Citizen Action Monitor

“Counterpower” by Tim Gee – Pt 7: How governments thwart action on climate change

No 385 Posted by fw, January 10, 2012

Chapter 3 of Tim Gee’s book, Counterpower: Making Change Happen, examines the tactics governments have used to thwart Counterpower movements.

In his lead-in to Chapter 3, How Government Responds to Counterpower, Gee says his purpose is to help activists understand and overcome the tactics used by government and corporate power elites to thwart Counterpower movements. He writes —

“Politicians often bemoan people’s lack of interest in politics. When they do so, they are usually bemoaning the lack of people supporting their politics. Because when a real political movement rises to challenge a government, that government will do everything it can to hold the people concerned back. Governments will try discrediting the movement, smearing it, co-opting it, dividing and ruling it, or – if all that fails – crushing it. In general, it would seem that the greater the strength of the Counterpower movement, the greater is the repressiveness of the government response.”Tim Gee

Movement organizers, cautions Gee, must carry no false illusions about the struggle they face:

The historical evidence suggests that there is no inevitability about the eventual victory ahead. Governments and other sources of elite power have a whole raft of tactics available to them. Only by understanding them can we overcome them.

How Governments Thwart Action on Climate Change

This post, Part 7, focuses narrowly on one aspect of Gee’s Chapter 3 — it samples the tactics that governments and corporate power elites have employed to manage, suppress and restrict the scope of decision making related to climate change. Although there has been irrefutable scientific evidence of a causal relationship between human activity and global warming for at least 50 years, governments have largely ignored the evidence and the threat. Consider the tactics governments have employed to stymie action, often with the conspicuous help of powerful corporate elites —

  • Creating a façade of action — In 1992, governments jumped on the Earth Summit band wagon in Rio de Janeiro as a perfect opportunity to create the impression that they were taking aggressive climate change action under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In fact, what emerged from Rio and all subsequent seventeen Conference of Parties (COP) was a series of non-decisions. As Gee notes:

“None has produced a decision that climate scientists have declared capable of stopping climate change.”

  • Ensuring nothing gets done – Here’s an example of how governments manipulate decision making processes to ensure little to nothing gets done on the climate change front. The decision-making process of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is structured to ensure that “nothing gets published unless it achieves consensus.” Gee writes:

“This means that the panel’s reports are extremely conservative – even timid. . . . Then, when all is settled among the scientists, the politicians sweep in and seek to excise from the summaries anything that threatens their interests.”

  • Corporate efforts to block action— In the US, powerful corporate lobbying groups from the oil and gas industry continue to use their power, wealth and insider influence to ensure government inaction on climate change. Tactics include:
    • Vote and influence peddlingFrom 2000 to 2010, the oil and gas industry pumped more than $100 million on US politicians
    • Government-Corporate collusion to falsify evidence — During the GW Bush administration, a White House staff member was rewriting EPA reports on climate change, raising doubts about the reliability of the scientific evidence
    • Peddling misleading “scientific evidence” – Corporate money is used to sponsor pseudo-scientific reports to “prove” that the science behind climate change was not yet proven. Their combined effect was to stall effective government environmental regulation  
    • Corporate greenwashing – As early as the 1980s corporations launched ‘environmentally-friendly products’, ‘green’ investment funds, ‘carbon trading’ and more, claiming they had the solution to climate change in hand. Greenwashing had the effect of keeping “real solutions” off the agenda.

The climate change campaign that backfired

Almost as an aside, Gee mentions a 2009 study by the World Wildlife Fund, Simple and Painless? which revealed that even do-gooder environmental NGOs sometimes take action that is self-defeating. In this case, a decision to by-pass do-nothing governments in favor of working directly with the public ended up by playing right into the hands of governments and corporations. To explain, given the improbability of governmental action on climate change, some environmental campaigners decided to ignore government in favor of approaching the public directly to encourage individuals to change their climate-related attitudes and behaviour. However, the outcomes were unforeseen —

  • It deflected pressure on government to adopt ambitious and potentially unpopular policies and regulations;
  • Environmental NGOs became the primary bearers of bad news by drawing public attention to the potentially upsetting news about “the full scale and urgency of global environmental problems”; and
  • It allowed businesses to claim they were making meaningful contributions to climate change
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