From climate denial to greenwashing, John Molyneux charts the manner in which the fossil fuel lobby and the establishment in general have lied and mislead the public over the dangers of the climate crisis. He argues that, ultimately, these same people cannot solve the crisis, and that we must urgently build our own power in order to fight for system change.
“On an early autumn day in 1992, E Bruce Harrison, the man widely acknowledged as the father of environmental PR, stood up in a room full of business leaders and delivered a pitch like no other.
At stake was a contract worth half a million dollars a year – about £850,000 in today’s money. The prospective client, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) – which represented the oil, coal, auto, utilities, steel, and rail industries – was looking for a communications partner to change the narrative on climate change.
Don Rheem and Terry Yosie, two of Harrison’s team present that day, are sharing their stories for the first time.”
So reports the BBC News.
Thirty years ago – yes, thirty – the largest fossil fuel companies in the US cooked up a PR plan to cast doubt on the scientific evidence which had already emerged proving that humanly generated greenhouse gas emissions were producing climate change which could ultimately threaten our survival. They were hugely successful. They created a situation where every time a genuine climate scientist appeared on the media trying to sound the alarm, there was another, bought and paid for expert on hand to say the science wasn’t settled yet and an equally bought and paid for politician to say climate action would cost jobs. The perpetrators – E Bruce Harrison, Don Rheem, Terry Yosie and all those corporate executives – have and will have oceans of human blood on their hands.
The failure to take decisive action to start weaning the world off fossil fuels, back then when it would have been relatively easy, has cost and is continuing to cost millions of human lives and enormously more millions of animal lives [the World Wildlife Fund estimate that 3 billion animals were harmed in the Australian mega bush fires of 2019-20] – more people than died in the Holocaust, more than died in the First World War, and in the end it will be more than died in the Black Death (probably the greatest catastrophe in human history to date). It was and is quite literally a deadly crime against humanity.
However, the real question is not the guilt of these individuals – the PR men and CEOs who committed this crime – it is how they were able to get away with it. For this was a crime committed in plain sight. Just as the basic facts of climate change have been known for well over 30 years so anyone paying attention – never mind governments – has known for decades that the oil industry and others were funding climate denial.
A clue as to how it worked is provided in the BBC article itself. ‘President George HW Bush was a former oilman, and as a senior lobbyist told the BBC in 1990, his message on climate was the GCC’s [Global Climate Coalition] message’. Similarly his son, George W Bush, was President from 1998 to 2006 with Dick Cheney, Chairman of the Board of the Halliburton oil company, as his powerful Vice President. In other words many leading politicians, in the US and elsewhere were, directly or indirectly, linked to the oil industry giants and other fossil fuel dependent corporations, but even this is not key.
If in 1992 or 2002 or 2012 the predominant view in the US ruling class and in the international capitalist class had been that it was a priority to address climate change, the whole climate skeptic narrative would have been swept away in an instant. To see how this would have worked simply look at the response to the invasion of Ukraine. Within hours of the invasion virtually the entire military, political, economic and ideological apparatus of US imperialism and its allies, operating particularly through NATO, had swung into operation in a coordinated response.
This had nothing to do with sympathy for the ordinary people of Ukraine – they never gave a damn about the suffering of the people of Yemen or Palestine or Zaire, any more than they give a damn about the drought stricken starving people of East Africa today. It was simply that Putin’s heinous invasion gave the US a golden opportunity to strike a blow against Russia whilst simultaneously re-establishing its hegemony over Europe and ‘the West’ in the wake of serious defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq and in preparation for developing conflict with China.
As a result governments fell into line from Washington to Berlin (along with Dublin along the way, of course) and so did the media whether it was CNN, BBC or RTE. There wasn’t a real debate – those who might have thought differently were simply marginalised if not demonised.
Profits, Competition and Greenwashing
It could have been the same over climate change if the capitalist class had wanted it but they didn’t. There were two reasons for this both deriving from the fundamental nature of capitalism as an economic system based on competitive production for profit. The first was that there was just so much capital, and therefore profit, tied up in the great fossil-fuel corporations like BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, Toyota, Volkswagen – essentially oil, gas and automobile companies –to contemplate moving away from dependence on oil and gas. The second was that each major state – the US, China, Japan, Germany, India – was and is caught in a competitive race with all its rivals in which pausing relentless growth to tackle climate change would allow its competitors to steal a march on it. In the logic of capitalism, it is better to gamble with the future of humanity than to risk that.
