The Use and Abuse of Power in the Global Warming Debate

(By Victoria Rudiak, Queen’s University)


In the early 1600s, Galileo was sentenced to house arrest after publicly supporting Copernicus’ theory of a heliocentric universe. Two centuries later, Charles Darwin was publicly mocked for his theory of evolution, which remains under debate by certain groups today (Socolow 2012). Even with the effects glaringly visible in our daily lives, today’s scientific issue of global warming is experiencing a similar prolonged struggle to be widely accepted as fact.

When scientists first presented their findings on global warming during the 1970s, the public received it as merely a theory (Socolow 2012). Now, in record high temperatures, melting glaciers, and severe flooding. The warming ultimately causes changes in weather patterns, leading to more frequent and extreme natural disasters that will affect many of the world’s most prosperous cities (Machado and Lopez 2012).  The scientific community has astonishing evidence that shows how humans are contributing significantly to the issue. An overwhelming number of people deny the involvement of humans, but evidence such as the quadrupling of the yearly rate of fossil fuel emissions since 1958 cannot be ignored (Socolow 2012).  Countries such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark lead the way in environmentally favourable policies (Johansen 2007). It is shocking that the politicians in powerful countries like the United States of America, Canada, and China fail to enact policies that will create true environmental change. Thus, a change in the overall mindset of society is required. Politicians and policy makers have the power and resources to create this social change, and to develop policies that will minimize the effects of global warming. The problem is that they continue to make empty promises, tied to the economic structure of capitalism, which promotes growth at all costs and decisions that produce the lowest costs and highest profit in the short term. They are also highly influenced by special interest groups who are often corporations benefiting from environmentally unsustainable practices (Farley 2012). These special interest groups use their power to reach the citizens by controlling what ideas are transferred to the people through the media.

Considering the many contrary ideas and motives, the lack of a unified public view becomes a significant social issue. It results from politicians and other groups acting with goals in mind other than the quality of life of current and future generations. They focus on economic goals, fail to publicly support the scientific community and convince the public that global warming is an issue that must be addressed .

North American countries are ruled by the market system of economy. This results in the policy makers focusing heavily on economic goals. For example, during the energy crisis of the late 1970s, their apathy toward the environment is obvious. While the United States enacted an energy policy, President Carter explained that it was “less to protect the environment from overheating than to reduce dependence on the Middle East and to promote economic growth” (Wuthnow 2010). Unlike the transparency shown by Carter, most politicians make underhand deals with lobbyists, so as to not accrue a bad reputation. When the United Nations held the convention on climate change in Kyoto in December 1997, the United States was one of the only countries that refrained from signing. This occurred after a meeting, in which scientists gave statements about rising sea levels and predictions of future warming patterns, but the majority of the discussion revolved around fears that the Kyoto Protocol would ruin the US economy. This meeting was, in fact, sponsored by the House Committee on Commerce, a large lobbying group in the US (Wuthnow 2010).  Politicians may want to make decisions in favour of the environment, but their foremost goal is to make the elite happy. In market economies, the most important groups are the ones who contribute the most to the economy. Bill Clinton’s administration signed the bill for Kyoto, but due to the overwhelming opposition among legislators, it was not submitted to the Senate for ratification (Wuthnow 2010).

Despite the politicians having ultimate power, they are ultimately pawns of major corporations. Looking specifically at the United States, oil companies are some of the most influential groups. The American Petroleum Institute continues to strongly oppose policies to reduce carbon emissions (Dunlap 2013). These groups, termed Conservative Think Tanks (CTTs), have had a major impact on U.S. politics and policy making, influencing the conservative tilt of the judicial system, tax policies that perpetuate inequality, and the subjects of political debate (Dunlap 2013). In addition to wielding power over the political sphere, they have protected their economic interests by infiltrating the public realm. During the Kyoto debate, representatives from U.S. Steel, Union Camp, Consolidated Edison, and other corporations, told reported to the media that the ecological crusade would result in unemployment. Abusing their power, they exploit a fear of the general public to cause dissent toward global warming.

