TECTONIC TILTING – Unlevel Playing Fields And The Rise Of Climate Scepticism

English football’s Premier League is a farce. Year in, year out, the same ‘Big Four’ super-teams – Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool – fight for the same top four spots they have dominated since the 1996-97 season. Even for casual consumers of football news, the truth is hard to miss: at the end of every season, the teams that have most of the money – supplied by tycoons, TV rights and participation in Europe’s even more glamorous Champions League – simply buy off the best players from the lesser teams that have been causing them trouble. And if the super-team managers fail to deliver, then the best managers and trainers are brought in to put things right. 

Quality is bolstered by quantity to further reduce the risk of failure – the super-teams are actually multi-teams. If an inspired lesser team manages to compete with one of the Big Four, the latter can always bring on fresh-legged, world class substitutes with whom the lesser teams, with no superstars on the bench, are unable to compete. The reality is that, over the course of a season, super-teams compete against lesser squads with the equivalent of two, three or more squads of their own. The cards – the credit cards, cash, lucre – are totally stacked in favour of the Big Four.

Week after week, Big Four fans look on breathlessly to see if a ton of money will once again allow the big business machine they call ‘us’ to overwhelm teams with a fraction of ‘our’ resources. No one seems to notice, or care, that every match is begun on a playing field mechanically tilted by giant under-pitch cogs towards the goal of the lesser team.

Type the words ‘Premier League’, ‘Big Four’, and ‘dominance/domination’ into the LexisNexis search engine, and you will find occasional, small gestures in the direction of truth in the national press. In 2007, Simon Cass wrote in the Daily Mail that fans “are increasingly frustrated that the fight for the Premiership has become a money-driven, foregone conclusion with each passing season and the rich simply getting richer”. (Cass, ‘Only the top four matter,’ Daily Mail, July 26, 2007) Predictably enough, such observations are supported by analysis that is crassly superficial, and unlikely to embarrass the powers that be.

The Rise Of Climate Scepticism

In the New York Times on May 24, Elisabeth Rosenthal pondered another of the great unsporting contests of our time: the clash between people seeking and opposing action on climate change:

“Last month hundreds of environmental activists crammed into an auditorium here [Britain] to ponder an anguished question: If the scientific consensus on climate change has not changed, why have so many people turned away from the idea that human activity is warming the planet?” (Rosenthal, ‘Climate Fears Turn to Doubts Among Britons,’ New York Times, May 24, 2010; http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/ science/earth/25climate.html)

The change in public opinion, Rosenthal noted, has been most striking in Britain, which has become “a home base for a thriving group of climate skeptics who have dominated news reports in recent months, apparently convincing many that the threat of warming is vastly exaggerated”.

A BBC survey in February found that only 26 per cent of Britons believed that “climate change is happening and is now established as largely manmade,” down from 41 per cent in November 2009. A poll conducted for the German magazine Der Spiegel found that 42 per cent of Germans feared global warming, down from 62 per cent four years earlier. A Gallup poll in March found that 48 per cent of Americans believed that the seriousness of global warming was “generally exaggerated,” up from 41 per cent a year ago. (Ibid.)

Rosenthal made no mention of analysis challenging these figures. Professor Jon Krosnick of Stanford University has been surveying American views on climate change since 1995. Krosnick claims that Americans remain overwhelmingly convinced that man-made climate change is real and should be tackled:

“The media is sensationalizing these polls to make it sound like the public is backing off its belief in climate change, but it’s not so.” (http://www.thenation.com/article/climategate-claptrap-I)

According to Krosnick, Americans’ views have remained quite stable over the past ten years. In November 2009, 75 per cent of Americans believed that global temperatures were going up – a “huge number”, Krosnick notes. The number of Americans who think all scientists agree about climate change +has+ declined to 31 per cent. But as Krosnick comments: “most Americans have thought that for the entire fifteen years I’ve been polling on this issue”.

In the New York Times, Rosenthal cited newly sceptical members of the public:

“Before, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this climate change problem is just dreadful,’ said Jillian Leddra, 50, a musician who was shopping in London on a recent lunch hour. ‘But now I have my doubts, and I’m wondering if it’s been overhyped.'”

Up to this point, Rosenthal’s analysis was reasonable enough. But this was her explanation of the change in public opinion:

“Here in Britain, the change has been driven by the news media’s intensive coverage of a series of climate science controversies unearthed and highlighted by skeptics since November. These include the unauthorized release of e-mail messages from prominent British climate scientists at the University of East Anglia that skeptics cited as evidence that researchers were overstating the evidence for global warming and the discovery of errors in a United Nations climate report.”

Rosenthal’s account is so deceptive because it portrays climate scepticism, and media +enthusiasm+ for climate scepticism, as naturally occurring phenomena – they simply +are+. But this is a lie. Like Premier League football, the playing field hosting the public debate on climate is massively tilted by hidden forces in favour of the corporate interests that have long fought environmental responsibility tooth and nail. The pitch on which the game is played – the corporate media – is itself corporate!

