Feb 242011

George Mon-and-on-and-on-and-on-and-on-and-on-and-on-and-on-biot is convinced that ‘astroturfing’ outfits are influencing on-line discussion.

The tobacco industry does it, the US Air Force clearly wants to … astroturfing – the use of sophisticated software to drown out real people on web forums – is on the rise. How do we stop it?

‘Astroturfing’ is, I think, one of those words like ‘cult’, which, is especially hard to define, and even harder to use with precision.

What is a cult? On the one hand, we can think of cults which we know exist to extort money (and other things) from people by using illegitimate means of persuasion: brainwashing, bullying, false promises. But on the other hand, to make premature statements about someone taken in by a cult, might be to say that they have been duped, that their rational and critical faculties were compromised or insufficient, or that they are simply stupid. So while it’s easy to say that a cult manipulates people by exerting undue influence over them, we run the risk also of diminishing the putative cult-victim in just the same way that that the cult has. We say they are not complete, they are unable to look after themselves, and that they need our protection. The cult-buster risks reproducing the techniques employed by the cult; he promises us protection from them and their distortions or ignorance of the truth. The hazard is in making hasty assumptions about what other people think, why they think or believe certain things, and how such beliefs are turned into actions. To determine that people act in certain ways because of some undue influence or other is necessarily to leap to premature conclusions, unless we know the individuals concerned intimately. That is to say, only somebody who knows another person very well can say that an idea or action is out-of-character. And even then, to claim that something is uncharacteristic, and therefore the result of some illegitimate influence over their will is again to presuppose perfect knowledge about what somebody’s will ought to be, and the content of the persuasion.

None of this is in defence of cults, of course. There are horrific instances of cults, some leading to mass-murder and suicide. The point is to emphasise that much human behaviour involves persuasion and grouping of various kinds. Associations of individuals are defined by the ideas that they have in common. Those ideas give groups and their members identity. The point at which this normal, positive and rewarding process becomes toxic is not straightforwardly defined, and is certainly not captured by the term ‘cult’. Persuading, and being persuaded; joining and identification with groups are normal human experiences. There is something wrong, then, with seeing normal human relationships in such a way.

And so it is, I think, with this word ‘Astroturf’. It is as ambiguous as the word ‘cult’. Says Monbiot:

Every month more evidence piles up, suggesting that online comment threads and forums are being hijacked by people who aren’t what they seem. The anonymity of the web gives companies and governments golden opportunities to run astroturf operations: fake grassroots campaigns that create the impression that large numbers of people are demanding or opposing particular policies. This deception is most likely to occur where the interests of companies or governments come into conflict with the interests of the public. For example, there’s a long history of tobacco companies creating astroturf groups to fight attempts to regulate them.

The evidence of the ‘long history of tobacco companies creating astroturf groups’ is an article George wrote in 2006.

ExxonMobil is the world’s most profitable corporation. Its sales now amount to more than $1bn a day. It makes most of this money from oil, and has more to lose than any other company from efforts to tackle climate change. To safeguard its profits, ExxonMobil needs to sow doubt about whether serious action needs to be taken on climate change. But there are difficulties: it must confront a scientific consensus as strong as that which maintains that smoking causes lung cancer or that HIV causes Aids. So what’s its strategy?

The website Exxonsecrets.org, using data found in the company’s official documents, lists 124 organisations that have taken money from the company or work closely with those that have. These organisations take a consistent line on climate change: that the science is contradictory, the scientists are split, environmentalists are charlatans, liars or lunatics, and if governments took action to prevent global warming, they would be endangering the global economy for no good reason. The findings these organisations dislike are labelled “junk science”. The findings they welcome are labelled “sound science”.

Monbiot returns to this claim again and again: that Exxon has distorted the public’s perception of the science. But as this blog has pointed out many times, Exxonsecrets’ grubby investigation failed to turn up the dirt it was expecting. Last year, Greenpeace — who ran the Exxonsecrets campaign — congratulated itself for exposing the ‘secret’:

And indeed, over the past four years, Exxon has reduced its grants to prominent climate change deniers from the peak spending in 2005 of over $3.5M. Greenpeace’s research shows a $2.2 million reduction in annual funding to these organizations, down to roughly $1.3 million in 2009.  The number of groups known to be funded has dropped from 51 to 24 between 2005 and 2009.

