Editor's Comment

Dietrich Georg

Engineers Australia, January 1998.

Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, Sharon Beder

Need for improvements remains despite Kyoto concessions

NOT surprisingly, most industry groups have praised the outcome for Australia of the Kyoto climate conference last month (see cover story on page 24). As widely publicised at the time, the Australian government won a concession that Australia would be allowed to increase its greenhouse gas emissions by 8%, based on 1990 output, by 2010. Only two other countries of the Annex 1 group (OECD countries plus a number of Eastern European countries), apart from some countries within the European Union, are allowed to increase their emissions while all other Annex 1 countries committed themselves to emission reductions.

However, there was one industry group which did not buy the line that the concession negotiated by the federal government was the best Australia could do and it would be very tough to achieve even this target.

According to the Australian Cogeneration Association, major greenhouse gas reductions could be achieved at a relatively small initial cost, if industry installed cogeneration systems wherever possible.

Also, I believe it would be economically dangerous if industry now sat back and did only what was absolutely necessary to achieve the agreed emission growth limit of 8%.

It doesn't really matter any longer whether we accept specific climate change predictions and their likely effects on various regions around the globe. What matters is the realisation that as most developed countries have committed themselves to significant greenhouse gas reductions they will develop ever more efficient technologies and industrial processes using less raw materials and less energy. While reducing greenhouse gas emissions on the one hand, these technologies and processes will in the long run inevitably also lead to more cost effective manufacturing and other industrial activities.

Therefore, purely in the interest of remaining competitive, apart from any greenhouse considerations, Australian companies cannot afford to ignore the trends overseas.

So far only 100 companies, albeit most of the big ones, have signed up under the government's Greenhouse Challenge program.

The IEAust, on behalf of its members, has committed itself to the concept of sustainability in engineering, of which reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a part. It is up to the members to help implement the concept in their work.

"Managing" public opinion

Multinational public relations companies such Burson Marsteller and Hill and Knowlton today are among the most powerful international agents for influencing public opinion, and the more we understand how they operate the less influential their messages will be. This statement is the underlying theme of a fascinating new book by Sharon Beder, professional engineer and senior lecturer in science and technology studies at the University of Wollongong. Titled "Global Spin - The corporate assault on environmentalism" (Scribe Publications), the book looks at how corporations, often with the help of public relations companies, have taken over the initiative in the environmental arena from traditional green groups.

Caught on the back foot during the 1960s and 1970s by the strong public support for environmental issues, corporations have learned to fight back, in the process paying millions of dollars to PR firms for devising campaigns to influence or, to use PR jargon, "manage" public opinion and thus politicians.

Beder gives a large number of examples of how PR companies get people to lobby politicians, help corporations improve their environmental standing in the community, and "manage" public opinion on issues such as dioxin and chlorine or the Exxon Valdez disaster.

She also highights the potential power of advertisers in influencing what is published in the media, how the reporting of environmental issues can be influenced when big industrial conglomerates own the media, and how journalists are being wooed by corporations.

While in principle there is nothing wrong with companies trying to influence public opinion, particularly as some of the tactics used are only refined versions of those also used by the environmental movement, Beder presents some of the excesses where information was manipulated, through omission or particular emphasis on certain aspects, to create a desired image.

Beder draws mostly on material from the US, but her point is equally relevant to Australia. The strength of her book is not so much in uncovering new information (most of her sources are freely available), but rather in bringing all the information from the widely differing sources together, exposing the often hidden strategies behind many PR campaigns. This exposure, Beder points out, is one of the best ways to undermine the strength and persuasive power of those strategies.

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