An epic struggle is currently taking place that will determine the fate, and perhaps the survival, of our species. It is a collision between natural limits and rational awareness of the need to respect those limits, on the one hand, and the forces of blind greed, on the other.
Over the next few years, fundamental questions about who we are as a species really will be answered: Are we fundamentally sane, rational? Or are we a self-destructive failure that will end in the evolutionary dustbin?
As former Conservative energy minister Charles Hendry says, the recent UK floods “have ended political debate about climate change impacts”. Indeed, recent global weather extremes suggest that something of “enormous magnitude is happening”.
Even taken in isolation, the UK floods may constitute an “absolutely devastating environment incident”, a recent study by conservation scientists reports:
Noxious hydrogen sulphide fumes and lead poisoning are among the threats from floodwater contamination – while animals at almost all stages of the food chain, from insects to small mammals and birds, are already thought to be drowning or dying from lack of food.
And these floods are merely the latest in a very long list of extreme events, including the ongoing, record-breaking California drought. Of this, University of California, Irvine, hydrologist James Famiglietti has said: “We are standing on a precipice here.”
In addition, we have seen the vast US ‘polar vortex’ and ‘Frankenstorm’ Sandy. Last year, Australia ‘recorded its warmest year on record,’ while Supertyphoon Haiyan, ‘the strongest tropical cyclone on record to hit land’, devastated the Philippines. India was also afflicted by massive floods. 2013 was ‘the 37th consecutive year with a global temperature above the 20th century average’.
Tony Juniper, former director of Friends of the Earth, commented to us: “The period of consequences is evidently upon us.”
The Bottom Line – Preparing For Human Extinction
Let us look more closely at the nature of this fateful collision.
In a quietly despairing blog, Guy McPherson, professor emeritus of natural resources, ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, nutshells one-half of the problem facing us:
If you’re too busy to read the evidence presented below, here’s the bottom line: On a planet 4 C hotter than baseline, all we can prepare for is human extinction.
Could that happen? McPherson quotes professor of climatology Mark Maslin:
We are already planning for a 4°C world because that is where we are heading. I do not know of any scientists who do not believe that.
That second sentence is worth reading again. Or we can recall the comments made by Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, on the BBC website in 2010:
Yet over a pint of ale or sharing a coffee it is hard to find any scientist seriously engaged in climate change who considers a 4C rise within this century as anything other than catastrophic for both human society and ecosystems.
Moreover, ask those same scientists if 4C is likely to be as high as it could get prior to the temperature beginning to fall, and many will shake their heads pointing to a range of discontinuities (tipping points) that may see us witness temperatures increasing well beyond 4C.
This, then, is one-half of our problem: McPherson is right about the significance of a 4 C rise in temperature, and he is right that scientists widely believe that we are indeed heading for a catastrophic 4 C warmer world, or worse.
There is, of course, debate about the timing of this temperature rise. McPherson could hardly be more pessimistic, arguing that it is already too late to save ourselves. He writes:
Even mainstream scientists minimize the message at every turn. As we’ve known for years, scientists almost invariably underplay climate impacts. I’m not implying conspiracy among scientists. Science selects for conservatism. Academia selects for extreme conservatism. These folks are loathe to risk drawing undue attention to themselves by pointing out there might be a threat to civilization. Never mind the near-term threat to our entire species (they couldn’t care less about other species). If the truth is dire, they can find another, not-so-dire version.
A recent report by the Climate Council found that “the frequency of heatwaves in parts of Australia has already surpassed levels previously predicted for 2030”.
Breaking The Back Of “The Beast”
The second half of our problem is that evidence of this terminal threat to our existence is being obstructed by literally hundreds of millions of dollars of organised propaganda.
Earlier this month, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse made a courageous and crucial speech to the US Senate. He commented:
I have described Congress as surrounded by a barricade of lies. Today, I’ll be more specific. There isn’t just lying going on about climate change; there is a whole, carefully built apparatus of lies. This apparatus is big and artfully constructed: phoney-baloney organisations designed to look and sound like they’re real, messages honed by public relations experts to sound like they’re truthful, payrolled scientists whom polluters can trot out when they need them. And the whole thing big and complicated enough that when you see its parts you could be fooled into thinking that it’s not all the same beast. But it is. Just like the mythological Hydra – many heads, same beast.
Whitehouse’s speech made repeated reference to a ground-breaking new study by Robert J. Brulle, professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel university, which describes the organisational underpinnings and funding behind climate denial. This is the first peer-reviewed, comprehensive analysis ever conducted on the topic.
Brulle finds that from 2003 to 2010, 140 foundations made 5,299 grants totalling fully $558 million to 91 major climate denial organisations. These 91 organisations have an annual income of just over $900 million, with an annual average of $64 million in identifiable foundation support. The UK also has its own denial network.
Disturbingly, Brulle writes that “while the largest and most consistent funders behind the countermovement are a number of well-known conservative foundations, the majority of donations are “dark money,” or concealed funding”.
This is part of a trend:
The data also indicates that Koch Industries and ExxonMobil, two of the largest supporters of climate science denial, have recently pulled back from publicly funding countermovement organizations. Coinciding with the decline in traceable funding, the amount of funding given to countermovement organizations through third party pass-through foundations like Donors Trust and Donors Capital, whose funders cannot be traced, has risen dramatically.
