Does it seem strange that some oil companies seem willing to acknowledge the massive implications of global warming while others are fighting it tooth and nail?
David Anderson was wondering the same thing when he was Canada’s Environment Minister between 1999 and 2005. About half of the oil companies he dealt with including Exxon Mobil were very resistant to reducing carbon emissions, or even to admitting that global warming was real. And the other half?
According to Anderson, “the other half were very friendly. Shell, PB, Syncrude, Suncor, all those companies were quite willing to put in restrictions [to curb climate change].”
And why not? Ballooning oil prices meant soaring profits so they could easily afford the costs of mitigating carbon emissions.
“God, they were making money like it was going out of style. You just wouldn’t believe the money that’s being made. They could quite afford the trivial amount, which was about 38 cents a barrel as the calculation for climate change measures to make them carbon neutral. Christ, they were getting up to $75 a barrel... Everything over $20 a barrel is profit,” says Anderson.
So why does the former Minister think companies like Exxon Mobil weren’t willing to move on this? He offers some interesting speculations:
“One of the issues that I think is really important is the impact of the quarterly statement. No one likes to have their quarterly statement doing anything but going up and up because that affects share price. Share price affects bonuses and pay of executives. The head of Exxon gets paid $70 million per year. A lot of money would be affected by what you might call tremors in the market that might come from climate change measures…”
Stock options have become a very popular way for North American companies to motivate senior executives to pump up the share price. The idea is simple, rather than paying managers a straight salary, companies give them stock options to buy company stock at a set price. If these executives can increase the share price they can cash in those options and reap staggering profits.
“The use of stock options has skyrocketed over the last 20 years,” said Kin Lo, Associate Professor of Accounting at the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business.
However, making senior management fixated on share price rather than business fundamentals can also affect corporate ethics. “I believe the prevalence [of stock options] contributes to some of the malfeasance that you have seen, the big blowups with Enron and WorldCom”, says Lo.
However in the case of oil companies, it also creates a gravy train that most senior executives would want to keep going at all costs.
Soaring global oil prices have meant that oil companies are recording record profits, and sending share prices into the stratosphere – regardless of company performance. For instance, Exxon Mobil’s share price has almost doubled since 2004. This is making some senior oil executives very rich, whether they are doing a good job or not.
According to a recent study from the Institute for Policy Studies, in 2005 the average CEO compensation for top 15 US based oil companies was a whopping$32.7 million - more than four hundred times what the average oil industry worker is paid. Compare that with the average pay of CEOs for all large US firms at $11.6 million.
And then there is the paycheque of former Exxon Mobil CEO Lee Raymond. In 2005, Mr. Raymond’s base salary was $4 million - not bad jack to be sure, but the real money came from soaring share prices. That year, Mr. Raymond made an additional $65 million compensation in the form of stock options and other benefits - fully 93% of his compensation. With a payday like that, who wants to rock the boat by dealing with climate change?
Compare that to the compensation paid to executives with the world’s number two and three oil companies in the world: BP and Shell – both based in Europe. BP CEO Lord Browne made $5.6 million in 2005 – not so shabby either, but a mere 8% of what Exxon’s CEO was paid. Shell CEO Jeroen van der Veer made just $4.1million – one sixteenth what Lee Raymond was paid.
Interestingly there are also some striking differences in the way these companies dealt with climate change. BP now officially stands for “beyond petroleum”. The CEO of Shell has stated publicly that global warming makes him "really very worried for the planet". Both companies signed onto a letter to UK Prime Minster Tony Blair calling for urgent government regulation on climate change and are investing heavily in alternative energy technologies.
In contrast, Exxon has been dubbed by Greenpeace the “the world’s number one climate criminal” stating that they have “done more than any other company to stop the world from tackling climate change”. They were recently implicated by the Union of Concerned scientists of funding a Big Tobacco-style PR campaign to misinform the public on climate science.
