Industry Conjurers

Sharon Beder


Citation: Sharon Beder, ‘Industry Conjurers’, Overland 195, Winter 2009, pp. 54-58.

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

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Magicians use three ways to deceive their audience. The first is ‘misdirection’, which involves diverting the attention of the audience away from what they don’t want them to see. The second is ‘illusion’, which uses social clues to mislead the brain about what it is seeing. The third means of deception is called ‘forcing’, where the target is manipulated by the magician to make a specific choice. Manipulation can occur when the magician describes what  he has done  in a misleading way or when the choice is biased, for example by loading a pack of cards with multiples of a specific card. [1]

Public relations and propaganda is another form of deception. However whilst magic tends to be used as a harmless form of entertainment, public relations too often utilises the same techniques of deception to further corporate interests that are incompatible with community welfare. Many millions of dollars of corporate money have been spent on misdirection, illusion and forcing over the last fifteen years to thwart effective greenhouse reduction strategies being implemented by governments around the world.

Public relations professionals are masters of misdirection, particularly when it comes to diverting public attention from the detrimental impact that corporate activities have on the environment. Environmentalists call it ‘greenwashing’. They do this by exaggerating the token ‘green’ actions that guilty corporations take and employing the rhetoric of environmental social responsibility. BP is a good example of misdirection. It has forged a reputation for being one of the most environmentally progressive companies in the world even though its oil and gas products contribute about 3% of worldwide greenhouse emissions; it has a shameful record of environmental misdemeanors; and it has lobbied for oil exploration in the Arctic. [2]

BP has achieved its environmental reputation by publicly admitting the reality of global warming; painting its service stations green; undertaking some emissions reduction activities within its own operations – for example, installing solar panels on some of its petrol stations to power the petrol pumps; and investing in solar power. [3] These actions have directed attention away from the company’s ongoing commitment to ever increasing production and usage of oil and gas. Meanwhile BP continues to explore for more oil, often in environmentally sensitive areas such as the Atlantic Frontier, the foothills of the Andes and Alaska. [4]

In another example of misdirection, right-wing columnist Miranda Devine recently directed attention away from the role of global warming in the long drought and extreme heat wave that fed the recent Victorian fires, by blaming environmentalists, who  “oppose attempts to reduce fuel hazards before a megafire erupts, and which prevents landholders from clearing vegetation to protect themselves.” As ‘evidence’ she used statements from the Victorian manager of Timber Communities Australia, a front group for the logging industry. [5]

Corporations often use front groups to misdirect public attention from their agendas and intentions. Rather than openly conduct anti-environmental campaigns they establish and fund front groups to do it for them. These front groups give the illusion that they are independent of industry and are formed from groups of scientists or groups of citizens who want to promote the public interest in areas such as health and environment. This illusion is carefully fostered with social clues, including the use of names that sound similar to those of public interest or environmental groups, such as the Global Climate Information Project.

The corporate backing for front groups is carefully hidden. In this way corporations can retain a public image of being socially and environmentally responsible, whilst they fund front groups to oppose environmental regulations and downplay environmental problems on their behalf. What is more the front groups have more credibility in putting arguments to achieve their anti-environmental agenda because of the illusion of independence and public interest concern.

Many front groups have been formed, particularly in the US, to oppose measures to prevent  global warming. They include the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, the Information Council on the Environment, the Global Climate Coalition and the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change. For example, the Greening Earth Society was established in the US in April 1998 by the Western Fuels Association (a consortium of coal interests) to convince people that “using fossil fuels to enable our economic activity is as natural as breathing.” [6]

In Australia we have the Lavoisier Group, formed in 2000 to cast doubt on global warming theory and oppose measures being taken to prevent global warming. Its membership includes some high profile businessmen and politicians, such as its president, Peter Walsh (former Labor Minister for finance 1984-90), Hugh Morgan (former CEO of WMC – previously Western Mining Corporation – and former CEO of the Business Council of Australia) and “ex-ALP and Liberal powerbrokers” Gary Gray and Tony Staley.

