Some Like It Hot: CorporateThink and Climate Change

The impending catastrophe has been fueled by a skewed, institutionally enclosed rationality that is widespread within the business community; the basic principle is that short-term power and wealth are more important than human survival.

By Zane Friedkin (guest blogger)

It is beginning to look like the 21st century may indeed turn out to be the “endgame of the human race,” as Arundhati Roy predicted in 2009. There is now near-universal consensus among scientists that the threat posed by global warming is severe and that if radical action is not taken within the next decade, human civilization as we know it may not persist far into the 22nd century. What are the roots of the crisis, and what can we do about it?

The impending catastrophe has been fueled by a skewed, institutionally enclosed rationality that is widespread within the business community; the basic principle is that short-term power and wealth are more important than human survival. Within this ideological framework, it is rational for corporate planners to ignore long-term existential threats to the planet and to sacrifice the lives of future generations if by doing so they can maximize shareholder profit. The roots of the crisis therefore lie in the institutional and ideological system in the United States and elsewhere, as state-corporate power relentlessly pursues its course, driving humanity deeper into the abyss.

Contours of the Crisis

The vast majority of climatologists now agree that we are on the brink of catastrophe and “have a generation at most in which to carry out a radical transformation” so as to avert a “major tipping point” or “planetary point of no return” after which “vast changes in the earth’s climate will likely be beyond our power to prevent and will be irreversible.” The “major tipping point” is generally thought to be a two-degree Celsius increase in average global temperatures by 2100, or a “two degree world.” At the current trajectory, we are headed for a six degree world, or, if planned emissions cuts are accounted for, perhaps a four degree world, with devastating consequences. The “major tipping point” will be reached in just sixteen years if urgent and comprehensive action is not taken. Researchers writing for the world’s leading scientific journal thus conclude that “a shift to a two degree pathway requires immediate significant and sustained global mitigation, with a probable reliance on net negative emissions in the longer term.” The choice is clear: radical collective action to reverse the current trends before 2020, or possible extinction of the species.

The U.S. role has largely been one of obstruction. There have been limited international efforts to deal with the crisis, typically ignored or openly condemned by U.S. leaders. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have refused to sign on to the Kyoto protocol, the decade’s primary piece of global legislation on emissions pledges, although polls show a majority of Americans support the treaty. The Obama administration also refused at the 2012 UN climate conference (COP 18) to make any new pledges to cut emissions, which might “threaten U.S. economic prosperity,” or to increase aid to countries already suffering from the impact of global warming – mostly poor nations lacking the resources to deal with the crisis on their own. Instead, U.S. planners are pushing for a new paradigm of voluntary pledges to cut emissions. What is more, wealthy nations spend on average five times as much on fossil fuel subsidies as on climate aid. The underlying logic is not difficult to perceive, especially when it is understood that the government is largely controlled by elite elements based in the business community, with corporate influence furthered beyond previous limits by the 2010 Citizens United ruling.

The Corporate Role

The business community has openly and enthusiastically declared that it is carrying out a campaign to convince the American public that global warming is a liberal façade. A report by Greenpeace recently disclosed that the Koch brothers in the last decade have “channeled over $50 million to a number of front groups that promote skepticism about climate change.” Exxon-Mobil has contributed over $22 million since 1998 to organizations with similar objectives. Nine of every ten published papers denying climate change are written by authors who have received cash grants from Exxon-Mobil (Truthout). In one of the most significant global warming news releases of the last decade, the Guardian revealed in February that the organization Donors Trust served from 2002 to 2011 as a “secretive funding route” to channel $146 million in anonymous donations to climate change denial groups. The funds helped to “build a vast network of think tanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarizing ‘wedge-issue.’ ” The article also explored the possibility that “Donors Trust is just the tip of a very big iceberg.” It is perhaps instructive to note that the story appeared in none of the major domestic newspapers.