Environmental journalist Andy Rowell – author of Green Backlash and co-founder of Spinwatch (www.spinwatch.org) – gave us a brief summary of the corporate stance on climate change:

“In the late 1960s, the leading PR company Hill and Knowlton, advising the tobacco industry on how to confront its critics over health, argued that doubt was the product they should use: ‘The most important type of story is that which casts doubt in the cause and effect theory of disease and smoking.’ Eye-grabbing headlines were needed and ‘should strongly call out the point – Controversy! Contradiction! Other Factors! Unknowns!’

“Since the Sixties, the tobacco industry have continued their attempts to maintain the controversy. Their documents are peppered with statements such as ‘no clinical evidence’, ‘no substantial evidence’, ‘no laboratory proof’, ‘and unresolved’. Nothing has been ‘statistically proven’, there is no ‘scientific proof’.

“‘Creating controversy’ is precisely what the fossil fuel industry and its spin-doctors have done on climate change. The longer they can throw doubt on the issue, the more we carry on burning fossil fuels and the more money they make. Simple. So a small number of fossil fuel-funded think tanks and scientists have managed to create doubt over the scientific consensus of climate change for nearly two decades. They have been joined by a small group of right-wing ideologues, who are opposed to climate change on political grounds.

“The mainstream media continue to give these sceptics air-time in the name of balance, but do not tell an unsuspecting public that many are fossil-fuel funded, politically opposed, or even have no scientific credentials. So no wonder the public are confused. Like the corporate media, (which take significant money off the fossil fuel industry) many people do not want to change their behaviour, so it is reassuring for everyone when a sceptic throws doubt on climate change. This is compounded by parts of the right-wing media which are running what is effectively a misinformation campaign on climate.” (Rowell, email to David Edwards, May 27, 2010)

The website Campaign Against Climate Change reports:

“It has recently been revealed that Koch Industries, a little-known, privately owned US oil company, paid nearly US$50 million to climate denial groups and individuals between 1997 and 2008. In a similar period Exxon Mobil paid out around $17 to $23 million.” (http://www.campaigncc.org/sceptics)

As the website notes, the manufactured ‘Climate gate’ ‘scandal’ of autumn 2009, mentioned by Rosenthal – in which emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) were illegally hacked and published – was a nonsense. Sir Muir Russell, a senior civil servant who led a six-month inquiry into the affair, said recently:

“Ultimately this has to be about what they did, not what they said. The honesty and rigour of CRU as scientists are not in doubt… We have not found any evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments.”  (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jul/ 08/muir-russell-climategate-climate-science)

Myles Allen, head of the climate dynamics group at the University of Oxford, commented:

“What everyone has lost sight of is the spectacular failure of mainstream journalism to keep the whole affair in perspective. Again and again, stories are sexed up with arch hints that these ‘revelations’ might somehow impact on the evidence for human impact on climate. Yet the only error in actual data used for climate change detection to have emerged from this whole affair amounted to a few hundredths of a degree in the estimated global temperature of a couple of years in the 1870s.” (Ibid.)

Rosenthal’s article was titled, ‘Climate Fears Turn to Doubts Among Britons.’ Even if we accept this ‘turn’ at face value, honest analysis of +why+ these fears have turned to doubt, demands that we consider the deepest forces empowering climate scepticism.

John Gibbons wrote about climate change in the Irish Times for two years. In February 2010, Gibbons published his last, damning column. He wrote:

“Ireland’s most senior climate expert, Prof John Sweeney of NUI Maynooth [National University of Maynooth], acknowledged last week that climate-change deniers were ‘winning the propaganda war’. Chief among them, he added, were deniers from the ranks of journalism and lobbying.

“Hang on a minute, you might ask, aren’t journalists supposed to be the good guys, the ones who investigate, not propagate, scams? Well, yes and no. ‘A media and telecommunications industry fuelled by advertising and profit maximisation is part of the problem,’ Lewis and Boyce [of the Cardiff School of Journalism] point out.

“In Ireland, this even extends to the State broadcaster. The boom years swelled its coffers with an advertising bonanza, and much of this found its way into the pockets, not of lowly researchers, but of elite broadcasters. Millionaire ‘journalists’ have a profound yet undeclared personal vested interest in the consumption-driven economic status quo upon which their wealth is predicated. As, of course, do billionaire media proprietors. They in turn seek out affirmation of their own biases, and ridicule dissenters.”
(http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion /2010/0204/1224263734237.html)

By contrast, Rosenthal presents the corporate media enthusiasm for climate scepticism as uncontroversial, apolitical, perhaps a function of the journalistic appetite for scandal. In discussion with Ireland’s MediaBite website, Gibbons added:

“The media in Ireland is infested with ten-a-penny climate sceptics… You throw a stick and you will hit a journalistic climate sceptic. You will also find that most of them are over 60, they think they have seen it all and that these environmental types are extremists, apostles, believers. Ironically they try and ascribe religious overtones to people who are by and large not very religious.” (http://www.mediabite.org/article_-Balancing–the-Climate-Consensus—Part-1_760894276.html)

The reality of media bias is inadmissible in almost all corporate media discourse, which is not in the business of damning itself, just as the Big Four teams are not in the business of damning their highly profitable domination of English football.