Corporations have also funded a handful of dissident scientists to create the illusion that there is a great deal of scientific dispute about global warming and to direct attention from the growing scientific consensus that it is real and will be very damaging. Dissident scientists who argue that there is widespread disagreement within the scientific community about global warming have had their voices greatly amplified by fossil-fuel interests.

Such scientists do not disclose their funding sources when talking to the media or giving evidence at government hearings. For example Patrick Michaels told an Australian business audience that global warming would lead to milder winters, longer agricultural seasons in cold climates and little extra heat in warmer climates. [7] He was described in the media only as being a top scientist from the University of Virginia. His other affiliations were not mentioned. Michaels edits the World Climate Report, which is funded by Western Fuels Association and associated companies. He has also received funding for his research from the Western Fuels Association, the Cyprus Minerals Company, the Edison Electric Institute and the German Coal Mining Association. [8]

Because Michaels and the other dissident scientists were wheeled out so often during the 1990s and because their industry funding and associations were exposed, efforts were made to find new "clean" scientists to play this role. In 1998 the New York Times reported internal American Petroleum Institute (API) documents revealed a plan to: “Identify, recruit and train a team of five independent scientists to participate in media outreach . . . this team will consist of new faces who will add their voices to those recognized scientists who are already vocal”. [9]

The documents also revealed that fossil-fuel interests intended to raise $US5 million over two years to establish a Global Climate Science Data Center as a non-profit educational foundation to help meet their goal of ensuring that the media and the public recognise the uncertainties in climate science. The documents showed that their aim was to make climate change a non-issue and those promoting the Kyoto Protocol seem “to be out of touch with reality.” [10]

Corporate-funded think tanks have also played a key role in providing credible ‘experts’, usually not atmospheric scientists, to reinforce the illusion of scientific uncertainty and dispute scientific claims of existing or impending environmental degradation. Think tanks are research institutes that foster the illusion that they are providing impartial disinterested expertise. However they generally tailor their studies to suit their clients or donors.

Fred Singer is executive director of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, a US think tank which specialises in portraying global warming, ozone depletion and acid rain as nothing more than scare tactics used by environmentalists. Singer, who has worked for companies such as Exxon, Shell, and Arco, speaks and writes prolifically on these subjects. He has made at least two trips to Australia (in 1990 and 1992) to attack the idea of global warming. [11] According to the Environmental Research Foundation: “Singer hasn’t published original research on climate change in 20 years and is now an ‘independent’ consultant, who spends his time writing letters to the editor, and testifying before Congress…” [12]

The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) is an Australian think tank that gets almost one-third of its budget from mining and manufacturing companies. It has produced many articles and media statements challenging the greenhouse consensus. In IPA Review, Aaran Oakley accused Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC, of bias because “ABC reporters made the assumption that global warming is real, some even making assertions to that end.” [13]

However the ABC has given air time to a number of global warming sceptics including IPA Senior Fellow, Brian Tucker. In 1996 in a talk on the ABC’s Ockham’s Razor Tucker stated that “unchallenged climatic disaster hyperbole has induced something akin to a panic reaction from policy makers, both national and international.” He argued that global warming predictions are politically and emotionally generated. [14]

Public relations professionals are also adept at the magic technique of forcing. In the global warming debate this has meant ensuring that people do not view effective greenhouse gas reduction measures as desirable policies. To this end, industry-funded economists  have been used to exaggerate the costs of such measures and to downplay the costs of global warming.