Indeed, the U.S. media has contributed in the usual way to ensuring the population remains largely uninformed and apathetic. One study of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times found that “over half the articles [on global warming] presented a scientist on one side and a corporate-friendly spokesperson (usually a non-scientist) on the other,” leaving readers “with the impression that the whole thing remains a muddle and that it is better to let the experts sort it out for themselves.” A third side is left out, virtually unreported in the major publications: the large group of scientists who believe the consensus predictions are far too optimistic because they do not take into account likely positive feedbacks such as permafrost decay and the melting of Greenland, which would dangerously accelerate the warming process, with consequences that are not pleasant to contemplate.

In general, the issue receives little coverage. Only one article on the crucial 2012 UN climate conference was featured in the main section of the New York Timesan editorial on the conference’s last day, which failed to mention the obstructionist U.S. role, commended the Obama administration on its “important efforts to reduce these pollutants,” and proposed methods for reducing short-lived pollutants – hardly the core problem, but, crucially, a proposal that would not slice into energy sector profits. The UN climate conference, the only opportunity of the year for global cooperation on the issue, received no front-page mention in the Times.

Another unsurprising report found that in 2011 the major cable news networks spent “twice as much time discussing Donald Trump as climate change.” Evidence abounds of the noble role of the U.S. media in delivering to Americans the information most vital to their existence.

Such odd trends in coverage make more sense when understood in light of the conclusions reached by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their 1988 comprehensive study of the U.S. media, Manufacturing Consent: “This [book] reflects our belief, based on many years of study of the U.S. media, that they serve to mobilize support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity, and that their choices, emphases, and omissions can often be understood best, and sometimes with striking clarity and insight, by analyzing them in such terms.”

The Origins of Climate Change Propaganda

Corporate strategy on global warming traces roughly back to April 1998, when the American Petroleum Institute first designed a comprehensive strategic manual for combatting global warming “alarmism” and the increasingly popular Kyoto treaty. The document complains of a “highly receptive public” that has succumbed to “widespread ignorance” on the topic of global warming, supporting such potentially disastrous legislation as the Kyoto protocol, which would “work against the best interests of the United States” and “place the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage.” Note that the document assumes a very specific definition of the “United States,” referring not to the citizens of the country but to the conglomerate of private sector interests and specifically to the U.S. energy industry. The limited definition is most revealing of the deep-seated values and priorities of the business community.

The document goes on to outline an extensive “national media relations program” to enlighten the nation about the “real facts” of climate change – in particular, the fact that it is “not known for sure whether climate change is actually occurring, or if it is, whether humans really have any influence on it.” (Incidentally, these statements are contrary to the conclusions reached in 1995 by the industry’s own scientists, who knew that both global warming and the human role are “well established and cannot be denied.”) The goal of the public relations campaign was to “undercut conventional wisdom on climate science” by infiltrating the major publications and “maximizing the impact of scientific views consistent with ours.” Additionally, the memo discusses plans to bring a “credible, balanced picture of climate science for use in classrooms nationwide” so as to “erect a barrier against further efforts to impose Kyoto-like measures in the future.” The document claims that “victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ uncertainties in climate science… the media ‘understands’ uncertainties in climate science… [and] those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of science appear to be out of touch with reality.” The great fear was that the industry would be perceived as “putting preservation of its own lifestyle above the greater concerns of mankind” – an enlightening comment.

Documents such as this one remain the dominant model today. A leaked internal memo of the Heartland Institute, recipient of $13.5 million from Donors Trust, discusses the development of a science curriculum to be implemented in middle and high schools across the country with “great potential for success.” The curriculum is designed to introduce “sound science” to the masses, who are “heavily biased toward the alarmist perspective,” by informing the next generation of the fact that “whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy” because there is still doubt as to “whether CO2 is a pollutant.” As in the 1998 American Petroleum Institute memo, the primary goal is to portray climate change science as far too controversial to warrant comprehensive action.