Anderson speculates that the over reliance on stock options puts many North American oil company executives in a compromised position. “Deep down most of these people knew the game had to end eventually and we had to take climate change measures. Deep down what they were really saying was ‘I know that I’m not doing the right thing but I am going to pass that on to my successor to handle the problem. I’m going to get out of here with my bonuses intact and I am going to get out of here a wealthy man.’”
That last point might be particularly poignant in the case of Exxon Mobil. When Lee Raymond retired as CEO of Exxon Mobil at the end of 2005, he was awarded one of the most lucrative retirement packages in corporate history – totaling almost $400 million, including stock options, pension, use of a corporate jet, and $210,800 in country club fees and other perks. This includes the $69 million in cash and stock options he made that year.
When I contacted Exxon Mobil by phone they denied that compensation schemes of senior executives like Mr. Raymond could effect on how the company has responded to climate change. “The largest portion of his compensation is restricted stock and those restrictions are five and ten years and those restrictions maintain on stock even after he retires…He can’t sell it until the restriction matures and some of those restrictions go out to the year 2015”, said Mark Boudreaux, Media Relations Manager for Exxon Mobil Corporation.
Mr. Raymond will be 77 in 2015. It seems rather strange that he will not be able to fully collect for all his years of work at Exxon Mobil until he is two years past the life expectancy of the average male in the United States.
Perhaps is not as simple as that. According to Lo, “what someone can do is to arrange an 'equity monetization,' which allows him in essence to ‘short’ the [restricted] stock with an investment banker. It’s the same as selling the restricted stock at that date. Later on when the restriction comes off you can net out the two positions… There are plenty of investment bankers that would be willing to do that for a fee.”
If there are specific restrictions prohibiting Raymond from short selling his restricted stock, Exxon is not telling their shareholders about them. Looking at the legal filings of Exxon Mobil to the US government, it appeared to Lo that “there is nothing to prevent to Lee Raymond… to arrange for a separate side deal to get around the restrictions.”
Interestingly, Raymond also sits on the advisory board of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which recently offered scientists $10,000 plus expenses to undermine or dispute the findings of the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Exxon partially funds the American Enterprise Institute.
Could something as trivial as the personal finances of already obscenely wealthy individuals caused some powerful oil companies to resist dealing with the most pressing issue of our times? It's a big world. Stranger things have happened.
Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. The piece ran in the February 15, 2007 issue of the Georgia Straight.
Will he or won't he? That was the question on the minds of many British Columbians this week as Gordon Campbell prepared to release the throne speech and announce whether B.C. was really going to follow the lead of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and bring in mandatory caps on carbon emissions.
The verdict? Nice wrapping, but not much inside.
First, the good news. While some North American governments are still questioning the science behind climate change, that time has now thankfully passed in B.C. Campbell has gone on record as stating this is an urgent problem requiring serious action.
According to Lisa Matthaus of Sierra Club B.C., "the province is now saying out loud climate change is real, the science is indisputable, we can no longer procrastinate, and that living up to these obligations is going to mean economic opportunities for British Columbia." The public can begin holding him, and future governments, to that self-evident truth.
It's about time.
The other significant point about yesterday's announcement is that the B.C. government is for the first time committing to hard caps on carbon emissions. Specially, Campbell committed B.C. to reducing reduce carbon emissions 10 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. While that is more than Arnold Schwarzenegger announced last August, 2020 is long way off and it remains very unclear how (and if) we are going to get there.
On the bright side, Campbell has let the carbon cap genie out of the bottle and it will be very difficult to put it back in. That milestone, no matter how mushy at present, should be applauded.
There is also the old political principle of "only Nixon could go to China." Campbell is a pro-business premier. It would have much more difficult for the NDP to make the same announcement without howls of indignation from the business community.
But before we get too giddy, let's have a hard look at the details -- or in this case, the lack thereof.
The major concern is timing. Governments are inclined to make sweeping announcements that come into effect only after their current term in office expires. This announcement is no exception.
Of all the initiatives announced yesterday, only two have any immediate impact. First, all new vehicles bought or leased by the B.C. government will be hybrids. Big deal.
