Greenwash on Spincycle October 2, 2007Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Environment, Global warming, Nuclear Power, rant.
I wrote this story for the current edition of The Big Issue – it’s still on the streets, so go get yourself a copy.
Greenwash on Spincycle
It’s official: green is the new, well… Green. Companies around the world have realised that environmentally sound business practices can improve their profit margins and are touting their green consciousness through lavish advertising campaigns and multi-million dollar rebranding exercises.
To some, these marketing efforts may represent the first positive steps towards a more sustainable way of doing business, while many others simply reserve the right to remain sceptical.
After all, how green is a company like Toyota, which, yes, may be the market leader in fuel-efficient hybrid-electric cars, but makes most of its profits from gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks? And how green, really, is a giant oil corporation like BP, which invests millions in renewable energy sources and rebranding itself as “Beyond Petroleum”, while making billions in profits from atmosphere-polluting oil and gas?
Is today’s widespread corporate environmental consciousness just a case of greenwash and spin-doctoring for the sake of ever-increasing profits?
One particular instance of greenwash, where corporate palpability has been demonstrated convincingly, is something environmental activists have started to call “climatewash” – the practice of denying that global warming is actually happening, or asserting that it is simply a natural phenomenon not linked to human activities.
There is overwhelming evidence that global warming is a reality and one with very serious consequences for the future of our planet. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has come to this conclusion on the basis of the peer-reviewed work of hundreds of the world’s leading climate scientists. There is widespread consensus for an upward trend in average global surface temperatures and agreement that humans are the predominant driving force, chiefly by burning fossil fuels.
Despite this, we are regularly presented in the media with pronouncements to the contrary. In one recent example, TV reports and newspaper articles pounced on the story of an amateur meteorologist who pointed out certain errors in NASA’s computer program that generates monthly global surface temperature models. The reports suggested that this glitch demonstrated a fatal flaw in the climate change argument. When NASA published the corrected data showing that the adjustments had a trivial effect and did not change the overall prognosis of global warming at all, none of the same media commentators took much notice.
So where does this eagerness to contest scientific consensus around climate change come from? Journalist Sharon Begley recently summed it up in Newsweek: “Since the late 1980’s, [a] well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change. Through advertisements, op-eds, lobbying and media attention, greenhouse doubters (they hate being called deniers) argued first that the world is not warming; measurements indicating otherwise are flawed, they said. Then they claimed that any warming is natural, not caused by human activities. Now they contend that the looming warming will be miniscule and harmless”.
Using the tried and tested methods of the tobacco industry, which for decades fought mounting scientific evidence that smoking causes cancer, individual companies and industry associations predominantly in the oil, energy and car business established what critics have called a sophisticated global warming “denial machine”.
The petroleum giant ExxonMobil, one of the biggest and most profitable corporations in the world, took the leading role in this effort to muddy the climate change waters. Research by Greenpeace and the US-based advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists shows that the company funnelled nearly US$ 23 million to over 40 organisations involved in discrediting the science behind climate change between 1998 and 2006.
It needs to be emphasised, of course, that many companies worldwide, including several oil companies, have acknowledged the reality of global warming and humanity’s role in it, and many have made a genuine commitment to more sustainable corporate practices. But the damage has been done.
According to NASA’s chief climate scientist James Hansen, the denial campaign has helped to “confuse the public about the status of knowledge of global climate change”, thus delaying effective action to mitigate it. “It seems to me”, says Hansen, ”that the present situation […] reflects, at least in part, the “success” of the disinformation campaign that the captains of industry have at least tolerated, and, in some cases encouraged and supported”.
Now you may think that this is simply another example of the American way of doing things that doesn’t really affect us here in South Africa. Wrong.
On the website of the Free Market Foundation of Southern Africa (www.freemarketfoundation.com), “an independent non-profit policy organisation”, you will find a broad selection of articles questioning or denying global warming, many written by members of organisations funded by ExxonMobil.
The articles have titles such as “Burning fossil fuels helps plant growth”, “Global warming “science” inconsistent and contradictory”, “Global warming not happening?”, “The theology of global warming” and “Scientists say there is no evidence of catastrophic man-mad global warming”.
What’s more surprising than the existence of a cog of the international climate change denial machine in our own backyard is the list of the FMF’s membership – a veritable who-is-who of the local corporate establishment (with some notable exceptions). According to the foundation’s website, annual membership contributions are as high as R100 000 for large companies.
