Global warming and the political economy of threats


To a casual observer, the reality, or otherwise, of a threat to humankind would appear to be determined by inexact but essentially rational calculations based on evidence, hard facts, and best guesses all wrapped up in a framework of concern for the general well-being of people and planet. Not so. In fact, the perceived seriousness of a threat is largely determined by the extent to which it is a help or a hindrance to goals set by centers of political and economic power. This can be demonstrated by reference to two modern threats, and to the political and corporate, including corporate media, response to them.

In June 1996 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an official body of more than 2,000 scientists set up by the world’s governments, reported that "The balance of evidence suggests a discernible influence on global climate." Tim Radford of The London Guardian writes that: "Man-made global warming is now detectable, and average temperatures could be 4C higher by 2100–with sea levels rising half a metre a century for hundreds of years to come."

The climate is currently heating up faster than at any time in the last 10,000 years. At time of writing, every climate model in the world predicts rates of global warming between 10 and 100 times faster than anything living systems have faced since human beings began to walk the earth.

These models are based on indications that human activity has increased atmospheric greenhouse gasses by 90 parts per million (PPM). Gasses found trapped deep in Antarctic ice indicate that increases in greenhouse gasses of 100 PPM, 15,000 years ago, were sufficient to raise global temperatures by three degrees. Given that greenhouse gasses are projected to rise a further 140 PPM by the year 2050, even in the event of an immediate 50 percent cut in current emmission rates, it is easy to see why climatologists are predicting trouble ahead.

The ten hottest years in human history have all been recorded since the beginning of the 1980s. And yet warming currently taking place is the product of a less energy-intensive age. Scientists believe that global warming has an inbuilt time lag. Today’s temperatures are the result of gasses released during the 1960s, before the age of the fully globalized economy.

It is impossible to predict the effects of global warming with any accuracy but they seem sure to be dramatic and quite possibly catastrophic, including massive disruption of agriculture, industry, and the food chains with unknown consequences; more storms of increased severity; more droughts and floods, including the flooding of low-lying islands and deltas. By way of only one example, it is thought that 100 million people now living in Southern Africa may be made environmental refugees by global warming as croplands face permanent drought.

Evidence of global warming is coming in thick and fast the world over. In September 1993, Norwegian scientists reported that data collected since 1983 revealed that the polar ice cap is melting 10 percent faster than it can be replaced. Researchers at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) reported (September 1994) "the greening of Antarctica" as the ice recedes and summers lengthen. The BAS study reported a "rapid increase" in the continent’s only two flowering plants at sites 600 miles apart, with one flowering grass 25 times more common than it was 30 years ago. BAS scientist Dr. Lewis Smith said "This is part of the global warming situation…a sign of regional warming, which is part of what is happening to the climate globally." According to BAS, Antarctic summer temperatures now persist 50 percent longer than they did during the 1970s.

The European Sub-Polar Ocean Programme has found that the Ogden Feature, a tongue of ice which acts as a natural pump driving currents in the North Atlantic, has failed for the past three years in succession. This has never happened before. Dr. Peter Wadhams of the Scott Polar Research Institute reports that "Global warming is the culprit. It has reduced the area of ice in the Greenland Sea and cut off the process." (Independent on Sunday) The consequences are uncertain but it is thought that the failure of the Ogden Feature may weaken the Gulf Stream which keeps northern Europe much warmer than other regions at the same latitude; violent switches in the climate may be triggered as a result.

Paul Brown of The Guardian reports (July 6, 1996) that ice which has held the Swiss Alps together for 10,000 years is now melting at the rate of 30 meters per year in some places: "Scientists who advise politicians believe that countries like Switzerland are suffering irreversible damage," Brown writes, with villages threatened by the prospect of "tidal waves" of "melt-water descending on their homes" bearing "an avalanche of rocks" and "the collapse of cliffs that flank their valleys."

Alongside what we know, scientists also regularly warn us that there is plenty that remains unknown. During the early 1990s, the aim of the Joint Global Ocean Flux Study was to evaluate how much atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed into the oceans and how much is released from them. Previously, only general patterns were known. For example, warm, tropical waters tend to release carbon dioxide, while cold, high-latitude waters tend to absorb and store carbon dioxide. For this reason, oceanographers fear that in a warming world warmer seas may strongly amplify warming by releasing stored carbon dioxide. The problem is that the Ocean Flux study found astonishing variations in the carbon dioxide content of the North Atlantic over even short distances.

