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The politics of climate change

The links between governments and business are inextricable, often murky

Fundamentally there are three elements to the climate change debate, elements of dissimilar weight and influence: first there are the governments and the economy to which they are bound; second is business and the corporations, including the media; and third are the citizens.

There is deliberately no mention here of the planet, the environment, changing weather patterns or natural catastrophes as the planet itself is in no imminent danger. The Earth will continue to survive in one form or another. Humans are not destroying the planet, merely hastening its change and their own demise if they destroy and poison the environment that supports human and other animal species.

Perhaps it is more pertinent and pressing to address the question, why is so much said about global warming and climate change? See this year’s IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports, Al Gore’s highly publicised film and world tour, George Monbiot’s book. Yet at the same time, why is so little done to implement a halt, a reversal, a slowing of the trend?

Governments

A look at the first element: governments and the economy are connected by an umbilical cord with the sustenance free flowing, but starve one and you starve the other, although which is the mother and which is the offspring is impossible to tell. Which kind of government is immaterial. This is a truism and not cynicism. China or the US – both with vast economies and influential governments; tiny Monaco and Oman; totalitarian, appointed, partial or universal suffrage, all run to the same rules of capitalism.

According to Neil deMause in the US media report Extra! (August 2007), “Tony Blair’s government has long been an outspoken advocate of cutting carbon emissions to forestall climate change”, with no comment on subsequent (non)action. The Bush administration is well known for withdrawal from the Kyoto Agreement and for weak Environmental Protection Agency reports. The overriding mission of governments and politicians is to stay in place, to remain in control of the agenda, enriching themselves and their cronies and furthering their ambitions for the future.

Business

The second element is business. We live in a homogenised, corporate world, run entirely on capitalist principles. Simply put, everything has to turn a profit at each stage of the line, otherwise it is worthless, expendable. Raw materials, service, investment, packaging, transportation, advertising, marketing, point of sale, with labour at every step, all need their profit in order for a transaction to be viable. Media, run on these same lines, have to toe the line by necessity, not choice, so it is illogical to expect independent, impartial coverage of any topic which may expose inconvenient truths and embarrass important clients. Climate change deniers and sceptics are hired by industry, foundations and government think tanks in order to denounce or reduce the impact of scientific reports of global warming, i.e. to put a positive spin on a negative subject. The Chicago Tribune had their chief business correspondent report on “investments in companies likely to benefit from new, stricter environmental laws".

People

The third element to this climate change argument is people, the workers, the workless, the citizens. Along with natural environments and all kinds of plant and animal life, the human species faces a grave threat, although this could be easily missed when listening to politicians and business leaders. It seems, in general, that ordinary folk pay more heed and give more credence to the real authorities when they get the opportunity to hear from them. Hence the growing “green” movements around the world, community self-help groups, pressure groups and the like. Politicians, happy to pass on the responsibility for action rather than tackle it themselves at the root, encourage citizens to turn off lights, TV sets and computers and share cars to work. Businesses talk comfortingly about self-regulation, green up their corporate image and spend inordinate amounts of money yet create ever more emissions from advertising campaigns designed to increase sales of bio-fuels, low energy light bulbs etc. and attempt to assuage consumer guilt with spurious carbon-trading schemes. The onus is put squarely, but not fairly, on the consumer’s shoulders.

It is immediately apparent that these three elements don’t operate in isolation, but are related in various ways. The links between governments and business are inextricable, often murky. The IPCC issued three reports between February and May 2007. This was a joint project between the UN and the World Meteorological Organisation, offering evidence of likely consequences and avoidance of the most catastrophic events of global warming. At the same time the Guardian (2 February) reported that the Exxon Mobil-backed American Institute “had offered $10,000 apiece for scientific articles contradicting the IPCC’s findings.” In April the New York Times, whilst reporting negative effects of global warming – heatwaves, floods, storms, fires and droughts – was also keen to balance this with the positives, “some benefits to health such as fewer deaths from cold” and “the greening of cold areas.” One link noted by informed, independent media is that of the ever-revolving-door syndrome, enabling easy passage in either direction between government and business. Much commented on and much complained about examples in the US include the huge K Street lobbying industry, the movements of both unelected appointees, governmental advisors and elected politicians from or into the oil, energy and arms industries board rooms. This has included Rumsfeld, Rice, Cheney and the Bushes themselves. Some parallels in the UK are John Major and the Carlisle Group, Geoffrey Robinson, Peter Mandelson and the Powergen/Enron scam and Walmart’s acquisition of Asda with a little personal help from Tony Blair. (Thanks here to Greg Palast for The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.)

