Global Warming, Spin and Media
Author and Page information
- This page: http://www.globalissues.org/article/710/global-warming-spin-and-media.
- To print all information (e.g. expanded side notes, shows alternative links), use the print version:
This web page has the following sub-sections:
Climategate; the scandal that wasn’t
- Changing Business Interests?
- The US and Climate Change
- Policy Strategy
- Bush Administration Accused of Silencing its own Climate Scientists
- Bush Administration also accused of interfering with UK’s attempts to tackle global warming
- US 2007 State of the Union speech on being greener: policy turn or spin?
- Some US States and businesses defy Bush Administration’s position
- Putting Climate Change Policy and Science on Public Trial?
Suppressedclimate dissenter was not suppressed
- The UK and Climate Change
- Some rich countries blame developing countries such as China and India. A diversion tactic?
- Media Reporting
- A challenge for the mainstream media
Accompanying the concerns of climate change and global warming is the media spin, propaganda, and special interests. For many years in some countries, scientists and environmental groups raising concerns about climate change faced stern opposition, and at one time, ridicule. Initially, many big businesses and countries such as the United States were openly challenging concerns of climate change. Industry coalitions and lobby groups have also been accused of misinforming the public or pressuring media into “false balancing.”
In recent years, many large businesses have distanced themselves from those previous positions and some have even openly accepted climate change and global warming concerns, even asking for governments to provide regulation and guidance on the matter.
Yet, even into the mid-2000s by which time climate change and global warming had finally been accepted as real by the most suspicious governments, some such as the then US’s Bush Administration were accused of silencing those who spoke out about the problem, including leading government climate scientists who warned of consequences from global warming.
Increasingly, a number of governments such as those from the US, Australia and elsewhere have become fearful of greenhouse gas emission reduction targets that they have long been subjected to (but not ever achieved) if large developing countries such as China and India are not subject to them as well. Developing countries correctly note that they were not the ones who pumped most of climate change-inducing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere during the last few decades and centuries.
As further reports regarding climate change impacts reveal a bleaker future, there are concerns that there will be accompanying fear-mongering by environmentalists, green washing by some business interests, and spin by governments to show “reductions” in emissions.
Some feel global warming is one of the biggest frauds of our era, with some even believing it is designed to harm the US economy and make the UN more powerful. Others feel it is simpler than that, and instead, climate scientists are able to make a lot of money by using fear as a tool to earn more research grants.
Such a vast, global conspiracy of scientists, the United Nations and environmental groups/lobbies does seem a bit far-fetched given that far more resourceful, powerful and immensely wealthier corporations and governments (with their access to, and influence on, the media) would surely be able to counter such a tactic (and have indeed been involved in their own spin/propaganda attempts, which, even with their resources, are failing to hide the reality).
A lot of time appears to have been wasted, and political spin on issues such as describing a reduced rate of greenhouse emissions as an actual reduction, risks is a false sense of hope and achievement.
This article, explores these issues further, also drawing in details which have been raised in other parts of this web site.
Changing Business Interests?
Initially, many large businesses, mostly from the energy and transportation sectors, were hostile to the idea of climate change and therefore against any action to address it.
For many years, talk of climate change led to a lot of skepticism and denial, typically from corporate-backed interests such as energy companies. For example, just recently, the British Royal Society, and separately, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported on ExxonMobil waging a campaign of disinformation on global warming between 1998 and 2005, funding right wing think-tanks and journals such as the American Enterprise Institute, the George C. Marshall Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. And “with the help of right-wing media, such as the Wall Street Journal, … columnists deliberately spread disinformation about climate change.”
As another example, the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) revealed that some business lobby groups have influenced the Australian government to prevent Australia from reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This lobby group included interests from the coal, electricity, aluminum (aluminium), petroleum, minerals and cement industries. The documentary exposing this revealed possible corruption within government due to extremely close ties with such industries and lobby groups, and alleged silencing of government climate scientists.