Tectonic Tilting

The playing field under the climate debate, then, is tilted both by the corporate nature of the media that hosts the debate, and by the proven hostility of these media and allied corporations to serious action on climate change. But these distorting factors relate only to society’s ability to discuss the scientific, economic and political issues rationally. It also matters that mainstream media simultaneously host consumer advertising that bombards us with the message that consuming is normal, natural, youthful and fun.

Whereas the media at least claim, albeit erroneously, to offer a balance in reporting and commentary, such concerns are deemed irrelevant to advertising. Adverts – arguably an even more powerful influence distorting public perceptions than factual journalism – +all+ promote mass consumerism. Why is it important for a democracy to have balance in reporting and commentary, but not in advertising? Reporters and commentators dependent on advertisers for their jobs have no interest in asking the question.

Corporations are free to portray themselves as responsible, reasonable, friendly, funny, even passionately green. In London Underground stations, this giant poster currently asks commuters:

“Why on earth would an energy company want me to use less energy?” (http://www.eontalkingenergy.com/)

Good question. The company explains with some tortured logic:

“Our ideal would be to have more customers. All using less energy.”

This is propaganda, pure and simple, and it goes completely unchallenged. Kalle Lasn, director of the dissident campaigning organisation, Adbusters, told us how his adverts challenging consumerism had been rejected out of hand by TV broadcasters:

“TV Station managers said ‘Why should I run ads that hurt my business? We decide what we run or not, we’re trying to run a business. Why don’t you just go away?!'” (Lasn, interview with David Edwards, August 1998)

With all commercials promoting high-tech ‘progress’, even credible scientific warnings of environmental disaster seem to belong to the fringe. If we hear the same pro-consumer arguments repeated with the same confidence by almost everyone in ‘the room’, then anyone outside will seem to be out of touch – old-fashioned, pessimistic, ideologically driven. And corporations are not content merely with advertising; they have “education” departments that reach into schools:

“Our interactive education pack for primary and secondary schools, focuses on climate change as a whole to pupils. It explains in a fun detailed way seven different sustainable technologies, and is exclusive to Sustainable Energy Solutions customers.” (http://www.eon-uk.com/about/education.aspx)

Arguably, the impact of even this huge weight of corporate thought control is dwarfed by the values promoted through education driven by state-corporate priorities. Modern schooling in effect puts our children’s egos on steroids. From the earliest age, pupils are forced to compare themselves with their peers, to define ‘success’ as being ‘better’, and ‘failure’ as being ‘worse’, than others. From the moment we come ‘top’ or ‘bottom’ of the class, are declared ‘below average’ or ‘above average’, ‘bright’ or ‘not academic’, we are primed to continue proving ourselves ‘better’, more ‘successful’, than others.

In adult life, this trained ego-angst is expressed through fiercely competitive production and consumption: we seek the best grades to go to the best universities, to get the best jobs, to afford the best cars, houses, holidays, schools for our children, in the best locations. The alternative – earning less, buying less, wanting less – feels like masochism, like choosing failure.

This version of ‘success’ is at the very heart of the modern malaise, because we can never have enough – someone is always ‘above’ us, we can always go ‘higher’, and we are always haunted by the fear of falling ‘lower’. No matter how much we consume, the distance between what we have and what we would like to have remains constant.

In other words, the mass media are pro-consumption propagandists bombarding with pro-consumption advertising a public trained to seek egotistical ‘success’ through high status consumption and production.

On the other side of the debate, we have the evidence offered by scientists understandably reluctant to become embroiled in discussion on political issues, and by dissidents working outside the corporate media on minimal funding. Even the most radical dissidents are wary of criticising media performance, because, as one highly-respected analyst meekly told us, they “have to maintain diplomatic relations with the media”. (Email to Media Lens, June 20, 2010)

This is the reality of the playing field on which the climate debate is taking place. It is not just that the pitch is tilted – the very tectonic plates underpinning modern culture are slanted against honest discussion of, and responses to, climate change.

This is why, over the last ten years, we have been arguing that the corporate media must be viewed as a crucial part of the problem. The mainstream version of ‘balanced’ debate is premised on the assumption that this tectonic tilting does not exist. After all, to affirm that the world is not flat but sloping means exposing the problems inherent to a corporate media system. And this our media system is structurally incapable of doing.


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