The thing that Monbiot and Greenpeace have never explained is, why they have made such a big deal out of such small change? The peak $3.5M/year allegedly spent on climate change denial represents less than 0.001% of its $billion/day sales, the profits from the remainder of which were apparently threatened by the policies Monbiot and Greenpeace wanted. Wouldn’t it be worth spending just a bit more? It’s such small beer, yet the conspiracy theory put about by Monbiot and Greenpeace persisted. This cash, he argued, was used to create fake campaigning organisations, established by the people involved in the same campaign to protect tobacco-company profits:

Philip Morris, APCO said, needed to create the impression of a “grassroots” movement – one that had been formed spontaneously by concerned citizens to fight “overregulation”. It should portray the danger of tobacco smoke as just one “unfounded fear” among others, such as concerns about pesticides and cellphones. APCO proposed to set up “a national coalition intended to educate the media, public officials and the public about the dangers of ‘junk science’. Coalition will address credibility of government’s scientific studies, risk-assessment techniques and misuse of tax dollars … Upon formation of Coalition, key leaders will begin media outreach, eg editorial board tours, opinion articles, and brief elected officials in selected states.”

… the “coalition” created by Philip Morris, was the first and most important of the corporate-funded organisations denying that climate change is taking place. It has done more damage to the campaign to halt it than any other body.

… This, it seems, is how Monbiot understands ‘astroturf’ organisations.

But does it not also provide us with an adequate description of many environmental campaigning organisations? Some simple substitution of terms suggests that ‘astroturf’ might begin to be too broad a category to apply to just the one side of the debate:

“a national coalition intended to educate the media, public officials and the public about the dangers of CLIMATE CHANGE. … Upon formation of Coalition, key leaders will begin media outreach, eg editorial board tours, opinion articles, and brief elected officials in selected states.”

Surely that could be any green group which receives much funding… Millions and millions of $, £ and € more than Exxon ever spent on the same… from organisations like the UN, the EU, and the UK government to do precisely that same thing? Isn’t that what environmental NGO’s seek also to do?

If it is, then, precisely what NGOs do, what sense does the term ‘astroturf’ bring anything useful to a discussion about the respective sides’ strategies in the climate debate? We can see the problem, of course, with the public agenda being influenced by parties passing themselves off as somehow better reflecting public opinion than their counterparts, but isn’t this form of theatre simply a fact of political life in the 21st century? Isn’t the problem not that there are fake ‘grassroots’ organisations, but that there aren’t really any genuine grassroots organisations at all? Monbiot seems to hint that astroturfing ‘deniers’ serve commercial interests. But there are plenty of cases of the same happening in the other camp.

One such organisation, for instance is Embrace My Planet, which aims to be “a movement of ordinary people who are supporting renewable energy in the UK, enabling you to make your opinions known to politicians and the media”, but is in fact “an arms-length campaign of RenewableUK (formerly BWEA), the trade association for renewable energy suppliers in Britain.” As ‘arms-length’ as Embrace want to claim that they are, anyone who understands Top Gear’s appeal would know how much more quickly the non-renewable energy sector could, should it desire to, mobilise many thousands more people, with much less effort. There are at least as many petrol-heads as there are Gaia-botherers, and there are a great many more people who, if nothing else, merely understand the utility of cars, roads, and fossil fuel. Monbiot’s claim on the moral high ground is precarious enough, and to remain there he has to turn logistical somersaults to claim to represent the public interest whilst denying the fact that the public know their own interest.

Real Climategate Blogger Barry Woods has a couple of posts recently on what might reasonably be called Astroturfing outfits, from the greener side of the fence. Woods points out that The Carbon Brief website, set up apparently put writers and journalists in touch with scientists has a clearly partial agenda:

On further investigation, the website demonstrates that they appear to be nothing but advocates of consensus climate change policy.  A look at their further resources page gives the first two links as the Climate Science Rapid Response Team and RealClimate and it also include Climate Progress. There are no sceptical or even lukewarm website or blog links of any kind.