Often funded by such corporations, many lobby and interest groups tried to undermine reports of climate change and its impact, for it threatened their position and economic future. For example, noting the above ExxonMobil case, Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientist’s director of strategy and policy says, “These groups promote spokespeople who misrepresent peer-reviewed scientific findings or cherry-pick facts in an attempt to mislead the media and public into thinking there is vigorous debate in the mainstream scientific community about global warming, when in fact there is none.”
Other times, some scientists in earlier years showed skepticism based on science, but as data and research improved over time, most changed their positions to indicate some sort of concern or agreement about climate change and human effects/causes.
In more recent years, many large companies that have formed these coalitions or funded such lobby groups have now distanced themselves from those past positions, either as they accept climate change is happening or because they see their reputation being damaged by such association (or both).
Furthermore, some businesses are urging world leaders to tackle climate change. Some are even asking for regulation to help reduce their economic uncertainty, to provide a level playing field (so as to try and take measures but not lose out to competition form a rival that may not take such a view).
In countries, such as the United States, that have been openly hostile toward actions on climate change in the past, local governments, states, and businesses have started to take action anyway, showing that buy-in and support from industry is a key to tackling these concerns.
However, some are still trying to undermine climate change action through deception. As the British paper, the Guardian reports, scientists and economists have been offered a lot of money to undermine a major climate change report in February 2007, from the IPCC (this report is mentioned further below). The “American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an ExxonMobil-funded thinktank with close links to the Bush administration” was accused of such practices.
(This site’s article on Reactions to Climate Change Negotiations and Action has more details.)
The US and Climate Change
Some countries, of which the US is the most influential and powerful, have been accused of being counter-productive during climate change negotiations.
When the Kyoto Protocol was written in 1997, it was mainly the US and its business lobby that vehemently opposed the protocol based on economic concerns.
While the Clinton Administration signed and ratified the protocol, the Republican majority Congress, was opposed to this. When Bush came to power, he eventually withdrew from the international agreement.
President Bush cited a number of concerns, along the following themes:
- Economic concerns;
- That the Kyoto protocol was a political document;
- That it is unfair that countries like China and India do not emission reduction targets.
But are these concerns and reasons justified or legitimate?
In a June 2000 presentation, the World Resource Institute (WRI) asked what is fair concerning developing countries and climate change.
WRI noted that there has often been a strong push by big business lobbies and related interests when environmental regulation is attempted. The resulting environmental policy strategy tends to have the following steps:
- Deny it
- Fight it
- Dilute it
- Delay it
- Do it
- Market it
These steps have also applied to climate change discussions:
Step 1: Deny it
With this step, we saw a lot of skepticism initially coming from US-based scientists, many accused of reporting for big business interests, such as oil and automobile industries.
Step 2: Fight it
With step 2, and with climate change, WRI notes that step 2 has become “blame someone else for it”, referring to Bush’s attempts to criticize the Protocol for not imposing reductions on developing countries.
Step 3: Dilute it
With step 3, it is interesting to note that the climate change negotiations that led to the Kyoto Protocol involved extremely heavy concessions on steps and measures to take, in order to get the United States in on the agreement. To criticize later the Kyoto Protocol for being a political document (see below) is a cruel irony.
Step 4: Delay it
With step 4, many have criticized the US and others of delaying effective action or in other ways attempting to derail effective action.
Steps 5 and 6: Do it and Market it
Steps 5 and 6 still have to unfold for the climate change issue. At the same time, while the Bush Administration has at least admitted it is not against action on climate change (just that it opposes the Kyoto Protocol), it is spending money on research and technology.
Yet, combined with delay tactics, this may be a way to ensure the US doesn’t lose its position of power by implementing climate change measures. If its companies can find ways to be more efficient and clean, then it can gain clout and prestige and recognition of help save the world.
By going its own way, it is ignoring international issues and concerns, and so this can be seen as a political move to ensure economic and geopolitical success on this major environmental issue without consideration of the rest of the world. Unfortunately it is often this “go it alone” approach that also creates a lot of resentment against the US in the eyes of many around the world.