The business community’s perceived obligation to deceive the public in some ways reflects neoliberal economic doctrine. In The Myth of the Rational Voter, economist Bryan Caplan of George Mason University argues that markets must replace democracy as the primary mode of social organization because the people are “worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational,” and therefore are incapable of understanding the basic truths that lie beyond their limited grasp, exhibiting such classic symptoms of ignorance as “anti-market bias,” blind to the wondrous gifts the market has bestowed upon the planet, such as the 337 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide gifted to the atmosphere. Of course, rational consumers are as important to the theoretical functioning of market systems as rational voters are to democratic systems, but Caplan skips over such trivialities. The general sentiment – that the masses cannot be trusted – is in accord with the corporate objective to manipulate the public mind, as in the American Petroleum Institute memo, designed to remedy the delusions of the irrational population.

The propaganda campaign has yielded predictable success, with recent polls showing that “40 percent of Americans believe the scientists are still arguing about whether climate change is real”; 42 percent believe “the impacts are being exaggerated.”

It should be borne in mind that nothing about this sort of corporate propaganda is new. In the 1950s and 60s, for instance, the tobacco industry, faced with overwhelming scientific evidence of the deadly health effects of their products, designed a “sophisticated disinformation campaign – one they knew to be misleading – to deceive the public about the hazards of smoking and to forestall government controls on tobacco consumption.” The campaign sought to manufacture uncertainty and convince the public that the claims of health advocates were not based in “sound science.” The tobacco corporations set up seemingly independent front groups to manipulate public opinion, attempted to infiltrate the media, supported and promoted scientists who held convenient opinions, and used the industry’s significant influence in government to block regulatory legislation. The similarities are readily apparent.

There is one notable difference between the efforts then and now to deceive the public: the stakes today are far higher.

“Institutional Rationality”: from Eichmann to the Boardroom

Considering how frequently they are exposed to the overwhelming conclusions of science, corporate managers must at some level understand the reality of looming environmental catastrophe. The roots of the crisis are therefore not in ignorance; they lie deeper, in the very institutions that dominate the domestic society and largely dictate policy formation. In the United States, corporate managers are legally obligated to pursue profits above all other considerations, no matter their magnitude; anyone who fails to do so would lose their job immediately, to be replaced by someone with the “right priorities.” More generally, market principles hold that individuals are to be isolated wealth maximizers, ensuring in any market interaction that their personal interests are satisfied, and ignoring the interests of others. In particular, market participants are to ignore externalities: “consequences of economic activity experienced by unrelated third parties.” Destruction of the environment is seen within the business community as just such an externality and is therefore ignored by for-profit institutions, in accord with market principles. Bryan Caplan tells us that the value of an externality is measured “the same way economists measure everything else: according to human beings’ willingness to pay.” The interests of those who cannot pay are therefore considered to have zero value: future generations, for instance. From this perspective, it is rational for businesses to continue bulldozing the environment if by doing so they can maximize their own “wealth.” Corporate managers do not particularly wish to cause the destruction of human civilization, but there are higher priorities: in particular, short-term power and wealth, as dictated by the prevailing system of thought.

Under these circumstances, the choice to resist hardly exists. The choice is embedded within the prevailing institutional structures – namely, corporate law and market psychology. Within this ideological framework, the actions of corporations have a certain rationality: the crucial assumption is that the fate of the species isn’t particularly important in comparison to maximizing shareholder profit.

Parallels can be drawn to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The book is about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi planner who held no apparent anti-Semitic beliefs but was in charge of exterminating the Jewish race. Like many today, Eichmann was caught in a trap of institutional structures with a highly malleable mind. Arendt writes,

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied – as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels – that this new type of criminal, who is in actual fact hostis generis humani (the enemy of mankind), commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.