“Our team of researchers will provide a rapid response service for climate science stories. We go straight to peer-reviewed science and the relevant scientists to get their opinions” – The Carbon Brief

The Carbon Brief appears to have been set up for the specific purpose of countering sceptical stories relating to ‘climate change’ by going to AGW consensus  scientific sources for an instant rebuttal. It is a project of the Energy and Strategy Centre, funded and supported by the European Climate Foundation (ECF)

Furthermore, Woods’ investigation into the ‘Green Social Network’, as he calls it, puts Monbiot at the centre of attempts to influence online debate in a remarkable instance of eco-hypocrisy.

It is Monbiot’s belief that the ‘denial’ attempt executed by Exxon, with no more funding than $3.5 million a year has virtually scuppered the attempt to prevent global warming. Yet there is not one shred of evidence that a single comment beneath Monbiot’s articles on the Guardian has been as such ‘paid for’, or put there by ‘sophisticated software’.  Even if you had $3.5million a year to spend, and you paid denier-drones just $10 an hour to spread their denial across the web, you’d only have 350,000 man hours of commenting. That’s 43,750 working days, 8,750 working weeks, or 190 working years. So let us call it that: if this astroturfing effort exists, and it is funded to the same tune as Exxon’s entire effort, it’s just 190, low-waged people, commenting on websites such as the Guardian. But what a waste of money this would be. For instance, Monbiot has it that ‘Between 2000 and 2002 [TASSC] received $30,000 from Exxon’, and that this same organisation (The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition) “has done more damage to the campaign to halt [CLIMATE CHANGE] than any other body”… If donations of just $10,000 dollars can buy the effect Monbiot is claiming TASSC achieved with it over three years, why on earth would anyone pay for far more expensive comment drones?

The amounts Monbiot gets heated up about are really very small indeed. Given that the issue relates to the creation of hugely powerful supranational institutions, a total transformation of the entire global economy, and the most far-reaching regulations of industry and of lifestyle ever conceived, I think that exchanges of tens of thousands of dollars between interested parties is completely insignificant. Ditto hundreds of thousands. And the same for the millions, too, because the propaganda effort running the other way stretches to millions… No, hundreds of millions… No… Billions of dollars… From NGOs, from carbon finance firms and low carbon venture capitalists, from philanthropic self-serving billionaires… from governments, from supranational organisations… And not a single penny of that is any cleaner than the dirtiest dollar from Exxon.

It’s not the actual amounts that concern Monbiot. If he were to actually gain a sense of proportion, he would have nothing to write about. What disturbs him is the fact that it’s Exxon giving money to the likes of TASSSC, and Steven J Milloy’s Junk Science website. How dare they? Monbiot moans,

JunkScience.com – has been the main entrepot for almost every kind of climate-change denial that has found its way into the mainstream press. It equates environmentalists with Nazis, communists and terrorists.

It is true that Junk Science is a very influential website. It has been the starting point for many days of research for many people. This site is frequently linked to from there. And it’s brought some visitors who have both agreed and disagreed with the content here, and either hung around, or moved on. Is this the criticism? Is this what has annoyed Monbiot? Is his complaint that some Exxon money ended up as a site that directs people to the latest stories about climate change written from a sceptic’s perspective?

It is here that the problems with the use of words like ‘cult’ and ‘astroturf’ begin to emerge.

There is no question about it. Steve Milloy wants to persuade you. I want to persuade you. But so does Monbiot. Monbiot, however, wants to claim that the form of persuasion that Milloy is engaged in is illegitimate. It’s not enough, you see, to simply disagree with Milloy. It’s not enough to put counter arguments to his criticisms of environmentalism.

This is where Monbiot turns the normal, democratic exchange of views; the normal, democratic development of associations between individuals and groups; and the normal, democratic presentation of arguments intended to persuade others… into a dark, sinister and devilish conspiracy.

It now seems that these operations are more widespread, more sophisticated and more automated than most of us had guessed. Emails obtained by political hackers from a US cyber-security firm called HBGary Federal suggest that a remarkable technological armoury is being deployed to drown out the voices of real people.

It is nonsense, of course. It might work in some sense to market the occasional product. It might create better rankings for certain search terms. The strategy might even drown out online criticism of products within a limited market. But no more than that. As Richard Chirgwin points out on the Register, the best that this form of intervention can hope to achieve is to alienate any genuine participants from online discussions:

While it looks a little like the corporate threat to democracy and free discussion that the Daily Kos believes it to be, it’s also a completely self-destructive strategy. The personas will invade any and every conversation they’re instructed to, acting like over-indulged toddlers and yelling “want #banana NOW!” across grown-up conversations.