More importantly, Victoria will now begin requiring all new coal-fired generating plants to sequester 100 per cent of their carbon emissions. This new requirement may well kill the two proposed coal plants planned for the B.C. Interior. That would be significant, but time will tell what actually happens.
The rest of the throne speech dealt largely with policy to be developed at some undetermined time in the future, or targets fully 13 to 43 years from now.
While there have been many glowing comparisons between Campbell and what Schwarzenegger introduced in California, let's not get too starry eyed. The Governator legislated hard targets, with hard short-term milestones, after a long period of meaningful consultation with a variety of stakeholders.
Campbell consulted with no environmental groups prior to this week's announcement, the first target is not until 2020, and there is currently no legislation to back it up. In the words of Lisa Matthaus of Sierra Club B.C., "I think Gordon's still has a bit of beefing up to do."
For these reasons, the response from many in the environmental community has been largely lukewarm. "I think it's a start, I don't think it's a good start, but I think it's a start. We still have a long way to go," said Karen Campbell of the Pembina Institute. "Climate science is telling us that we need to act now. The longer we wait, the more action it's going to take later on. The quickest, most decisive action needs to happen now, not thirteen years from now."
Also worrisome is that while the 2020 target is province-wide, the interim targets (yet to be determined) are "sectoral" targets. That means that car emissions might go down while oil and gas emissions could go up. Without short-term province-wide caps, there is no guarantee that we would reduce overall emissions.
Perhaps most concerning was what was not announced yesterday. For instance, a good chunk of the throne speech was devoted to limiting urban sprawl but there was certainly no talk about canceling the much-disputed Gateway project to expand local highways and twin the Port Mann Bridge.
The province is actually maintaining with a straight face that this $3 billion boondoggle will actually reduce greenhouse emissions by reducing cars idling in traffic, rather than instead encouraging single-occupancy commuting and further urban sprawl in the Fraser Valley.
There was also no talk of canceling proposed new subsidies to the oil and gas sector. This month, Provincial Energy, Mines and Petroleum Minister Richard Neufeld announced that he was considering a "net-profit" royalty scheme for oil and gas companies that would let them avoid paying B.C. taxpayers until their capital costs are paid off.
This type of perverse corporate giveaway helped fuel the explosive growth in Alberta's tar sands, and is something that even the federal Conservatives seem to be cooling to. Oil companies do not need more taxpayer money to assist them in making our climate problems worse, especially while health care, child care and education are going begging.
Yesterday also would have been a fine time to announce a tax on carbon emissions. This simple policy shift would negate the need for much costly and cumbersome regulation by putting an economic cost on something that currently is a freebee, namely dumping climate-altering carbon into the air. We charge a tipping fee at the dump; what's the difference? This policy was noticeably absent from the throne speech.
Lastly, it was ironic that a speech so focused on meeting the enormous challenges of climate change was completely silent about meeting our obligations under Kyoto. That glaring omission was not lost on environmental policy experts. "I am concerned that by [B.C.] walking away from Kyoto, that this may actually be giving an out to the Harper government so that they can walk away from Kyoto too. This is not the time to be walking away from Kyoto," said Pembina's Karen Campbell.
It seems that what was really announced this week was that the political ground in B.C. has shifted a long way to the green end of the spectrum. Future governments of any stripe can no longer ignore the environment, and that is a major accomplishment.
While Campbell deserves some credit for yesterday's announcement, the real accolades should go to the B.C. public. What is driving this sea change in environmental policy in Canada is not some enviro-epiphany on the part of our elected leaders. It is pure political pragmatism. Soaring public concern about the environment means that politicians ignore this growing issue at their peril.
So give yourself a pat on the back. Don't get too comfortable though. The devil is in the details and we all need to keep a close watch in what is announced in next weeks budget.
Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece was published in the Tyee on February 14, 2007.
"Global warming is an unproven theory."
"Trying to stop it will cost the economy dearly and accomplish nothing."
"It is being promoted by environmentalists as a cynical ploy to raise money."