Perhaps similar words will one day be written about the current institutional and ideological framework in the United States from the viewpoint of future “moral standards of judgment,” and about today’s “hostis generis humani,” who does not “know or feel that he is doing wrong” and is consciously “neither perverted nor sadistic” but “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Beliefs have a curious way of adapting to perceived interests.

Eichmann and today’s global warming deniers both operate within systems of “institutionalized rationality.” We all know from personal experience that it is much easier to think within the existing ideological parameters. It is difficult to reason outside the institutionalized conception of rationality that surrounds and overwhelms us. Conformity to establishment thought is easy. Breaking out of that limiting framework requires integrity and courage.

A Way Forward

All of this is a formula for catastrophe. But again, it is driven by a dangerously seductive logic hatched within the corporate sphere. The actions of corporations may not be irrational within the framework of prevailing ideology. In the myopic haze of the business community, profit accumulation outranks human survival on the scale of social values. It follows that the masses, blind to such self-evident truths, are “ignorant,” “irrational,” do not understand the wisdom of the market, and must therefore be kept within their proper confines, excluded from areas where they do not belong, such as the political arena. It is this democratic deficit that must ultimately be overcome if catastrophe is to be averted.

There are many important political challenges today, ranging in significance from the ultimately trivial debate over whether or not to marginally alter income tax rates, to issues of greater consequence for the victims, such as U.S. aggression abroad. But the question of global warming is in a class of its own – the class that threatens the existence of the species in the not-too-distant future. As Arendt makes clear in Eichmann in Jerusalem, it is not enough to simply tolerate the conditions under which we live. Individuals have a responsibility to scrutinize the actions of their government and to resist accordingly. Indeed, such scrutiny of authority would be virtually instinctive if we were to take seriously the considerable freedoms we enjoy.

The technology exists today to keep global warming at reasonable levels so that humanity can gradually adapt to a changing environment. But if radical collective action is not taken within the next few decades, perhaps even the next few years, it will likely mean, as Noam Chomsky and others have pointed out, an end to evolution’s only experiment with higher intelligence. It would show that the experiment was a mistake, that humanity is an evolutionary accident, and it would validate Arundhati Roy’s prediction that we are approaching the “endgame of the human race.”

Where there has been progress, it has come from the bottom up, not the top down. Indigenous populations in particular have been at the forefront of the battle. Bolivia, for instance, has been publicly ridiculed by the U.S. government and other wealthy nations for demanding steep carbon emissions cuts. Additionally, Bolivians have been leading the effort to hold a massive global referendum on climate change, asking two billion people across the globe to vote on how the world should cooperatively act to mitigate the impending catastrophe. In 2010, Bolivia hosted a global conference on the issue, inviting 15,000 people from worldwide indigenous movements and environmental groups, as well as politicians, scientists, and other activists, to discuss the best ways to proceed in what was called the “Woodstock” of global warming summits. That same year, Bolivia enacted the “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth,” defining the environment as a “collective subject of public interest” and declaring as sacred “the dynamic living systems formed by the indivisible community of all life systems and living beings whom are interrelated, interdependent, and complementary [sic].” The law also states that nature is “to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities.” It is perhaps of interest that this country, one of the poorest in the world, has one of the best records on climate change, while the United States, the richest country, has one of the worst.

The overwhelming sentiment being evoked by movements such as those developing in Bolivia is that “We the people are the ones that should take the lead on how to tackle the climate crisis” because “The only thing that can save mankind from a tragedy is the exercise of global democracy.” It is our responsibility to overcome the “pressures that at this moment the corporations are putting on government” with “the pressure that can emerge from civil society.” What is required now is clear: a focused global movement of unprecedented scale and scope with the single objective of changing social values and practices on this particular issue. The question is whether humanity can awaken itself from the nightmare and break out of the confines of institutional rationality in time to avert catastrophe. There is much work to be done.

Zane Friedkin is pursuing an Associate of Arts degree at Bard High School Early College - Manhattan.  This is his second Praxis guest post.

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