Anyone with a brain worth having would, were they ever to find themselves in virtual conversation with an individual operating dozens of personas, recognise that they were engaged in a discussion with a moron. It would certainly not be possible to have as many persuasive simultaneous discussions. But for Monbiot, the idea that thousands of debate-hackers each operate dozens of puppets in thousands of online fora, absorbing the collective mental energies of all virtual environmental activists, thereby stalling progress, is just too good to let go. It explains to him the failure of his own arguments to persuade the wider public, and it explains the dearth of harmony under his own articles. It’s not that he doesn’t inform the debate with robust argument; it’s not that Monbiotists too, lack coherent and powerful arguments; it’s that an army of ciphers exists, merely to overwhelm them. Hence, he asks the readers of CommentIsFree :

So let me repeat the question I’ve put in previous articles, and which has yet to be satisfactorily answered: what should we do to fight these tactics?

Online discussion fora are perhaps the most disposable form of public debate. On sites like CommentIsFree, dozens of articles a week feature exchanges below the line between the same characters, throwing the same arguments at each other. The aggressive, pedantic, exhausting form of exchange alienates the casual participant, and discourages the casual reader. Vast amounts of energy are spent on these little battles, that are, in almost every case, forgotten by the time the next article is published. Why would anyone want to pay people to dominate the billions of such discussions that take place? It would be absolutely futile.

Yet it’s what happens below the line that is the subject of Monbiot’s articles, above it.

George’s articles about the environment and environmental politics are poorly conceived. Yet they call for radical political, economic and social changes, throughout the world. It is obvious from what happens below the line that George’s ideas are not going to spread throughout wider society. The only way George can account for this is by conceiving of an effort to deny ‘the truth’. He can’t reflect on the idea that people might disagree with him, because he is wrong. They can’t have worked out for themselves that he’s wrong. They can’t have been persuaded by a better argument than his. They must all have been persuaded by a lie, then. Or they must all have prostituted themselves to Big Oil, and spend their time engaged in futile online discussions, hoping to dissuade others from Monbiot’s own righteous cause.

Whether or not Monbiot is right about climate change and the need for political and economic reorganisation of the world to stop it; his ideas about why his perspective is not shared by people is simply implausible. It doesn’t pass basic tests of proportion and logic. The result in black and white is an ego-centric fantasy that says much more about the mythology of the environmental perspective than it says about its detractors. In positing that these detractors belong to an astroturfing outfit, Monbiot turns normal political debate and the exchange of ideas into a conspiracy. Normal discussion becomes a manipulated space, dominated and controlled by sinister interests. But worst still, in the process, Monbiot reduces anyone involved in, or following the conversation into zombies, easily influenced by the dark forces that seek to control the ideosphere. In his rush to explain why people simply don’t agree with him — and in fact strongly disagree with him — he insults the intelligence of anybody who dares to take issue with him. Like brainwashed cult victims, they merely respond to the misinformation they are exposed to.

What this speaks about then, is the contempt Monbiot has for humans and their faculties of reason; for democratic expression such as association and debate. He simply does not trust people to make their own minds up: all that happens is they end up disagreeing with him. Worst still is that Monbiot simply doesn’t recognise that this extraordinary narcissistic  approach to debate is what alienates him. He’s expecting the sympathies of the same people he is calling stupid. Monbiot doesn’t seem to understand that his critics often accuse him of being anti-human, but we can see this misanthropism running across his whole argument.

If there’s a film which questions climate change, it’s because the broadcaster has declared a war against science. If there’s an organised effort to challenge environmentalism, there’s a ‘tobacco strategy’ and a conspiracy. If his fellow greens take issue with his religiosity, they have been sucked into the corporate agenda. If people in internet chat rooms disagree with Monbiot, it is because there are paid minions of Big Oil, tapping away at their keyboards for money. If the public don’t buy his ideas, it’s because they are feckless, stupid, sheep, blindly following their base drives and instincts. This is the consistent pattern of Monbiot’s arguments. Climate change has little to do with it… It’s about people. The environment is merely the thing which Monbiot uses to legitimise his elitism, and his anti-humanism. It’s a device, a story, a myth that elevates him. That’s why nobody buys it, because they’re not so stupid, after all.

