We are a few short weeks away from what is meant to be an important event. An event where our world leaders get together to deal with one of the biggest threats of our time and to humanity as a whole: climate change. The event is the much-hyped COP 21 in Paris, France.
Paris COP21 logo
Yet, almost everyone that really cares about stopping this climate catastrophe does not expect any major success or real solutions coming out of Paris this December. It is expected to be just another failed COP in a long line of endless failures of our leaders to have any backbone about dealing with climate change. And yes it just the political will that is potently lacking, because real solutions to the problem exist and people are working on such solutions every day.
So how can it be that after 21 long years of negotiations, we are still discussing and we still haven’t managed to figure out how to fix the problem of climate change in a global, binding and coordinated manner? The reasons are many, but there is one aspect of the problem that I would like to explore more, and which I feel has been a central cause of the problem around delayed action on climate change. That is the prevalence of manipulation of narratives, through “misdirection”, “distraction”, and “creation of doubt.”
In studying media coverage during the nineties until recently, we often saw an ongoing debate, often with one expert stating that climate change was happening and explaining the need for action, while another claimed that the science was unclear, complicated and that we needed to do more research and discussions before we do anything since that could cause major economic costs. This format gives the false impression that the scientific field is balanced in these different views, that there is still a debate to be had, that there are divergent opinion within the experts. If one looks at the time given to these two views, it is either equal time or in the case of some US channels actually more time is given to climate deniers then to the true experts.
Just in case some of you have been duped by this, it is useful to go through a quick timeline to understand how corporations and governments have been especially effective at redefining the narrative in the face of overwhelming evidence. As early as 1859 Tyndall shows the effect of greenhouse gases and suggested that increases in these gases could case climate change. In 1896 Arrhenius releases its first study calculating the effect of global warming from human emissions of CO2. Just a year later Chamberlin produced the first simple global carbon model with feedbacks, while Callendar in 1938 used records from 147 weather stations to show a correlation between temperature increase and CO2 concentrations. Since then more and more research has clearly showed the link between human-based emissions and climate change, such issues as data showing CO2 based global warming is underway, from the melting of Antarctic ice sheets, to complex global weather models showing the existence of climate change and much, much more all this already existed by the 1960s.
In the 1970s, numerous conferences and institutions starting raising concerns about climate change, with an ever-increasing consensus among leading scientists that serious global climate change was caused by humans and that action was necessary. In the 1970s there were still scientists and experts that had doubts, but as their own research continued one by one they shifted to the truth. By 1985, already 30 years ago, the Villach Conference had declared consensus among experts and called on governments to consider international agreements to restrict emissions.
The world reacted and in 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established and in 1990 they released their first report stating that the world was warming. In 2005, the Kyoto Protocol became the first international law to deal with climate change. Many felt it was too weak, but given that this was a first step, with a guarantee that stronger agreements were to follow, many felt that at least things looked like they were heading in the right direction. However, as we all know it didn’t go as hoped and the Kyoto Protocol died a slow, painful death around 2012 with no new binding global agreement to replace it. Reason seems to have retreated and it feels we are further away from a solution than we were even 10 years ago.
Today for every 100 research papers published on climate change, 99 support the reality of climate change. Don’t be surprised if the last one which doesn’t support the reality is funded by the fossil fuel industry. The problem is that decisions are not based on facts, but political and corporate interests. However, civil society can be a major thorn in the side of these narrow corporate interests; hence defining a narrative to their interests becomes an important part of continued corporate control of our spaces and government.
The public relations type approach that corporates use to develop their narratives is not fine-tuned to facts but rather to peoples’ interests and emotions. It is based on charm, slickness, catchy messages and charisma, and therefor very effective. In contrast the factual science-based approach to develop a narrative is far more restrictive as it needs to be based on data, on falsifiable hypotheses and complex details that are regularly revised, changed and fine-tuned as new research and data are constantly being discovered. This isn’t a good path for igniting mass interest. Add the fact that corporations control most of the media sources, or have the funds to spread their toxic untrue narrative to an endless degree. We can start to understand why we are failing.
In the case of the climate change narrative a further dose of distraction, intentional misinterpretation, suppression of facts, dubious think tanks, pseudo-experts, and more, have even further distorted the odds. For those who are interested in more details can read an interesting book titled “Merchants of Doubt” or watch the documentary of the same name. This book reveals the history of corporate public relations efforts to cast doubt, confusion and skepticism around genuine scientific research if that research goes against their self-interest.
Merchants of Doubt book
The interesting thing that one notices when reading the book is how similar has been the doubt-generating approach to diverse topics and issues from DDT pesticides to ozone depleting CFC´s, from acid rain to the flame-retardants industry. All used the corporate narratives to create doubt and skepticism on the existence of a problem, leading to major delays is solving these issues. The first step to solving any problem is agreeing that there is a problem. If the problem is ignored for long enough, then the solution of what it will take to stop this crisis, can well be ignored. The case that really stands out in the book is that of tobacco industry. The strategies used today for casting doubt on climate change were so similar to the strategies for fudging the health impacts of tobacco. There is even an overlap of the actual pseudo-experts involved. If you can sell big tobacco´s narrative, you can sell any narrative.
