21December2014

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Game Over For The Climate?

Whatever happened to the green movement? It’s been 50 years since the publication of Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring, a powerful book about the environmental devastation wreaked by chemical pesticides. Since then we’ve had the rise and fall - or at least the compromised assimilation - of green groups such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Forum For the Future.

Last week, the Independent marked the half-century with a well-meaning but frankly insipid ‘landmark series’ titled ‘The Green Movement at 50’. But there’s a glaring hole in such coverage; and, indeed, in the ‘green movement’ itself: the insidious role of the corporate media, a key component of corporate globalisation, in driving humanity and ecosystems towards the brink of destruction.

The acclaimed biologist and conservationist Edward O. Wilson puts the scale of the crisis bluntly:

‘We’re destroying the rest of life in one century. We’ll be down to half the species of plants and animals by the end of the century if we keep at this rate.’

And yet ‘very few people are paying attention’ to this disaster. Wilson, who is 82, directed his warning to the young in particular:

‘Why aren’t you young people out protesting the mess that’s being made of the planet? Why are you not repeating what was done in the ‘60s? Why aren’t you in the streets? And what in the world has happened to the green movement that used to be on our minds and accompanied by outrage and high hopes? What went wrong?’

The trouble is that most of what the public hears about politics, including environmental issues, comes from the corporate media. This is a disaster for genuine democracy. As discussed in a recent alert, the media industry is made up of large profit-seeking corporations whose main task is to sell audiences to wealthy advertisers – also corporations, of course - on whom the media depend for a huge slice of their revenues. It’s blindingly obvious that the corporate media is literally not in the business of alerting humanity to the real risk of climate catastrophe and what needs to be done to avert it.

Last month, leading climate scientist James Hansen, who was the first to warn the US Congress about global warming in 1988, observed that:

‘President Obama speaks of a “planet in peril,” but he does not provide the leadership needed to change the world’s course.’

Hansen added:

‘The science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow. [...] Every major national science academy in the world has reported that global warming is real, caused mostly by humans, and requires urgent action. The cost of acting goes far higher the longer we wait — we can’t wait any longer to avoid the worst and be judged immoral by coming generations.’

If adequate action doesn’t happen soon, says Hansen, it’s ‘game over for the climate’.

 

Always Stuck On Square One

And yet even liberal media outlets repeatedly present as fact that there has been government ‘failure’ to respond to climate change. They do very little to report that big business, acting through and outside government, and the corporate media itself, has been fighting tooth and nail to prevent the required radical action.

Indeed, media debate on how best to respond to environmental crisis has barely moved in a generation. For years, the public has been assailed by the same anodyne editorials urging ‘the need for all of us to act now’. Meanwhile, for obvious reasons, corporate media organisations are silent about the inherently biocidal logic of corporate capitalism. They are silent about the reality that politics in the US and UK is largely ‘a two-party dictatorship in thraldom to giant corporations,’ as Ralph Nader has observed (interview with Paul Jay, The Real News Network, November 4, 2008). They are silent about the role of the mass media, especially advertising, in normalising the unthinkable of unrestrained consumption. The corporate media, including its liberal media wing, is a vital cog of the rampant global capitalism that threatens our very existence.

But – and here some of our readers start to protest or scratch their heads -  surely the Guardian is immune to such political and commercial pressures? After all, it is owned by the non-profit Scott Trust, as the paper’s editors and journalists are fond of reminding their audience. But delve a little deeper and you will see that the newspaper is managed and operated by influential bigwigs with extensive ties to the establishment, ‘mainstream’ political parties, finance and big business (as we discussed at greater length in our book, Newspeak in the 21st Century, Pluto Press, London, 2009).

The truth is the Guardian is just as grubbily commercial as other corporate media organisations. In fact, a media insider revealed to us recently that the Guardian has a confidential business plan to address its current massive loss-making (a common affliction in today’s newspaper industry with the increasing leakage of advertising from papers to the internet). He told us that when a media website is ranked in the top 10 in the United States, the floodgates of online advertising open and its coffers start to fill. The online Guardian has therefore been marketing itself to US audiences as heavily as it can. Its stringently-moderated Comment is Free website is one of the crucial elements of that strategy. The Guardian is now at the threshold of accessing lucrative sums in advertising revenue.

With humanity heading for the climate abyss, it’s time for the green movement and those on the left to wake up to the reality that the Guardian, and the rest of the liberal-corporate media, is not in favour of the kind of radical change that is desperately needed.