"Trying to stop it will cost the economy dearly and accomplish nothing."
"It is being promoted by environmentalists as a cynical ploy to raise money."
Wait a minute... Does it seem like you're reading your local newspaper?
Many North American media outlets continue to supply the public with such a steady diet of such misinformation and skewed science on the critical issue of global warming that it might be best described as “journalistic malpractice”.
Consider this thought experiment: Would it be ethical for a news editor in 2007 to publish an opinion piece by a tobacco industry funded “expert”, long inactive within the scientific community, stating that there is no proven link between tobacco and cancer?
Such journalistic mischief went on for many years, clouding the public debate and no doubt costing many lives. However the days when such “balanced reporting” would be considered acceptable have long past.
Even Exxonmobil, which funded the climate-change deniers for years, finally admitted this month that global warming is real -- even though it has been obvious to the scientific community for many years that humans were contributing to the problem through emissions of greenhouse gases.
Yet many papers like the National Post and Los Angeles Times repeatedly published articles by such deniers as Patrick Michaels, and S. Fred Singer – who some might remember from his previous efforts to ally public fears about the dangers of ozone depletion and second hand smoke.
And then there is the curious case of Dr. Tim Ball. He is a long retired professor from the University of Winnipeg and a well-known climate change denier who has not published a peer-reviewed scientific publication on climatology in over a decade.
That not to say that Dr. Ball hasn’t been busy writing lately. Over the last five years he has published no less than thirty-nine opinion pieces, and thirty-two letters to the editor in twenty-four Canadian newspapers. Fifty of these pieces ran in papers owned by Canwest Global. These efforts totaled an incredible 44,500 words. As a freelance writer myself, I am in awe at Dr. Ball’s success in placing his writing in the nation’s papers.
This is even more surprising given the monotony of his material. Virtually all of these articles were variations on a single theme: that science does not support that global warming is caused by humans. In the byline of every opinion piece, he was characterized as an expert on climatology. What is the public to think?
Among his unorthodox views, published as recently as last month in Calgary Sun:
- Global temperatures have declined since 1998 in direct contradiction to computer models on which Kyoto is based.
- Ice core records show temperature rises before CO2 rises, not as a result of it.
- Evidence mounts that pre-industrial levels of CO2 may have been much higher than the 280 ppm assumed by environmentalists.
- New research shows changes in output of the sun accounts for most of the recent warming and cooling of our planet.
- The primary evidence of human influence on climate, the "hockey stick" temperature graph of Michael Mann, has been debunked as manipulated and wrong.
A basic tenet of journalism is fact checking. Do these surprising claims have any scientific basis?
I phoned up Dr. Richard Gammon, Professor of Oceanography and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington to ask. Somewhat exasperated, he refuted all of these points as either scientifically baseless or grossly misleading.
I then called Dr. Andrew Weaver, a leading Canadian researcher in the field of climate science who holds a Canada Research Chair in Climate Modeling in Analysis at the University of Victoria.
He is also the chief editor of “Journal of Climate” – the leading academic publication in this field, and a lead author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This is the largest peer review exercise in the history of science, involving 2000 climate researchers from 100 countries.
Weaver also quickly confirmed that Ball’s well-published assertions have no scientific basis.
What’s going on? Do newspaper editors not possess a phone? How can it be that Dr. Ball managed to publish all those articles stating more of less the same thing if what he is saying lacks scientific merit?
First let’s start with the basics. Here is what Gammon had to say about Tim Ball’s doubts that there is no link between humans and climate change.
“This is like asking ‘is the moon round?’ or ‘does smoking cause cancer? We’re at a point now where there is no responsible position stating that humans are not responsible for climate change. That is just not where the science is…for a long time, for at least five years and probably ten years, in the international scientific community has been very clear”
In case there is any doubt, Gammon goes on. “This is not the balance of evidence argument for a civil lawsuit, this is the criminal standard beyond a reasonable doubt. We’ve been there for a long time and I think the media has really not presented that to the public.”
