the state of California failed to sufficiently analyze the proposed impact of the project on the desert tortoise—an endangered species. The lawsuit was ultimately settled in the state’s favor.
But despite all these problems and contradictions, the Sierra Club asserts that wind and solar energy are the only forms of energy we should use.
Genetically modified food crops have been heralded for their environmental benefits, including the ability to grow more food on less land, and a decreased need for pesticides.
Yet despite all the promise that these revolutionary crops hold for the future, the Sierra Club demands “a moratorium on the planting of all genetically engineered crops and the release of all GEOs [genetically engineered organisms] into the environment, including those now approved.” This technophobic stance falls right in line with former Sierra Club executive director David Brower’s creed: “All technology should be assumed guilty until proven innocent.”
The logical conclusion of this flawed logic is the much-maligned “precautionary principle”; like many other green groups, the Sierra Club uses it to thwart technological progress in the biotech sector; its official policy on agricultural biotechnology on its website states that “We call for acting in accordance with the precautionary principle … we call for a moratorium on the planting of all genetically engineered crops.”
As international food policy expert Dr. Robert Paarlberg has noted in The Wall Street Journal, the “precautionary principle” has run amok, putting millions of lives at risk. “Greens and GM critics,” says Paarlberg, “argue that powerful new technologies should be kept under wraps until tested for unexpected or unknown risks as well. Never mind that testing for something unknown is logically impossible (the only way to avoid a completely unknown risk is never to do anything for the first time).”
Anti-biotechnology zealot (and former Council for Responsible Genetics head) Martin Teitel candidly disclosed activists’ “precautionary” motivation in 2001: “Politically, it’s difficult for me,” Teitel told a scientific conference, “to go around saying that I want to shut this science down, so it’s safer for me to say something like, ‘It needs to be done safely before releasing it.’” Teitel added that implementing the precautionary principle really means: “They don’t get to do it. Period.”
According to Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, widely acknowledged as the “father of the green revolution,” the reckless actions of groups like the Sierra Club may hinder our ability to feed future populations: “I now say,” Borlaug told a De Montfort University crowd in 1997 “that the world has the technology — either available or well-advanced in the research pipeline — to feed a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology. Extremists in the environmental movement from the rich nations seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks.”
Use and Abuse of the Endangered Species Act
There was a time when the Sierra Club was almost entirely concerned with straight-ahead conservation of natural resources. But that time has come and gone. Today’s Club is more concerned with thwarting industry and obstructing technological progress than improving the environment.
- One prime example is the Club’s abuse of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and similar state laws: The Sierra Club is a major advocate of solar energy, but sued in 2012 to stop the development of a large-scale solar plant in California because the project could potentially harm the desert tortoise, golden eagle, and other protected species. The Club argued that the project violated California’s version of the ESA—a claim that the courts ultimately rejected.
- In 2012, the Sierra Club joined the Center for Biological Diversity to stop hunters from using lead ammunition, arguing that it was harmful to the California Condor. The Arizona Department of Fish and Wildlife intervened in the lawsuit, arguing that a mandatory ban would actually hurt efforts to conserve the condor population. The Department also pointed out that “None of the groups that filed the lawsuit have actually participated in on-the-ground condor conservation efforts, despite numerous invitations to join the cooperative partnership that oversees condor conservation in Arizona and Utah.”
- In 1995, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund sought to block a water diversion project for the Animas River in Colorado. The project was to bring water to the town of Durango, Colorado and a Ute Indian Reservation. After successfully getting the project slashed by more than 70 percent, and therefore depriving inhabitants of much-needed water, the Sierra Club lawyers moved the goalposts and demanded the project be cut by another 55 percent. This bad-faith dealing prompted an angry response from then-Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO): “The enviros have never been interested in a compromise. They just simply want to stop development and growth. And the way you do that in the West is to stop water.” And the chairwoman of the Ute Indian tribe lamented: “The environmentalists don’t seem to care how we live.”
- Sierra Club board member Lisa Force once served as regional coordinator of the Center for Biological Diversity, which brags of prying ranchers and their livestock from federal lands. In 2000 and 2003, the two groups sued the U.S. Department of the Interior to force ranching families out of the Mojave National Preserve. These ranchers actually owned grazing rights to the preserve; some families had been raising cattle there for over a century. No matter. Using the Endangered Species Act and citing the supposed loss of “endangered tortoise habitat,” the Club was able to force the ranchers out.
Pushing Plastic Prohibition
The Sierra Club has been pushing policies to abolish so-called single-use plastic items from the United States. Much of its activism against plastic has been done through online advocacy (on plastic phones and computers), but the group has also pushed for anti-plastic legislation, as well.
In one campaign, the Sierra Club is pushing for plastic water bottles to be banned from National Parks in the U.S. The policy had briefly been implemented in 23 parks throughout the country, including the deserts of Zion National Park. But who would want water in a desert, anyway?
The Trump administration overturned the ban because officials did not believe it was right to ban water bottles while sugary sodas and sports drinks could still be sold. Officials did not want to make it more difficult for park visitors to make healthy decisions. In 2020, House Democrats reintroduced a bill to codify the ban on water bottles in the National Parks. The Sierra Club has been supportive of the legislation and circulated a petition to recruit additional support for the policy.
This is not the only effort the Sierra Club has in place to abolish water bottles. The group has put together several advertisements featuring D-list celebrities urging people not to own bottled water. While the Sierra Club is quick to note that climate change can lead to natural disasters like wildfires, the group has not acknowledged the role that water bottles play in addressing natural disasters or other emergencies. The Sierra Club conveniently left out the fact that FEMA keeps a stockpile of water bottles for natural disasters and urges families to keep their own supply for emergencies. The Sierra Club also ignored the fact that people in cities like Flint, Michigan, depend on bottled water to keep them safe when the tap water supply is unsafe because of contaminants like lead or E. coli.
In addition to the war on water bottles, the Sierra Club has supported the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, a policy pushed by the #BreakFreeFromPlastic activists, to outlaw many so-called single-use plastics. The group has been quick to demonize single-use plastics, even the products keeping people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Sierra Club has used its deep pockets to push its extreme environmentalist agenda for decades and shows no signs of stopping. The organization’s collusion with the Environmental Protection Agency to advance its radical agenda will likely lead to much higher energy prices and higher prices of many consumer goods. With this growing influence, the Sierra Club and its fellow environmental activists could successfully push through regulations that cost our economy additional billions in compliance costs—costs that will trickle down to every American.