Bush Administration Accused of Silencing its own Climate Scientists
As revealed towards the end of January 2006, NASA’s top climate scientist says NASA and the Bush Administration have tried to silence him.
While NASA said this was standard procedure to ensure an orderly flow of information, the scientist, Dr. James Hansen disagreed, saying that such procedures had already prevented the public from fully grasping recent findings about climate change that point to risks ahead.
Dr. Hansen, according to the New York Times reporting this, noted that these were “fresh efforts” to silence him because he had said that significant emission cuts could be achieved with existing technologies, particularly in the case of motor vehicles, and that without leadership by the United States, climate change would eventually leave the earth “a different planet.” (By contrast, the Bush administration’s policy is to use voluntary measures to slow, but not reverse, the growth of emissions.)
Furthermore, “After that speech and the release of data by Dr. Hansen on Dec. 15 showing that 2005 was probably the warmest year in at least a century, officials at the headquarters of the space agency repeatedly phoned public affairs officers, who relayed the warning to Dr. Hansen that there would be ‘dire consequences’ if such statements continued, those officers and Dr. Hansen said in interviews.”
Earlier, in 2004, Dr. Hansen fell out of favor with the Bush Administration for publicly stating before the presidential elections that government scientists were being muzzled and that he planned to vote for John Kerry.
The New York Times also notes that this echoes other recent disputes, whereby “many scientists who routinely took calls from reporters five years ago can now do so only if the interview is approved by administration officials in Washington, and then only if a public affairs officer is present or on the phone.”
Furthermore, “Where scientists’ points of view on climate policy align with those of the administration, however, there are few signs of restrictions on extracurricular lectures or writing.”
And in terms of media manipulation, the Times also revealed that at least one interview (amongst many others) was cancelled because it was with NPR, which the public affairs official responsible felt was “the most liberal” media outlet in the country. This implies a political bias/propaganda in terms of how information is released to the public, which should be of serious concern.
At the beginning of June, 2006, the BBC Panorama documentary followed up on this and found that many scientists felt they were being censored and that various reports had been systematically suppressed, even altered. In one case, a major climate assessment report was due out a month before the 2004 presidential elections, but was delayed because it had such a bleak assessment, and the Bush administration did not want it to be part of the election issues. It was released shortly after the elections were over.
Panorama also interviewed a pollster who had advised the Bush Administration when they came into power in 2000 to question global warming, that humans caused it if it existed at all, to hire skeptical scientists, and play down its impacts. (The advisor has now distanced himself away from the Bush Administration’s stance today because he felt the science was more certain than it was in 2000.)
Just weeks before hurricane Katrina devastated parts of Southern United States, Panorama reported that “Another scientist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) … had research which established global warming could increase the intensity of hurricanes. He was due to give an interview about his work but claims he was gagged.” After Katrina, the “NOAA website said unusual hurricane activity is not related to global warming.” When a leading scientist was asked why NOAA came out with such a statement, he suggested it was ideologically driven.
(The BBC Panorama documentary is called Climate chaos: Bush’s climate of fear and as well as a summary, you can watch the actual documentary online.)
Despite attempts to discredit global warming concerns, the Bush Administration has now conceded that there is climate change and that humans are contributing to it, but Panorama reports that a lot of vital time has been lost, and that some scientists fear US policy may be too slow to carry out.
Almost a year after the story about attempts to silence NASA’s top climate scientist, many media outlets have reported on a new survey where hundreds of government scientists say they have perceived or personally experienced pressure from the Bush administration to eliminate phrases such as “climate change” and “global warming” from their reports and public statements. A US government hearing in the US is also pursuing this further as the seriousness of climate change is becoming more accepted.