How does Gammon explain many of the climate science holdouts? “You can always find somebody paid for by the Western Fuels Association or Exxon Mobil to stir the pot and say that we don’t know yet or we are still confused and we need to listen to all sides and ExxonMobil will take that point of view.”
The role of the media in shaping the so-called climate debate is much larger however than merely providing space to industry actors claiming scientific credibility. Consider the editorial positions of many of the major newspapers in North America.
From the Los Angles Times last year: “Major news media have gone after scientists who argue there's still time to study global warming rather than plunge into some half-baked environmental jihad that could waste possibly trillions of dollars.”
Vancouver Sun business columnist Michael Campbell regularly holds forth on climate change. Last year he scolded the scientific community for their slapdash work:
“I see little evidence that proponents of man-made global warming know how damaging the shoddy science behind some of their claims has been to their cause. They don't seem to understand that for many of us, global warming is not an article of faith, but rather of science. And when the science is faulty, it damages the credibility of their cause.”
We can only assume that Mr. Campbell is referring to those dullards at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Their 2001 assessment report stated “There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities” .
Perhaps he was referring to the Academies of Sciences of 11 countries including the US and UK, who released a joint statement in 2005 stating that, "the scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action.”
By the way, Mr. Campbell’s academic training is in economics.
In his polysyllabic fashion, Rex Murphy also hectored the nation on the issue of climate science last month in his column in the Globe and Mail: “It is emphatically time for the most scrupulous and disinterested inquiry to determine the solid core of what is really known about the subject, separated from the great clouds of speculation, advocacy, geopolitics and calculated alarmism that overhang and shadow that core.”
It is as if these opinion writers and the scientific community exist on separate planets. Has the media never heard of the numerous, if pedantic, ways that the world’s scientific community has been trying to warn the world about global warming? When does it become unethical for the media to be used as a PR tool by a powerful corporate sector to delay meaningful regulation?
That was the question asked by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in a report released this month called “Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco's Tactics to "Manufacture Uncertainty" on Climate Change”
This report draws the obvious parallel to the infamous and highly successful PR campaign by the tobacco industry to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of the public about the link between smoking and cancer.
Like oil companies today, Big Tobacco faced costly regulation due mounting scientific evidence of the dangers of their product. However they had a problem. They knew that almost no one would believe them if they tried to tell the public themselves that cigarettes were safe.
Their solution? Tobacco companies realized that they must instead fund phony scientists to speak on their behalf. These “skeptics” had two important advantages over real scientists.
First, they didn’t have to bother defending their positions in the scientific community because scientists weren’t the audience of this campaign, the public was. Like a washed up boxer who now only picks fights in bars, these skeptics, many of whom have impressive sounding credentials, restrict their pugilisms to the popular press rather than the peer reviewed scientific journals.
On this footing, it is a rather unfair fight. The rules of engagement in the media are very different than in the scientific community. The mastery of the sound bite rather than possessing robust data and an elegant question almost always carries the day in the media minute. The notoriously bad communication skills of some active researchers do not help matters.
The second advantage is that “skeptics” do not have to win the public debate, only cloud public opinion so as to delay regulation.
A now famous internal memo from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company put it bluntly: “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
Compare this with a memo from the American Petroleum Institute in 1998 calling for a “campaign to recruit a cadre of scientists who share the industry’s views of climate science and to train them in public relations so they can help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify.”
What was old is new again. Remarkably, this chilling plan by Big Oil to use the media to deceive the public was largely ignored by news outlets when it became public.
According to the USC report, Exxon Mobil “funneled nearly $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to a network of 43 advocacy organizations that seek to confuse the public on global warming science”
If there is a significant difference between the PR efforts of the tobacco industry and fossil fuel sector, it is size. The oil, gas and coal sectors make Big Tobacco seem positively puny by comparison.
The fossil fuel industry is the largest industrial sector the world has ever known, currently worth $8 to 9 trillion annually. This is four to five times larger than the next largest industrial sector . By this yardstick, the amount of money invested in funding climate change deniers is pocket change to Big Oil.