In Australia the government has relied heavily on figures provided by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE). ABARE was originally set up by the Commonwealth Government but now bills itself as an ‘independent’ research agency. However its independence is an illusion. For its economic modelling of the impacts of meeting greenhouse-gas targets, ABARE raised $1.1 million from oil companies and industry lobby groups by offering them the opportunity to pay $50,000 to sit on a steering committee and “have an influence on the direction of the model development”. [15] Consequently some 80 percent of the funds for ABARE’s climate-change modelling come from the fossil-fuel industry. [16]   

Not surprisingly, ABARE’s modelling predicted huge costs in jobs and income would be needed to meet emission-reduction targets. This was disputed by environmentalists and alternative energy experts, as well as by 131 Australian economists who signed a joint statement that noted: “the economic modelling studies on which the Government is relying to assess the impacts of reducing Australia’s greenhouse-gas emissions overestimate the costs and underestimate the benefits of reducing emissions”. [17] Several Australian studies over the last few years have shown that emissions could be cut in Australia by at least 20 percent without cost. [18]

The message that global warming prevention measures would be too costly has been reinforced with corporate media spending. In 1997 US industry groups, representing oil, coal and other fossil-fuel interests, spent an estimated $US13 million on television, newspaper and radio advertising in the three months leading up to the Kyoto Conference to promote public opposition to the treaty. Speaking at a news conference during this campaign, the President of the National Association of Manufacturers, Jerry Jasinowski, argued that the treaty would mean energy prices would go up, jobs would be moved to developing countries, and US businesses, farmers and consumers would suffer. [19]

Industry conjuring tricks have stalled government measures to avoid global warming for more than a decade. Now that global warming can no longer be credibly denied, fossil fuel interests are seeking to apply their tricks to the task of ensuring that any measures taken are ineffective.



[1]   D Powell, ‘Magicology’, New Scientist, 20/27 December, 2008, pp. 43-5.

[2]   S Beder, 'bp: Beyond Petroleum?' in Battling Big Business: Countering greenwash, infiltration and other forms of corporate bullying, edited by Eveline Lubbers, Green Books, Devon, UK, 2002, pp. 26-32

[3]   “BP plans emissions cuts," The Oil Daily, Vol. 48, September 21, 1998.

[4]   World In Action, 'Colombia: How Green is you Petrol?,' September 22, 1997.

[5]   M Devine, ‘Green ideas must take blame for deaths’, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 February 2009.

[6]   Quoted in ‘A CLEAR Special Report: Western Fuels Association’s Astroturf Empire’, CLEAR View Mailing List, 10 November 1998.

[7]    GS Kuiper, ‘Global warming is good for you?’, 1997, <http://members.optushome.com.au/gmass/globwgood.htm>

[8]   Ties That Blind: Industry Influence on Public Policy and Our Environment’, Ozone Action, Washington D.C., 1997, p 4.

[9]   Documents attached to National Environmental Trust, ‘Big Oil’s Secret Plan to Block the Global Warming Treaty’, Corporate Watch Features, October 1998, <http://www.corpwatch.org/trac/feature/climate/culpirts/bigoil.html>.

[10] Ibid.

[11] A Rowell, Green Backlash: Global Subversion of the Environment Movement, Routledge, London and New York, 1996, p 143.

[12] P Montague, ‘Ignorance is Strength’, Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly, No 467, 1995, <http://www.rachel.org/bulletin/bulletin.cfm?Issue_ID=656&bulletin_ID=48>

[13] A Oakley, ‘Global Warming and the ABC: A pernicious mixture of science and environmentalism’, IPA Review, June 9 1999, p 9.

[14] B Tucker, ‘A Rational Consideration of Global Warming’, Ockham’s Razor, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Radio National, 18 August 1996,  <http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/ockham/or180896.htm>

[15] ABARE, ‘GIGABARE: A powerful global model for analysing climate change policy’, accessed 1997, <http://www.abare.gov.au>

[16] M Hogarth, ‘Climate research alleged to be biased’, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 August 1997, p 5.

[17]   “A  Statement by Professional Economists” published in Cool Solutions to Global Warming, Community Information Project on Sustainable Energy, Sydney, 1997, p 6.

[18] Cited in G Gilchrist, ‘Too Much Hot Air’, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 1997, p 5S.

[19] V Allen, ‘Industries launch anti-climate treaty ad campaign’, Reuters News Service, 10 September 1997.


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