Bush Administration also accused of interfering with UK’s attempts to tackle global warming
The build-up to the 2005 G8 Summit was billed in the United Kingdom as a key moment for Tony Blair’s leadership on climate change and his “special relationship” with the United States to bear fruit. Yet, this meeting saw the US’s position on climate change quite clearly, as reported by the Observer:
US 2007 State of the Union speech on being greener: policy turn or spin?
In the 2007 State of the Union speech at the beginning of January that year, President Bush announced various strategies and investment plans for cleaner technology and reduce US greenhouse gas emissions. Was this part of the steps 5 and 6 mentioned above? Or was there some spin associated with the announcements?
The Worldwatch Institute and others criticized the proposed measures as being too little.
As the BBC notes, some terminology has been used very misleadingly. For example, claims of emissions reductions may actually involve emissions rises, but just at a slower rate. Hence, while scientists talk about emission reduction as actual reductions, politicians talk about future reductions based on current emissions, which sounds positive, but is misleading compared to the intents and actual advice of climate scientists.
The BBC correspondent noting this warned,
Furthermore, while talking about energy conservation, Bush’s speech in this area appeared put more emphasis on reducing foreign energy dependency (i.e. from the Middle East in particular), than on addressing climate change (though his administration does now accept that climate change is happening).
Some US States and businesses defy Bush Administration’s position
Some states, cities and businesses in the US have decided to take action against climate change even if the federal government will not. For example, in California, the California Global Warming Solutions Act was agreed to in mid-August, 2006. Hundreds of cities have also committed to reducing carbon emissions. In the north east of the US, several states have also committed to greenhouse gas emission reductions, including Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Vermont.
The UK and Climate Change
Some rich countries blame developing countries such as China and India. A diversion tactic?
Politically, it has long been established and agreed that it is the industrialized nations that are responsible for the anthropogenic aspect of climate change and that developing nations have only recently entered industrialization phases. Therefore, it was internationally agreed that there would be “common but differentiated responsibilities” and that industrialized nations would need to reduce their emissions, while developing countries should continue down the path of development but avoid the polluting route of today’s industrialized countries.
However, a combination of lack of action by richer nations (who have been increasing emissions) with the realization that the climate is already changing has at least created a sense of urgency amongst some richer nations. But the additional line coming from governments of countries such as the US, Australia, and even the UK (where climate change is accepted and recognized as something that needs urgent addressing) is that little can be achieved without large developing countries such as India and China being part of the solution.
As larger developing countries are clearly industrializing and using more and more resources, they will be increasing their greenhouse gas emissions. However, as detailed further on this site’s section on global warming and population, given their late entry into the industrialization phase, such countries’ emissions (and per person) are far lower than industrialized nations and they have not been the primary cause of climate change. Politically then, such countries will find it hard to accept emission caps without the industrialized countries showing some progress.
Another concern is not so much with those developing countries themselves, but that large polluting industries from the West may be encouraged to move to countries that are not subject to emission reduction targets. The complication here, at least from the developing world’s perspective would be that targets for emission reductions because of this reason may be unfair as their entire nation would be penalized for a problem caused by the rich countries and their corporations. It is perhaps one of the many weaknesses of the Kyoto Protocol then, that businesses themselves aren’t specifically targeted, but only countries.
From the perspective of developing countries, it may appear that the rich countries are attempting to minimize the changes they have to make, even though they are the primary cause of climate change, and then getting the developing countries to make a larger set of changes than they otherwise would have had to. After all, the world has known for over two decades (even three) that changes are needed, and instead, most of the rich world has only managed to slow down its rate of emission increase, not actually reduce them. These perspectives are rarely mentioned in western mainstream media, whereas the concerns of population growth, China and India’s rise, are.
The types of issues raised above have an impact on the media reporting. More recently, the mainstream media has generally been looking more and more at climate change, its effects, and what people are doing. The measures and tactics employed by businesses and governments in the past may not be as successful in the future, potentially. Is this a positive turn, or could there be other forms of spin and “green washing”?
