Environmentalism in the Media


The facts of climate change have become the site of a three-cornered battle in which truth, as ever, has been an immediate casualty. In one corner are companies like Exxon fighting a head-to-head war of attrition, denying that global warming is occurring and/or that it is a man-made problem for which they have any responsibility. Against them are groups like Greenpeace, ‘cranking up the anxiety’ with highly emotive messages about the scale of the threat. The third corner is occupied by companies like BP, who have broken away from Exxon and adopted a strategy of camouflage, radically redrawing their image to cloak their businesses in green credentials. For all three forces, the newly vulnerable mass media have become a weapon of convenience, constantly available to fire off their messages for them. And, in the background, rather like the civilian population of a war zone, the billions of people who rely on the mass media for information have suffered the worst injuries of all under a bombardment of falsehood, distortion and propaganda.

It was the Exxon strategy which led the way. Within months of the UN producing its first report endorsing the idea of man-made climate change, in 1989, Exxon and other big corporations started setting up pseudo-groups. The first and biggest was the Global Climate Coalition which was soon lobbying in the corridors of power and exploiting one of the news factory’s most powerful rules of production – to give ‘the other side of the story’ – in order to get through the media door.

As a single example of its activities, the coalition made a classic appeal to the subconscious feelings of its American audience before the Kyoto conference in December 1997, when it spent $13 million on TV advertising, aimed at reining in the Clinton administration. It pitched the whole issue as a matter of freedom and patriotism. “America has signed many treaties … but never a treaty of surrender”, was the key line in one advertisement, over a photograph of the Japanese surrender at the end of the Second World War.

When Kyoto nevertheless produced an agreement to cut emissions, Exxon, in early 1998, helped to set up a new front group, the Global Climate Science Team. A leaked memo, written by a PR executive at the American Petroleum Institute, echoes precisely the work of the old tobacco pseudo-groups in aiming to focus public thinking on doubt. The memo looked forward to a time when “recognition of uncertainty becomes part of the conventional wisdom”. In order to reshape the global consensus, the memo proposed “a national media relations programme to inform the media about uncertainties in climate science”.

It needs to be said that the uncertainties were real. The mass of scientists who feared that human activity was raising the temperature of the planet necessarily acknowledged that they could not be sure: there were limits to their knowledge of past temperature patterns, limits to their ability to quantify the impact of human activity on the observed changes, limits to their ability to predict future changes. But even though there was a reality to the doubt, the effect of the Exxon-led campaign was to distort public perception of the truth by giving this doubt disproportionate weight.

The leaked memo from the new Global Climate Science Team proposed a budget of $5 million to establish “co-operative relationships with all major scientists whose research in this field supports our position”. The campaign would produce “simple fact sheets that present scientific uncertainties in language that the media and public can understand”; set up briefings for science journalists; supply their own scientists for radio talk shows; and produce “a steady stream of op-ed columns and letters to the editor authored by scientists.” The stated objective was “to raise such questions about the Kyoto treaty’s scientific underpinnings that American policy-makers not only will refuse to endorse it, they will seek to prevent progress towards implementation”.

But the GCST was only the beginning of the post-Kyoto blitz of media-manipulation. The same leaked memo anticipated the funding of astroturf groups to give the impression of popular support for their campaign (“organise, promote and conduct through grassroots organisations a series of campus/community workshops/debates on climate science”). This took off. Between 1998 and 2005, ExxonMobil alone spent $15.8 million on 43 different front groups, according to research published in January 2007 by the Union of Concerned Scientists, who described this as “the most sophisticated and successful disinformation campaign since Big Tobacco misled the public”. Some were well-established right-wing think tanks, like the Cato Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Others were fringe groups, like the Congress of Racial Equality, which created a pseudo-incident at an Exxon shareholders meeting by staging a protest against environmental protests. The effect of these groups was to create the illusion of widespread doubt about global warming, when the reality was that they were generally recycling the work of only a dozen or more ‘contrarian’ scientists.

The research published by the Union of Concerned Scientists named, for example, Sallie Baliunas, whose work was promoted through nine different groups in the Exxon-supported network; Patrick J Michaels, with eleven groups; and S Fred Singer, also with eleven. Some of the work of these scientists ran into considerable controversy. Two of them, Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon, published a paper in the Climate Research journal, suggesting that the 20th century was not unusually warm, and provoked the resignation of three of the journal’s editors and the criticism of 13 other scientists who complained that the paper misrepresented their work. A petition which claimed to carry the signatures of 18,000 scientists who disputed the theory of global warming, turned out to have been signed by numerous students with no special qualification as well as the fictional TV detective Perry Mason and somebody claiming to be one of the Spice Girls. A research briefing from the Competitive Enterprise Institute suggested that “the likeliest global climate change is the creation of a milder, greener, more prosperous world”. It all found its way into the unprotected media.

While this was happening, two of the biggest oil companies – BP and Shell – had seen how the attack by environmental groups was damaging their brands and had resigned from the original Global Climate Coalition. BP, in particular, from 1997 performed the PR equivalent of a sex-change, transforming their image from that of a ruthless, profit-seeking predator into a caring, green giant.

