The Corporate Climate Coup
The Corporate Climate Coup
Don't breathe. There's a total war on against CO2 emissions, and you are releasing CO2 with every breath. The multi-media campaign against global warming now saturating our senses, which insists that an increasing CO2 component of greenhouse gases is the enemy, takes no prisoners: you are either with us or you are with the "deniers." No one can question the new orthodoxy or dare risk the sin of emission. If Bill Clinton were running for president today he would swear he didn't exhale.
How did we get here? How did such an arcane subject only yesterday of interest merely to a handful of scientific specialists so suddenly come to dominate our discourse? How did scientific speculation so swiftly erupt into ubiquitous intimations of apocalypse? These are not hypothetical questions but historical questions, and they have answers. Such events as these do not just happen; they are made to happen. On the whole our ideas tend not to be our own ideas: rarely do we come up with them ourselves but rather imbibe them from the world around us. This is especially obvious when our ideas turn out to be the same as nearly everyone else's, even people we've never met or communicated with. Where did this idea about the urgent crisis of global warming and CO2 emissions come from and get into our heads, given that so few of us have ever read, or even tried to read, a single scientific paper about greenhouse gases? Answering such a question is not as difficult as it might seem, for the simple reason that it takes a great amount of reach and resources to place so alien an idea in so many minds simultaneously so quickly, and the only possessors of such capacity and means are the government and the corporations, together with their multimedia machinery. To effect such a significant shift in attention, perception, and belief requires a substantial, and hence visible and demonstrable, effort.
Until quite recently most people were either unaware of or confused and relatively unconcerned about this issue, despite a growing consensus among scientists and environmentelists about the possible dangers of climate change. Global warming activists, such as AI Gore, were quick to place the blame for that popular ignorance, confusion, and lack of concern on a well-financed corporate propaganda campaign by oil and gas companies and their front organizations, political cronies, advertising and public relations agencies, and media minions, which lulled people into complacency by sowing doubt and skepticism about worrisome scientific claims. And, of course, they were right; there was such a corporate campaign, which has by now been amply documented. What global warming activists conveniently failed to point out, however, is that their own, alarmist, message has been drummed into our minds by the very same means, albeit by different corporate hands. This campaign, which might well prove the far more significant, has heretofore received scant notice.
Over the last decade and a half we have been subjected to two competing corporate campaigns, echoing different time-honored corporate strategies and reflecting a split within elite circles. The issue of climate change has been framed from both sides of this elite divide, giving the appearance that there are only these two sides. The first campaign, which took shape in the late 1980's as part of the triumphalist "globalization" offensive, sought to confront speculation about climate change head-on by denying, doubting, deriding, and dismissing distressing scientific claims which might put a damper on enthusiasm for expansive capitalist enterprise. It was modelled after and to some extent built upon the earlier campaign by the tobacco industry to sow skepticism about mounting evidence of the deleterious health-effects of smoking. In the wake of this "negative" propaganda effort, any and all critics of climate change and global warming have been immediately identified with this side of the debate.
The second positive campaign, which emerged a decade later, in the wake of
The first campaign, dominant throughout the 1990's, suffered somewhat from exposure and became relatively moribund early in the Bush II era, albeit without losing influence within the White House (and the Prime Minister's Office). The second, having contributed to the diffusion of a radical movement, has succeeded in generating the current hysteria about global warming, now safely channeled into corporate-friendly agendas at the expense of any serious confrontations with corporate power. Its media success has aroused the electorate and compelled even die-hard deniers to disingenuously cultivate a greener image. Meanwhile, and most important, the two opposing campaigns have together effectively obliterated any space for rejecting them both.