Criticism and ridicule of Climate Change concerns, initially
Throughout the 1990s, especially in the United States, but in other countries as well, those who would try and raise the importance of climate change, and suggest that we are perhaps over-consuming, or unsustainably using our resources etc, were faced with a lot of criticism and ridicule. The previous link is to an article by George Monbiot, writing in 1999.
Media False Balancing Allowed Extreme Views to be Treated Same as Scientific Consensus
In 2004, Monbiot notes a similar issue to the above, where media attempts at balance has led to “false balancing.” Disproportionate time is given to more fringe scientists or those with less credibility or with additional agendas, without noting so, and thus gives the impression that there is more debate in the scientific community about whether or not climate change is an issue to be concerned about or not:
Eric A. Davidson notes similar things about false balancing and is also worth quoting at length:
Furthermore, as subsequent pages mention, at major UN meetings on climate change in the recent past, the mainstream media often failed to report on it, or placed it much lower in priority than other stories, with even celebrities getting more media coverage at times.
This isn’t just a media/propaganda issue, it is a time issue; the warnings from scientists since even the 1980s was that urgent action was needed. It is not “humanity” proving once again that we cannot come together and deal with issues, it is powerful interests proving a historical pattern.
Scientists show more certainty of human-induced climate change, media reporting increases. Will further spin follow?
Leading climate scientists at the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have released major, definitive reports detailing the progress in understanding climate change. From the outset they have recommended that there be emission reductions. This body is comprised of hundreds of climate scientists around the world.
At the beginning of January 2007, the IPCC’s fourth major report summarized that they were even more certain of human-induced climate change than before. They were 90% certain that warming since industrialization had been due to human activity.
In recent years, it is noticeable how much climate change related concerns are entering mainstream discourse as this realization is becoming more widespread. Governments, businesses, public sector and others are all talking about it in some way or another, it seems.
And, Inter Press Service (IPS) reports that environmentalists are warning of more spin on climate change action, that “with the stark realisation that global warming is transforming our world, there will be [a] crazy new era of ‘greenwashing’, desperate ‘geo-engineering’ schemes, ‘grandfathering’ of newly-built coal power plants and carbon-credit ‘profiteering’.”
“Geo-engineering” schemes are large-scale attempts to manipulate the environment to produce environmental change, such as
- Injecting chemicals into the atmosphere;
- Putting reflectors into orbit to deflect some of the sunlight away from the earth;
- Dumping tons of iron into the oceans in the hope that phytoplankton will boom and absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“There’s a little bit of panic brewing, governments are taking these wacky ideas seriously,” says Pat Mooney of the Canadian-based NGO, the ETC Group. “The U.S. government has been lobbying the IPCC to include geo-engineering in the third part of its report to be released in May on ways to mitigate the impacts of climate change” adds IPS.
As another example, “Knowing the green tide is rising, there is a major rush in the US to build new coal-fired power plants before any carbon emissions caps are passed into law, says David Archer, a climatologist at the University of Chicago.”IPS adds that “Once built, such power plants can operate for 50 or more years. In the past, whenever tougher new pollution rules came into place, existing plants were usually ‘grandfathered’, meaning they were exempted from having to comply with the new regulations. And that is a major concern.” Some 150-160 such plants are being proposed to meet US energy demands.
In Europe, a carbon trading scheme has received a lot of attention, but as IPS also reports, the ETC Group, a Canadian-based non-governmental organization, says that the it is a “failure” because it “simply slows down the pace” of emissions.
In relation to that, as already mentioned above, the intentional misuse of the phrase “emission reduction” to mean reducing the rate of emission increase, rather than an actual reduction, may also lead to a false sense of hope.
The above-mentioned IPS article notes other ways that spin and dirty fuels will still likely be employed.
Media critics at Media Lens noted a questionable mix of a news story on climate change accompanied by advertisements for car essentials and cheap holidays abroad at the UK’s Independent newspaper. In addition, as their main story, the Independent’s on Sunday Supplement even had a report by a journalist suggesting that, “Alarmed by global warming, shocked by the imminent mass extinction of species and distraught at the environmental damage wreaked by mass tourism, I have decided to act before it is too late. Yes, carbon-neutral travel can wait. I’m off to see polar bears, tigers and low-lying Pacific atolls while they’re still there”.
