As environmentalists began ratcheting up pressure against Canada's tar sands three years ago, one of the world's biggest strategic consulting firms was tapped to help the North American oil industry figure out how to handle the mounting activism. The resulting document, published online by WikiLeaks, offers another window into how oil and gas companies have been scrambling to deal with unrelenting opposition to their growth plans.
The document identifies nearly two-dozen environmental organizations leading the anti-oil sands movement and puts them into four categories: radicals, idealists, realists and opportunists—with how-to's for managing each. It also reveals that the worst-case scenario presented to industry about the movement's growing influence seems to have come to life.
The December 2010 presentation by Strategic Forecasting, or Stratfor, a global intelligence firm based in Texas, mostly advised oil sands companies to ignore or limit reaction to the then-burgeoning tar sands opposition movement because "activists lack influence in politics." But there was a buried warning for industry under one scenario: Letting the movement grow unopposed may bring about "the most significant environmental campaign of the decade."
Three years ago, Franke James was a little-known artist who found herself blacklisted by the Canadian government for making art that lambasted the rapidly expanding tar sands. Infuriated and emboldened by the censure, James churned out a slew of pieces criticizing the government, published a book and in the process became one of Canada's most outspoken environmental activists.
Now, the Toronto resident is embarking on a new mission. She wants to raise awareness in the United States about what she believes are Prime Minister Stephen Harper's continuing undemocratic tactics to squash opposition to his oil agenda.
In doing so, she hopes to help persuade the Obama administration to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. The contentious project would carry 830,000 barrels a day of tar sands crude from Alberta to Texas and open a gateway for the flow of the dirtier grade of oil to export markets abroad. A decision is expected next year.
When a United Nations panel of experts released a report last week affirming that man-made climate change is a scientific certainty, skeptics of global warming were noisily trying to discredit the panel. In the process, they drowned out the critiques of a far different group.
A broad array of leading climate scientists and policy specialists were also criticizing the panel for the exact opposite reason: They believe the main conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) may be too general and too conservative to convey a clear message about the grave threat of warming and to inform policies to address local climate change issues. They say that after 25 years it might be time to overhaul the organization and refocus its research priorities.
"The state of the science and the questions to be answered have changed," said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research who has worked with the IPCC since the early 1990s.
Conservative groups at the forefront of global warming skepticism are doubling down on trying to discredit the next big report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In recent weeks, they've been cranking out a stream of op-eds, blogs and reports to sow doubt in the public's mind before the report is published, with no end in sight.
"The goal is to inform the public, scientific community and media that the upcoming IPCC report doesn't have all the science to make informed judgments," said Jim Lakely, a spokesman for the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Chicago that has been spearheading the efforts.
Heartland gained notoriety last year after running a billboard campaign comparing climate change believers to "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, which caused several corporate donors to withdraw support for the group.
The fifth assessment by the IPCC, the world's leading scientific advisory body on global warming, is expected to conclude with at least 95 percent certainty that human activities have caused most of earth's temperature rise since 1950, and will continue to do so in the future. That's up from a confidence level of 90 percent in 2007, the year the last assessment came out. The IPCC, which consists of thousands of scientists and reviewers from more than 100 countries, shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Vice President Al Gore. Governments often use its periodic reviews of climate risks to set targets for reducing carbon emissions and other policies.
The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline has become a top priority for environmental groups and some politicians who oppose the project—and not just in America.
With tensions over the controversial pipeline reaching fever pitch stateside, political activists and leaders abroad are closely watching the developments on the Keystone as a barometer of how willing and able President Obama is to make hard policy choices on global warming, according to an informal InsideClimate News survey.
"Obama's intentions on climate change are under intense international scrutiny," said Nick Mabey, founding director and chief executive of E3G, a London-based environmental organization. "Any move he makes will be carefully analyzed by the European Union and China to see what it says about his willingness to fight hard on climate change issues."
In recent years, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva has seen his district in southern Arizona ravaged by wildfires, heat and drought. Dozens lost their lives and thousands were forced to evacuate their homes. Agricultural production has slowed and water supplies are shrinking.
Which is why Grijalva, a six-term Democrat, set out to make climate change a top priority.
He helped create the Southwest Climate Science Center at the University of Arizona and is part of the Safe Climate Caucus, a group of House members committed to raising the profile of global warming. In May, he organized a letter to Pres. Obama signed by 30 members of Congress urging the president to reject the Keystone XL pipeline because of climate concerns.
"I've lived in my part of Arizona my whole life," Grijalva, 65, said in an interview. "I've never seen conditions like the ones we've had the last few years. Watching my constituents deal with the effects of climate change—the droughts, the record temperatures, the fires—how could I not make it a priority?"
In the district next door to Grijalva's, however, the message being conveyed is far different.
Scientists agree that climate change was very likely one of the underlying triggers for the Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona that killed 19 firefighters on June 30. But while some of the nation's media have acknowledged global warming's link to the tragedy, others have ignored it entirely.
The discrepancy highlights an ethical question that is expected to increasingly confront publications and TV networks as climate-related calamities are set to rise: Amid loss of life in weather disasters, when is it appropriate to speak of climate change?
"This is a question journalists need to answer sooner rather than later," said Hunter Cutting, a climate communications expert for the non-profit group Climate Nexus. "Extreme weather is only going to get worse."
But the answer, according to experts, isn't straightforward.
As President Obama begins the gargantuan task of selling his climate agenda to the American people, in his corner are wealthy donors he can count on to help him get what he wants.
From Wall Street whizzes to franchise owners, these donors have poured time and money to further the president's climate agenda. But two stand out: Tom Steyer, a San Francisco-based hedge fund manager, and Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder.
Steyer and Hughes are hardly equal counterweights to the billionaire Koch brothers—two of Obama's fiercest opponents—who for decades have quietly used their wealth and influence to thwart action on climate change. Charles and David Koch are each worth $34 billion, according to Forbes. Steyer is worth about $1.4 billion and Hughes about $700 million.
Still, these newcomers to the fray are helping level the playing field in what has long been a lopsided fight inside the Beltway for America's energy future.
As America's debate about global warming became politicized over the past half-decade, the controversy entered a new battleground: the nation's classrooms.
From coast to coast, school boards, teachers and parents became embroiled in disputes over whether or how to teach students about climate change. At the same time, dozens of "academic freedom bills" were filed in state legislatures mandating that equal time be given to teaching the belief that climate science isn't settled. And conservative organizations poured millions of dollars into developing educational materials and curricula to teach climate skepticism as a valid scientific proposition.
Standing front and center in the fight against these efforts is the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland-based non-profit group that helps to keep politics, religion and ideology out of science classrooms. Leading the group's 4,500 members—which include scientists, teachers, clergy and citizens—is Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist and author of the 2005 book Evolution vs. Creationism.
Mainstream environmental groups in Illinois celebrated last month after state lawmakers approved a bill regulating fracking—a bill the environmental groups themselves had helped write in a unique collaboration with the fossil fuel industry and politicians.
Local grassroots groups, however, want fracking in Illinois stopped altogether, not simply regulated with legislation. They are not only protesting the law, but also their one-time allies.
"A lot of people feel betrayed and sold out," said Sandra Steingraber, an environmental health expert and Illinois native who has joined the anti-fracking grassroots campaign. For years, the grassroots groups had worked with mainstream organizations to persuade legislators to institute a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, she said. "Without consulting the grassroots, these compromise-oriented [mainstream] groups seemingly dropped the joint fight for a moratorium in favor of regulation written behind closed doors ... They were negotiating on our behalf without our permission."