The Neverending “Wakeup Call”

The new report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is clear that the impacts of climate change are likely to be ‘severe, pervasive and irreversible’. Impacts include droughts, floods, heat waves, endangered species, crop failure, food insecurity, famine and even war.

But for more than 25 years, since the IPCC was set up in 1988, there have been numerous scientific ‘wakeup calls’ and nothing significant has changed. In fact, turbo-charged, fossil-fuel driven capitalism has proceeded to run amok. And, for the vested interests who are the winners in the global economy, the tiny ‘one per cent’ or less, it is vital that nothing stops their continued ‘success’. Their cynical propaganda campaign is often dressed up as the need to be ‘sensible’ and to take measures that do no ‘harm’ to the economy.

As Dana Nuccitelli, an environmental scientist and contributor to SkepticalScience.com, notes:

Contrarians have tried to spin the conclusions of the report to incorrectly argue that it would be cheaper to try and adapt to climate change and pay the costs of climate damages. In reality the report says no such thing. The IPCC simply tells us that even if we manage to prevent the highest risk scenarios, climate change costs will still be high, and we can’t even grasp how high climate damage costs will be in the highest risk scenarios.

The BBC News website asked on its front page, “Is climate report overly alarming?”, and linked to a piece by environment correspondent, Matt McGrath. The BBC journalist had trailed his piece via Twitter:

“Dissent among scientists over key climate impacts report”.

But, as several Twitter users observed, the “dissent among ‘scientists” amounted to the objections of one individual, Richard Tol; that’s one IPCC author out of 70.

Leo Hickman, chief adviser on climate change at WWF-UK, retorted:

Hey, BBC, I’ve fixed the headline for you: “One go-to contrarian scientist dissents over key climate impact report”.

The noted climate scientist Michael E. Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, retweeted Hickman’s comment approvingly.

In fact, Tol is not even a “go-to contrarian scientist”, but rather a “go-to contrarian” economist. He is a professor of economics at Sussex University.

The BBC’s McGrath kept his head down.

Twitter user Peter Webber noted: “Days later and @mattmcgrathbbc hasn’t had professionalism to rebut criticism of his “inaccurate reporting” on IPCC “scientific dissent”.

Entirely missing from ‘mainstream’ coverage were salient facts about Tol’s ideological stance and wretched background. For instance, Tol has worked with Bjorn ‘Skeptical Environmentalist’ Lomborg in downplaying the importance of tackling the climate crisis. In 2009, Tol was listed as an adviser to the Nigel Lawson-chaired Global Warming Policy Foundation, the notorious pro-business climate denialist “think tank”. Two years earlier, in 2007, Tol was among the US Senate Republican Party’s “list of scientists disputing man-made global warming claims”. Tol “dismissed the idea that mankind must act now to prevent catastrophic global warming”. He outrageously scorned the Stern review on the economics of climate action, and the urgent need for concerted action, as “preposterous, alarmist and incompetent”.

Like Bees Round A Honeypot

In the broadcast and print media coverage that followed the publication of the IPCC report, Tol was a central figure featured in one report after another. Like bees swarming around a honey pot, the major broadcasters zoomed in on Tol, so enabling the news media to frame the IPCC report as arguably “alarmist”. BBC News at Ten was a prime perpetrator, with presenter Huw Edwards introducing the story thus:

“But the report, compiled by experts from 70 countries, has been criticised as “alarmist” by some.”1

By some expert scientists? Or, in fact, by one “go-to contrarian” economist; indeed, a neocon economist with climate denialist links at that?

BBC science editor David Shukman stuck to the approved script, making sure ‘balance’ was attained by a laser-like focus on Tol:

One scientist (sic) involved in the report withdrew his name from today’s conclusions. He says they go too far.

Tol then said to the BBC on camera:

People live around the equator. People live on the Poles. So humans are very, very adaptive to very diverse climates. We have very well-developed technology to deal with those sort of things. So there will be impacts. I just don’t think that it will be dramatic.

This was a truly absurd emphasis delivered by BBC News at public expense. But the broadcaster was not alone. The much-vaunted “progressive” and “alternative” Channel 4 News titled part of its coverage, “Was the climate change report alarmist?” Would Jon Snow or his editor care to explain why the above headline was chosen as editorial spin for C4 News?

Perhaps Channel 4 were unable to get hold of the much-in-demand Tol, for they turned to the infamous Bjorn Lomborg as they have done many times over the years. “Balance” was provided by pitting him against Baroness Bryony Worthington, a Labour life peer in the House of Lords, who argued for market solutions to tackle the climate crisis. Again, this is a decidely corporate-friendly version of “balance”.

Meanwhile, ITV chose the ludicrous headline, “UN report hopes to show opportunities climate change may present”, with ITV science editor Lawrence McGinty claiming:

One of the leading scientists involved in the report, Professor Chris Field, said there is a danger reports like this will be seen as overly negative, and there are some positive aspects to climate change.

So climate catastrophe will have both “negative” and “positive aspects”? Was this the famed news “balance” sought by “responsible” broadcasters? Inevitably, McGinty’s report included an interview with the near-ubiquitous Tol who complained about the IPCC telling “scare stories”.

Twenty-five years on, and one can only stand aghast at the stupidity and barely believable irresponsibility of the media arm of a corporate system that is very clearly out of control. Humanity simply will not survive much more business-as-usual. And yet, all around us we see immense global economic forces hell-bent on charging ahead ever faster with no interest whatever in the near-term consequences.

If we continue to look to corporate media and corporate politics for hope, this deceptive, reassuring propaganda may well continue to the bitter end. Ordinary people will have to take action. We will have to rise up and physically stop the maniacs from killing us, our children and our precious world. This is not hype; it is that serious, that late. The choice is ours.

  1. BBC One, March 31, 2014 []

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The second Media Lens book, Newspeak: In the 21st Century by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2009 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.