"The variations observed," concluded the authors of a paper in Nature, "suggests that estimates of the oceanic storage or release of carbon dioxide calculated from existing data will be subject to significant error."

Similarly, summarizing their results in a paper in Science magazine (August 23, 1991), 17 climate modelling teams from around the world found that, depending on the behaviour of clouds above melting snowy areas, the role of snow in global warming varied from strongly-positive to weakly-negative.

More recently, Martin Perry of Oxford University has said that "Unexpected changes cannot be ruled out. There are potential surprises out there, both in time and in place. This ignorance is a risk in itself. We don’t know when these unexpected impacts could occur, or where." Nobel prize-winner Paul Crutzen suggests, ominously, that global climate change will bring "unpleasant surprises."

The threat of global warming, then, is real. The response to it, as yet, however, is not. At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the world’s governments signed a treaty agreeing to combat global warming. Industrialised nations promised to "aim" (the crucial word) to level off their emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000.

The United States signed this treaty in the full knowledge that its carbon dioxide emissions were projected to rise by 13 percent by the year 2000, with its multinationals providing the lion’s share of $1,000 billion investment in the search for oil over 10 years. George Bush once said he would use the "White House effect to counter the greenhouse effect: and then, when elected, adopted the "wait and see strategy" favored by big business, despite the fact that, as the Ocean Flux and other studies have shown, the environmental systems under investigation are of such complexity that certainty is impossible and waiting never ends.

Four years later, we know that almost no Western countries will meet the modest targets set at the Earth Summit. The International Energy Agency estimates that by the year 2000 global greenhouse gasses will be 17 percent higher than in 1990; by 2010 they will have risen by 49 percent. Similarly, the World Energy Council reports that combined emissions of Western countries have actually increased by 4 percent between 1990 and 1995. Only Britain and Germany are on track: Britain, because it happened to change from coal to gas for political reasons (the destruction of the coal industry was not motivated by a desire to protect the environment); Germany, because it shut down the inefficient industries of the east. Genuine action to combat global warming has been minimal. Indicatively, the British Energy Conservation Trust set up to take action has received only a tenth of its planned funding. Energy minister, Tim Eggar, cites accidental pollution cuts as justification for opposing other measures. Eileen Clausen, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for environmental issues, admitted the obvious truth that governments were "in disarray" over climate change. There was "no clear policy direction," and "little thought" had been given to implementing and enforcing any policies adopted.

If the world has done little to date in the face of all this, what are the prospects for change? Will the world continue to play Russian Roulette with the climate? An idea of the sort of economic and political forces arrayed against change can be gained by considering the response of those same forces to an earlier "threat."

@HEAD 1 = In Deepest Peril

@PAR AFTERJ<@191>UB = In April 1950, the U.S. National Security Council Directive 68 (NSC68) stated that "The Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose absolute authority over the rest of the world." The citizens of the United States, the report went on, "stand in their deepest peril," being threatened with the "destruction not only of this Republic but of civilisation itself." (Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power)

U.S. hysteria about Soviet plans for world conquest was matched in Britain. For David Watt, former Director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, the Anglo-American special relationship is "conditioned on Britain’s remaining the single most effective adjutant in the task of containing the Soviet Union and its allies."

It is significant that whereas there is now overwhelming scientific evidence for the reality of global warming, there was always plenty of evidence to show that the Soviet threat was a fantasy. In reality, few state planners believed that the Soviets intended to confront the West militarily. George Kennan, head of U.S. State Department planning, could not have been clearer when he argued in 1947 that "it is not Russian military power which is threatening us, it is Russian political power."

This is a theme that runs through the state documentary record. Vietnam, for example, is considered the defining event of the cold war: a collision between communist expansion in Southeast Asia and the U.S. determination to stop it. In reality, the CIA found that evidence of "Kremlin-directed conspiracy" could be found "in virtually all countries except Vietnam," which appeared to be "an anomaly." (Noam Chomsky, Year 501.) According to Major Patti of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the forerunner of the CIA), stationed in Hanoi in 1945, the Vietnamese at that time were possessed of "an extraordinary pro-American spirit that was everywhere at the birth of Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam." (John Pilger, Heroes) The Vietnamese, Patti reports, "didn’t regard America as an imperial power. They thought we were different from the Europeans and they were desperate not to be associated with international communism, not with the Chinese or Russians, but with us in America."

Ho Chi Minh’s repeated and impassioned appeals (as many as 12) to President Roosevelt and other senior U.S. officials for U.S. support for Vietnamese independence received no written reply<@151>only the subsequent delivery of some 3.9 million tons of bombs on the South Vietnamese "ally" alone.