 

The Sound Of A Door Closing Forever

Despite an endless series of escalating alarms from Mother Nature indicating the urgency of the climate crisis, no serious action is being undertaken to avert catastrophe. Whenever the corporate media bothers to report the latest sign of climate threat, it usually does so in passing and without proper analysis of the likely consequences, and what can and should be done.  And then the issue is simply dropped and forgotten.

For example, the head of the International Energy Agency recently warned that the chance of limiting the rise in global temperatures this century to 2 degrees Celsius (2°C) above pre-industrial levels is reducing rapidly.

‘What I see now with existing investments for [power] plants under construction...we are seeing the door for a 2 degree Celsius target about to be closed and closed forever,’ Fatih Birol, the IEA's chief economist, told a Reuters’ Global Energy & Environment Summit.

‘This door is getting slimmer and slimmer in terms of physical and economic possibility,’ he warned.

According to the IEA, around 80 per cent of the total energy-related carbon emissions permissible by 2035 to limit warming to 2°C have already been taken up by existing power plants, buildings and factories.

The 2°C limit was agreed in 2010 at the UN climate summit in Cancún, Mexico. Why 2°C? The Reuters report explains:

‘Scientists say that crossing the threshold risks an unstable climate in which weather extremes are common...’

Tragically, the current trend in greenhouse gas emissions means that rising carbon dioxide emissions may well produce a 2°C rise as early as 2050 and a 2.8°C rise by 2080.

If there is ever any ‘mainstream’ discussion of ‘climate risk’, it is usually couched in terms of this ‘safe limit’ of  2°C warming. This was a major theme of the most recent UN climate summit in Durban in December 2011. For example, Louise Gray, environment correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, wrote that:

‘UN scientists have stated that emissions need to peak and start coming down before 2020 to stand a chance of keeping temperature rise within the “safe zone” of 2C.’

Lord Julian Hunt, former head of the UK Met Office, pointed out the best current estimate for global temperature rise by 2100 is 3.5°C and said that the ‘international consensus’ is that it ‘should be limited to 2C’.

And a Guardian editorial declared:

‘The race to keep the rise in global temperatures below 2C is still winnable if there is a big change in the pace,’ although conceding that ‘a 3-4C rise looks the most likely outcome.’

Few voices disagree with this framing of the climate debate and what the ‘safe’ target should be. But Chris Shaw, a social sciences researcher at the University of Sussex, is one exception. Shaw has been investigating how international climate change policy is being driven by the ideological notion of a single global dangerous limit of 2°C warming. In reality, however, such a precise limit cannot be supported by the complexities of climate science. For example, low-lying coastal regions such as Bangladesh and Pacific islands are clearly more vulnerable to likely sea-level rises than elevated inland regions. Also, 2°C warming would be more harmful to some ecosystems than others; coral reefs may bleach out of existence once the oceans warm by as little as 1°C. Additionally, because of geographical variation in the effects of climate change, 2°C global average warming means that some parts of the world would actually experience as much as 4°C-5°C warming.

Shaw’s analysis shows how the ‘two degree dangerous limit’ framework of debate and policy-making has constructed climate change ‘as a problem solvable within existing value systems and patterns of social activity.’ In other words, corporate globalisation is not up for challenge. He stresses that even if we had a perfect forecast of future climate change and our vulnerability to it, 'deciding what counts as dangerous is still a value choice because what is considered to be an acceptable risk will vary between individuals and cultures.' The 2°C-limit ideology ‘elevates the idea of a single dangerous limit to the status of fact, and in so doing marginalises egalitarian and ecological perspectives’. 

This propaganda process of marginalising sane alternatives has been no accident. As Shaw rightly observes:

'Since the Second World War, the prevailing consensus has been that all problems can be solved through the expert application of industrial technologies, rather than real changes in how we live our lives or, more fundamentally, in human consciousness. The two degree limit perpetuates this approach by diverting attention away from questions about the political and social order.'

Shaw concludes:

'What should be a political debate about how we want to live becomes reduced to a series of expert calculations about "how much CO2 can we continue emitting before we warm the world by two degrees?" or "what will be the effect on GDP of reducing emissions by 20 per cent?" Consequently, we are invited to see the world as a kind of planetary machine that requires engineering management and maintenance by experts.' (Email, June 18, 2012)

Climate activist and independent journalist Cory Morningstar observes that the first suggestion to use 2°C as a critical temperature limit for climate policy was not even made by a climate scientist. Rather it was put forward by the well-known neoclassical economist, W. D. Nordhaus:

‘Nordhaus has been one of the most influential economists involved in climate change models and construction of emissions scenarios for well over 30 years, having developed one of the earliest economic models to evaluate climate change policy. He has steadfastly opposed the drastic reductions in greenhouse gases emissions necessary for averting global catastrophe, “arguing instead for a slow process of emissions reduction, on the grounds that it would be more economically justifiable.”’

