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The Political Group Trying Rebrand Climate Activism as Right-Wing

The British Conservation Alliance is a new pro-market green group trying to get students into "ecopreneurship".

by Joe Sandler Clarke
09 October 2019, 8:30am

Collage by Marta Parszeniew

The British Conservation Alliance is a new political organisation led by young libertarians promising to break the left’s monopoly on green issues. Its website says it is “empowering students to engage in the principles of pro-market environmentalism and conservative conservation” and it talks of “ecopreneurship”, saying: “the market is continuously innovating and rewarding ecopreneurs who develop environmentally conscious business models and initiatives.”

Since launching in September, its members have written for the Times, the Telegraph and been namechecked in the US Congress. They appeared at events at the Conservative Party conference and are backed by Amber Rudd.

But where did this group come from? What does it want? And who’s giving it money?

The BCA, according to its internal communications officer Danny Al-Khafaji who spoke to VICE on the phone, is there to fill a gap, to provide a balance between Green New Deal politics and the climate denialism of President Trump.

In his Telegraph piece, the group’s founder Christopher Barnard talked up “entreprise-friendly solutions such as green bonds, carbon capture and storage technology, voluntary national frameworks.” In other words, BCA advocate the kind of policies that would have made a difference in the 1980s, before greenhouse gas emissions sky-rocketed alongside rapid globalisation, but which wouldn’t make much of a dent today.

Kirsty Finlayson, a member of the BCA’s senior leadership team, expanded on this during an appearance at the Conservative Party conference, arguing that it was time for people to grow and eat their own worms as a form of sustainable farming. She added that you could use the worms to make "a spaghetti Bolognese".

The group is staffed by student volunteers and Tory millennials. Barnard recently graduated from Kent University, while Al-Khafaji is studying at King’s College.

But the reason the organisation is being noticed is because of its array of advisors and partners. Former energy secretary Amber Rudd is on its board, alongside Ryan Shorthouse, chief executive of liberal-Conservative think tank Bright Blue, as well as Michael Shellenberger, the founder and president of a pro-nuclear group called Environmental Progress.

Shellenberger frequently argues in right-wing newspapers that renewable energy is unreliable, expensive and bad for the environment. He gained attention most recently for suggesting that fires in the Amazon rainforest had been exaggerated by the media.

When VICE asked Rudd and Shorthouse about their role at the BCA, Rudd declined to comment. Shorthouse replied: "I joined the advisory council of the British Conservation Alliance on the basis of it being an organisation that will focus on devising and championing market-based solutions for stronger conservation and deeper decarbonisation. And I will support them as long as they keep to these aims. It is right to give young people a chance, to support their enthusiasm and entrepreneurialism, especially on the urgent tasks of mitigating and adapting to climate change."

The American Conservation Coalition (ACC), whose founder Benji Backer gave a shout out to the BCA when appearing in front of the Senate Climate Crisis Committee last week, is listed as one of the organisation's partners. The ACC is a newly formed think tank urging right-wingers to take climate change seriously. It is backed by a couple of old Republican politicians. Former US Senator Slade Gorton and ex-congressman Bob Dold both sit on the groups board of advisors.

Barnard, the BCA’s founder, is listed as a communications officer for the ACC on its website. The BCA, which also shares a “dot eco” domain name and a very similar Squarespace template with the ACC, is described by Al-Khafaji as the British equivalent of the American organisation, although he’s keen to point out that it’s not the same entity.

Other BCA partners include Brexit cheerleader Daniel Hannan’s Initiative for Free Trade, a group which was prevented from giving itself the grander title of “institute” by regulators when it was founded in 2017 and has close ties to Boris Johnson.

Another is Students For Liberty, an organisation supported by the Atlas Network, which has previously pushed climate scepticism and pro-tobacco talking points through its global network of right-wing think tanks.

At the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, VICE asked Kirsty Finlayson why the BCA is partnered with Students For Liberty, given the Atlas Network’s history. “I don’t believe that we are,” she said. “I have no idea about that affiliation, I’m really sorry. Our organisation is two weeks old. We have recently partnered with American Conservation Alliance, which is our sister organisation in America. I will look into that for you but I can’t answer right now.”

Students for Liberty is listed as a partner of the BCA on its website. The BCA’s development officer, Rob Duffy, is described as “the former Students For Liberty regional director of UK and Ireland and Benelux regions”.

But what is the BCA, exactly? Is it a think tank? A charity?

According to Al-Khafaji: “Everybody in the organisation is a volunteer. We have charity status. It's primarily just an organisation where people would sign volunteer agreements. We all signed volunteer agreements before we officially joined.”

The BCA describes itself as a charitable organisation on its Facebook page. You can add Gift Aid when you donate to the group through its website. I asked the Charity Commission if they had any record of the BCA. A spokeswoman told me: “The British Conservation Alliance is not a registered charity.”

Clear enough. Now what about the Gift Aid issue? According to guidance published by HMRC an organisation can only claim Gift Aid on donations if it is a charity or a community amateur sports club. A look through Companies House shows no sign of the BCA. The group doesn’t seem to have an address. It’s also not a sports club.

I put this to Al-Khafaji. He said that the group is awaiting confirmation from the Home Secretary that it can use “British” in its name, before it can get charitable status. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are concerned that it may be “misleading” to call the group British. “It’s all a bit of a bureaucratic nightmare,” he said.

He said that describing the organisation as a charity on Facebook was an error that will be corrected.

What about funding? Who’s giving this group money?

At first, Al-Khafaji tells me that the BCA website has been opened up for donations “for some time.”

“Predominantly it's just large groups. Well not large – little, small donations from individual donors. Fellow students, for example. Because we've only just got off the ground, we don't have any large funding at this stage, though we are planning to in the future.

“We've been taking donations ever since the website went live on the launch day [September 17]. Because of our association with the organisation Students for Liberty and our other partner organisations, a lot of the individuals that work for those companies have donated.”

That seems clear enough. But shortly after our first phone conversation, Al-Khafaji texted: “Hi. Just checked my team and I can confirm that we are entirely self-funded by our leadership team who have put their own money into this.” The leadership team means the group of Anglo-American students and recent graduates named on the BCA website.

So is the BCA self-funded by its student leaders? Is it taking donations from the right-wing organisations its partnered with? Or is it getting money from somewhere else entirely?

“I got my facts wrong in my initial speaking with you,” said Al-Khafaji, when I got him back on the phone. “I spoke to Barnard and he articulated the fact that we have only been self-funded by the people involved in the project itself and that's because when I initially referred to organisations like Students for Liberty that's because one man on the leadership team, Rob Duffy, used to work for Students for Liberty. He no longer does in an official capacity, but he also helped fund it as well.”

He then told me via email: “We do accept donations as our leadership team have invested a large portion of their own money to get things set up and we need some financial security to keep us afloat. All donations go to our BCA paypal business account, but we have received not a single dime from outside sources yet (we can demonstrate evidence of this if needed).”

I asked Al-Khafaji to please send me the evidence he mentioned.

He emailed a screenshot, dated August 19, that he said was from the BCA’s PayPal account showing that it had -3p in its account.

I put it to Al-Khafaji that it was a bit strange for an organisation to boast about not taking “a single dime” from “outside sources” when a section of its website is dedicated to receiving donations, presumably from outside sources.

He didn’t reply.

Joe Sandler Clarke is a reporter for Unearthed .

@JSandlerClarke