Elsewhere, in 1954, referring to the "Communist threat" in Guatemala, U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, thanked "the loyal citizens of Guatemala who, in the face of terrorism and violence and against what seemed insuperable odds, had the courage and the will to eliminate the traitorous tools of foreign despots." (Paul Farmer, The Uses of Haiti)

In the real world: "No shred of evidence ever turned up after the [Guatemalan] coup establishing a secret tie to the Soviets." (Kinzer and Schlesinger, Bitter Fruit; Edward S. Herman, The Real Terror Network)

In similar vein, one of the most reputable analysts of British foreign policy, Ritchie Ovendale, noted with regards to the British intervention in Malaya, that Britain was "fighting the communist terrorists to enable Malaya to become independent and help itself…to prevent the spread of communism and resist Russian expansion."

Malaya, in fact, was deemed the "greatest material prize in South-East Asia," for which independence from Western control was not an option. As to the "communist terrorists," according to the Colonial Office four years after the beginning of the emergency. "No operational links have been established as existing" between Malaya and Soviet or Chinese communists, with no material support being offered.

Wherever we look during the cold war we find that the perception of the Soviet military threat expressed in high-level secret documents is very different from that which was claimed to be perceived. The Middle East, for example, was, in popular mythology, at permanent risk of a Soviet push to the Persian Gulf. In July 1950, the British Chiefs of staff noted that "the success of indirect or subversive action by the Soviet government…in any of the Arab states or in Israel is improbable in the immediate future." The threat of direct Soviet action was not even deemed worth discussing. The U.S. State Department noted in 1950 that communist parties were "non-existent in Yemen and Saudi Arabia; outlawed in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon and apparently unorganised in Jordan." Indeed "throughout the Arab states, at the present time, extreme rightist or ultra-nationalist elements may exercise greater influence and form a greater threat to the maintenance of a pro-Western orientation than the communists."

Astonishing though it may seem for someone exposed to the propaganda blitz of the post-war period, the same is true of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, Iran, British Guinea, and any number of other places where attacks were launched against "international communism."

The same lack of evidence for a communist threat was reported wherever intelligence agencies were operative. So, if there was little or no communist, or Soviet, threat to the Middle East, "Black" Africa, North Africa, the Far East, South Asia, and South-eastern Asia, historian Mark Curtis writes, "there were not many areas left where communism or the Soviet Union could be supposed to be on the march."

The U.S. government’s own Bureau of the Budget refuted the alarmist thesis put forward in the NSC68 report cited above, noting in May 1950 that "NSC68 is based on the assumption that the military power of the USSR and its satellites is increasing in relation to that of the U.S. and its allies…it is hard to accept a conclusion that the USSR is approaching a straight-out military superiority over us when, for example, (1) our Air Force is vastly superior qualitatively, is greatly superior numerically in bombers, trained crews and other facilities necessary for offensive warfare; (2) our supply of fission bombs is much greater than that of the USSR, as is our thermonuclear potential; (3) our Navy is so much stronger than that of the USSR that they should not be mentioned in the same breath; (4) the economic health and military potential of our allies is, with our help, growing daily; and (5) while we have treaties of alliance with and are furnishing arms to countries bordering the USSR, the USSR has none with countries within thousands of miles from us."

The threat of a Soviet Union bent on military confrontation with the West was a giant hoax with several advantages. One benefit was that it enabled governments to secure vast public subsidy of high-tech industry through massive defense spending programs. Big business had everything to gain from responding to a terrible threat, just as big business now stands to lose massively from responding to the threat of global warming: "To a remarkable degree, containment has been the product, not so much of what the Russians have done, or of what has happened elsewhere in the world, but of internal forces operating within the United States….What is surprising is the primacy that has been accorded economic considerations in shaping strategies of containment, to the exclusion of other considerations."

Mark Curtis concludes that "Crucially, the immediate beneficiaries of the rearmament programme were to be the large corporations within the military-defense sector of the economy. With guaranteed industrial production and a guaranteed market (the Department of Defense) they were able to achieve high levels of output and reap large profits."

The apparent contradiction between the public hysteria and the private admission that no threat existed can also be explained, Curtis argues, by a further advantage of a giant "red scare": its utility for hiding the fact that "Britain’s (and the USA’s) <@145>economic interests’ in the Third World in the post-war period have been synonymous with the systematic exploitation and impoverishment of local populations."