Morningstar, initiator of the grassroots group Canadians for Action on Climate Change, has carefully traced the cynical machinations of corporate ‘environmentalism’. She highlights the little-known fact that, rather than a 2°C target, the original ‘safe limit’ was given as just 1ºC by the United Nations Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases in 1990. But an unholy alliance of corporate interests resulted in it being buried and replaced by the higher target.

She adds:

‘As a consequence of such interference by many powerful players who sought to ensure the economic and political power structure would not be threatened, adaptation surfaced as the primary goal in international climate science and policy, effectively replacing the goals of prevention and mitigation from the 1980s.’

Morningstar warns of making false friends in the struggle to avert the climate chaos ahead:

‘The mainstream environmental movement no longer inspires nor leads society to an enlightened existence – it simply bows down to the status quo.’

Too many of these mainstream groups have, she says, essentially ‘teamed up’ with the very same corporations that need to be challenged; the same corporations who:

‘greenwash summits and caused such social injustice and environmental degradation in the first place and continue to lobby and bully to maintain the status quo of corporate dominance today.’ 

Chris Shaw points out that powerful policy actors, notably the European Union, have imposed the simple metric of the two degree limit which ‘is then parroted uncritically by the media and NGOs. The danger is that the concept communicates a fallacious sense of certainty.’ (Email, May 24, 2012)

He sums up:

‘The argument reduces to this - defining what counts as dangerous is a value choice, not an expert calculation. The neoliberal globalization agenda cannot accommodate almost seven billion different opinions [i.e. the global population] about how much warming should be risked in the name of continued economic growth.’

And so the ideology that best fits within the neoliberal agenda of corporate globalisation – in other words, a single warming limit - is the framework that prevails. Shaw says that 'a new way of talking and thinking about climate change is long overdue' and intends to set out options for this at his blog.

 

Contraction And Convergence

In a rare exception in the corporate media, an article by the Independent’s science editor Steve Connor at least allowed James Hansen a few short paragraphs to spell out the dangers of the 2ºC threshold - if not the economic-growth ideology that lies behind it - and what is really required instead:

‘The target of 2C... is a prescription for long-term disaster ...we are beginning to see signs of slow [climate] feedbacks beginning to come into play.

‘Ice sheets are beginning to lose mass and methane hydrates are to some degree beginning to bubble out of melting permafrost.’

Along with other scientists and climate campaigners, Hansen believes the focus should be on limiting the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – now at around 390 parts per million (ppm) and rising annually by 2 ppm. Hansen says it should be no higher than 350 ppm to stop catastrophic events such as the melting of ice sheets, dangerous sea level rises and the huge release of methane from beneath the permafrost. This will require drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and even ‘biosequestration’, for example through reforestation, to soak up some of the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere.

But even 350 ppm may well be too high, as Hansen himself acknowledges. There may need to be an upper limit of 300 ppm. Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, head of the prestigious Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, goes further stating:

‘Our survival would very much depend on how well we were able to draw down carbon dioxide to 280 ppm.’

This would mean giving up fossil fuels completely; a move which would be fiercely and relentlessly opposed by vested interests.

So, if not the current UN process with its 2°C ‘safe limit’, what should be the framework for averting climate catastrophe? For many years now, we have advocated the climate policy known as ‘contraction and convergence’ proposed by the London-based Global Climate Institute led by the indefatigable Aubrey Meyer. By agreeing to a level of, say, 280 ppm, both ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ nations would contract (i.e. reduce) their production of global-warming gases. This would be done by converging to an equitable per-capita basis of shared emission rights: more populous nations would be allowed to emit proportionally more than smaller nations.

Now that the Kyoto Protocol – the previous climate treaty - has expired in 2012, the United Nations is currently considering the best way forward for its climate negotiations. The GCI’s proposal of contraction and convergence is gathering a good head of steam. For the sake of planetary health – indeed humanity’s survival – it should be accepted and implemented.

