by Thomas O’Dwyer
Before we can save the planet, we need to expose and stop the willful planet killers. They’re not difficult to identify – it’s the usual science-hating suspects and their followers. Shortly after the United Nations released its shocking scientific report on climate change last week, one of my acquaintances who has a sharp eye for ready-made answers to inconvenient truths, forwarded me an email. These Fwd: Fwd: messengers never share their own researched and crafted opinions – there’s an industry that creates cookie-cutter thinking for its email warriors. The report in the news is from the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This UN climate-science organisation, founded in 1988, has 195 member countries and every seven years it publishes a state-of-the-climate update, summarising current, peer-reviewed research on the science of climate change and its effects. To write this latest IPCC summary, 234 scientists read more than 14,000 research papers.
The gist of the scoffing email I received was that the UN report was alarmist, exaggerated and too negative. UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ warning that the report was “code red for humanity” was an overstatement. Behind the entire effort was “a political agenda” in which “some” politicians falsely proclaim an existential threat to the world by mixing politics and science. The writer admitted that they had not read the report, only “a couple of articles about it,” but assured us that far from heralding planetary catastrophe, climate change would bring “great commercial opportunities” (which the email did not specify). This vague prediction did contain the grudging admission that climate change is real — a couple of years ago, these emails were in full Trumpian cry proclaiming it a left-wing hoax. Now there’s a shift among the former purist deniers —it exists but it comes bearing bounty (more wealth for the wealthy).
It was not hard to find “a couple of articles” containing climatic canards a couple of clicks away at, for example, the Heartland Institute website. Heartland is one of the more egregious sources of faux-respectable nonsense aided by the moneybags of those usual corporate suspects. Before vaccination denial and climate-change denial, we had tobacco cancer denial, lead poisoning denial, and many other well-funded campaigns of corporate criminality. “Had” is not entirely correct – many of these old denials that boardroom greed paid for are still with us. The Heartland Institute, for example, continues to take money from Philip Morris to produce reports saying that second-hand tobacco smoke is harmless. Remember those renegade “scientists” working for Big Tobacco who concealed evidence that smoking was dangerous for decades? Remember the lead-mining industry denying that lead-based paints and toys and leaded gasoline were poisoning millions of people? Their playbooks are still in use.
There are well-tested templates corporate campaigns use to undermine scientific research and mislead the public with disinformation so that the companies can continue selling their profitable dangerous trash to billions of people. A template is simple in concept but can be complex, ruthless, and effective in application. It operates on the principle that you, the greedy tycoon, have a substantial strategic advantage over enemies who try to expose your corrupt industry — truckloads of money. The stuff you produce quietly kills or maims people and destroys swathes of the natural ecosystem. Some irritating gadfly thinks the public (your customers) should know about the dangers you are concealing. The gadfly’s weapon is information, but yours is rivers of cash, and if your industry is big enough, like fossil fuels, mining or chemicals, your money reservoir contains billions. Your activist opponents are probably scrabbling to raise thousands.
Now, it’s not easy to mould public opinion when there are solid facts against you, but your industry wants to prolong and increase dependence on your product. Your first line of attack must be against the facts and those disseminating them. You have to create a whole alternative universe in which you replace inconvenient truths with valuable lies. The formula is: “Our product is not causing the damage alleged by people with hidden agendas, and even if there is some negative aspect, it isn’t that bad, and we’re fixing it.” To build this bizarro world, you need some allies, paid for with more money. Their purpose is to bury the facts and produce a layer of respectability, knowledge, and legality. How about some flashy “think tank” — say, a Cato Institute, a Heritage Foundation, a Heartland Institute, bankrolled by big industries to produce the “science” that makes its way into the media and fat-cat conferences. Second-hand tobacco smoke is dangerous? What a myth. Climate change? What a hoax; they changed the name from global warming because the globe isn’t.
For your version of science, you need your own stable of scientists with just enough credibility to frame their industry-serving pronouncements as dissenting voices raising valid questions about “inconclusive” research. You need to push the conclusions of your think tanks and contrarian scientists out into the chattersphere, so you borrow an old tactic perfected in the Cold War, the activist front group. These groups, now empowered by social media engines, appear to be independent and uninvolved with the industry they are supporting. Armed with the disinformation from your think tanks, they push pro-industry policies on government officials and business media at every level. They project and exaggerate public scepticism of your opponents and lobby for incremental changes in laws and regulations to your advantage.
We’ve seen this war plan played out with ever-increasing sophistication by many industries almost since the start of the industrial revolution. During its long battle to proclaim lead safe and harmless, that industry’s leaders were perfectly aware that ancient Romans knew lead caused severe health problems, including madness and death, but didn’t know why. However, lead was ubiquitous in the empire, and the Romans minimised the risks. It is noteworthy that they too equated limited exposure and limited risk. Their aristocrats avoided eating from lead utensils, although they did not know that lead poisoning is cumulative even with low-level exposure. Yet, in the 21st century, around 9,000 children under six were exposed to high lead levels from drinking water in Flint, Michigan, between 2014 and 2015. It brings to mind a chillingly cute advertisement the National Lead Company ran widely in 1923:
“Lead in the Nursery
The little boy’s eyes shine with excitement as he takes his new lead soldiers out of the box on Christmas day. Made of lead, they will not rust or mold, as did the toy soldiers of Field’s Little Boy Blue. … His sister peacefully plays with her dolls with their lead-weighted eyes and her miniature furniture and other toys made of lead.”