In other words, as scientific evidence of looming climate disaster has become simply overwhelming, the funders blocking action to prevent disaster have knowingly hidden their support for fear of negative publicity.
As for the high-profile “deniers” embraced by the media, Brulle comments:
Like a play on Broadway, the countermovement has stars in the spotlight – often prominent contrarian scientists or conservative politicians – but behind the stars is an organizational structure of directors, script writers and producers, in the form of conservative foundations. If you want to understand what’s driving this movement, you have to look at what’s going on behind the scenes.
The truth, then, is this: that climate denial is a wholly artificial, manufactured creation; a gigantic corporate fraud. Without the “apparatus of lies” it simply would not exist as a “serious” argument and would certainly not be able to challenge the consensus of 97 per cent of climate scientists on the reality of the threat posed by climate change. It is this outright fraud subordinating human welfare to profit that the corporate media continues to indulge in the name of “balance”.
Senator Whitehouse sums up the significance:
This apparatus is a disgrace. When the inevitable happens and the impact of climate change really starts to hit home, people will want to know: why? Why we didn’t take proper steps in time. It’s not as if there’s not enough scientific evidence out there for us to act. Why not?
This denial operation – The Beast – will then go down as one of our great American scandals, like Watergate or Teapot Dome – a deliberate, complex scheme of lies and propaganda that caused real harm to the American people, and to our country. All so that a small group of people could make more money a little longer.
So why has this “disgrace” not been exposed?
The reason is that, for the last quarter of a century, corporate politics and corporate media – close allies and even “limbs” of “the beast” – have censored the truth about its workings. Guy McPherson explains:
Worse than the aforementioned trolls are the media. Fully captured by corporations and the corporate states, the media continue to dance around the issue of climate change. Occasionally a forthright piece is published, but it generally points in the wrong direction, such as suggesting climate scientists and activists be killed (e.g., James Delingpole’s 7 April 2013 hate-filled article in the Telegraph).
By way of a bitter irony, we need only consider the media response to Brulle’s study. A Lexis database search of the UK press finds that Brulle’s ground-breaking, peer-reviewed research has been mentioned in one article in the Guardian with a further mention in passing in the Daily Mail. The study has been mentioned by no other UK newspaper. A Factiva database search of US newspapers by analyst David Peterson finds that the study has been mentioned in a single, 500-word piece in the Washington Post.
This is consistent with a growing trend of corporate media suppression. In 2012, Douglas Fischer reported that corporate media coverage of climate change “continued to tumble in 2011, declining roughly 20 percent from 2010′s levels and nearly 42 percent from 2009′s peak”.
The problem, of course, as McPherson notes, is that the corporate media is indeed “fully captured” by Sheldon Whitehouse’s “beast”.
The impact on public awareness is clear. Between 2007-2011, in the face of rapidly growing scientific evidence, the proportion of the US population who accepted that industry was causing climate change dropped from 71% to 44%. Between 2005 and 2013, the number of British people who believed the climate was not changing rose from 4% to 19%.
A separate poll finds that “two thirds of people have never talked about climate change outside their immediate social circle, and a third of people never talked about it with anyone at all”.
The climate denial “beast” is actually a tentacle of a much bigger monster that has fought to destroy all environmentalism, socialism, indeed any movement threatening corporate control and profits. In 1991, Bob Williams – a consultant to the oil and gas industry – described the corporate priority:
To put the environmental lobby out of business… There is no greater imperative… If the petroleum industry is to survive, it must render the environmental lobby superfluous, an anachronism. 1
But the problem is more deeply entrenched even than this suggests. American historian Elizabeth Fones-Wolf has written of the US corporate propaganda campaigns of the 1940s and 1950s:
Manufacturers orchestrated multi-million dollar public relations campaigns that relied on newspapers, magazines, radio, and later television, to re-educate the public in the principles and benefits of the American economic system… This involved convincing workers to identify their social, economic, and political well-being with that of their specific employer and more broadly with the free enterprise system. 2
The climate denial “beast” is just the latest example of these ongoing “public relations campaigns”. With such powerful institutions locked into securing ever more profits through ever greater control, and with the public persuaded to pursue ever more consumption at any cost, what are our chances? What can we do?
A quarter of a century ago, Frank Mankiewicz, a senior executive at PR firm Hill and Knowlton, provided a clue in referring to the fall of the Romanian dictator Ceausescu:
I think the companies will have to give in only at insignificant levels. Because the companies are too strong, they’re the establishment. The environmentalists are going to have to be like the mob in the square in Romania before they prevail. 3
This may well be the case. Senator Whitehouse told Congress:
We must break the back of the beast… For the sake of our democracy, for the sake of our future, for the sake of our honour – it is time to wake up.
As NASA climate scientist James Hansen has suggested, Nuremberg-style trials must be held for senior corporate (including corporate media) and political executives responsible for crimes against humanity and planet that almost defy belief. They must be held to account for their crimes.
But much more importantly, of course, we must act – now – to save ourselves from utter disaster.
- Williams, US Petroleum Strategies in the Decade of the Environment. Quoted, Sharon Beder, Global Spin – The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, Green Books 1997, p.22 [↩]
- Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise – The Business Assault on Labour and Liberalism, 1945-60,’ University of Illinois Press, 1994, p.6 [↩]
- Quoted, Beder, op.cit., p.22 [↩]