Dissent is not necessarily the overall goal of the corporations; they hope to create a sense of uncertainty toward global warming to discourage action taking. In a Marxist sense, the people have become a tool for the government and the companies, which can be compared to the bourgeoisie. Political leaders and private corporations take advantage of the workers and lack of environmental standards in order to produce the highest output with the lowest costs (Marx, 2011).  According to this ideology, social change will only occur once the proletariat (the public, in the context of this discussion) develops a “class consciousness”, realizing that these groups are treating them badly (Marx, 2011). However, reaching a unified view is difficult because the uncertainty is created in hidden ways.  In the diverse society of today, it would be difficult for the public to develop a collective view.

As mentioned before,  media can “promote and inhibit social change…” (Dispensa and Brulle 2003), and therefore, is a great tool to a powerful person. In the 19th century, American newspapers were involved in slowing the momentum for women’s rights. Contrastingly, newspapers were helpful in promoting progress during the Civil Rights movement in the US (Dispensa and Brulle 2003). Through the media, groups are able to reach a high number of people. Those who confidently believe in global warming are not affected, but they remain inactive because they feel that it is useless to protest (Meynell 2013). Others who are less knowledgeable will learn from media outlets. They are faced with a great amount of false information, but usually do not recognize it as so. When elite businesses monetarily influence a large sector of media, they are in possession of an “apparatus for citizen thought control” (Dispensa and Brulle 2003). Reporters and journalists have freedom in subject choice, but to most, money is more attractive.  Some consider the state of mass media in the United States to be a “failure” (Farley 2012). Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Glen Beck, who are all prominent figures in American media, publicly support climate change denial. Networks that grant equal weight to both sides of the argument seem less criminal, but they are only satiating their love of controversy rather than educating the masses. Establishing this “fake balance” creates a false sense of neutrality (Farley 2012) causing the public to respond to this “balance” with the confusion and uncertainty for which the corporations plan.

The other side of the “balanced” story is formed by enlisting the help of fake experts. Groups that wish to promote environmental skepticism employ seemingly credible individuals to support their claims. Many will consult scientists who have PhDs in unrelated natural science fields (Farley 2012). For example, the Heartland Institute, a Think Tank funded by the oil company, Exxon Mobil, paid a contrarian scientist over $139,000 annually (Farley 2012). CTTs and other groups participating in spreading global warming uncertainty will also recognize when it is not useful to use scientific experts in their battles. After “Climategate”, a scandal that resulted from the unauthorized release of emails between scientists, Americans, in general, have become skeptical of scientists (Leiserowitz and Maibach 2013). Additionally, they had taken the emails out of context in order to create the conflict. They strategically publicized this a few weeks before the December 2009 Copenhagen climate summit (Farley 2012). The corporations abused their power by manipulating the government’s international involvement by accusing the scientists of lying.

In general, scientists have strong credibility, but the countless recent attempts to discredit them have created a growing distrust in the public. Scientists are not universally seen as trustworthy sources of knowledge, and the public can easily be swayed when the implications are especially unfavourable. In order to create social change, the scientists must rebuild this trust by engaging in more effective discussion with the public and key stakeholders in the environmental debate (Leiserowitz and Maibach 2013).

Whether or not scientists will succeed in convincing stakeholders is not certain. The stakeholders in North American decision-making are driven by economic goals, as previously discussed. The economic structures of a country can be used to explain what content is portrayed by the media, and thus, is used to manipulate the people. In a study comparing articles on global warming in newspapers from the US, New Zealand, and Finland, newspapers from the US showed a “systematic inclusion of global warming dissention” (Dispensa and Robert 2003). The New York Times showed an overall controversy, while the newspapers from Finland and New Zealand showed an almost complete domination of articles in support of global warming (Dispensa and Robert 2003). Analyzing the major industries reveals which groups would be most influential. The United States produces 75% of its electricity from fossil fuels, and was 2nd in the world in crude oil production in 2012 (CIA 2014). Finland produces 52% of its electricity from fossil fuels, and New Zealand produces only 31% from fossil fuels (CIA 2014). Thus, fossil fuel companies, operating with weak environmental standards, create CTTs to use their economic influence in the media.

