Extinction’s Collaborators

How the media stoked the climate crisis.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 8th July 2021

Yes, we should rake over the coals. And the oil, and the gas. Democratic accountability means remembering who helped to stoke the climate crisis. We should hold the fossil fuel companies to account.

In 1979, an internal study by Exxon concluded that burning carbon fuels “will cause dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050”.In 1982, as the Guardian’s Climate Crimes series recalls, an Exxon memo concluded that the science of climate change was “unanimous”. Then it poured millions of dollars into lobby groups casting doubt on it.

They didn’t call themselves lobby groups, but “thinktanks” or “research institutes”. Across the world, the media took them at their word.

So scientists and environmental campaigners found themselves fighting the oil companies at one step removed, and with one hand tied behind their backs. When some of us were pitched against a “thinktank” in the media, if we tried to explain that it was not what it claimed to be, or asked it to reveal its funders, we were accused of being “conspiracy theorists”, or of “playing the man not the ball”. But if we didn’t, its false claims about climate science were given equal or greater weight. After all, who were we, a threadbare bunch, beside those respectable-sounding institutes with offices in Washington or Westminster?

When we criticised the media for its determined naivety, we were frozen out. Before long, the thinktanks and trade associations had a clear run. They were the serious, sensible people, to whom the media turned to explain the world. And still turns.

If the oil companies are to be held to account, so should the media that amplified their voices. It scarcely needs to be said that the billionaire press took the lead in attacking climate science. After all, the owners have long perceived an attack on one corporation or plutocrat as an attack on all. But far more dangerous were the public sector broadcasters – which tend to be taken more seriously, as they are widely seen as independent and unbiased.

For Channel 4, winding up environmentalists became a blood sport. In films such as Against Nature and The Great Global Warming Swindle, the mistakes and distortions came so thick and fast that it was hard to see them as anything but deliberate provocations. When ​I ​complained, the channel sought to justify them with further ​unfounded claims. All that counted was noise: Channel 4, at the time, clearly couldn’t give a damn about the impacts.

The BBC’s role was more insidious. Its collaboration arose from a disastrous combination of gullibility, appeasement and scientific ignorance. It let the fossil fuel industry walk all over it.

When some of us pointed out that failing to ask its contributors to reveal their sources of funding was a direct breach of its own editorial guidelines, the BBC produced a series of bizarre, catch-22 excuses, and carried on breaking its rules for several years. It gave the oil and tobacco companies just what they wanted: in the words of the American Petroleum Institute, “victory will be achieved” when “recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom’”.

Only in 2018, a mere 36 years after Exxon came to the same conclusion, did the BBC decide that climate science is solid, and there is no justification for both-sidesing it. But the nonsense continues.

Last week, a group of us revealed what the BBC has been teaching children about climate breakdown. The GCSE module on BBC Bitesize listed the “positive” impacts of our global catastrophe. Among them were “more resources, such as oil, becoming available in places such as Alaska and Siberia when the ice melts”; “new tourist destinations becoming available” (welcome to Derby-on-Sea); and “warmer temperatures could lead to healthier outdoor lifestyles”.

In a sterling example of the corporation’s endless confusion between balance and impartiality, the list of positives was roughly equal to the list of negatives. The greatest crisis humanity has ever faced looked like six of one and half a dozen of the other.

Only when it caused a social media storm did the BBC remove this content. I asked it how, when and why this list was included, whether external organisations were involved, and why the corporation ignored previous requests to improve the module. It told me it would not be commenting. So much for public service.

The frontier of denial has now shifted to the biggest of all environmental issues: farming. Here, the BBC still gives lobby groups and trade associations sowing doubt about environmental damage (especially by livestock farming) more airtime than the scientists and campaigners seeking to explain the problems.

Not just airtime, but kudos. The head of the National Farmers’ Union, Minette Batters, has sought to undermine the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, pressed for continuation of the cruel and useless badger cull, and lobbied against reductions in meat consumption, among other harmful positions. But last year, BBC’s Woman’s Hour included her on its power list of “30 inspiring women whose work is making a significant positive contribution to the environment”. She was placed above true environmental heroes such as Gail Bradbrook, Judy Ling-Wong, Franny Armstrong and Safia Minney. The BBC continues to confuse mainstream with respectable, and respectable with right.

The lesson, to my mind, is obvious: if we fail to hold organisations to account for their mistakes and obfuscations, they’ll keep repeating them. Climate crimes have perpetrators. They also have facilitators.