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As the US economist and media analyst Edward Herman rightly noted in the aftermath of the mass slaughter of the first Gulf War:
‘It is the function of defense intellectuals and other experts, and the mainstream media, to normalize the unthinkable for the general public.’
- The appalling deaths of over one million Iraqis under UN sanctions from 1990-2003, including half a million children under the age of five. When asked in a US television interview about this horror of mass child deaths, the recently deceased Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, infamously responded: ‘the price is worth it’;
- The ‘Shock and Awe’ of the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, with over one million dead;
- The current death toll of 377,000 in Yemen through direct and indirect causes of bombing by a Saudi-led ‘coalition’, with the active participation of the UK.
In a normal, healthy, open society, the mass media would present these terrible events with appropriate levels of outrage, identifying responsibility where it lies – so often Washington and London – rather than attempt to justify them, or shrug them off as ‘that’s just the way things are’.
‘Normalisation’ also extends to making palatable the inactions of governments. The most glaring example is the climate crisis that is now engulfing humanity amidst the utter madness of corporate-driven neoliberal economics. The UN Climate Summit in Glasgow last year was an appalling abdication of duty by those in leading positions in government, industry and finance. As we noted in our media alert last November, COP26 was a ‘greenwash festival’ and its lack of decisive actions a ‘crime against humanity’.
Meanwhile, not even the climate crisis is permitted to interfere with the untrammelled might of the military machines of the US/Nato/EU, Russia, and any other heavily-armed nations around the globe, should they wish to pursue aggressive wars under the guise of ‘protecting’ their ‘sovereignty’, ‘defending democracy’ and maintaining a ‘secure’ international ‘order’.
The US military, in particular, is a significant contributor to climate change. If it were a nation state, it would be the 47th largest emitter in the world. As Jangira Lewis, a Hong Kong-based teacher, observed in a piece for the website, Earth.org:
‘Their negligence, nuclear testing and disregard for human life has come at a huge environmental cost’.
Military emissions do not even need to be reported to the UN. Researchers Doug Weir, Benjamin Neimark and Oliver Belcher observe that:
‘The US can take the credit for that. In 1997, its negotiating team won a blanket military exemption under the Kyoto climate accord. Speaking in the Senate the following year, the now special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, hailed it as “a terrific job”.’
The UK-based Scientists for Global Responsibility have done vital work on the military sector and its climate-destabilising carbon emissions. But the issue is notable by its virtual absence from ‘mainstream’ reporting.
Also off the agenda of state-corporate media is any rational discussion of the real interests pursued by the globe’s most powerful nations when deploying their armed forces and state-of-the-art weaponry. As historian and foreign policy analyst Mark Curtis noted in his seminal work, ‘Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World’:
‘upholding “international order” means preserving the privileged position of Anglo-American power and ensuring that key countries and regions remain under their overall control.’ (Vintage, 2003; p. 14)
Since Media Lens began in 2001, we have documented numerous examples of how state-corporate media enable and promote this Western dominance. This applies especially to coverage of the US which is regarded and presented by starstruck BBC journalists in Washington, in particular, as ‘the shining city on the hill’; a supposed paragon of ‘freedom’, opportunity and human rights. Meanwhile, under the US’s self-appointed watch as ‘the world’s policeman’, the planet continues to overheat dangerously.
‘An Atlas Of Human Suffering’
Scientists are now reporting incredible extremes of Antarctic and Arctic temperatures 40C above normal. Alarmed climate researchers have warned that these temperature extremes are ‘historic’, ‘unprecedented’ and ‘dramatic’.
Mark Maslin, professor of earth system science at University College London, said:
‘I and colleagues were shocked by the number and severity of the extreme weather events in 2021 – which were unexpected at a warming of 1.2C. Now we have record temperatures in the Arctic which, for me, show we have entered a new extreme phase of climate change much earlier than we had expected.’
These astonishing polar heatwaves are yet another sign of dangerous climate disruption by humans. Melting ice at both poles could even trigger a cascade of events that would accelerate climate breakdown.
James Hansen, the leading US climate scientist who warned Congress of the dangers of global warming as early as 1988, notes:
‘Reduced sea ice cover increases the planetary energy imbalance, as a dark ocean reflects less sunlight than sea ice does.’
More starkly put, this is but one climatic effect that could initiate irreversible runaway global warming.
All this comes hot on the heels of the ‘bleakest warning yet’ on climate breakdown last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
António Guterres, the UN secretary general, said:
‘I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this. Today’s IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.’
Many of the impacts of global warming are now simply ‘irreversible’ and there is only ‘a brief window of time to avoid the very worst’.
A BBC summary by environment correspondent Matt McGrath, ‘Climate change: Five things we’ve learned from the IPCC report’, had at the top of its list:
‘Things are way worse than we thought’.