Regarding the differing stances taken by the print media, Extra’s July/August 2007 investigation into the IPCC’s reports backs up their contention that in this instance the UK media covered the reports more thoroughly and accurately than the US. For example, with regard to the second report, the Daily Telegraph and Guardian noted such details as government interference, alterations made at the behest of several government delegations to state that millions rather than billions would be at risk from coastal flooding, and that China and Saudi Arabia insisted on diluting some of the wording. But US media (New York Times) were criticising China’s influence on the dilutions in the report while at the same time commenting positively on the US’s mostly constructive role. Compare this with the UK Times’ report that the following statement “North America is expected to experience substantial ecosystem, social and cultural disruption” was removed at the insistence of the US delegation leader Sharon Hays, a White House science aide. Following a number of these insistences of changes to the report several scientists, including one of the co-authors, walked out of the drafting session, refusing to have any more truck with it.

Following the final report in May, media in the US, still clearly in thrall to big business, cite economists and experts linked to the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute who argue that, counter to all the scientific evidence, climate change would actually be good for the US economy. (Bring on the disaster – it’s great for GDP.) It’s often a fine balance for governments needing to be seen and heard to be concerned for the people’s welfare whilst keeping corporate business happy. On this issue a lot of the noise they are making is about cost, monetary cost. Here, with the revolving door in evidence again, is a former power-industry lobbyist, now White House environmental advisor: “there is no leader in the world that is going to be pursuing a strategy that would drive their economies into a deep recession.” So, let’s look at the cost of acting, advise the politicians. Not ‘let’s act’, not ‘let’s ask our populations what they want’, not ‘let’s put humanity first in the frame’. Insurance companies, likewise, are busy assessing and projecting the likely costs of the future.

The third link to be considered, that between corporations and citizens is of a purely commercial nature. Citizens (workers) are a necessary part of the transactions all the way along the line. They are essential as labour for extraction, transportation, production and marketing, etc. and they are also vital as end users, consumers. If they can fill one of these requirements, fine – two, even better. However, for the millions who have no chance of factoring into this equation there is no place at the bargaining table either. They are surplus to requirements, superfluous, not worth considering apart from their use as an example and clear warning to those “fortunate enough” to be inside the loop. In the developed world prisoners are more valuable to business than are the flotsam and jetsam of human society living on the edge in some of the hardest of all places to survive. These are the ones initially who, in great numbers, will bear the brunt of the effects of global warming. To whom can they look for protection – recognition even? Corporations have no interest in nil returns, only in repeat business. And loyalty is as long-lived as profit, corporate allegiance to which will trump allegiance to any flag.

As to what can be done, should be done, will be done . . .

It’s easier to say what won’t be done by corporations legally bound to put the profit motive above the public good and by governments dismissive of the collective aspirations of their electorate. Without a doubt certain sections of world society deserve their own speedy demise. People, collectively, have the power to bring about that demise. Governments and corporations are made up of individuals who are, in the main, diametrically opposed to and totally disinterested in the views and opinions of most of the world’s people. But it will be the people, who, by sheer weight of numbers, will end the tyranny that is being waged now by international capitalism on their habitat. People everywhere are shouting Ya basta! “Enough!” and are beginning to realise that their loyalty is to each other and to the maintenance of a protected, sustainable world environment, not just for now, but for all future generations.