In the late 1980's the world's most powerful corporations launched their "globalization" revolution, incessantly invoking the inevitable beneficence of free trade and, in the process, relegating environmental issues to the margins and reducing the environmentalist movement to rearguard actions. Interest in climate change nevertheless continued to grow. In 1988, climate scientists and policymakers established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) to keep abreast of the matter and issue periodic reports. At a meeting in
Meanwhile, following an indigenous uprising in
Corporate opposition anticipated
The convergence of the global justice movement and
Those who split off from the GCC quickly coalesced in new organizations. Among the first of these was the
At its inception the
Early in 2000, "world business leaders" convening at the World Economic Forum in
This potential for profit-making from climate change gained the avid attention of investment bankers, some of whom were central participants in the PCA through their connections with the boards of the
Among those capital market participants was former U.S. Vice President AI Gore. Gore had a long-standing interest in environmental issues and had represented the
The book and the film of the same name both appeared in 2006, with enormous promotion and immediate success in the corporate entertainment Industry (the film eventually garnering an Academy Award). Both vehicles vastly extended the reach of the climate change market-makers, whose efforts they explicitly extolled. "More and more
By the beginning of 2007 the corporate campaign had significantly scaled up its activity, with the creation of several new organizations. The
In January, 2007, USCAP issued "A Call for Action," a "non-partisan effort driven by the top executives from member organizations." The "Call" declared the "urgent need for a policy framework on climate change;" stressing that "a mandatory system is needed that sets clear, predictable, market-based requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions." USCAP laved out a "blueprint for a mandatory economy-wide market-driven approach to climate protection," which recommended a "cap and trade" program as its "cornerstone," combining the setting of targets with a global carbon market for trading emission allowances and credits. Long condemned by developing countries as "carbon colonialism," carbon trading had become the new orthodoxy. The blueprint also called for a "national program to accelerate technology, research, development, and deployment and measures to encourage the participation of developing countries Iike
The following month yet another corporate climate organization made its appearance, this one specifically dedicated to spreading the new global warming gospel. Chaired by AI Gore of Generation Investment Management, the Alliance for Climate Protection included among its members the now familiar Theodore Roosevelt IV from Lehman Brothers and the Pew Center, former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, Owen Kramer from Boston Provident, representatives from Environmental Defense, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the National Wildlife Federation, and three former Environmental Protection Agency Administrators. Using "innovative and far-reaching communication techniques," Gore explained, "the
If the corporate climate change campaign has fuelled a fevered popular preoccupation with global warming, it has also accomplished much more. Having arisen in the midst of the world-wide global justice movement, it has restored confidence In those very faiths and forces which that movement had worked so hard to expose and challenge: globe-straddling profit-maximizing corporations and their myriad agencies and agendas; the unquestioned authority of science and the corollary belief in deliverance through technology, and the beneficence of the self-regulating market with its panacea of prosperity through free trade, and its magical powers which transforms into commodities all that it touches, even life. All the glaring truths revealed by that movement about the injustices, injuries, and inequalities sowed and sustained by these powers and beliefs have now been buried, brushed aside in the apocalyptic rush to fight global warming. Explicitly likened to a war, this epic challenge requires single-minded attention and total commitment, without any such distractions. Now is not the time, nor is there any need, to question a deformed society or re-examine its underlying myths. The blame and the burden has been shifted back again to the individual, awash in primordial guilt, the familiar sinner facing punishment for his sins, his excesses, predisposed by his pious culture and primed now for discipline and sacrifice. On opening day of the 2007 baseball season, the owner of the Toronto Blue Jays stood in front of the giant jumbotron, an electronic extravaganza, encircled by a ring of dancing corporate logos and advertising, and exhorted every person In the crowd, preposterously, to go out and buy an energy-efficient light bulb. They applauded.
In his bestselling 2005 book the Weather Makers, Tim Flannery called his readers to battle in "our war on climate change." With a forward for the Canadian edition written by Mike Russill, former CEO of the energy giant Suncor and now head of World Wildlife Fund/Canada, the book well reflected the corporate campaign. Each of us "must believe that the fight is winnable in social and economic terms," Russill insists, "and that we do not have to dramatically change the way we live." "The most important thing to realize," Flannery echoes, "is that we can all make a difference and help combat climate change at almost no cost to our lifestyle." "The transition to a carbon-free economy is eminently achievable," he exults, "because we have all the technology we need to do so." "One great potential pitfall on the road to climate stability," he warns, however, "is the propensity for groups to hitch their ideological wagon to the push for sustainability." "When facing a grave emergency," he advises, "it's best to be single-minded." The book is inspiring, rallying the reader to battle against this global threat with ingenuity, enthusiasm, and hopefulness, except for one small aside, buried in the text, that gnaws at the attentive reader: "Because concern about climate change is so new, and the issue is so multi-disciplinary," Flannery notes, "there are few true experts in the field and even fewer who can articulate what the problem might mean to the general public and what we should do about it."
The corporate campaign has done more than merely create market opportunities for mainstream popular science writers like Flannery. By constructing an exclusively Manichean contest between mean and mindless deniers, on the one hand, and enlightened global warming advocates, on the other, it has also disposed otherwise politically-astute journalists on the left to uncharacteristic credulity. Heat, George Monbiot's impassioned 2006 manifesto on the matter, is embarrassing in its funneled focus and its naive deference to the authority of science. "Curtailing climate change," he declaims, "must become the project we put before all others. If we fail in this task, we fail in everything else." "We need a cut of the magnitude science demands," he declares; we must adopt "the position determined by science rather than the position determined by politics," as if there was such a thing as science that was not also politics.
Monbiot pulls no punches against the "denial industry," excoriating the negative corporate campaigners for their "idiocy" and bitingly suggesting that some day soon "climate-change denial will look as stupid as Holocaust denial, or the insistence that AIDS can be cured with beetroot." Yet he has not a word of acknowledgement much less criticism for the campaigners on the other side whose message he perhaps unwittingly peddles with such passion. And here too, oddly, a brief paragraph buried in the text, seemingly unconnected to the rest, disturbs the otherwise inspired reader. "None of this is to suggest," Monbiot notes in passing, "that the science should not be subject to constant skepticism and review, or that environmentalists should not be held to account. . . .
Climate change campaigners have no greater right to be wrong than anyone else. "If we mislead the public," he allows, "we should expect to be exposed," adding that "we also need to know that we are not wasting our time: there is no point in devoting your life to fighting a problem that does not exist." Here perhaps some remnants of truth seep between the managed lines, hinting yet at the opening of another space and another moment.
Historian David Noble teaches at