Climate Change: The Science, The Corporate-Funded Deniers, The Complicit Media and Lackluster Governmental Response
by Timothy Malone
The media/cultural environment, over the last decade, has become saturated with the concept of climate change (sometimes known as Global Warming; an inadequate term, because it does not encapsulate the manifold effects inherent to climate change. It is more than warming). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (www.ipcc.ch), established by the United Nations Environment Programme, is recognized as the leading authority on these matters. With 194 countries contributing, and scientists studying the myriad elements of climate change from all over the world, Climate Change science has been the most comprehensive and rigorously reviewed scientific investigation in history.
Their findings are quite clear. Human-based industrial activity (since 1750, the origins of the Industrial Revolution), anthropogenic activity, is responsible for a significant increase in the release of Carbon Dioxide, Methane and Nitrous Oxide, trapping heat in the atmosphere. The exploitation, use, and burning of fossil fuels and land use change (clear-cutting forests, in particular the Amazon Basin and other rainforests) are the major contributor to CO2 emissions. Industrial, meat-based agricultural practices are responsible for a significant increase in Methane and Nitrous Oxide in the atmosphere; much more so than can be predicted from “natural” ecological climate cycling. Through our industrial activities, we are emitting greenhouse gases and raising the global temperature to such a degree that our ecological support systems are threatened with potential cataclysm.
Although there has been coverage of climate change in media, it is of an “objective” nature, where “objectivity” takes on a particular definition within a corporate controlled, free-market media system. “Objectivity” means “hearing both sides.” This has led to the perception that there is a “debate” on climate science. Opposing the IPCC and the climate change scientists, there are individuals, organizations, industries devoted to delegitimizing the conclusions of the IPCC., sometimes referred to as climate-change skeptics / deniers. Their challenge may be as extreme as “climate change isn’t happening at all,” or “the science on climate change is dubious,” or perhaps “yeah, climate change is happening, but it’s not the result of our activities. It’s just a natural warming that happens throughout history.” Such climate change denial, if taken seriously, leads to one implication, one effect, one result. Nothing changes. The argument is, since we aren’t responsible for climate change (even if it was happening), there is no need to look at our institutions, our structures and change them. The very industries funding the science of climate change denial are the ones that are chiefly responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. They are the ones that profit from a current institutional arrangement which drives global warming, and their bottom-line in vested in creating a public-opinion which thinks there is actually a debate about global warming in scientific communities. There is not. But if these industries can create that perception, through think tanks, media and politicians on the payroll, then they can ensure their short-term profitability. If there is “debate” on climate change, then that blocks structural and institutional change to industrial practices. Exxon Mobil and Chevron, McDonald’s and McDonnell Douglas have an interest in keeping the population in the dark regarding climate change, their own culpability, and its impacts on our lives.
As regards governmental response, democrats have high hopes for Obama to counter the outright denial and obfuscation of the Bush administration regarding climate change (for instance, not signing Kyoto). We hear of cap and trade programs, general and vague speeches from Obama about the U.S. needing to “lead” on climate change with no firm details on what such leadership would look like. Upon investigation, one finds that Obama’s plan does not address underlying structural concerns about global warming, and guarantees an increase of greenhouse gas emission, and a further warming effect “acceptable” to policy planners with real-world effects of death, destruction, starvation, mass migration and resource wars. Perhaps less damaging than a Bush policy, but not near enough to reverse the course, or ensure our survival.
The Science of Climate Change
“Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial values determined from ice cores spanning many thousands of years (see Figure SPM.1). The global increases in carbon dioxide concentration are due primarily to fossil fuel use and land use change, while those of methane and nitrous oxide are primarily due to agriculture” (IPCC, www.ipcc.ch).
Prior to 1750. greenhouse gas emissions were about 280 parts per million (ppm), and by 2005, had reached levels of 379 ppm to the third power. Ice cores reveal that over the last 650,000 years, the variation or natural range has been 180 to 330 ppm. Over the last ten years, the increase in ppm rate has been 1.9 ppm/year, versus a historical average of 1.4 ppm/year (records began in 1965, through 2005). Fossil fuel use is the most significant factor in the increase, with changes in land use also contributing significantly. Average carbon dioxide emission in the 1990’s was at 6.4. The years 2000 through 2005 (IPCC, www.ipcc.ch).
Methane increase balloons from a 715 ppb level pre-industrial revolution, to 1774 ppb by 2005. The primary attribution is to the use of fossil fuels, as well as animal agricultural production. 13.5% of green house gases (GHG) are from agriculture alone, with another 13.1% from agricultural transportation (International Food Policy Research Institute, http://www.ifpri.org/publication/agriculture-and-climate-change). About 30% of climate change is directly attributable to e meat-based diet, multinational controlled food systems, with their complex distribution systems, and the degradation on ecosystems such corporate farming systems generate.