 

The Megalomaniacal Megamachine

The mainstream environment movement, with its career campaigners and high-level hobnobbing with power, has largely failed the public. Tony Juniper, former director of Friends of the Earth (FoE), speaks grandly of the ‘two parallel discourses’ of planetary boundaries and economic growth ‘going in polar opposite directions’. That is all too obvious, and has been well-known for decades. He then claims that ‘the profoundest failure of all is our underlying disconnect from the Earth.’

Juniper explains:

‘We work to take on these environmental challenges without having any kind of profound connection with nature. We've lost it talking in a mechanistic, policy-oriented way.

‘We've tried to make it all about numbers, parts per million, complicated policy instruments, and as a result, we've lost something that's essential. Most people couldn't tell you the names of country flowers by the side of the road, the birds that are singing. It's a disconnect in our world view – a failure in our philosophy.’

Being able to name flowers by the side of the road is all good and well. But what about the deep structural causes in economics and politics that generate destruction and stifle change? In the late 1990s, one of us asked Juniper what he thought about the problem of the mainstream media acting as a propaganda system for corporate power. It was clear he had no idea what we were talking about.

Do leading environmentalists really have nothing more astute, inspiring and hard-hitting to say about a global industrial system of destructive capitalism which is consuming the planet? As one of the characters in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang observes in the battle against the corporate assault on nature:

‘We're not dealing with human beings. We're up against the megamachine. A megalomaniacal megamachine.’

Feeling ‘a profound connection with nature’ is vital for one’s well-being. But it will not get us very far if we do not also recognise and then dismantle the destructive financial practices of global ‘investors’, institutions of state-corporate power - with the media a key element - and the warmongering 'adventures' that are crushing people and planet.

In the week of the Rio 2012 Earth summit, 20 years on from the original jamboree in 1992, George Monbiot writes in the Guardian:

‘So this is the great question of our age: where is everyone? The monster social movements of the 19th century and first 80 years of the 20th have gone, and nothing has replaced them. Those of us who still contest unwarranted power find our footsteps echoing through cavernous halls once thronged by multitudes. When a few hundred people do make a stand – as the Occupy campers have done – the rest of the nation just waits for them to achieve the kind of change that requires the sustained work of millions.

‘Without mass movements, without the kind of confrontation required to revitalise democracy, everything of value is deleted from the political text. But we do not mobilise, perhaps because we are endlessly seduced by hope. Hope is the rope from which we all hang.’

Stirring words. But Jonathan Cook, an independent journalist who used to work for the Guardian, notes sagely that:

‘There are no mass protest movements today because “we are endlessly seduced by hope". And who, I wonder, does most to promote such hope? How unfortunate that he ran out of space when he did - otherwise he might have been able to answer that very question for us.’ (Email, June 18, 2012)

In other words, Guardian columnist Monbiot misses out the crucial role of the corporate media, not least his own newspaper, in endlessly seducing us all by hope.

Cook adds:

'I was a little surprised by this level of chutzpah from Monbiot. In truth, who or what does he think could be capable of generating such hope and be so practised in the art of seduction? It's clearly not the politicians: they were around decades ago, when there were serious protest movements. But a wall-to-wall "professional" (ie corporate) media is of much more recent origin. In fact, the rise of such media appears to track very closely the increase in our soma-induced state.'

For years, the corporate media has selected and promoted high-profile green spokespeople - like the Green Party's Jonathan Porritt and Sara Parkin, Greenpeace's Lord Peter Melchett and Stephen Tindale, FoE's Charles Secrett and Tony Juniper, author Mark Lynas and Monbiot himself - who have then come to limit and dominate the environment debate within ‘respectable’ bounds.

In the 1980s, big business openly declared war on the green movement which it perceived as a genuine threat to power and profit. By a process of carefully limited corporate media 'inclusion', the honesty, vitality and truth of environmentalism have been corralled, contained, trivialised and stifled. Today, even as environmental problems have lurched from bad to worse, the green movement has virtually ceased to exist. The lessons are obvious. Corporate media 'inclusion' of dissent hands influence and control to the very forces seeking to disempower dissent. No-one should be surprised by the results.

 

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Please write to:

Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor

Email: alan.rusbridger@guardian.co.uk

Twitter: @arusbridger

George Monbiot, Guardian columnist

Email:george@monbiot.info

Twitter: @georgemonbiot

Chris Blackhurst, Independent editor

Email: c.blackhurst@independent.co.uk

Twitter: @c_blackhurst

Michael McCarthy, Independent environment editor

Email: m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

Twitter: @mjpmccathy

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