Michael Shellenberger: Why won’t environmentalists denounce solar genocide panels?

The following article was written by Michael Shellenberger and was published at Environmental Progress:

America’s leading climate and environmental groups including Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Energy Foundation, and Environmental Defense Fund have not responded to repeated queries about evidence that China is forcing Uyghur Muslims to make the solar panels that the three groups promote as a core solution to climate change.

NRDCEnvironmental Defense Fund, and Energy Foundation are the three most influential environmental organizations within the Biden Administration and among Democrats in Congress. In December, President Joe Biden named NRDC President & CEO Gina McCarthy as his National Climate Advisor. The organizations routinely denounce abuses of human rights and issue regular calls for environmental justice

Why, then, aren’t they calling for a ban on solar panels made in China?

Conflicts of Interest

Yesterday, the Solar Energy Industries Association issued a set of guidelines, or a “protocol,” for solar panel companies to use to avoid the use of genocide labor. “Solar customers expect their products to be ethically produced, and this protocol helps ensure that solar products coming into the United States are not made using forced labor,” it says.

But conditions in Xinjiang are determined by the Chinese government which is repressing the Muslim population. “It has become almost impossible to talk of voluntary labor among a group of people who are in immediate danger of being incarcerated for no reason whatsoever,” said a Xinjiang expert.

Noted the Wall Street Journal, “Chinese manufacturers aren’t always transparent about where they are getting their raw materials, and wafer makers sometimes mix polysilicon from Xinjiang and other regions together.”

China supplies more than 80% of the world’s polysilicon, the base ingredient for panels. Xinjiang produces half of global production, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The U.S., by contrast, produces less than 5% of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon.

The Association did not respond to my query as to whether or not it would support a ban on solar panels from China until the protocol can be implemented. Republicans have introduced legislation to ban solar panels made in China but have not been joined by Democrats.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government shows no sign of supporting a relocation of its solar panel industry from Xinjiang, and continues to deny claims of genocide. 

NRDC, EDF, and Energy Foundation receive over $100 million each from mostly anonymous donors. One of EDF’s largest donors is oil, gas and renewables investor Julian Robertson, who has donated $60 million to EDF and sits on EDF’s governing board.

NRDC had at least $70 million of its own funds directly invested in natural gas and solar panel companies through BlackRock, a shadow bank whose former senior official, Brian Deese, is head of President Biden’s National Economic Council.

All three have large offices in China. People close to the organizations told me on background that their offices would be jeopardized if any of these groups criticized China for genocide.

In 2018, a “senior strategic director” with NRDC published a book, Will China Save the Planet? a book which praised the country for “leading the development of a global system of green finance.” 

After NRDC was criticized by members of Congress for being too cozy with China, an NRDC spokesperson said, “We’re proud of our work, in China and elsewhere, helping to create a more sustainable future for everyone.”

Last year, BlackRock raised $5 billion for its Global Energy & Power Infrastructure Fund which invested in businesses connected with “renewable energy (solar, wind, hydro and waste-to-energy).”

The same relationships bind EDF. “EDF has served as an advisor on China’s highest international advisory body on the environment,” the organization’s Chinese staff boast, “which reports directly to the Premier every year.”

Some environmentalists like Columbia University’s Director of the Center for Sustainable Development Director, Jeffrey Sachs, recently called the genocide claim “flimsy.” “There are credible charges of human rights abuses against Uighurs,” he adds, “but those do not per se constitute genocide.”

However, the parliaments of the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands and many other nations have described China’s policy as one of genocide.

After I emailed Sachs, who was head of Columbia’s Earth Institute from 2002 to 2016, to ask if he accepted funding from the Chinese government, he replied, “I have no funding from the Chinese government. None at the Center, and none of my projects when I was director of the Earth Institute. Of the approximately 850 staff of more than 25 centers at the Earth Institute, I do not know.”

In 2018, Sachs wrote the foreword to a policy position paper, used for lobbying regulators and policymakers, by telecommunications giant Huawei, and shortly after penned a column urging the Trump administration to back off of efforts to restrict the Chinese company.

On Twitter, Sachs wrote, “I respect Huawei’s technologies, its vision of ICT for development, and the many benefits of Huawei technologies for sustainable development.  I was not and am not paid by Huawei.” Then, 13 days later, after being criticized for his involvement with Huawei, Sachs deleted his Twitter account.

The Chinese government claims that it is fighting terrorism in Xinjiang, an argument Sachs repeated. 

Some Democrats recognize that China’s treatment of the Uyghurs is a problem for solar. “We know we have solar supply chain issues,” said Senator Mark Kelly (D-AZ) at a Senate hearing last month.

But, noted Bloomberg, “Biden can’t just flip a switch to make the problem go away. Instead, his team may have to come up with a phased strategy to address the issue,” and that would take years to implement. 

And even if China were to move all of its solar panel production out of Xanjiang, China’s genocide would continue. “Episodes of forced labor have also been reported in Chinese facilities outside Xinjiang,” notes the New York Times.

So Much for “Never Again”

CNN reported last year that China is torturing many of the two million Muslim that are being held in concentration camps in Xinjiang. Like reporters from Vice and Bloomberg, CNN reporters were constantly followed and harassed by secret Chinese police, including demands for identification at 1 am in the reporter’s hotel room.

“It’s nearly impossible to freely report on the hundreds of thousands of people that are likely languishing in camps right now,” the CNN correspondent repeated. “And that means that the rest of the world can’t really see what’s going on there.”

China’s genocide is high-tech, reports CNN, and global. The government uses facial recognition, GPS tracking devices, and collecting DNA samples from all residents between 12 and 65 years old. The Chinese government is even harassing Chinese nationals in other countries around the world.

Like other researchers and journalists who have been to Xinjiang, the CNN reporter became emotional and spoke in very strong language about the situation. “This is one of the biggest human rights stories on earth. And as we saw firsthand, China is actively trying to cover it up.”

For decades, Hollywood’s leading lights, Harvard professors, and environmentalists have defended the rights of oppressed racial and religious minorities, including Muslims, and promised “never again” in the context of genocide.

And yet all three institutions — Hollywood and the entertainment industry, Harvard and other academic institutions, and environmental groups — have sacrificed “never again,” and concerns about genocide for money, access, and power. 

Columbia University reported none of the money it received for “The Confucius Institute” to the US Education Department, which “is part of a network of chapters believed to be quietly undermining academic freedom on campuses across America,” writes a Columbia graduate student.

“Confucius instructors, hired and trained by Beijing, have always banned certain topics” including “Xinjiang, where up to 2 million Uyghur Muslims languish in concentration camps.”

Sachs, for his part, criticizes the researchers who allege genocide. “The genocide charge is being fueled by ‘studies’ like the Newlines Institute report,” he says, which has “an apparently conservative policy agenda.” Sachs makes no mention of any financial conflict of interest.