Nitrous-oxide had a pre-industrial level of 270 ppb and as of 2005 was 319 ppb. Like Methane, corporate controlled, meat-based agricultural systems are primary contributors to the rise throughout the industrial revolution.
“The understanding of anthropogenic warming and cooling influences on climate has improved, leading to very high confidence (9 out of 10) that the
global average net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming…”
Radioactive forcing (the combined effect of the three above described increases) is 90% likely to have been unprecedented in 10,000 years.
This translates to specific environmental occurrences, in the real world, felt now.
“At continental, regional and ocean basin scales, numerous long-term changes in climate have been observed. These include changes in arctic temperatures and ice, widespread changes in precipitation amounts, ocean salinity, wind patterns and aspects of extreme weather including droughts, heavy precipitation, heat waves and the intensity of
tropical cyclones.” (ICPP, www.icpp.ch) We have seen rising sea levels, melting og glaciers and ice shelves, extreme storm patterns (frequency and intensity of hurricane increase, think Katrina), species extinction, desertification, ecological collapse, and resource depletion. All are expected to increase.
“Further expansion in the same style will generate global threats of really great intensity — huge droughts and floods, cyclones with increasingly more destructive power, pandemics of tropical disease, dramatic decline of biodiversity, increasing ocean levels…
All these can cause social and even armed conflict and migration of people at an unprecedented scale.” (Environment Minister Maciej Nowicki, http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2008/12/01-2)
A particular concern is the way the Earth and its systems is responding to anthropogenic global warming. It appears that there is a series of “climate feedbacks, that builds upon itself. Once the earth starts heating up, it feeds back on itself, thus accelerating the process. (http://www.commondreams.org/headlines07/0203-03.htm)
An additional effect is that as the earth warms, and the carbon dioxide sinks (oceans and land, effective store houses of Carbon Dioxide) become full, more carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere, unabsorbed. This further empowers the greenhouse effect, accelerating temperature rise.
We know that we are emitting Carbon Dioxide, Nitrous Oxide, and Methane at unprecedented and increasing levels, primarily through Industrial structures. We know that these greenhouse gases cause temperature increase, and a resultant host of ecological degradations. These are observable, testable phenomena. This is the science of climate change.
Corporate Funded Deniers and Complicit Media
In the scientific community, the conclusions are clear: climate change is happening due to human acivity. Such a conclusion was drawn from the largest body of scientific experimentation, testing and verifying in the history of science. The only debate within the community is how drastic the effects would be. There are no peer-reviewed and tested criticisms of the findings that “climate-change is not happening” or “it is happening, but human activity has nothing to do with it.” There are independent studies, conducted by scientists, very often not climate experts, on the payroll of major green-house gas emitters. Their work is dismissed in the scientific community as not meeting evidentiary standards, not being submitted for review, and poorly researched. One is reminded of the debate on evolution, in which one particular argument advances from employing the scientific method, and the other side make an argument dressed up as science (intelligent design) for the purposes of legitimating, without scientific rigor in their research or claims. Such is the argument between climate scientists and climate deniers.
As an archetype of this type of practice, we may examine Exxon-Mobil. Though Exxon is not the only corporation funding anti-science challenges to climate change, they are certainly a major player in a game that spans across many industries and institutions geared towards protecting green-house gas emitters from regulation, reform, or challenge.
A investigative report, written by Ian Sample of “The Guardian UK” was published detailing an interlink between Exxon Mobil, the American Enterprise Institute (right-wing, pro-“business” think tank) and a host of scientists in the U.K. and the United States. Exxon-Mobil paid A.E.I. 1.6 million dollars, and asked them to generate reports from scientists that counter the claims found in the IPCC report listed above (The science of climate change). A.E.I., out of the money given by Exxon-Mobil, offerred $10,000 to economists and scientists who could come to conclusions challenging the IPCC. Many who they attempted to bribe, were vocal about the operation, which is how it came to light.
“Climate scientists described the move yesterday as an attempt to cast doubt over the “overwhelming scientific evidence” on global warming. “It’s a desperate attempt by an organization who wants to distort science for their own political aims,” (David Viner, Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/feb/02/frontpagenews.climatechange).
Once again, the idea is to create the perception that there is, at least, a debate with regards to the science of climate change. Exxon-Mobil knows there is not, and attempts to create one, for if the public hears of scientists debating climate change, they are more likely to adopt a skeptical view, which serves the interests of the greenhouse gas emitters.