With climate change denial, the old templates of corporate deviousness are again on full display. Just as the tobacco industry knew for decades that smoking was dangerous, and hid the evidence, so has the fossil fuel industry known for decades that burning its products is a pivotal contributor to killing the planet. In 1978, Exxon Mobil researcher James Black wrote in an internal research report: “A doubling of carbon dioxide is estimated to be capable of increasing the average global temperature by from one degree Centigrade to 3 degrees, with a ten-degree rise predicted at the poles.” Ignoring their own research, Exxon Mobil funded a vast disinformation campaign to undermine the established science. Of course, the company knew from the science they were denying that as the Arctic became warmer and the ice retreated, it would become cheaper to drill for oil. Therefore, they drew up plans to do just that. A 1990 American Petroleum Institute meeting, attended by Exxon, Texaco, and Shell, concluded that by 2005 there would be a warming of one degree Celsius. By 2038, warming of 2.5 degrees would have “significant economic consequences.” By 2067 a 5-degree rise would have “globally catastrophic effects.” And still, this industry has crafted and paid for an efficient denial machine to hide the truth. Science denial and corporate hypocrisy make excellent bedfellows.
The new IPCC report is alarming — not alarmist — or it should be, if it is not smothered in the disinformation and “whatevers” of the planet killers. Agence France-Presse reported: “This is by far the most comprehensive catalogue ever assembled of how climate change is upending our world. The report reads like a 4,000-page indictment of humanity’s stewardship of the planet.” The climate movement Extinction Rebellion wrote, under the headline “IPCC Draft Climate Report Reads Like a 4,000-Page Indictment’ of Humanity’s Failure”, that “this is a warning of existential risk. Of survival. Of collapse.” New York Times climate-change reporter Henry Fountain summarised the 4,000 pages for his readers in “five takeaways.” Only number 5 has a hint of optimism:
1. Human influence has unequivocally warmed the planet. Emissions have significantly increased over time and continue today as the world grows even warmer. The impacts are felt in every region of the world.
2. Climate science is getting better and more precise. There is much more observational data — temperature measurements and other data from instruments on land, in the oceans and in space. Computer models have also greatly improved, and there is more computer power to run the simulations faster.
3. We are locked into 30 years of worsening climate no matter what the world does. The world has already warmed about 1.1 degrees Celsius since the 19th century.
4. Climate changes are happening rapidly. Some of the changes are greater than they’ve ever been, compared with previous periods ranging from centuries to many millennia. The rate of sea-level rise has roughly doubled since 2006. Heatwaves on land have become significantly hotter since 1950.
5. There is still a window in which humans can alter the climate path. The report laid out five climate futures in which humans take varying steps to reduce the emissions that cause warming. Under all of them, the world will reach 1.5 degrees — the more ambitious of the targets set by the Paris climate change agreement in 2015 — by 2040 or sooner.
If anything is more depressing than the IPCC report, it was the prompt reaction of the denial machine lumbering along on fossil-fuel money and cheered on by the emails and tweets of the cult followers. The Heartland Institute offered a straightforward sneer:
“It seems that climate disaster is always just ten years away, but none of the predictions of climate doom has come true. The new report, in which the IPCC bureaucracy must strike an alarmist tone to justify and perpetuate the bureaucracy’s existence, adds virtually no substantive scientific evidence to the global warming debate.”
And true to the template model, it was easy to spot Heartland’s compliant PhD — H. Sterling Burnett, Senior Fellow, Environment & Energy Policy:
“[The report] is like a doctor notifying a patient that their X-rays and lab tests were flawed and needed to be done again with better equipment, which doesn’t exist. But in the meantime, we can say with ‘high confidence’ you are getting sicker and are going to die unless we do major surgery to remove a key organ vital to continued survival, which is what fossil fuels are.”
And finally, a word from the think tank president, James Taylor:
“Objective data still show that global temperatures are rising much more slowly than the IPCC previously predicted and that most extreme weather events and climatological factors are either not being impacted by modest warming or are becoming more benign rather than harmful.”
Objective data; more benign climate events; modest warming. Thank you, Mr President; now we know we’re doomed. One of the errors activists have made in confronting the climate-change deniers may have been to link the issue with environmental protection, a classic “green” platform that has had great success in many campaigns for conservation and wildlife protection. This has also allowed fossil industry lobbyists to portray global warming as a conventional environmental problem that can be solved — eventually. If we had a stable climate, then normal progress and public awareness almost certainly would improve ecological protection. But “normal progress” defined by the fossil fuel lobby is now killing the planet. There’s not a problem that needs solving. There’s an entire planet that needs saving. And it’s the only one of its kind that exists anywhere near us in the galaxy.
Emergencies require immediate and decisive action, and this one is on a global scale. Mobilising billions of people to take action does not call for patience or eventual solutions. We are running out of time, and the ticking of the bomb is getting louder. Climate physics cares nothing for our lifestyles or types of government. Climate change doesn’t even care about the “great commercial opportunities” it might bring. There is no “global warming debate” about climate change; the facts are unfolding before our eyes, blazing through forests, lapping along coastlines, roaring across countrysides, bursting riverbanks. We’ve already had 20 years to tackle this urgently, as an emergency. Tick tock, we’re out of time.
“The new IPCC report doesn’t tell us what to do, tweeted the righteous young voice of doom, Greta Thunberg. “It is up to us to be brave and take decisions based on the scientific evidence provided in these reports. We can still avoid the worst consequences, but not if we continue like today, and not without treating the crisis as a crisis.”
Repeat after Greta: It’s not climate change. It’s climate crisis.