Thirty years ago, E Bruce Harrison, widely acknowledged as the father of environmental Public Relations, addressed a room full of business leaders in Washington, DC. At stake was a large contract with the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) which
represented the oil, coal, auto, utilities, steel and rail industries; the pitch was for a communications partner who could persuade the public that global warming, as it was then labeled, was not a significant issue, even though these respective industries
had done enough of their homework to know that climate change was real and escalating.
The GCC had been formed in 1989 as a forum for members to exchange information and to lobby policy makers against actions to limit fossil fuel
emissions. Initially it saw little cause for alarm - President George HW Bush was a former oilman and his message on climate was the the same as that of the GCC : there would be no mandatory fossil fuel reductions.
But that changed
in 1992. First, in June, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the international community created a framework for climate action. Secondly, in November, the presidential election brought environmentalist Al Gore to the White House as vice-president.
Clearly the new administration would attempt to regulate fossil fuels and the Coalition, recognizing that it needed strategic PR communications, put out a bid for a public relations contractor.
The details of that 1992 meeting are
revealed in a three part documentary titled Big Oil v the World. Drawing on thousands or recently revealed documents, it was first shown on Front Line on April 22nd, 2022 - Earth Day
Sixty years earlier E.
Bruce Harrison had spearheaded the attack on Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and his PR company, founded in 1973, had discredited research on the toxicity of pesticides on behalf of the chemical industry and on the effects of smoking on
human health on behalf of the tobacco companies.
Harrison reminded his new team that he had taken the lead in opposing tougher emissions standards for car makers by reframing the issue. The same tactics would help beat climate
regulation - persuade the public that the scientific facts were not settled and that policy makers needed to consider how action on climate change would, in the GCC's view, negatively impact American jobs, trade and prices. The strategy of fear-based
misinformation was implemented through an extensive media campaign, everything from placing quotes and pitching opinion pieces to direct contacts with journalists. "A lot of reporters were assigned to write stories," one of the team members later explained,
"and they were struggling with the complexity of the issue. So I would write backgrounders so reporters could read them and get up to speed.” And the press provided a willing platform. One of those assigned to write ‘counter perspectives
that were not in the mainstream’ later said, "Journalists were actually actively looking for the contrarians. It was really feeding an appetite that was already there.”
Within a year Harrison's firm claimed to have secured
more than 500 specific mentions in the media. The ‘scientific uncertainty’ caused some in Congress to pause on advocating new initiatives, and one of the environmental activists later wrote, “What the geniuses of the PR firms who work
for these big fossil fuel companies know is that truth has nothing to do with who wins the argument. If you say something enough times, people will begin to believe it.”
In 1995, Harrison wrote that the "GCC has successfully
turned the tide on press coverage of global climate change science, effectively countering the eco-catastrophe message and asserting the lack of scientific consensus on global warming.” Thus was laid the groundwork for the biggest campaign to date
- opposing international efforts at Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, to negotiate emissions reductions. There was a consensus among scientists that human-caused warming was now detectable but 44% of US respondents to a Gallup poll believed scientists were
divided. With the political arena poisoned by public antipathy, Congress never implemented the Kyoto Accords. It was a major victory for the industry coalition.
In the same year Harrison sold his firm and the GCC began to disintegrate
as some members grew uncomfortable with its hard line. But the tactics, the playbook, and the message of doubt were now embedded and would outlive their creators. Three decades on, the consequences are all around us. According to Al Gore “It is
the moral equivalent of a war crime. It is, in many ways, the most serious crime of the post-World War Two era, anywhere in the world.”
How different would our world be today if we had addressed the issue openly and impartially
at the outset?
If there is one statement that most typifies the opposing horns of this dilemma it is that from an executive of the American Cyanamid Company : "If man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would
return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” The implication is that Rachel Carson’s moderate, well-researched appeal for further study before making any decisions with potential
environmental impacts was radical, irresponsible and doom-laden. Her suggestion that exercising reasonable caution with chemicals, that putting first the health and well-being of humanity and of our natural resources, would reinstate ‘the
Dark Ages,’ is insulting to all those who have been damaged by their indiscriminate use. Yet this is the power of the profit motive, this is the impact of short term quarterly performances to satisfy shareholder expectations in the absence of long
term rewards. The indifference of many to our fellow creatures on this earth, human and otherwise, as well as what we will do for money, is shameful, even knowing that the truth will out eventually. As Dave Goulson writes in Silent Earth,
with three million tons of pesticides going into the global environment every year, some of which are thousands of times more toxic to insects than any that existed in 1962, “(Rachel Carson) would weep to see how much worse it has become.”
Nor do we often see abusive corporations and industries held accountable, even as there are exceptions such as judicial rulings against some of the tobacco giants (a large sum levied against the companies) including Juul e-cigarettes last
month, and glyphosate manufacturers (large sums in favor of individual law suits.) The amounts
might have been reduced on appeal but they were not overturned.
These contemptuous behaviors are significant for beekeepers, not
only because of their impact on our charges but also because a honey bee community offers a stark contrast of environmentally responsible behavior. Everything in the colony is motivated by the survival of the super-organism in as strong and as healthy
a form as possible, and they utilize the surrounding resources in ways that not only facilitates healthy reproduction but in such a manner that not so much as a leaf is harmed.
And what of the two men featured in the opening paragraphs
of these two essays? Karl von Frisch was professor of Zoology at the University of Munich when Hitler came to power in 1933. In an effort to purge government of Jews ‘and other undesirables’, and based on an abuse of science, the Nazi government
required all civil servants to provide proof of their Aryan descent. In 1940, and after months of searching, the Nazi office for genealogical research found that his maternal grandmother had been of Jewish descent, even though her parents had converted
to Catholicism three years before she was born, presumably to secure a better future for their family in a society that was primarily Christian. Von Frisch, a practicing Christian all of his life, was a declared ‘a Quarter Jew’ because
Nazi ‘science’ was based exclusively on blood, no matter how distant, rather than on cultural heritage or religious belief, no matter how genuine.
The personal threats and trials he faced during the Second World War make
for depressing reading, and he continued his research only because he convinced his connections in the Nazi hierarchy that his research on honey bees was vital for the agricultural effort needed to support the front line troops. When he visited the US three
years after the end of the war, he was welcomed by most as one of the ‘good’ Germans (again, a term from the times,) one whose life had been devoted to science in its most pure and thorough form. As he said in one of his Ivy League
lectures, “A bee’s life is like magic well : the more you draw from it, the more it fills with water.”
And what of Bruce Harrison, who died last year aged 88 and who’s life was devoted to denying scientific authenticity?
In 2003 a sub-genus of mosquito was named Bruceharrisonius. Anyone who has been locked in a small dark room with a mosquito knows just how irritating such a small critter can be.