The “Heartland Institute” (notice the pr device to link their views with the ‘heartland, middle America) is another recipient of Exxon-Mobil funding, $675,000 through 2006. The institute now refuses to publish its funding, after severe criticism was levied against them for the deep influence of greenhouse gas emitters on their so-called objectivity. The Heartland Institute has held a series of conferences disguised in scientific language. The 2008 international Conference on Climate Change in Washington DC 2008, another in March 2009. The Third International Conference on Climate Change was held in Washington, DC on June 2, 2009, expressing that: “The real science and economics of climate change support the view that global warming is not a crisis and that immediate action to reduce emissions is not necessary. This is, in fact, the emerging consensus view of scientists outside the IPCC and most economists outside environmental advocacy groups.” Most of those scientists working on the payrolls of greenhouse gas emitters, and the economists as well (never mind their entrenched interest in free-market corporate dynamics which favor the corporation and unhindered markets as the solution to any and all social ills. (Sourcewatch, http://sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Heartland_Institute)
So, if climate-change-denier-science is so tenuous, why is there any debate within the American public’s mind about the existence on human activity-based climate change, it’s severity, or who/what is responsible? A large part of that answer must trace to mainstream media coverage.
Free-market, corporate controlled media systems impose certain structural limitations on the medium, which are conducive to the greenhouse emitting multinationals. First off, there is the necessity of “objectivity.” What this means is that if the media reports on a particular finding by the IPCC, then they will hear the opposition. Well funded, and speaking through so-called academics and think tanks, the story goes like this…. “IPCC says that so and so are the realities of climate change. Then, they have on a representative from A.E.I. to offer the “conservative” perspective. Yet, due to economic constraints imposed on the media companies, they don’t devote the time, nor the resources to investigate the funding of so-called “climate-change skeptics.” It is often easier to let both sides say their piece, and cheaper. Do to the quickness of the news cycle, a free-market constraint; to stay competitive a news agency often reports what is said without taking the time to investigate the truth or falsity of the claims.
Also, in a free-market system, corporate advertisers are the consumer, and they sell audiences to them. Greenhouse gas emitters are large advertisers (Exxon-Mobil, BP, Shell, Monsanto, etc). In their profit-driven motivation, a well documented phenomenon is the resistance to be critical of the institutions which fund media companies through purchasing advertising. They may pull their spots, which serves as an effective veto over media institutions capacity to run stories critical of their pay-masters.
Also, media companies are interlinked in ownership, parent companies, board of directors, and shareholders to a degree that constrains them. For example, GE owns NBC, and owns a series of greenhouse emitting subsidiary companies. Corporate power is intertwined, interlinked, and under control of about 1% of the population. The interests of the greenhouse emitters are very often the same as the free-market, corporate driven media systems. (Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky)
What we are left with is a public perception that global warming may or may not be happening, and if it is, we still have time to do something about it. All we need to do is rely on Obama to straighten it out, a dangerous, perhaps catastrophic position.
The G20 will be meeting in Pittsburgh on September 24th and 25th to discuss issues of relevance to the community of elite institutional investors which they represent. Environmental groups, anarchists, socialists and others not included in the discussions will assemble in the streets to protest their planned policies with regards to the financial and environmental crisis, climate change being a prominent issue.
Obama gave a speech today in Pittsburgh (Tuesday, the 22nd), ahead of the G20 ministerial meetings and addressing climate change. Speaking in vague generalities, he used lofty rhetoric which recognized the dangers posed by climate change, but didn’t spell out a plan in concrete terms.
What we do know is that economics play a priority roll in dealing with climate change. Multinationals demand the right to pillage natural resources and pollute, while driving up greenhouse emissions. Obama has spoken of cap and trade programs, which allow the emitters to keep to their practices within some set of to be determined regulatory confines.
If the healthcare debate is a precursor, we can expect a center-right solution from Obama, which caters to corporate interests. His “cap-and-trade”, an entirely deficient response to the nature of the calamity we are facing (potential collapse of industrial systems, resource wars, destroyed ecosystems, potential extinction of life) will be painted by the right as “extreme left communism”, and no bill actually curbing industry will be generated.
Obama has stated that the United States should return to emission levels of 1990, thus ensuring that the planet will continue to heat up. It is the acceptance of a slowing of climate change, with effects that will decimate large swathes of the third world, apparently an acceptable outcome in United States political discourse.
With the political climate the way it is, with center right positions marginalized as “socialist,” with socialism not understood but a “bad word” like terrorism or communism, we can expect the radical change needed to be introduced to protect our ecosystems, the planet, our communities to be notoriously absent. The only thing to stave off climate change (ranging from pretty bad, disproportionately affecting the poor of the world, and catastrophic, ending life as we know it) is radical change, generated from the grass roots and out in the streets, demanding accountability. Our prospects are grim, and it is organizing that is the only hope to challenge climate change catastrophe.