Since the end of the cold war, the propaganda system has searched long and hard for new threats which, unlike global warming, justify vast public subsidies to high-tech industry. Though strenuous attempts have been made, the world appears to have developed terror fatigue for international drug dealers, "New Hitlers" of the Middle East, single mothers, immigrants, and other demons. Spirits may have been partially lifted by a recent report in the London Sunday Times: "The Pentagon," Roger Dobson reports, "is to spend $500m developing a new defence system against cruise missiles. The decision, taken in the past fortnight, is to counter warnings that will be made this week by leading military experts who claim that high-tech cruise missiles costing as little as <@163>500,000 will soon become a threat to western nations."

Terry Taylor, assistant director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies based in London, says "In Iraq they fitted out a pilotless plane and were planning to put biological weapons and a spray tank on it. Fortunately they didn’t get it working. That is the low end of the scale and some people would not call that a cruise missile, but I would."

In July 1996, the British Defense Secretary, Michael Portillo, announced that <@163>4 billion worth of defense contracts had been placed. Billions are to be spent developing Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft, a new cruise missile and an anti-tank system. For good reasons, no mention was made of just who these weapons are intended to defend Britain from; the preferred justification being that 5,000 jobs will be created.

The press went along with the farce. "A replacement for the Nimrod patrol aircraft is urgently needed because it is simply getting old," David Fairhill of The Guardian (July 27, 1996) writes. It is irrelevant, then, that Nimrod was originally developed (or so we were told) to protect us from a massed nuclear superpower Soviet attack, and not, say, Iraqi pilotless planes armed with spray tanks. <N>

@HEAD 1 = When Goblins Walk The Earth

@PAR AFTERJ<@191>UB = In considering the failure of the West to respond to the very real threat of global warming, we need to remember that Western governments, academics and media joined whole-heartedly in promoting the Soviet "threat."

By contrast, the media has responded with indifference, scepticism, and a kind of wilful amnesia to warnings relating to global warming.

A prime example was the media response to an October 1990 UN conference at which an international panel of scientists reached virtual unanimity on the conclusion that global warming had occurred over the past century and that the risk of further warming is serious, ranging from significant to near-catastrophic. Not a single member of the panel agreed with sceptical views expressed in the U.S. press, gaining such headlines as "U.S. Data Fail To Show Warming Trend" (New York Times) and "The Global Warming Panic: A Classic Case of Over-Reaction" (cover of Forbes, Science, March 8, 1990).

In contrast to the "menace of international communism," the facts of this issue represent a serious threat to corporate goals. Stephen Schneider, head of Interdisciplinary Climate Systems at the U.S. National Centre For Atmospheric Research, has estimated that conversion to a post-greenhouse economy would cost government and corporations "hundreds of billions of dollars every year for many decades, both at home and in financial and technical assistance to developing nations." Consequently, like inconvenient human rights atrocities and costly facts more generally, the global warming issue, and certainly the idea of a need for immediate and drastic action, tends not to be promoted by the corporate media arm of the corporate system. Instead, as Sherwood Rowland, whose laboratory first discovered the ozone-depleting properties of CFCs, has said: "It is quite common on the scientific side of industry to believe that there aren’t any real environmental problems, that there are just public relations problems." (Tom Athanasiou, "U.S. Politics and Global Warming," Open Magazine Pamphlet Series.)

No surprise, then, that sardonic ridicule is the order of the day. At the British dissident extreme, Pat Coyne argued in the New Statesman (June 14, 1994) that revision of the informed consensus that global warming was a genuine threat was "in the air" on the basis that predictive computer models are "necessarily simplifications," which may therefore "be drastically modified"; and on the basis of inconclusive speculations about "regular and irregular" fluctuations in the Gulf Stream and interglacial temperatures 180,000 years ago which may, or may not, imply impeded or enhanced global warming. Coyne’s conclusion was that, in chilly Britain, a bit of global warming "seems more than enticing<@133>the sooner the better." This, recall, representing the dissident extreme of mainstream journalism.

Some ten days after the IPCC’s report confirming "a discernible influence on global climate," on June 6, Taki of the Sunday Times had this to say: "The latest apocalypse, global warming, is just that. Lots of hot air. In the 1960s and 1970s the doom-sayers had been warning of an impending ice age. Their anti-capitalist agenda back then was that human activity was putting so much dust in the atmosphere that it was cooling the planet."

A couple of weeks later an editorial in the Daily Telegraph (August 4, 1996) under the banner "Hot Air" argued that: "to many scientists the likelihood of man-made global warming is about as credible as stories of goblins and fairies."