Conservative Think Tanks, with the purpose of spreading global warming dissent, usually hide behind unrelated names. They have been notorious for producing copious amounts of false educational material on the subject. An example of this would be a booklet titled “The Skpetics Handbook” written by The Heartland Institute (notice that the name is completely unrelated to the environment), which was mentioned earlier, It was distributed to schools, leaders, politicians, black churches, and was available by free download on its website. The institute had a plan for a curriculum that will show that climate change is controversial and uncertain, which will be effective in dissuading teachers from teaching science (Farley 2012). The challenge to fight these think tanks becomes almost impossible once these groups begin to infiltrate the education system. The consequences of this are significant – the younger generation will grow up believing these incomplete and, therefore, false ideas about global warming.

CTTs further spread the false ideas by supporting authors of books critiquing climate science. The authors of these books, regardless of their academic credentials, often come to be seen as experts. The CTTs ensure that the authors are interviewed on the television and radio, quoted by newspaper writers, and cited by politicians and corporate figures to establish a reputable profile (Dunlap 2013). Major bookstores carry and display their books where a large segment of the population will see them (even if they do not purchase them), and many of these authors will be publically marketed on CTT websites (Dunlap 2013). The ideas of false experts are deeply engrained and disseminated in society, and an unsuspecting observer would not question otherwise.

If the system is to remain at least somewhat honest, the politicians and policy makers must step up. Precedence has shown that political influence is effective. In the 1970 State of the Union address, Nixon encouraged the American people to act more environmentally friendly in their daily lives. Initiatives such as Earth Day were established during Nixon’s time in office. In a 1972 survey, “87% of the public claimed to have been personally involved in protecting the environment” (Wuthnow). Thus, it is clear that what is needed is not merely education, but activism.

A study performed by Kari Marie Norgaard  (2011) showed that in general, the more power that an individual or group has, the more their denial will influence the general population. The evidence of three types of citizens shows the necessity for the influence of a higher power – this includes those who lack adequate information about global warming, those who disbelieve its occurrence, and those who are emotionally ambivalent (Norgaard 2011). The state must mobilize the people, as many know about global warming, believe it is happening, but remain inactive. All of these different kinds of people have one thing in common, and that is their social reliance. Durkheim’s concept of organic solidarity states that the specialization of labour has caused everyone to be different and unique, contributing to the reason why there are so many people who know about global warming, but do not act. As society becomes more autonomous, individuals become more social reliant (Beamish 2010). The people in higher positions have the perfect conditions to influence the public, as many groups in opposition to environmental policy have noticed.

Politicians have the ideal conditions, as well as the resources. They can use a similar kind of identification process that they use during elections in order to effectively convert groups. People can be characterized by the way that they think or act, based on their social structure (Leiseroqitz and Maibach 2013). Whether or not people support environmental policies will be influenced by their economic standing, race, religion, and culture. Those with greater incomes are more likely to support policies that place a fiscal responsibility on individuals. People with more education are more likely to support, as well as younger people. People form opinions using personal values that are developed in the family. General views about the world are shaped by social structures, values, and experiences in the world. These are more malleable than one’s personal views (Dietz and Shwom 2007). What damage has been done to the public perception of global warming can be undone by employing similar methods used by those CTTs and corporations.

Even though there are many reasons why the politicians and policy makers should influence the people, it is essential to recognize that they might not actually want to. Since they are tied to economic goals, they ultimately depend on catering to the elite in order to retain their positions of power. Having analyzed the different factors that contribute to the lack of public unification on the issue of global warming, it is clear that great social change is needed to prevent the downward cycle that will end in environmental disaster. Weber said that social action is complex, multifaceted, and inescapably tied to social meaning. Even if the North American countries adopt socialist economic systems, without just as drastically transforming the dominant ideology within the society and the meanings people associate with their social actions, the resulting society will not be fundamentally different (Beamish 2010). To make society more environmentally sustainable, lessening the effects of global warming at home and abroad, the people in higher power must begin using their power to create good social change.
















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