Investec, for example, is listed as a senior corporate member. The company also happens to have recently sponsored something called the Investec North Pole Challenge, in which low-temperature swimming ace Lewis Gordon Pugh became the first person to swim at the geographic North Pole.
The aim of the North Pole Challenge, which was publicised via a sophisticated print and TV advertising campaign, was to raise awareness about global warming: “The swim, in an area that should be frozen over will visibly demonstrate the devastating impacts of climate change on our planet”.
So how exactly can a company that publicly avows its commitment to fight global warming also be a paying member of an organisation that openly denies that climate change is happening?
Answering my query via email, Investec Asset Management’s CEO Hendrik du Toit stated that “Investec supports a variety of different organisations and projects that play a useful role in society. Our support does not require these organisations or projects to all subscribe to our views about contentious matters. We believe in open mindedness and free thought”.
Mr du Toit’s statement, although perhaps somewhat evasive, sounds perfectly reasonable, of course. The point is, however, that a member of the public looking to invest her savings in an environmentally-friendly manner may well be attracted by Investec’s public image created by the North Pole Challenge, but would probably feel less enchanted if she knew about the company’s association with the FMF.
Our hypothetical green investor would be even less impressed if she read an assessment about the future of the Arctic by Investec analyst Bruce Evers, published in the UK Guardian last year: “If [big companies] think there is oil and gas there then they absolutely can’t ignore it. […] If there is going to be an Arctic Klondike rush then they will want to be there along with every Tom, Dick and Harry. They can’t afford to sit and watch the others explore and come up with some huge discoveries”. While perhaps in line with the ideas of the FMF (one of the articles on its website is called “Drilling for oil in the arctic wont (sic) hurt the environment”), these are not exactly sentiments that are consistent with the concern expressed by the Investec North Pole Challenge.
Another company whose membership in the FMF will perhaps come as a surprise is Pick ‘n Pay. How does a corporation that seems to have made some genuine efforts and commitments to improve its sustainability and reduce its environmental footprint, by offering environmentally-friendly products and organic produce and by minimising its energy usage and waste production justify its membership in the FMF?
Tessa Chamberlain, General Manager for Sustainable Development at Pick ‘n Pay replied to my questioning this relationship by saying “Yes we are a member of the Free Market Foundation and are obviously aware of the articles they have put out on global warming – which obviously we do not agree with. Gareth Ackerman [a director of the company] has corresponded with them on this issue to distance ourselves from their opinion on global warming”.
At the time of writing, the articles denying climate change were still on the FMF website, Pick ‘n Pay was still listed as a senior corporate member, R Ackerman as a patron and G Ackerman as a member of the foundation’s council.
Another area that has been decried by environmentalists as greenwash is the nuclear power industry’s attempt to revamp itself as a green, clean, carbon emission-free answer to the world’s growing and interrelated energy and global warming crises.
Having been in the doldrums for decades after the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the atomic energy industry in the USA, in a now rather familiar strategy, has been spending millions of dollars on political lobbying, establishing pro-nuclear organisations and “media outreach”. In 2006, the Nuclear Energy Institute, representing the US atomic energy industry, launched the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, which is co-chaired by Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace.
Moore, who left Greenpeace in 1986 to start a consulting firm that has worked for the logging, mining, biotech and nuclear industries, is frequently quoted in the media as an environmentalist and former Greenpeace activist who has come to the conclusion that atomic power is our only solution. The media also very commonly forget to mention that Moore now happens to be employed by the atomic power industry.
In a pro-nuclear article in this year’s January to June issue of the South African glossy magazine Greenprint, for example, Moore is quoted as a co-founder of Greenpeace, while his financial attachment to the industry he promotes is not mentioned.
The article was penned by Mike Freedman of Freedthinkers (www.freedthinkers.com), a “research & development think-tank”, who says that he wrote it in his private capacity. Freedman has an interesting take on how public opinion on the issue should develop:”In our image driven world, perception is reality. […] Nuclear power needs an extreme makeover. The myths need to be busted, blind emotions must be enlightened by knowledge and the costs of delay must be made manifest. […] The challenge is to instill (sic) a sense of urgency by creating a national and global debate around the issues. It will take the most skilled in the communications industry plus a few billion dollars in the war- chest.”
I disagree. Whatever the merits or flaws of the nuclear power industry or any other industry, surely what is really needed is less industry-sponsored public relations spin and greenwash and more openness, honesty and corporate accountability. Less public opinion massaging by image consultants and more access to unbiased information and free debate. Ultimately, we all need to develop a more sophisticated eye for what we are told to believe.