Note that the Telegraph’s views are in flat contradiction to the scientific consensus. The Department of the Environment was unlucky, the Telegraph quipped: "its predictions of a much warmer Britain appeared on an unseasonably cold day, after a bitter spring. It made the prophecy seem doubly improbable." The it’s-chilly-so-global-warming-is-a-joke quip is a wearisome perennial of media reporting. The poor British summer of 1993 convinced the Times that "global warming was revealed as an empty promise." (Roy Greenslade, The Observer) More recently, the Sunday Times derided those warning of the threat of climate change for "trying to alarm a sceptical and shivering nation."

The Telegraph reports, accurately, that "The public can all too easily be misled by institutions with vested interests."

True enough. Speaking at the climate convention in Geneva, Bert Bolin, chair of the IPCC, urged journalists not to listen to individual scientists whose theories had not been tested, and whose motives appeared dubious. According to Bolin, ever since his group of scientists concluded that man [sic] was discernibly altering the climate a campaign has been waged against their findings. Paul Brown of The Guardian reports that "Dozens of stories lending credibility to dubious science have been fed to newspapers in the last few weeks in the lead-up to the Second Conference of the Parties." One group in particular, the Global Climate Coalition, representing Shell, BP, Exxon, Ford, and other noted "environmentalists," is still spending millions of pounds to persuade governments to do nothing on grounds that "It fears climate change is bad for business."

The Global Climate Coalition "claims the scientists are going over the top and says there is as yet no proven need to do anything." The group, Brown notes, has the support of most of the U.S. Congress. A World Health organization panel denounced the group for behaving exactly like the tobacco industry 30 years earlier when the damaging effects were becoming clear. Elsewhere, Professor Anthony McMichael, co-author of the effects of global warming, warns that industrial lobbyists "are involved in types of distortion of evidence, delaying tactics and drowning out by making more noise." (The Guardian, July 7, 1996)

Among the tireless efforts made by the Global Climate Coalition has been the production of a document signed by 100 of the biggest U.S. companies asking for no action to be taken on climate change. The Coalition was also involved in feverishly handing out cuttings from papers including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal<BI> at the door of the IPCC conference in a desperate bid to spread their propaganda.

Of course, there never will be any proven need to respond to global warming, for those defending short-term profits at any cost. The bottom line of the Global Climate Coalition’s efforts is at one with the Telegraph: "it might be an idea if the weather was one of the few subjects in which politicians did not interfere."

Writing in The Guardian (July 6, 1996), novelist John Mortimer joined in the general media assault on the notion that global warming is to be taken seriously. Echoing the New Statesman, the Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, and everyone else, Mortimer, it seems, "can’t wait for global warming to bring England a Mediterranean climate," if only he "had enough faith in weather forecasters to believe it will happen." This is the cue for much ribald humour about the British climate, British work habits, lazy Mediterranean’s and so on.

Unfortunately, it matters little that Mortimer’s comments are flatly false and absurd, the fact is that articles of this kind<@151>however benign and humorous their intention<@151>serve the corporations well by making the threat of global warming seem a joke, the preserve of paranoid depressives.

To his credit, Roy Greenslade of The Observer (July 21, 1996) did manage to comment on the failure of the press to cover the global warming story. Referring to British Environment Secretary John Gummer’s declaration at the United Nations conference in Geneva that "Global climate change needs global action now. The alarm bells ought to be ringing in every capital of the world," Greenslade writes "I thought… this is sure to be big news in the morning. I imagined the front-page stories, the feature articles and the leaders." It was not to be; although Greenslade urges that we award credit where credit’s due: namely, "The Daily Telegraph alone placed the story on page one."

Elsewhere, the story was met with indifference and hostility: "Every right-wing paper has attempted to debunk global warming," Greenslade reports. As for the reason for the media’s failure to cover either the IPCC report or Gummer’s speech: "There were probably two opposing reasons…Those papers which greeted the conference by accepting its central thesis assumed they had done enough. Papers which cannot stomach the scientific evidence for global warming ignored it. This latter attitude leaves readers seriously uninformed about a serious issue."

Why some papers cannot "stomach the scientific evidence for global warming" is left to the readers’ imagination. Such an analysis<@151>at the very extreme of mainstream media coverage<@151>should be sufficient to reduce any sane person to tears. Before the world drowns in melt water, it seems sure that we will already have long since drowned in banality and half-truths. <N><BUS>Z <N>

@COMINGNEXT = David Edwards is the author of <W0>Burning All Illusions (South End Press).