The move was engineered by the company’s new chief executive, John Browne, on the advice of a specialist in issue management, Simon Bryceson, a PR professional who had formerly been national administrator of Friends of the Earth. It was launched when Bryceson wrote a key speech for John Browne to deliver at Stamford University in May 1997, accepting that action must be taken to deal with the possibility of climate change and pledging BP to lead the way.

The speech was the beginning of a carefully orchestrated sequence of pseudo-events which saw BP investing in solar energy and marketing itself as an energy company, not an oil company; Bryceson persuading Greenpeace to issue a statement welcoming BP’s shift; BP running a huge training scheme for staff to teach them the new line; Browne speaking at a Greenpeace conference (and opening with a joke from Bryceson, that he was happy to be on their platform instead of their protestors occupying his); BP running a campaign of ‘TV branding’ and hiring the PR network of Burson-Marsteller to target the message into selected quality media which influence ‘leg and reg’, legislation and regulation.

As an attempt to reduce global warming, this had only the most marginal of impacts. John Browne announced plans for the company to cut the emissions from its own activities by 10% but, according to one of those closely involved, BP deliberately avoided suggesting specific policies to reduce the immeasurably more significant emissions from the global customers who bought its oil. Browne’s line on climate change always put hydrocarbons, particularly oil and natural gas, at the centre of energy policy and argued for cutting emissions by tackling waste and inefficiency without making any kind of cut in global oil consumption.

However, as a commercial manoeuvre to defend the company’s market, the new image was highly successful. According to the source who was directly involved, the truth is that the new image was designed: to improve the BP brand with women drivers whose forecourt trade they wanted; to recruit and retain better staff, some of whom had objected to its hard line on global warming; to win round liberal US opponents of its plan to merge with Amoco and Arco; and, above all, to get the company inside the debate on climate change where it could influence the outcome.

And indeed the result, as Bryceson recorded in an item on his website (since removed), was that BP “moved itself from being a potential victim of the political debate to a participant in that debate.” Soon after the Stamford speech, Browne was in the White House with President Clinton and became the only non-US oilman on Clinton’s board on climate change. Clinton’s team went into Kyoto with an idea which had been heavily backed by Browne, to allow nations to buy and sell their cuts in emissions, which meant effectively that rich nations could maintain a higher level of emissions by paying poorer nations to cut their levels. There were further commercial benefits for the company. They succeeded in selling their merger with Amoco and Arco, and, as the BP source put it: “If you want less tax on North Sea oil, it certainly helps if a programme like this is giving you better access to ministers.”

As this battle unfolded, the scientific consensus lined up behind the environmental groups and yet, under hostile fire from the oil lobby, some of these groups began to throw back what looks very much like exaggeration and distortion. For example, for years they had argued against global dependence on fossil fuels such as oil and coal on the grounds that supplies would soon run out (“Due to lack of interest, tomorrow has been cancelled”, in the words of an early green slogan). But, as they moved to push climate change up the agenda, the same groups reversed their position, arguing that governments must stop oil companies opening new fields because the potential reserves were so great.

Greenpeace is particularly skilled at creating pseudo-incidents: its supporters are up Nelson’s Column with a banner, they’re abseiling onto an oil platform with their own camera crew to film it, they’re raiding Exxon’s headquarters dressed as tigers. Like all PR, these stunts are designed to open the media door for the supply of claims which, in the case of some Greenpeace statements, appear to be at best highly contentious. We took four high-profile statements about climate change from the Greenpeace website, asked them to tell us their source for each one and then went to each source to try to establish the accuracy of the Greenpeace version. Here are the results.

Greenpeace claim: “Climate change kills 160,000 people a year.” Source: Greenpeace referred us to a July 2005 World Health Organisation report. Accuracy: the report does not contain the statement made by Greenpeace. It does warn that global warning presents “substantial risks to human health” and it suggests that it “may have caused 150,000 deaths in 2000”. One of the authors of the report, Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, told us that that figure was qualified by “a very wide range of uncertainty” – so wide that it was not even possible to say whether the estimate of 150,000 was too high or too low. He added that Greenpeace were not alone in misreporting their findings; the media had done the same.

Greenpeace claim: “Within the lifetime of a child being born today, (climate change) may challenge our survival as a species.” Source: Greenpeace told us they could not remember the source for this. We asked the Tyndall Centre, which is the world’s leading centre for climate change research, if they knew of any evidence to support the claim. They replied: “Where is the evidence that climate change will extinguish the entire human race? That is clear politics of fear.”

Greenpeace claim: “By the end of this century, if current trends continue, the temperature will likely climb higher than it has been in the past two million years. The consequences are likely to be catastrophic: mass extinctions, droughts, hundreds of millions of refugees.” Source: Greenpeace pointed us to the reports of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Accuracy: Greenpeace are right to say that there are scientific papers, quoted by the UN panel or by other sources, which support the key elements of this claim. However, the Tyndall Centre pointed out that by describing all this as ‘likely’, the claim failed to reflect the inherent uncertainty of these unpredictions.

