Paris Hilton and the End of the World

Britney Spears is a great artist. Paris Hilton is very talented.

It seems the yawning gulf between perception and reality has never been greater.

Truer still for how the public perceives climate science. A new poll shows that 41% of Americans now believe concerns around global warming are exaggerated -the highest level of skepticism in over a decade.

This is a shocking figure given the latest scientific findings being reveled, even as we speak, at a gathering of 2,500 of the world’s leading researchers on climate change.

This chasm of opinion between the scientific community and the public shows how criminally irresponsible many in the mainstream media have been about portraying climate science, and how effective the misinformation campaign by the fossil fuel lobby has been in deceiving the average American.

Does public opinion even matter? In a voting (and shopping) society like ours, it is about the hottest commodity going. Right or wrong, any politician goes against it at their peril.

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.”

This ancient principle is not lost on the industries of the world. The Union of Concerned Scientists showed how ExxonMobil “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”.Gallup Graph

One of those groups was the Heartland Institute that just wrapped up their climate deniers conference in New York. Likewise, the coal industry last year shoveled $45 million on a PR campaign to promote the baseless idea of “clean coal”.

But shouldn’t companies be able to spend their advertising dollars any way they want?

Think of it this way: ordinary citizens rightly resent how massive lobbying efforts in Washington undermine democracy. The only difference between PR campaigns and Capitol Hill lobbying is that the person being lobbied is you.

Do these tactics work? Of course. Exxon did not become the largest corporation on Earth by making decisions that were not in their best interest. And they are certainly not going to part with their hard-earned money unless there is something in it for them.

Consider the recent media coverage of the climate conference in Denmark where 2,500 of the leading researchers on global warming are basically describing how the world is going to end. One would think that would be worthy of a bit of media ink.

Instead papers like the National Post chose to send their reporters to the climate deniers costume ball in New York.

So who was the winner in this latest skirmish for public opinion? As always, the answer is revealed by Google.

A quick internet search shows the real climate conference in Denmark generated 989 news stories. The deniers conference garnered about 112 stories. So truth won, right? Not quite.

The goal of a PR campaign like the one being waged by Big Oil is never to win the debate, just to keep it going. The now infamous 1969 memo by the PR firm Brown and Williamson to their tobacco client perhaps said it best:

“Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' [linking smoking with disease] that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”

The enormous time and effort that went into the climate conference in Denmark, as well as all the underlying research, is useless unless it creates political action. The likelihood of that is severely undermined when newspaper editors decide to give equal or comparable coverage to industry-funded hacks saying there is really nothing to worry about.

While the world’s scientists continue to try in their own pedantic way to communicate the latest findings with ever-greater urgency, the forces of dumb are carrying the day.

What is at stake in this war for your mind is nothing less than the fate of the planet. If we are to make the radical shift in our economy that scientists warn we must (and fast), it is imperative that public opinion be onside. Without it, we fail.

Vested interests that would loose big if the world became a greener place know that very well. They are apparently succeeding in confusing the public about climate science - even as that science becomes more compelling, urgent, and terrifying by the day.

The vehicle for this heinous campaign of misinformation is of course the media itself. Mark Twain had some thoughts on that subject as well:

That awful power, the public opinion of a nation, is created in America by a horde of ignorant, self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditch digging and shoemaking and fetched up in journalism on their way to the poorhouse.”

By the way, CanWest stock is now trading at 31 cents.

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