The oil industry is also refreshingly frank about where they put their dollars. In their own words, “ExxonMobil is committed to supporting organizations that…promote informed discussion on issues of direct relevance to business and the company’s ongoing operations."
Has this campaign against climate science been successful? You bet. It may well go down as the most audacious, successful and cynical campaign in public relations history.
Consider a recent paper entitled “Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press”, published in 2004 on the very subject of how climate change science is distorted by the media. The authors analyzed media stories from the five most prestigious newspapers in the US, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal over a five-year period to see what relative weight was being given to mainstream (i.e real) scientists and so-called “skeptics”.
“From a total of 3,543 articles, we examined a random sample of 636 articles. Our results showed that the majority of these stories were, in fact, structured on the journalistic norm of balanced reporting, giving the impression that the scientific community was embroiled in a rip-roaring debate on whether or not humans were contributing to global warming.”
The report found that the “US prestige-press coverage of global warming from 1988 to 2002 has contributed to a significant divergence of popular discourse from scientific discourse…that the prestige press’s adherence to balance actually leads to biased coverage of both anthropogenic contributions to global warming and resultant action.”
In plain English this translates as: the public is being misinformed on climate science by a poor journalism that continues to tell both sides of the story, even when there is no other side. The resultant political inaction might well kill the planet.
Returning to our original question, is it then ethical for an editor to provide space to industry-funded spokespeople claiming scientific credibility they don’t have?
“In my opinion, that is where ethical problem lies”, says Eric Jandciu, Research Coordinator at the UBC School of Journalism. “You are in effect proving misinformation to the public because there is no more [scientific] debate on this and we seem to be very far behind in Canada and the US. In the European media for years now they have stopped with this debate.”
While it must be tempting for editors to run material that runs counter to conventional beliefs, is there something else going on? For instance, could major sponsors be affecting editorial content?
According to the Canadian Newspaper Association of the top 30 advertisers in Canadian papers, 15 are from the auto industry. Car ads represent fully 54% of those revenues – totaling $549 million to Canadian newspaper publishers each year from the top 30 alone.
But what does money have to do with anything?
Considering the enormous consequences of continued inaction on climate change this shoddy journalism is not only unfortunate, it is irresponsible in the extreme.
Has this systematically inaccurate coverage influenced public opinion? Of course. That’s the whole point. Consider these public opinion numbers.
A poll from the fall of last year showed that fully 50% of Canadians still believed that “most scientists disagreed with each about whether global warming was happening”. In the US, the numbers are even worse. An ABC news poll last year showed that 64% of Americans believed the majority of scientists are still arguing whether global warming was even happening.
Which brings us the crux of the matter. How important is public opinion for influencing politics? Perhaps mark Twain said it best;
“Its name is Public Opinion. It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it is the voice of God.”
I asked Former Environment Minister David Anderson about the limitations that public opinion can place on policy makers, and how the oil sector influenced climate coverage while he was Minister. Did skewed coverage on climate science make his job as Minister more difficult?
“Of course”, said Anderson. “There was a very professional group of people who managed to get a large number of articles and letters to the editors [from climate skeptics] into Canadian media – they worked hard at it”, says Anderson.
“If you look at the columnists in Canada, you will find a very surprising interest in the views of dissenters. Just about every columnist in the Globe and the Vancouver Sun recites this intellectually pre-prepared stuff on climate science. Where does it come from? In Canada there has been a successful campaign to get the views of the deniers into the media, and it has been enormously successful. It has been very secretive and someone has been funding it…”
Why did Big Oil care about so much about little old Canada? Anderson is blunt:
“Bush said restrictions on greenhouse gases will destroy the US economy.”
Therefore the US based oil companies “never wanted a North American economy - Canada, close to the US in every respect –to succeed and prove him wrong. We were quite important to the American campaign. We succeed, and Bush looks as incorrect on climate and the effect on the American economy, as he is looking on Iraq.”
