An anonymous US official once advised, "We must counter, both in the UN and within the framework of the North-South dialogue, any discussion of global problems which questions the validity of the free market and of free enterprise in the countries of the Third World."
This was merely a small part of a much wider, highly conscious and vigorously executed campaign – by now, perhaps 100-years-old – to stifle discussion of anything that questions the validity of the free market. Looking beyond the crude totalitarianism of his day to the sleek totalitarianism of ours, PR guru Harold Lasswell wrote in 1927:
"A new and subtler instrument must weld thousands and even millions of human beings into one amalgamated mass. A new flame must burn out the canker of dissent and temper the steel of bellicose enthusiasm. The name of this new hammer and anvil of social solidarity is propaganda. Talk must take the place of drill; print must supply the dance."
Evidence for the success of this attack on questioning and dissent are all around us. Peter Horrocks, editor of the BBC’s prestigious Newsnight, told staff in 1997: "Our job should not be to quarrel with the purpose of policy, but to question its implementation."
Barry Cox, deputy chairman of Channel 4, recently wrote an article in the Observer sub-titled: "In defence of political apathy – voter disillusion with polls and politicians is little more than a sign of peace and prosperity."
The Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting – writing after the Seattle protests, and before Washington and Prague – asked: "Let’s be honest, who cares much about politics beyond a small elite of professional politicians, commentators, policy wonks and a rump of party activists? When did you last have a raging row – or even brief conversation – with anyone about politics?"
With the canker of dissent burned out, the ensuing silence can, indeed must, be presented as contentment and "social solidarity", rather than the triumph of corporate control.
Naturally enough, then, given this context of mutually dependent lies and silence, it is simply not possible for the mainstream to discuss the problem of global warming. The real problem being that of overcoming the corporate system standing between us and action in response to global warming, and, with specific regard to the corporate media, standing between us and any discussion of global warming "which questions the validity of the free market and of free enterprise". October 11, 2000, was one of those interesting days when reality and deception collide. That day, and for the next three days, massive flooding caused Britain’s "greatest ever natural disaster", at a cost variously estimated between £2 and £4 billion – more than twice the damage inflicted by the hurricane of 1987. Worst hit areas were Sussex, Kent and Hampshire. A spokesman for East Sussex fire brigade gave an idea of the scale: "I would say we are now at full stretch. Every crew we have is involved in one way or another. These floods are among the worst we have ever seen. We have hundreds of flooded homes and many roads are impassable."
Elliot Morley, New Labour’s countryside minister, literally waded in: "We seem to be having more violent weather patterns and we accept that it could be due to global warming."
On that same sodden October day, the Guardian, as it occasionally does, gave fleeting and pitifully superficial attention to the efforts of big business to undermine even trivial action to combat global warming. The latest target is the upcoming sixth Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in the Hague, taking place between 13-24 November, and to be attended by leaders and negotiator s from 35 countries. Polly Ghazi reported how James Hansen and colleagues at Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York had, perhaps unwittingly, handed big business a priceless gift ahead of the conference by suggesting that the emphasis on reducing carbon emissions was misplaced. Instead, existing technologies should be used to cut other climate-warming pollutants such as methane and traffic-generated ozone and carbon (soot). Western nations, Hansen and colleagues urged, needed to help spread proven clean technologies such as catalytic converters to the developing world:
"We’re suggesting a more optimistic scenario than the conventional wisdom which says that curtailing global warming is almost hopeless," Hansen told the Guardian. "I believe the prospects for having a modest rather than a disastrous climate impact are quite good."
That very day, copies of the Guardian carrying Hansen’s predictions of a "modest" climate impact were to be found floating out of newsagents and down flooded high streets around the country.
Dr George Woodwell, a climate expert and director of the Woods Hole Research Centre in Massachusetts, has denounced Hansen’s proposals as "dangerous" and "crazy", adding: "Arguing that we should forget about CO2 for the time being while we reduce other greenhouse gases assumes that we have time to allow carbon dioxide levels to just keep on rising. That would be a very dangerous assumption on which to base the future of six billion people."