From this point of view, the confusion created by the pseudo-science of the bought and paid for climate deniers was very convenient. It was used for as long as possible to maintain enough of an element of doubt to avoid taking the necessary action.
At the same time most, if not all, of our rulers (there were exceptions like Bolsonaro and Trump) chose not to come out as outright climate change deniers. That would involve a) looking extremely stupid; b) alienating virtually the entire scientific community; and most importantly c) driving vast numbers of young people and their allies onto the streets in rebellion. Hence their strategy has been and remains massive greenwashing. Pretend you are doing something when in fact you are not.
This strategy is much better suited to a situation where actual extreme weather events and actual climate trends have become so clear and evident that the previous deliberately fostered doubt was generally abandoned, with the media following suit and gradually admitting the obvious link between unprecedented heat domes, devastating forest fires, horrific flooding and underlying climate change.
Big business and governments march hand in hand in this. Every company, no matter how ecologically damaging its product and methods of production, has its carefully crafted environmental mission statement and numerous companies devote a considerable part of their advertising budget to trying to persuade customers that they can do their bit to help save the planet by buying their brand of soap, car, energy or double-glazing. Simultaneously governments draw up grand sounding climate plans promising to do all sorts of wonderful things in a few decades time – the current favourite is to pledge to be net zero in carbon emissions by 2050 – all in the full knowledge that today, tomorrow, this summer, next winter, these plans can be put on hold because of this, that or other short-term emergency. So that in fact the one statistic that really matters, the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, continues to rise.
It all sounds a lot greener than the sponsored lies spread by E. Bruce Anderson and his PR gang back in 1992 but in reality, its function is the same. Keep people confused while allowing the planet to burn.
The COP Conference: Cultivating Illusions
A crucial element in the greenwashing strategy is the annually recurring COP conference which brings together ‘interested parties’ from across the world with the promise that this time they are really going to do something. These conferences have taken place every year since 1995, with the 27th due this November but have never actually delivered the kind of binding targets on emissions that everybody knows are needed to avert catastrophic climate change.
You would think after 27 failures, with the failure last year in Glasgow being perhaps the most obvious – just ‘Blah! Blah! Blah!’ as Greta Thunberg put it – they might give up on the process. But in fact for governments it provides a very useful function both in terms of deceiving the public, and crucially, in terms of sucking in the energies of innumerable NGOs and environmental campaigners from around the world. The hope is always that this time it may be different, especially if they, the deeply caring representatives of Friends of the Earth or the Indigenous Peoples of Ecuador or forest campaigners from Indonesia, can only get a foot in the conference door and put their case to the rich and powerful.
Unfortunately this is a carefully cultivated illusion. In Glasgow the people who were really listened to were not low lying islanders in danger of being engulfed, or farmers in Africa whose land is becoming infertile, but the largest single delegation to COP 26 – the lobbyists from the corporations. And it will be the same at COP 27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, the Red Sea holiday resort in Egypt.
Even if the venue for COP 27 were Johannesburg or Stockholm, Dublin or San Francisco the basic character of COP would not change, but holding the Conference in Egypt (and next year it will be in the United Arab Emirates!) sharpens the whole argument. I referred at the beginning of the article to the ‘blood on the hands’ of the climate denying deceivers and their ruling class facilitators. In Egypt that blood will take on an extra meaning. The Egyptian regime, the hideous dictatorship of General Al-Sisi, was literally born in blood, in a hideous street massacre of over 1000 protestors on 13 August 2013 and it has continued in blood, torture and repression ever since. In Egypt there are tens of thousands of political prisoners rotting in jail.
Clearly, as the Egyptian Coalition for Climate and Democracy have requested, no environmental activist should participate in this greenwashing charade by this vile regime. But boycotting Sharm El-Sheikh should go hand in hand with a deeper lesson, namely that real hope lies not in persuading our rulers to do the right thing but in mobilising people power to overthrow them. The real problem is the system and the system is capitalism.
This doesn’t mean simply ignoring COP 27 and doing nothing; it means using the farce of this charade to mobilise wherever we are in our own countries around the world in protests and strikes against our rulers’ deadly determination to fiddle while the planet burns.