Who Killed Kyoto?

Sharon Beder


Citation: Sharon Beder, Paul Brown and John Vidal, 'Who Killed Kyoto?', The Guardian, 29th October 1997, p. 4

This is a final version submitted for publication.
Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications


Environment: Who killed Kyoto? The corporate lobby on three continents has sytematically tried to sabotage any cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Last week, it triumphed. Sharon Beder, Paul Brown and John Vidal on how global democracy was subverted.

The champagne corks are popping in the boardrooms of BP, Shell, Esso, Mobil, Ford, General Motors, and the coal, steel and aluminium corporations of the US, Australia and Europe. Last week's announcement by President Clinton that realistic targets and timetables for cutting greehouse gas emissions should be put off for 20 years has effectively maintained corporate business as usual.

In a stunning example of raw backroom power and political manipulation, the `death-row' industries showed who rules the economic world by effectively killing any hope of combatting global warming at the Kyoto climate conference in December.

For a decade now, the fossil fuel industries in the US, Australia and Europe have led a vicious and ever more intense campaign to prevent any treaty being signed that involves greenhouse gas reduction targets.

It has taken billions of pounds of co-ordinated lobbying effort and media manipulation by some of the world's largest corporations, PR companies, legal teams and think- tanks. As more and more scientific evidence emerged that global warming was not just happening but that it was man-induced, the intention was to systematically subvert science and the political process.

The public has had little appreciation of the epic struggle to deny science. It was only last month, when a US consortium of 20 organisations launched a pounds 10 million campaign of TV ads designed to scupper the climate treaty with dire warnings that jobs would be lost and taxes would rise if a meaningful treaty went ahead, that it really surfaced.

But the TV campaign was only the most overt and last act of the campaign to discredit scientific predictions and undermine the political will to prevent a treaty that would realistically limit global warming.

The campaign, one of the most successful and vicious of all time, never tried to disprove the consensus of the 2,500 world scientists who had concluded that man-made greenhouse gases were contributing to a dangerous ecological situation that threatened to impact on everyone. The aim was to sew enough doubt that the politicians would not feel that they needed to act.

Using corporate PR, psychology, mass media manipulation techniques and political muscle to get to the politicians and opinion formers, they set up a series of front groups, funded `independent scientists', nurtured politically conservative and far-right think-tanks, and sought to discredit individuals and, especially, environment groups at every turn. With money no object, they could run rings around their opponents.

The largest front group has been the Global Climate Coalition - 50 US trade associations and private companies representing almost every major US and European oil, gas, coal, automobile, chemical, airline, electricity and plastic company, aimed at persuading the public and governments that global warming was not a real threat. Refusing to accept the scientific consensus, it still argues that global warming is an `open question'.

Its main activities have been lobbying the US Congress that global warming is bad for business and that action need not be taken. It has consistently challenged any statement by scientists expressing certainty, and has worked closely with Arab oil-producing countries.

Other front groups include the Information Council on the Environment, a US-based coal industry organisation that was specifically formed to reposition global warming as theory and not fact, and the Heritage Foundation. This is one of the largest and wealthiest conservative think-tanks in the US. It gets wide media coverage and is politically influential - particularly among Republicans, who dominate Congress. And it prefers unsubstantiated predictions of economic gloom: `Ultimately, the treaty's restrictions will force Americans to sacrifice their personal and economic freedom to the whims of a new international bureaucracy.' In its Environmental Briefing Book for Congressional Candidates, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) argues that `the likeliest global climate change is the creation of a milder, greener, more prosperous world'.

One of CEI's publications, The True State of the Planet, was funded by the Olin Foundation, founded by Olin Chemical. The authors claim that the scientific evidence argues against the existence of a greenhouse crisis, against the notion that realistic policies can achieve any meaningful climatic impact, and against the claim that we must act now if we are to reduce the greenhouse threat.

Perhaps nowhere has the fossil fuel industry been more successful than in Australia, where the government has presented industry lobby interests as synonymous with the national interest. The green stance of the public has been systematically eroded through a well-orchestrated campaign to portray global warming as little more than a theory that scientists can't agree on. Their strategy was aimed at crippling the impetus for government action to solve these problems because such action might adversely affect corporate profits.

Australian politicians have linked with US industry and US senators. In August, the Frontiers of Freedom Institute, a conservative, corporate-funded US think-tank, organised a conference in Canberra in conjunction with the Australian APEC Study Centre. According to Australian newspapers, its aim was to `bolster support' for the government's increasingly isolated position on global warming in prepartion for Kyoto.

US Senator Chuck Hagel was a speaker, as was US Congressman John Dingell and Malcolm Wallop, a former US Senator. Wallop said: `This conference is the first shot across the bow of those who expect to champion the Kyoto Treaty.' It was opened by Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fisher, who argued that tough emission reduction targets could put 90,000 jobs at risk in Australia and cost more than $150 million. No evidence was produced to show how this figure was arrived at.

This conference was just the latest in a long series of industry-funded efforts to undermine the public desire to do something about global warming. In 1988, when the Australian Greenhouse 88 conference was held, there was great public interest in the issue. At the time, Australia had one of the greenest governments; now it is a green pariah.

Corporations and their front groups have sytematically manipulated a handful of dissident scientists to cast doubt on the likelihood of adverse impacts arising from global warming. These scientists, who oppose the general scientific consensus on global warming, have had their voices greatly amplified by fossil fuel interests and are flown around the world to speak at conferences organised or backed by industry opponents of global warming. Through their frequent pronouncements in the press and on radio and TV, they have helped to create the illusion that the question is hopelessly mired in unknowns.

Such scientists do not disclose their funding sources when making presentations to government hearings. An example is Patrick Michaels, who spoke at the Countdown to Kyoto conference. Michaels is described in the media as being from the University of Virginia. Yet he edits the World Climate Report, which is funded by Western Fuels Association, a consortium of coal interests and associated companies. His research work has also been funded by the Cyprus Minerals Company, Edison Electric Institute and the German Coal Mining Association. Other scientists, such as Dr Richard Lindzen, are described as `independent' scientists, where in fact they are highly-paid consultants to the fossil fuel industry.

Australian think-tanks have also been active. The Australian Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), which gets almost one-third of its budget from mining and manufacturing companies, has produced a series of statements challenging the greenhouse consensus. Brian Tucker, previously chief of the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research, is now a senior fellow at the IPA, where he trades on his scientific credentials to push an ideological agenda.

In 1996, Tucker stated that `unchallenged climatic disaster hyperbole has induced something akin to a panic reaction from policy makers, both national and international.' He, too, ignores the scientific consensus of the 2,500 scientists and argues that global warming predictions are emotionally generated.

In both the US and Australia, think-tank economists have been highly influential in debate over the costs of greenhouse gas abatement. In Australia, the government has relied heavily on figures provided by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (Abare), which receives $500,00 a year from the fossil fuel industry. For a contribution of $50,000, corporations can acquire a seat on the steering committee overseeing the development of the modelling work.

Not surprisingly, Abare's global warming model predicts huge costs in jobs and income if emission reduction targets are met. The more independent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates the costs to the Australian economy of not reducing greenhouse gases, will be up to $18 billion.

But having spun the political process, some corporations, perhaps sensing that they are being perceived as anti-social, are publicly beginning to row back their rhetoric. In the past few months, BP and Shell in particular have launched solar power programmes, but their commitments are less than a penny in every pounds 100 that they are spending on looking for yet more oil.


Professor Sharon Beder is an honorary professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong.
Sharon Beder's Publications can be found at http://www.uow.edu.au/~sharonb