Greenpeace claim: “Without radical action now, we’ll face a dire global emergency in the 2020s.” Source: Greenpeace referred us to the conclusion of a conference on “Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change”, held in Exeter in 2005, which found that “even delays of five years could be significant in terms of cost.” Accuracy: the report of the conference steering committee does indeed say that “different models suggest that delaying action would require greater action later for the same temperature target and that even a delay of five years could be significant.” It is not clear how that supports the prediction of a global emergency in the 2020s.

Greenpeace is not alone. A BBC Radio Four programme, Overselling Climate Change, in April 2000 recorded the advocacy director of Tearfund, Andy Atkins, claiming that global warming is allowing mosquitos for the first time to inhabit the highlands of Ethiopia where they are spreading malaria among farmers. And yet Tearfund’s own representative in Ethiopia suggested the highland farmers might be developing malaria because of poor nutrition; or increased resistance to anti-malaria drugs; or a new mobility which meant the highland farmers now visit the valleys where malaria has always been a risk. Scientists who personally believe in man-made climate change complained on the programme of environmentalists making unproved links between global warming and the severity of hurricanes and the extinction of species.

They cited, in particular, the case of the golden toad which, according to environmental groups, was the first casualty of global warming, killed off by a fungus which had flourished as a result of higher temperatures. However, the fungus kills toads at low temperatures. And a toad specialist, Dr Cindy Carey, who herself believes in climate change, complained that no causal link had been established. She pointed out that they might as well argue that global warming had caused an increase in child obesity or an increase in the number of Walmart supermarkets since they too had occurred while global temperatures were rising. One scientist, Dr Hans von Storch, who has spent years arguing that the climate is changing, told the Radio Four programme: “The alarmists think that climate change is something extremely dangerous, extremely bad, and that overselling it a little bit, if it serves a good purpose, is not that bad.”

In the midst of this three-cornered battle, the mass media (and their consumers) have been left in a state of some chaos. Newsrooms themselves have been divided under the impact of conflicting PR. At an early stage in the battle, the then news editor of the Guardian, Melanie Phillips, instructed the paper’s environment correspondent, Paul Brown, to stop using Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace for source material. Brown continued to quote them. Phillips wrote a memo to the then editor, Peter Preston, asking for Brown to be sacked. Preston compromised by sending Brown away on a long trip, ironically with Greenpeace in the Marshall Islands. Brown returned, and the internal clashes continued.

The right-wing press was suffering similar confusion. In her new role as a columnist at the Daily Mail, the same Melanie Phillips went on to write a series of outspoken columns denouncing the whole concept of man-made climate change. “Global warming is a scam”, she wrote in February 2002. “The latest evidence is provided in a report published today by the European Science And Environment Forum, in which a group of the most eminent scientists from Britain and America shred the theory.” However, the forum whose work she was quoting was, in truth, yet another pseudo-group, created with the help of two PR agencies (APCO Worldwide and Burson-Marsteller) with the specific intent of campaigning against restrictions on corporate activity; and the report to which Phillips referred in such glowing terms was recycled work which had been funded by Exxon. A similar column, in January 2005, claimed that: “Far from being proved, the claim of man-made global warming is a global fraud.” This column, too, drew on research from Exxon-funded groups and cited the controversial petition by 18,000 ‘scientists’ to show that the claim of scientific consensus also was ‘bogus’. The result was that the Mail was attacked by the Royal Society, the UK’s academy of science, for “its faithful reproduction of the propaganda put together by the denial lobby in the US.” The Royal Society’s president, Lord May, complained bitterly about misinformation from the oil lobby and, citing in particular the Mail’s coverage, concluded: “There is no danger this lobby will influence the scientists. But they don’t need to. It is the influence on the media that is so poisonous.”

The scoreline in the battle thus far reflects real tactical victories for the oil lobby. Even though the environmental groups, backed by the UN and the consensus of scientific opinion, appear to have won the bulk of public opinion, the twin strategies of the oil companies have clearly won favour in government. In 2001, President Bush formally withdrew the United States from the Kyoto process (and the Global Climate Coalition, claiming victory, shut up shop).

From the point of view of media consumers, the chaos continues. In February 2007, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that the evidence of climate change was ‘unequivocal’ and that the chances of its being man-made were as high as 90%. The Fraser Institute of Canada, which has received $120,000 from Exxon, replied within 48 hours by publishing a paper claiming that “there is no compelling evidence that dangerous or unprecedented changes are under way”. And Greenpeace sent 40 volunteers up the Eiffel Tower with a banner; dumped four tonnes of coal on the doorstep of the British government’s environment department, DEFRA; and claimed on its website that “within 50 years, one third of species could face extinction.”

This extract is quoted from Flat Earth News – an Award-Winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media published by Chatto and Windus, London 2008.

  • About

    Nick Davies is an investigative journalist for the Guardian, and has been named Journalist of the Year, Reporter of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year in British Press awards.

    His article 'Environmentalism in the Media' appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 1/ Human & Divine, available here for purchase.