And also, of course, a highly profitable assumption for industry. Big business has discernibly leapt on Hansen’s proposals as a way of attacking the 1997 Kyoto treaty, which binds nations to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to below 1990 levels by 2008-2012.
The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) Issue Brief of August 2000, for example, insists: "There is more disagreement than ever on how much and how fast warming is actually occurring; whether achievable reductions in fossil-fuel burning will have any significant effect on climate; and even whether any future warming will be beneficial or harmful."
As ever the NAM went on to declare:
"We oppose the Kyoto Protocol and urge the President and Congress to reject it."
To appreciate the irresponsibility of this statement, we need to consider some key facts: carbon emissions are continuing to rise, and current agreements under discussion are "trivial in terms of stabilising the climate", according to climate scientists – proposing 5.2% cuts as opposed to the 60-80% cuts required. While it is estimated that 100,000 people have lost their lives to global warming since 1997, the London-based Global Commons Institute predicts a further 2 million deaths over the next ten years, with material destruction measured in the tens of billions of dollars.
The dinosaurs of the NAM are of course just doing what business has always done: pursuing maximum profit as vigorously as possibly, regardless of the human cost. This has worked for them for many decades, but this time they have bitten off far more than they can chew. As George Woodwell points out: "The chances of keeping a heavily technological civilisation intact with an open-ended warming of the planet taking place are practically zero."
Nevertheless, related arguments that will be employed by big business to prevent meaningful agreements at the Hague include the buying of emissions credits from countries with capacity to spare as a result of collapsed industrial production, or due to reliance on nuclear power. Friends of the Earth explain the beauty of emissions trading for business: "They have halted real action to stop climate change as parties have become completely caught up in the complex and almost incomprehensible detail of these mechanisms."
‘Carbon sinks’ will also be promoted, involving, for example, the growth of carbon-absorbing forests. But the carbon thereby absorbed could be released again at any time if the trees are burnt or cut down. Again, endless wrangling over such issues works wonderfully to delay serious action.
As discussed, the role of the media – manned by Lasswell’s drill sergeants and dance masters – has been to maintain an unearthly silence on these issues. Fully ten years after a connection was made between rising global temperatures and industrial activity, the mainstream continued to mock all talk of a link. In June 1996, the Sunday Times declared: "The latest apocalypse, global warming, is just that. Lots of hot air." Two weeks later, an editorial in the Daily Telegraph ran under the banner " Hot Air", arguing: "To many scientists the likelihood of man-made global warming is about as credible as stories of goblins and fairies."
The "many scientists" totalled six – all of them heavily funded by the fossil-fuel industry.
Eighteen months later, in December 1997, the BBC2 series, Scare Stories, said of global warming: "It’s been a campaign driven by passionate belief rather than verifiable fact. they [environmentalists] have cried wolf once too often."
This, less than two months after 1,500 of the world’s most distinguished scientists had signed an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declaration urging world leaders to act immediately to prevent the "potentially devastating consequences of human-induced global warming".
As recently as September 2000, a Sunday Times article reported that the legendary Northwest Passage had at last been opened by climate change; an event which "has fuelled hopes that tankers and other vessels could soon be plying the route on a regular basis". An upbeat Peter Conradi explained: "The benefits are considerable: up to 2,500 miles will be cut from journeys from one coast of America to the other, and as much as double that from Europe to Asia." A marvellous boost to global trade, in other words. "Not all experts share the euphoria", Conradi noted, not because global warming threatens a global holocaust, but because there remains a depressing possibility that local temperatures might actually fall over the next few years, threatening the newly opened trade route.
The prize for media lunacy, however, must go to the BBC lunchtime news. Having outlined the latest scientific warning on climate change last month, the news anchor then proceeded to refer the greatest threat to face humanity in this or any other age to the resident weather forecaster. "Can anything be done about global warming?", she was asked. "No, not really," came the reply. "All we can really do is try to adapt to it." The anchor nodded, turned back to the camera, and moved on to the next story.