  39 Responses to “The Astro Turf is Always Browner on the Other Side…”

  1. Good article. The notion that CO2 is such a driver of climate that the projected growth in ambient levels carries the threat of probable catastrophe is so feeble, so lacking in observational and, indeed, theoretical support that we need other ways to understand the motivations of those who campaign so intemperately against this vital chemical. But their campaigning has been so successful that their point of view has become that of a large part of what might be called ‘the establishment’, a term which includes royalty, government, universities, the mass media, the ‘political class’, and major corporations and charities. For some smaller corporations, such as WWF and Greenpeace, it has become a passport into this establishment, as well as a major source of income. They have achieved a great deal of damage already, from biofuel driven starvation through frightened children schooled in anti-human alarmism and despair, to diversion of resources into renewable energy and into that cesspit of corruption known as carbon trading, as well as an apparently extensive loss of confidence and optimism in industrial progress – if only amongst the wealthy chatterati. All the more important, then, that we understand what has led to this worldwide excursion into harmful nonsense. No doubt it will happen again, but maybe a better understanding of what launches and sustains such scaremongering would help reduce their frequency and impact.

  2. People like Monbiot are starting to bore me. They’re the same as the homeless guy screaming on the street corner about the end of the world.
    The emperor has always been, and always will be, naked.

  3. Isn’t there one huge glaring flaw with the tobacco industry analogy?

    Cigarette smoke is only a threat to the smoker or to people in the immediate vicinity. This means that a person could protect themselves from the danger (by not smoking himself and staying away from smoke-filled areas) while still being a paid shill for the tobacco industry.

    By contrast, AGW is an (alleged) threat to the entire planet. Why would anyone be willing to put the whole planet (and therefore by extension, their own life and the lives of their family) in danger for mere money?

    Another point — while ExxonMobil in particular may have hitched its wagon to the AGW sceptic cause, is this true of Big Oil as a whole? Since the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973, oil usage has been overwhelmingly concentrated in the transportation sector (where it is hardest to replace). Most people cannot reduce their oil consumption considerably, unless they are lucky enough to be able to move somewhere from which they can get to work by walking, cycling or electric train. (And often this isn’t possible because the houses are too expensive due to Home-Owner-Ism.)

    Big Oil is also Big Gas (the two fossil fuels often come from the same wells) and gas is the ideal fuel for backing up unreliable wind and solar power. Gas power stations are essentially jet engines in mechanical terms, while coal and nuclear power stations are steam engines, and therefore cannot respond to changes in output as quickly.

    Why do you think wind and solar are hyped to the hilt, while both nuclear energy and the actually reliable renewables — such as hydro or geothermal — receive barely a mention? It’s because Big Oil/Gas is determined to increase its market share in the electricity generation market at the expense of coal and nuclear, and sees wind and solar as a strategem to get the environmentalist useful idiots on board.

  4. This is surely a variant of the false consciousness argument. Rather than acknowledge people disagree, claim to have discovered forces that control “other people” and inhibit their ability to understand the issue. Strangely these forces never affect the arguer.

  5. Well said. The level of strangeness in George’s article (and in the following comments) makes for some interesting reading, as does the title – “The need to protect the internet from ‘astroturfing’ grows ever more urgent”.

    The thing is – why is what happens in forums, comment pages and blogs all over the internet evidently so important for him and for those who think similarly to him? After all, in the UK and in Europe, we have an establishment that is almost completely signed up to CO2 mitigation. The Climate Change Act is legally binding. We have a government set on being the greenest ever, with Greenpeace and WWF on hand to advise. What more could they want?

    The problem, I suggest, is public scepticism. And the notion of such scepticism being stirred up (created, even) by shadowy legions of corporate cyber-goons is perhaps more palatable than the thought that catastrophic climate change is inherently unconvincing to the mass of people.

  6. TDK: You could argue that it is a version of the “false consciousness” argument, except that didn’t require outside prompting. I would suggest it is the “Illuminati” argument. The big baddies that control world finance are behind it all. With their money they are able, apparently, to control what everyone thinks.

    Isn’t there one huge glaring flaw with the tobacco industry analogy?

    I would have thought the glaring flaw was that the tobacco companies failed utterly in any such attempt to astroturf. Monbiot is hyperventilating over a strategy known to fail,

  7. [...] George Mon-and-on-and-on-and-on-and-on-and-on-and-on-and-on-biot is convinced that ‘astroturfing’ outfits are influencing on-line discussion. Climate Resistance [...]