Also the reason why tobacco is an important case study is because they wrote the book on using public relations to keep the reality and consequences well hidden. An infamous 1969 tobacco executive memo explained it best by saying “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
The science was clear already in 1950 with numerous studies showing the link between cancer and tobacco. By the end of the 1950s, even the tobacco´s own research had concluded that their product was addictive and caused cancer. In the light of this the tobacco industry realized that denying the harms of smoking would not be enough or effective as a sales strategy. Instead it was important to insist that there were “two sides” to the story and to use the transient and changing nature of science in their favour. It got heavily involved in funding opposing research and partnering with research institutions, and even created some such as the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC). At least the link with the TIRC was clear, most of the funding was not made known it came from the tobacco industry so to seem independent. Some of the research was heavily base, but some was genuine and good, such as the link between genetics and cancer, but the use of the research was to create alternative hypothesis to better develop doubt.
They developed a diverse and intense advertising campaigns becoming the biggest advertisers in sports and other sectors. They used influential professions such as getting doctors to support the use of tobacco or at least to claim that they smoked. It is technically not a lie, but one can see the problem from miles away. They sponsor celebrities, and sell lifestyles. They were among the first to link up with Hollywood for product placement in movies. The 80´s superman movies had Superman and even Lois Lane (confident girlfriend) smoke for the first time in the franchise and throughout the movies there were Malboro adverts.
All this allowed the tobacco industry to avoid regulation, legislation, liaibility, etc, but more sadly it allow the continued delay to solving the problem and must always keep in mind that when one says delays it mean much more than time, it often mean loss of life.
Climate change has followed the same strategy and the fossil fuel industries and others have been successfully delaying action and capturing our global spaces such as the UNFCCC to the point where even thought the last IPCC report on climate change highlighted the severe and shocking state of our climate and called for drastic action, we still do not expect much of the Paris COP, which is where we met to get some form of international agreement. We have the facts, we know what needs to be done, but our leaders do not want to do it….and the general public in the critical countries like the USA are “doubtful” of the true causes of climate change. Many still doubt if climate change really exists or not. It may seem like a joke to us, but it is true in many parts of USA. It also help to deny climate change when accepting it means changing some of the excesses of consumption that has become part and parcel of the American way of life and a path that many of our elites have adopted and even elaborated on.
Stop global warming! Roads sign in Muscat, Oman, September 2009
Now this may seem like a global issue with big players outside the reality of Mozambique, but many of these tricks and strategies are being used day-by-day with us, with Mozambique´s civil society. Its was used when dealing with the illegal logging, the gas, the coal and much more. It is currently happening with Prosavana, one of the largest land grabs in Africa, were civil society has identified numerous fatal flaws and have asked for a halt to the project. The government has done numerous fancy looking documents showing the benefits. It has done a master plan with all the correct language of sustainability, equity, community empowerment, gender sensitivity, etc…They know what to say and they know that what they say and what they do doesn´t have to be the same. Once the project has started its almost impossible to stop, so they just need to say the right thing until the ball gets rolling.
Coal mining dust in Tete province, Mozambique
Hence, the government has shown a willingness to sit down and discuss. “Let’s not be extreme, they say. “Let’s not halt the project, but find a solution to improve this Prosavana program, work together, etc. It places civil society in a situation where if we say no it makes us look stubborn and feeds the notions of being extreme. The truth is that while we sit down and discuss, chat and work together the project continues. Word stay words and nothing changes in reality. We increase the credibility of the project as they can claim civil society participations. We have been there and have done that too many times.
Let me put it in a simpler way. If I served you a fish that was rotten, you would not accept it and send it back. My reaction should be to say sorry and getting something new, but instead of me throwing it out I say let us talk about it, let us fix the problem. Well I can put salt and piri-piri to help improve the taste and a lot of garlic to improve the smell. Let us not be extreme and compromise. Would you now eat the rotten fish? Didn’t think so. Hence we should find ways ourselves having to discuss projects and issues that are fundamentaly flawed and which affect so many people so deeply. It because the fish is only a few meticais so we can throw it out, but these projects and issues are millions of dollars and that is enough to buy over morality.
The later the change occurs the less impact it has and the slower the results. Do not forget that these issues are linked to peoples’ lives. In the case of climate change one must not forget when we discuss this limit or that limit, we are basically discussing if a few million people can die or many millions can die, that how sever the situation is if we delay action or do too little too late. Do not let the powers at be take us on these endless roundabouts while they continue to impact peoples’ lives.