When the Twitterverse exploded with this image two days ago, I thought it was a joke. Surely it was something from the satirical web site The Onion, because no way would a serious American business magazine have a cover like this.
But it was real. Bloomberg Businessweek has made the clear statement that every major news outlet avoided during all of that wall-to-wall Hurricane Sandy coverage. It came right out with a screaming red cover and huge type saying something that was not even briefly mentioned during three presidential debates. In fact, the only mention of climate change that anyone can remember from this entire post-convention presidential campaign was when Romney made a joke out of it during his national convention speech, saying with exaggerated eye rolls, “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans. And to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.”
Climate change denial reminds me of the “smoking does not cause cancer” denial a few decades ago. The process has been exactly the same: Extremely powerful and wealthy corporations protected their interests by pouring rivers of money into lobbyists, media, and “scientists” who were for sale, buying as much time as they could to ensure their profits for as long as they could. The tobacco companies managed to get the federal government to subsidize tobacco farmers, while shoving the repercussive costs of their business onto both the federal government (Medicare and Medicaid) and the state governments (who picked up medical costs not covered by private insurance or federal aid). It was not until the states themselves realized they’d been played for patsies, and joined the class action suits while filing suits of their own, that the long and highly successful campaign of the tobacco companies was finally beaten back. Today, it’s hard to find anyone who will still assert that smoking does not cause cancer. The denial was broken, but by then it had already served its purpose as the tobacco corporations, their shareholders, and their executive officers took home vast profits. They always knew they wouldn’t win the war, but it was never about that. It was about winning the battles for as long as they could, and maintaining those profits for as long as possible. (Not that they aren’t still making profits; they’ve just targeted overseas markets instead.)
That playbook worked so well for tobacco that it was used again for fossil fuels — and it worked exactly as well. Climate change denial has always been about protecting the vast profits of a small number of people. Compared to those profits, the cost of buying politicians, media and “scientists” was a small investment, but one that paid off handsomely. For decades, these investments have made sure that millions of Americans thought and voted against their own interests, while also guaranteeing that any actual repercussive costs of the fossil fuel business, such as cleaning up environmental disasters and rebuilding entire communities destroyed by them, was borne by the state and federal governments (and the insurance industry). Privatize the profits and socialize the expenses, it’s the great American way.
The problem is that those repercussive costs are impacting more and more people and businesses. In the last five years the US has had floods, droughts, wildfires and hurricanes that could all be called “once in a lifetime” events. But they’re happening on a regular basis. The costs can no longer be borne by government and a few unlucky businesses; they’ve spread out much too far. So far, apparently, that a serious business weekly has finally gotten to the point of taking a stand.
The very existence of this cover makes me wonder, with the first sliver of hope I have yet felt, that perhaps the US has finally reached a tipping point. As with tobacco, denial will end far too late and only after its purpose has already been accomplished. But maybe there’s still time to at least mitigate the damage we have already set in motion.
Of course the backlash has already begun, but Bloomberg Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel stood by the story with this tweet:
Our cover story this week may generate controversy, but only among the stupid.
Not the most political of statements, but politics is what has gotten us into this mess in the first place. Let’s try truth now.
The Bloomberg Businessweek article can be read here, and contains a terrific analogy for those who will say, quite rightly, that no single storm can be blamed on climate change:
Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund (and former deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek), offers a baseball analogy: “We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”
We certainly do.