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Maintaining the commons

Disinformation, no information

You won’t find any grassroots when a movement is this plastic. Dominic Alves

Environmental policy in Australia and elsewhere would be more stringent if not for the disinformation campaign., one of Time Magazine’s top ten environmental websites, has recently published a series of entries on the climate change disinformation campaign calling for a distinction between reasonable scientific scepticism and the tactics of the disinformation campaign.

Tactics include “reckless disregard for the truth”, “focusing on unknowns while ignoring knowns”, “specious claims of "bad” science", and “the creation of front groups” such as the Global Climate Coalition, the Greening Earth Society and in Australia as the Landscape Guardians. These “Astroturf” – that is, not really “grassroots” – organisations have been set up by players in and around the fossil fuel industry to argue against the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change.

To the list of tactics, two more can be added. The first is exaggeration about the impact of environmental policy on employment and production in mining and manufacturing. For example, the Minerals Council of Australia claimed that the carbon tax could cut 23,500 forecasted jobs out to 2020 without industry assistance.

Chapman and Lounkaew analysed this claim and point out that around 370,000 people move in to and out of employment on average every month or around 1,540 people per hour. They conclude that 23,500 jobs would be invisible given these movements.

A second extension to the disinformation campaign is the role of the media in pushing agendas. For example, the State of the Climate 2012 report was recently released. It points out that ocean and land temperatures continue to rise. The Conversation provided a detailed summary and the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age published a short summary. However, the News Corporation publications including The Australian, Melbourne’s Herald Sun, and Sydney’s Telegraph, were less accommodating.

The Australian did publish four opinion pieces that in some respect referenced the State of the Climate report. However two of these were sceptical about anthropogenic climate change creating the illusion of scientific doubt over the issue. In fact, 97% of climatologists who are active publishers on climate change believe that human activity is a significant factor in climate change.

The Herald Sun and the Telegraph did not publish any articles on the report. They both have a very large readership and their readers did not get the chance to even learn about the existence of the report. This lack of information is also a form of disinformation.

The disinformation campaign represents a form of power – a discourse used to persuade. Based on the work of John Kenneth Galbraith, Kesting argues that the basic instrument of corporate power is “changing knowledge and belief by means of persuasion” and to build up consensus “against competing interests and values in the larger society”.

Pressman highlights that large firms can mould public opinion through advertising and even “urge the public that environmental damage is imaginary, or benign, or being eliminated” and “influence the political process to their advantage”. In Galbraith’s terms, pollution can be made to seem “palatable or worth the cost”.

Such use of power influences environmental policy. It changes the perceptions of voters and removes public support. In Pressman’s words, the government must “counter the power of large business firms” and this includes countering and dealing with the disinformation campaign.

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