The Globe is getting warmer. But the only contribution of US businesses is an advertising blitz and political arm-twisting to discredit climate-science
DECADES of industrial growth, while making our lives easy and comfortable, has also degraded the environment severely. Today, we are paying the price for it: global warming has reared its ugly head. Already, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (co2) are 30 per cent higher than the pre-industrial levels. In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that global warming can lead to years of climatic instability and "widespread economic, social and environmental dislocation" in the future. It recommends a 60 per cent reduction in emissions to stabilise concentrations at current level, to prevent such frightening scenarios. A worrisome future indeed. But not all of US are worried for the same reasons. Fossil fuel companies, the biggest contributors to global warming, are disturbed by the prospect of such emission policies seriously altering the lucrative status quo they currently enjoy.
Why are the businesses opposed to moves to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions? Simple. Slashing emissions would affect lifestyles and energy use patterns severely, and the businesses are strongly opposed to this idea. So they have an obvious interest in concealing, distorting, obscuring and challenging scientists, who say global warming is a human-induced phenomenon. Since 1991, business groups have spent millions, says US Internal Revenue Service data, to persuade the public and policymakers that there is too much uncertainty about climate change and to warrant changes in energy policy. With huge funds and extraordinary access to the media, they have been able to create the genera! perception that the issue is hopelessly mired in doubts.
Their modus operand! involved setting up coalitions, pumping in huge funds, launching impressive advertising campaigns, and even hiring scientists to discredit global warming as a hoax. The US-based Global Climate Coalition (GCC), founded in 1989 with American Petroleum Institute, Shell Oil, Exxon, General Motors (GM) and more than 40 other corporations as members, is the biggest and most powerful of these corporate 'think-tanks'. Since 1994, it has spent more than US $1 million annually to downplay the threat of global warming and climate change.
The Information Council for the Environment (ICE), another US-based corporate coalition, was formed in 1991. Comprising the National Coal Association, the Western Fuels Association and Edison Electrical Institute, ICE launched a US $500,000 advertising campaign, roping in Patrick Michaels, a leading scientific "naysayer" on global warming from the University of Virginia's department of environmental services, to reposition global warming as theory, not fact.
Fredrick Palmer, chief executive officer of the US $400-million Western Fuels Association Inc, launched the Greening Earth Society, which is dedicated to the proposition that, as Palmer says, having more CO2 in the atmosphere will be good, not bad. It will lead to greater plant and animal diversity and abundant crops. Palmer also thinks the climate change treaty has no future because it has no real political base in the US. The very idea of nothing happening on the treaty appeals to him. He has spent the last several years financing papers by some scientists who dispute the scientific projections that underlie the global warming projections. In 1991, the consortium went so far as to announce in its annual report that it was launching a direct attack on mainstream science and enlisting several scientists who are sceptical about climate change.
Bob Burton, an Australia-based journalist, and Sheldon Rampton, associated with Washington-based group PR Watch, in a report published by the Earth Island Journal this year, wrote that even environmental organisations such as the Environmental Defence Fund, the Natural Resources Defence Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the World Wide Fund for Nature do not spend this much on all their campaigns taken together.
In December 1997, the third Conference of Parties (COP-3) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Ciimate Change meeting in Kyoto was to adopt an international treaty to curb GHG emissions. The industries were alarmed. Such a treaty would mean formidable financial losses. Desperate, they embarked on a massive advertising and public relations blitz, trying to convince the public and arm-twist the government to shun such emission-reduction protocol.
In the US, as countdown to the Kyoto meet began, industry front groups went into frenzied activity. The Global Climate Information Project (GCIP), an industry front launched by some of the most powerful US trade associations in September 1997, spent more than US $3 million in newspaper and television advertising opposing the meet. The Coalition for Vehicle Choice (CVC), a front for automobile manufacturers, launched its own campaign, including a three-page advertisement in The Washington Post blasting the climate agreement as an assault on the US economy. Sponsors of the advertisement included oil and gas companies, car dealers a number of far-right anti-environmental organisations, eve's 1993 budget was US $2.2 million, all of which came from Ford, GM and Chrysler. The National Center for Public Policy Research, another industry-funded think-tank, established the Kyoto Earth Summit Information Center and issued anti-treaty quotes to the media. On the eve of the Kyoto Conference, Steven Milloy, executive director of The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC) another industry-funded organisation, announced that more than 500 physicians and scientists had signed an open letter to world leaders opposing any climate change treaty. The American Policy Center (APC), a far-right Washington-based organisation with similar motives, mobilised a "Strike for Liberty", calling truckers to stay off roads for an hour and farmers to drive tractors into key cities to "shut down the nation" as a protest against the Kyoto treaty.