Media Lens found this objectionable given that the World Health Organization had estimated 150,000 deaths and 5 million illnesses each year from global warming, and wrote in asking “Given this extraordinary and rising level of suffering, what is the moral justification for today’s front cover?”
Their initial article, the response from the Independent together with Media Len’s response to that is worth taking into account in regards to media reporting of climate change.
As more companies attempt to become “carbon neutral”, some will attempt to become so by offering to plant trees or contribute to forest schemes. This sounds green and useful, but environmentalists are concerned that this may not lead to actual (or substantial) reductions in emissions. Furthermore, these “carbon sinks” are controversial, for while they can soak up excess carbon dioxide, they can also burn (if, for example, global warming contributes to more forest fires). This aspect has been a concern for many years, and still not discussed in length in many mainstream outlets (or at least certainly not contributing to prime time news/headlines). See this site’s sections on Flexibility Mechanisms and Carbon Sinks, Forests and Climate Change for more details.
A challenge for the mainstream media
Some time ago, the NGO PANOS wrote:
Similarly, it is a “safer” political topic for the media to cover than many other issues.
It is promising that recent mainstream attention seems to have turned towards actions and solutions, but can a mostly corporate-funded mainstream media be part of the solution, or will some of the more business-impacting measures be likely toned down? Will consumers be willing to change their life style if technology and industry cannot find some quick energy-related solution?
At the same time, will the developing world once again face the blames for the world’s problems? Will China, India, and others allow themselves to be easy targets for time-wasting diversion, or will they have the ability to pursue a more sustainable path to development compared to what they are doing now?
Media manipulation and
fake news has hit many media outlets in recent times on various issues, including in countries such as the US and UK—often perceived to have a good quality mainstream media. The pressure to satisfy advertisers while media companies are downsizing and increasing “operating efficiency” in reality has often meant less independent and diverse journalism, as detailed further on this site’s mainstream media section.
And what of media reporting? Some fear that too much reporting of climate change in headlines will lead to a kind of climate fatigue whereby people are desensitized to the issue. Yet, just as it is common to have a sports segment in many broadcasts, why not more topical issues? Granted, with pressures to reduce news time and coverage it would not be easily, but if the headlines at the time of writing this managed to include a celebrity with a drug problem, surely a small note about global issues such as climate change or poverty could be added more regularly?
As also seen with other global issues, and discussed elsewhere on this site, another problem is what makes climate change a headline-worthy item: if a major report or a world leader says something about an issue, or if it is sensational enough, then it seems to make news headlines. If they do not, then it seems not to be newsworthy. In other cases, if a particular country faces a heat wave or other extreme weather, then climate change may be discussed in that context, but what when that is gone, and we continue spewing out greenhouse gases? This is a generalization for sure, but it is hard to see issues like climate change or global poverty and third world debt covered at other times in immense depth.
No doubt that many media outlets are responding to this, as the above-mentioned Australian Broadcasting Company exposé of corruption and lobbying of the Australian government shows. Newspapers, with more pages to cover such topics, for example are also writing more about these issues than before. However, television news is still (for now) the major source of information about the world for most people. Yet, if history is any indicator, even at (or perhaps because of) such challenging times, propaganda, spin and misdirection will perhaps be the norm unless democracies can become more democratic and the mainstream media reports issues more thoroughly.
- Climate Change and Global Warming Introduction
- UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
- Reactions to Climate Change Negotiations and Action
- Action on climate change is cheaper than inaction
- Global Warming, Spin and Media
- Climate Justice and Equity
- Climate Change Flexibility Mechanisms
- Carbon Sinks, Forests and Climate Change
- Climate Change Affects Biodiversity
- Global Warming and Population
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