‘From the melting of the Greenland ice sheet to the destruction of coral reefs, climate related impacts are hitting the world at the high end of what modellers once expected. And much more quickly than previously assessed by the IPCC.
‘Right now, as the new report makes clear, around 40% of the world’s population is “highly vulnerable” to the impacts of climate change.
‘But the burden is falling mainly on those who did the least to cause the problem.’
The IPCC study is the second part of their latest assessment report, and it focuses on the impacts of climate breakdown. It took seven years to prepare, based on the peer-reviewed work of thousands of researchers. The first part, on the science of climate change, was published last August in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow. That report had already been declared a ‘red code for humanity’ by Guterres.
Guardian environment editor Damian Carrington addressed the latest IPCC findings in a stark piece titled:
‘This climate crisis report asks: what is at stake? In short, everything’.
‘tackling climate impacts alone will not work. The IPCC sets out in the strongest terms to date that the climate crisis is inseparable from the biodiversity crisis and the poverty and inequality suffered by billions of people.’
‘Given this scope, and with a liveable future on the line, the assessment could be seen as one of the most important in human history.’
The ‘Old Loon’ And The Bitter Ex-BBC Functionary
Despite a few headlines, and good reporting of the latest IPCC warnings in the environment sections of the Guardian, BBC News and other ‘serious’ news outlets, it was swiftly swamped by the pro-Nato propaganda blitz devoted to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Fiona Harvey, Guardian environment correspondent, had a piece the week after the IPCC report came out, asking:
‘Has the IPCC’s bleak warning of climate breakdown been heard?’
‘the report has been overshadowed, understandably, by the war in Ukraine, and has received less policymaker and media attention than it deserved.’
There was, of course, no hint of the corporate media’s structural biases, leading it to bury or marginalise uncomfortable truths about the world; not least the primary responsibility of corporate-captured governments for the climate crisis.
But, as we have long noted, knowledge of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model of the media, or even a willingness to mention it, is completely lacking in ‘mainstream’ circles. Or, on the rare occasion when Chomsky’s name is raised, he may be dismissed as an ‘old loon’. Those were the words of Andrew Marr, the former BBC political editor. In making such an unkind, ageist remark, readers may surmise that Marr still feels the pain of being bested by Chomsky in a famous 1996 BBC interview in which the linguist and political activist told the befuddled journalist that:
‘If you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting’.
‘That does not mean the IPCC report will be ignored. Governments are working on their responses to the scientists’ warnings, and later this year at the next UN climate summit, Cop27, they are obliged to lay out their plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions to limit global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.’
But this bland statement obscures the reality: governments have been working non-stop since the IPCC was set up in 1988 to avoid taking the necessary action to address the climate crisis. Instead, they have pumped out a never-ending stream of PR propaganda, selling the myth that they can be trusted to do the right thing.
As the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg famously observed, it’s all:
‘Blah, blah, blah.’
So, when governments deliver ‘their responses to the scientists’ warnings’, expect a familiar litany of political rhetoric and weasel words: vows, pledges, promises, commitments, sign up, phase out, green investment, innovation, transition, progress, scaling up, carbon credits, bending the emissions curve, net zero, 2050, 2070.
‘Mutually Assured Destruction’
Although the ‘better’ state-corporate media outlets do publish responsible accounts of the latest findings in climate science, any in-depth discussion is generally limited to the environment sections and rigidly confined within ‘acceptable’ political limits. In particular, there is a dearth of serious discussion or analysis of the profit-driven corporate economic system that is driving humanity towards the climate abyss and possible extinction.
It can be tragicomic to observe. For example, one part of BBC News reported the UN Secretary General saying that the rush to use fossil fuels because of the war in Ukraine is ‘madness’ and threatens global climate targets:
‘Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction.’
Elsewhere, Faisal Islam, the BBC economics editor, prepared the ground in advance of Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s ‘Spring Statement’, delivered on 23 March.
The excuses were rolled out by the BBC man:
‘The instinct of the chancellor, is that he can only do so much.’
‘Rishi Sunak does not want expanded government spending to define his tenure at Number 11.’
In short, as the headline said:
‘Don’t expect much from Rishi Sunak’s Spring Statement’
In line with its establishment role, the BBC was doing its bit to dampen public expectations that the Chancellor should act, heaven forbid, in the public interest.
There was not a single mention of climate in the BBC article: the single most important and pressing issue facing humanity.