Commenting on the lobbying activities of these 'power' houses in Kyoto, former UK environment minister John Gummer said, "1 saw some of the nastiest big business arm-twisting one could imagine. A corps of 60 lobbyists from the US coal, oil and car industries, masquerading under the label Global Climate Coalition, stalked the corridors and meeting rooms cajoling and threatening US delegates and developing countries alike." However, Frank T Joshua, head of the Geneva-based Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trading at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Secretariat defends the overwhelming business presence seen at climate meets. "You cannot solve climate change without business. If you do not involve them, you cannot solve the problem. Long-term economic interests are involved here," he says.
The businesses, however, ensured that only their "long-term economic interests" are safeguarded, even if that means melting snow-caps and rising global temperatures. Consequently, the treaty that emerged from Kyoto proposed a reduction commitment of only 5.2 per cent in global GHG emissions from the industrialised nations by the year 2012, far below the 30 per cent reduction proposed by low-lying island nations that fear massive flooding as melting polar ice leads to rising sea levels.
Since late 1996, another major thrust of industry-funded campaigns has been attacks based on the more honest issue of economic impacts. They are now trying to scare the masses with questionable visions of impending economic doom if GHG emissions are reduced by cutting down fossil fuel usage. How will the Kyoto treaty affect the US? Wharton Econometrics Forecasting Associates Inc (WEFA), financed by GCC as part of its anti-Kyoto moves, says if the treaty were adopted, it would force drastic per-household reductions in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). WEFA estimates a US $2,061 fall in the GDP by the year 2010, and US $ 1,715 by 2015. The economy would lose 2.4 million Jobs, energy prices for businesses would double, and average estimated income per household would fall by US $2,700, while cost of basic necessities like food, health care and housing would go up by seven to 14 per cent. Mary H Novak, senior vice-president of WEFA and author of the study, says, "While scientists debate the extent of human impact on the global climate, there is no question that the Kyoto treaty will have a dramatic effect on what American families pay for gasoline, electricity and food." Further, an updated version of the study claims that Kyoto's "ambitious" targets cannot be met without cutting down jobs, average incomes and total economic output - an industry-concocted future to influence public and political opinion.
In this American chaos, there are some sensible voices. Journalist Ross Gelbspan's is one of them. In the July issue of Atlantic Monthly, he wrote, "While the climate crisis contains staggering destructive potential, it also contains an extraordinary opportunity to expand the wealth and stability of the global economy." To save planet Earth from overheating itself, nations will ultimately have to cut down their emission levels by as much as 50 to 70 per cent. This means every petroleum-driven car and every fossil fuel-fired power plant would have to be junked. The businesses, he says, should recognise this for what it is: a remarkable opportunity to 'sell' alternative technology to cope with the challenge of an unpolluted future. In other words, where businesses are seeing losses today, they should try to see profits. "The economic activity this would stimulate could provide significant employment for oil and coal workers, who could be retrained to manufacture...windmills, solar-energy systems and fuel cells," Gelbspan wrote.
Of late, the multinational corporations, including some oil companies, are also clamouring to prove how "eco-friendly" they are, demonstrate their concerns, and take action to curb GHG emissions. The collective denial of climate change seems to have crumbled amongst oil companies.
The GCC has also been losing some heavyweights. British Petroleum (BP) left the GCC more than a year ago and more repositioning is taking place. In April this year Shell, too, pulled out of the GCC saying the company had irreconcilable difference with the GCC, which opposes both ratification of the Protocol and targets for GHG emissions linked with climate change. During 1997, both Shell and BP acknowledged climate change was an issue and oil industry solidarity cracked a bit in the run-up to Kyoto. BP and Shell have announced major new investment in renewable sources of energy. Earlier this year, Shell joined the European Wind Energy Association and hopes to capture five to 10 per cent of the world wind power market by 2010. Peter Bijur, the head of Texaco, now feels that the "debate really isn't about the science anymore. Its about what companies are doing, and what they are doing is to look at the next generation of technologies and improving efficiencies." Michael Marvin, executive director of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, a group that includes electric utility, energy efficiency, natural gas, and renewable energy companies, said solar manufacturing plants, for example, are opening up across the country, employment is increasing at 30 per cent per year, and new improvements are being made in solar photovoltaics, solar pool heating, and solar thermal technologies. "It all seemed to happen so quickly. Only last September, the heads of Chrysler, Ford and General Motors were motoring down to Washington to warn President Clinton about the perils of signing a strong global climate change treaty. December 1997 brought the Kyoto climate change conference, and with it the first signs of collective will to come to grips with the problem. Then in comes the New Year, and suddenly here are the Big Three auto manufacturers front and centre stage, loudly singing a green song. Bellowing even," wrote Carl Frankel, editor of Tomorrow, earlier this year. Auto-executives report that with the recent signing of the global warming treaty, and with clean air standards tightening in the US, Europe and elsewhere, it suddenly is no longer business as usual for the industry.
"What's really happening is that Big Three executives are riding a world spinning like a top, doing their best to manage a dramatic and difficult technological transition. The new initiatives are really about the age-old business verities of success and survival," says Frankel.
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