In the early hours of December 19, a giant balloon of hot air appeared over Copenhagen, as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change came to an end. For two weeks the conference’s odd 15,000 participants had talked and talked and talked, yet were unable to reach an agreement. And thus the stage was set for “Our Savior” — United States President Barack Obama — on the very last day, to bang out a deal that utterly lacked in substance and ambition.
Tellingly, while most of the 115 world leaders had not even read the text, the White House was the first to announce that a historic agreement had been reached. Shortly after, Obama appeared on television to explain to his dear citizens that the US, China, Brazil, India and South Africa had agreed to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius. But he did not say how, and how could he? The initial aim, to reduce CO2 emissions by 2050 to 80 percent of 1990 levels, was abandoned and the current text contains not a single target for carbon cuts.
Lumumba Di-Aping, chief negotiator for the G77 group of 130 developing countries including the Middle East and North Africa region, did not mince his words.
“This deal…has the lowest level of ambition you can imagine,” he said. “It’s nothing short of climate change skepticism in action.”
Still, it is unlikely that many Americans will have sleepless nights over the impotence shown in Copenhagen. A recent US poll concluded that only 57 percent of Americans believe there is solid evidence that the earth is warming up, while only 36 percent believe human activity has something to do with it. These are quite stunning figures for a developed country.
One might argue that, faced with the fallout of the financial crisis, rising unemployment and the ongoing national healthcare debate, the average American has more urgent matters on his mind than the melting of the Arctic and starving polar bears. Yet, that does not tell the whole story. The sad fact is that, ever since the first calls to curb CO2 emissions and tax the world’s main polluters, America’s leading industries have embarked on a campaign to question and downplay global warming. In an immediate response to the creation of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?(IPCC), which brings together 2,500 scientists from around the world, America’s leading trade associations in 1989 launched the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) with the aim to “reposition global warming as theory rather than fact,” by means of public relations and lobbying campaigns.
The GCC represented some 6 million US businesses, including all leading energy and automotive firms. Founded in 1991 by a handful of coal, electricity and fuel companies, the Information Council on the Environment had a similar aim. One of its slogans was: “Some say the earth is warming. Some also said the earth was flat.”
Both organizations have ceased to exist, yet similar campaigns continue. For example, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity was founded by 48 mining, rail, power and manufacturing companies. For 2009 alone, it had a budget of $45 million to convince both politicians and the general public that coal is clean.
A third aspect in the battle for hearts and minds is to pay and promote scientists who doubt global warming. For example, a leaked 1998 action plan issued by the American Petroleum Institute announced a massive campaign to make climate change “a non-issue.”
In addition to advertisement campaigns and intense lobbying, the plan aimed “to recruit a cadre of scientists who share the industry’s views…and train them in PR so they can help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify controls on greenhouse gases.”
In February 2007, The Guardian reported that the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research had offered scientists and economists $10,000 “to undermine a major climate change report” issued by the IPCC. In promoting such views, capitalist America finds itself on an equal footing with Saudi Arabia. “Climate has been changing for thousands of years, but for natural and not human-induced reasons,” said Saudi Arabia’s lead negotiator, Mohammad al-Sabban, in the run up to Copenhagen. “Whatever the international community does to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will have no effect on the climate’s natural variability.” If the developed world were to introduce energy saving measures, then Riyadh would demand compensation for lost revenue. That is like the tobacco industry demanding compensation for promoting non-smoking policies, as one environmentalist pointed out.
The comparison between climate change deniers and the tobacco industry does not stop there. When scientists in the early 1970s started saying that smoking caused cancer, the industry hired an army of PR and advertisement firms to deny that claim, in much the same way as American industries have battled to undermine the notion of global warming. In a society ruled by the law of the market, everything is subject to negotiation, even the truth. Yet who today dares deny that smoking causes cancer?
PETER SPEETJENS is a Beirut-based journalist