The Tory government issued its latest economic ‘update’ as if the climate emergency had magically vanished. BBC News did not hold them to account; not even by joining the dots in their own reporting, such as it is. The remarkable headline at the top of the BBC News website the following morning was a Tory-friendly bullet point:
‘Rishi Sunak seeks to combat cost-of-living squeeze’
Thus, the state broadcaster led with the bizarre notion that the Tory Chancellor’s economic statement was some kind of ‘helping hand’ for the British public. There was a solitary, brief mention of climate in its leading story:
‘And the Green Party criticised him for not mentioning climate issues. Its co-leader Adrian Ramsay accused Mr Sunak of “[looking] after the interests of fossil fuel companies”.’
A search of UK newspapers in the Lexis-Nexis database using the search terms ‘Rishi Sunak’ and ‘Spring Statement’ for the period 19-24 March yielded 5,307 hits. Out of this total, just 259 included the word ‘climate’: a mere 4.9 per cent of the total.
Moreover, browsing through these results indicated that climate was given short shrift. Typically, in a preview of Sunak’s announcement, the ‘Soaraway’ Sun referred to climate dismissively as a ‘costly’ policy to tackle. The headline was classic, Jeremy Clarkson-style, pro-car rejoicing:
‘AT LAST! 5p OFF A LITRE; CHANCELLOR’S BUDGET CUT ON FUEL Rishi to step in and help motorists’
‘climate change is not a priority in the spring statement, with “net-zero” mentioned just once in the 52-page document, and “climate” mentioned three times.’
The BBC News website had an article titled, ‘Spring Statement: Key points at a glance’. Climate was not even mentioned, which says it all.
Alice Bell, co-director at the climate change charity Possible and author of ‘Our Biggest Experiment: A History of the Climate Crisis’, credited Sunak for explicitly referencing energy efficiency, and cutting VAT to zero on energy-saving measures such as loft insulation. But it was ‘nowhere near enough’: a contender for understatement of the year.
Elsewhere, Sunak was ‘slammed’ for axing VAT on items such as solar panels and heat pumps which only the better-off can afford, while doing virtually nothing to help the vast majority of people who are struggling to pay exorbitant energy bills.
Mike Foster, CEO of the Energy and Utilities Alliance, said:
‘The Chancellor has clearly not heard the outcry over rocketing energy bills faced by millions…Frankly, consumers waiting to hear good news on their energy bills will be left asking, ‘is that it Chancellor?’
The Mirror noted a backlash to Sunak on Twitter, with someone making the crucial point:
‘Not sure how many of those struggling to buy food will be buying solar panels. Sunak woefully out of touch.’
As for the backdrop of an ever-mounting climate crisis, Bell concluded:
‘once again, climate and energy policy is stuck in the waiting room. In the meantime, more and more people are being pulled into fuel poverty. Earth’s polar regions are heating up. We don’t have time to wait.’
As discussed earlier, catastrophic climate impacts are mounting up, ensuring that the planet is quickly becoming uninhabitable for vast swathes of humanity. Despite some opposition to Sunak’s statement being reported, state-corporate media are continuing to normalise the unthinkable: that tinkering with the economy, blatantly favouring the rich, is rational behaviour while the planet burns. By contrast, a huge mobilisation of human and natural resources is urgently needed as part of a wholesale restructuring of the economy towards a sustainable way of life.
Josh Burke, a Senior Policy Fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, cites the example of the Second World War:
‘Only structural change to institutions and economies will deliver a low-carbon world. Viewed through this lens, tackling climate change is more analogous with the “war effort”. WWII is the only historical event that conveys the need for rapid reallocation of capital and raw materials, new supply chains and innovative technologies. As such it may provide lessons for how economies can be transformed to meet the challenges of climate change, and for the role governments should play.’
Unless there is a mass awakening and large-scale public revolt, the tiny elite now running human affairs will be the last to cling on to the vestiges of what remains of a liveable Earth. The majority of the population, on whom the elite rely for exploitation of labour and resources, will have already disappeared, victims of the corporate pathway to extinction.
If all this seems irredeemably bleak, bear in mind the words of Dutch historian Rutger Bregman in his bestseller, ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’:
‘Catastrophes bring out the best in people. I know of no other sociological finding that’s backed by so much solid evidence that’s so blithely ignored. The picture we’re fed by the media is consistently the opposite of what happens when disaster strikes.’ (Bloomsbury, 2020; p. 6)
The climate crisis is the ultimate test for humankind.
David Cromwell: Born in Glasgow in 1962; studied natural philosophy and astronomy, then a PhD in solar physics; spell with Shell in the Netherlands, then a research position in oceanography in Southampton; left in 2010 to work full-time on Media Lens; author of Why Are We The Good Guys? (Zero Books, 2012); co-author, with David Edwards, of two Media Lens books: Guardians of Power (Pluto Books, 2006) and Newspeak In the 21st Century (Pluto Books, 2009); author of Private Planet (Jon Carpenter Publishing, 2001); co-editor, with Mark Levene, of Surviving Climate Change (Pluto Books, 2007).