“They did not want Canada to succeed [in creating a green economy] because they knew that it wasn’t that hard. They knew the loss, especially in a growth economy such as ours, would be essentially imperceptible. No calculation suggested that this was going to be a severe dislocation to the Canadian economy.”
So what then is Anderson’s explanation for the Liberals lack of greater progress on climate policy? “You had the official opposition against you, had the provinces against you, you had business against you…” and lastly “you had a coherent campaign in the media against you.”
Anderson believes Canadian editors “were consistently getting under their noses the results of a sophisticated campaign of communications,” and that newspaper columnists “repeat some things in language and format which is so consistent across the board that it can only come from one source... that’s the people to whom the communications experts were focusing on. They focused on media.”
That campaign didn’t make Anderson’s job any easier. While the liberals record on reducing greenhouse gases was admittedly abysmal, so was the public understanding of the issue. In 1999, when Anderson became environment minister, only 2% of Canadians believed global warming was the most important environmental issue.
The political importance of keeping the public confused about climate science was made clear in a remarkable memo by Whitehouse spin-doctor Frank Luntz to the Bush administration in 2003:
“The debate is closing (against us) but is not yet closed. There is still a window or opportunity to challenge the science… should the public come to believe the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate…”
Perhaps the most compelling evidence that the North American public has been grossly misled by our news media comes this month from the biggest oil company of them all, ExxonMobil.
While Tim Ball and Michael Campbell seem utterly steadfast for the need for greater scientific debate and research, Exxon seems now not so sure.
This month the world’s largest oil company executed a stunning flip flop on global warming. Kenneth Cohen, Exxon's vice president for public affairs, acknowledged that "we know enough now -- or, society knows enough now -- that the risk is serious and action should be taken.”
They also took the opportunity to publicly announce that they were cutting support to such notorious climate change deniers as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and “five or six” other groups active in the so-called climate science debate. According to Cohen, "The issue has evolved.”
That is not to say that much precious time has not been wasted, but this development will hopefully begin to shift the public debate from arguing science to debating policy.
Weaver agrees. “Debating the science is good but it doesn’t happen in the opinion editorial pages of newspapers, it happens in the scientific community”. At the same time he feels “debating the policy [of global warming] is crucial and that is what has to happen in public discourse”
Gammon thinks that media coverage is improving but has a long way to go. “It’s beginning to move to where we need to be but not nearly fast enough. In my mind people are not scared enough. It’s a funny issue because the scientists are more worried about it than the general public.”
“You just can’t give up though because these guys [climate deniers] don’t give up. As long as they can plant the seed in the public mind that this is all controversial, they’ve won. That’s all they have to do. We need to keep strengthening the science and saying it as clearly as possible and working with the media so that the media gets the right message out.
Personally I believe Gammon is being far too charitable. I find it hard to believe that media professionals - typically superb at research and fact checking - have simply not yet figured out that science resolved this debate five to ten years ago.
How much is a stake here? Do scientists like Weaver think dealing with global warming is urgent? “Incredibly urgent. On a scale of one to ten, how about ten? I don’t worry so much for me as a Canadian; I worry about the global instability that will result from it. An example I give is “ what are we going to do about 100 million people that are displaced from Bangladesh this century?”
The possibility of tipping points are particularly troubling to Weaver. “Permafrost in the northern hemisphere is a massive reservoir of carbon...If you look at the last time there were massive methane releases [that would result from melting permafrost], 94 percent of species of life on the planet died. If we don’t have this baby turned around by 2030, it’s game over for an awful lot of people.”
What about the assertion that we need more research before we can act? Weaver bristles. “What bugs me most is that I have been criticized that the only reason I am doing this is that I want more research money. The irony is that [scientists] are saying we don’t need more research. What we need is action…we know what’s going on. We know what needs to be done. The thing that would get me more research money would be to say ‘yeah, there’s a lot of uncertainty and I really think before we do policy, we need to spend some money to figure this thing out’”. That would be the purely selfish thing to say but that has not been the response from the [scientific] community.”
He also offers this advice to the media: “ What newspaper editors have to realize is that there are people out there who are using them. People don’t liked being used but they have to realize that they are being used… Rather than thinking that they are serving the public discourse, ask the question ‘am I being used to further an agenda?’ And the answer with the issue of climate change is yes.”
There is a certain irony in a career scientist like Weaver seeing so clearly what is wrong with how the media covers climate change, when he has had to endure so many media commentators publicly lecturing him on science.
Lastly, there has been a fascinating twist to the Tim Ball story. In April of last year, one of his op-eds in the Calgary Herald slamming the science of climate change raised the ire of a real scientist, Dr. Dan Johnston at the University of Lethbridge.
Johnston wrote a letter to the editor questioning the qualifications and academic credentials of Dr. Ball, and was quickly sued for defamation (no irony there). Ball filed a suit against not only Johnston, but the editors of the Calgary Herald for $325,000 for among other things “damages to his income earning capacity as a sought after speaker with respect to global warming”
The court documents filed by the Herald in their defence are illuminating. They state that Ball “is a member of the Friends of Science, a group dedicated to discrediting mainstream scientific beliefs and theories regarding the contribution of human sourced greenhouse gases to global warming” and that “the Friends of Science and the plaintiff are, at least in part, supported and funded by members of the oil and gas industry who have a vested interest in limiting the impact of the Kyoto accord on their business.”
The Herald also stated that Ball has published few articles in academically recognized peer-reviewed scientific journals”, and that he “has not conducted research regarding the relationship between climate and elements within the atmosphere.”
Lastly, here is how editors of the Herald characterized the credibility of a man whose opinion pieces on climate change they had chosen to publish eight times in the last five years: “the plaintiff is viewed as a paid promoter of the agenda of the oil and gas industry rather than as a practicing scientist”.
Strange. This was not how he was identified in his bylines. In his op-ed of April of last year, the Herald cited him as “a Victoria-based environmental consultant. He was the first climatology PhD in Canada and worked as a professor of climatology at the University of Winnipeg for 28 years.”
Therein lies the heart of the matter. This is not about freedom of speech. No one is suggesting that papers should not have the freedom to publish whatever and whomever they want, as long as it is not violating any laws.
The question instead is one of properly identify their sources – a basic tenet of good journalism.
Imagine if the next time Dr. Ball was cited in the popular press he was instead identified as “a paid promoter of the agenda of the oil and gas industry rather than as a practicing scientist”, as the editors of the Calgary Herald stated in their sworn statement to the court.
That might better arm the reading public to draw their own conclusions, both about his provocative comments, as well as the wisdom of the news outlet in publishing them.
Not much chance of that it seems. Incredibly, Tim Ball’s controversial op-eds have been published an additional eight times in Canwest papers since Ball sued the editors of the Calgary Herald on September 1, 2006. In all of those cases, Ball was cited as a former professor at the University of Winnipeg.
What if we demanded more from our media on what is emerging as the leading issue of the 21st century. What if the mainstream media stopped being a big part of the problem, and became part of the solution?
Does it seem strange for instance, that while the environment is the number one issue of concern for Canadians, that the Globe and Mail or the Vancouver Sun have no one writing a regular column on the environment? Arguably, both these papers already have several commentators that regularly spill buckets of ink questioning our movement towards a greener world. A bit of balance would be nice.
Or how about our venerable CBC?
Radio One has dedicated programs for business, sports, advertising, science, Quebec culture, pop culture, food, story telling, spirituality, comedy, and theatre. There are three separate shows on writing and books, and fully eleven programs on music. CBC’s television networks include stand-alone programs on fashion, hairstyles, gardening, antiques and even fly-fishing.
Amid this dizzying Can-Con diversity, however, there is one glaring omission. At present, there is no dedicated CBC radio or television program on the number one issue of concern to Canadians: The environment.
If any of these editors and producers need a writer, I’m available.
Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer. This piece ran in the Georgia Straight on January 25, 2007