  8. Mooloo has a good point on how Big Tobacco’s astroturfing effort ultimately came to nothing.

    Another thing: the term “astroturf group” seems to have a pretty clear and objective definition — it’s a group of paid shills who pretend to be grassroots campaigners. How come though the term seems to be used only as a slur against groups opposing the environmentalist agenda, and not against groups supporting it?

    For example, the Campaign for Better Transport (formerly Transport 2000) is an anti-car campaign group which can reasonably be classed as an astroturf group, as much of its funding comes from public transport interests (both companies and unions IIRC).

  9. I don’t think that ‘false consciousness’ is a term that’s helpful to explaining Monbiot’s perspective. It’s a Marxist expression, which, although it is about the misapprehension of the world, doesn’t really explain people being deliberately mislead or conned, as he seems to want to imply.

    Nonetheless, it was consciousness I was trying to drive at here, and the way Monbiot certainly denies his opponents a full suite of mental furniture. It’s a tricky subject, which is why the above post is far longer than I wanted it to be. I think it’s the most interesting part of the debate: how we treat the ‘other side’ without engaging with their argument — or rather, how Monbiot does. There’s a lot of effort and research going in to the persuasion of people as individuals and en masse, and much of academia are complicit with this political agenda. It’s especially surprising to see the Conservatives, for instance, embracing the ‘Happiness Index’, and recruiting psychologists to find ways to ‘nudge’ us into behaving correctly. That entire phenomenon is legitimised by a very diminished sense of the individual, both as a political subject, and in a philosophical and moral sense.

  10. To fully appreciate the inherent irony in Mr Monbiot’s latest article, have a read of this – George Monbiot in 2007, having a go at “conspiracy idiots”:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/feb/20/comment.september11

    “A displacement activity is something you do because you feel incapable of doing what you ought to do. A squirrel sees a larger squirrel stealing its horde of nuts. Instead of attacking its rival, it sinks its teeth into a tree and starts ripping it to pieces.”

    Note the possible Freudian slip there – not a “hoard” but a “horde” of nuts.

    I’m envisaging George Monbiot himself as the squirrel, seeing his “horde of nuts” (CiF commentators?) under threat, and indulging in conspiracy theories as a displacement activity.

  11. Good post, Ben.
    The obsession with Exxon by people like Monbiot (and Lord May and Bob Ward, when they were at the Royal Society) is risible. I looked at this when May raised it some years back, and Ward wrote to Exxon telling them to stop funding ‘deniers’.

    Some facts:
    Exxon spends around $125m pa on corporate philanthropy – or did last time I looked. The $3.5m that was ‘grants to prominent climate change deniers’ (less than 3% of the total) in fact went to organisations that as any part of their activities might have disputed AGW. Anyone associated with such organisations was interpreted as meaning that Exxon had ‘bought them’. (Leaving aside the inconvenience of the fallacious nature of this reasoning (the genetic fallacy), the suggestion that these people were making statements because Exxon funded them ignored completely the possibility that Exxon might have funded them because of what they said!)

    Stand-out case was Ross McKittrick: a Fellow of the Fraser Institute in Canada; Exxon gave $10,000 to Fraser (for ALL its activites); BINGO – McIntyre and McKittrick’ s work in debunking the Hockey Stick was the work of the Evil Exxon.

    What Monbiot, May and Ward fail to mention is that Exxon committed something like $2.5m pa for ten years to fund an institute at Stanford University to research energy and climate. (By applying the same logic, Stephen Schneider, Paul Ehrlich at al at Stanford were part of the plot!) They also fail to mention that Exxon spends around $1b pa dealing with climate change in its business operations, so their $3.5b pa is small beer.

    We might also ponder WHY Exxon would wish to engage in this Grand Conspiracy, even if they could succeed. It does derive most of its earnings from oil, but this market is under no threat any time soon: oil is unparalleled as a transport fuel. Coal is the first fossil fuel in the gun, because it is has a higher carbon content than oil (composed of hydrocarbons). But coal can readily be substituted for by another source of hydrocarbons: natural gas. Indeed, it has been in many places, such as in the ‘dash to gas’ in the UK after 1990.

    The largest global gas producer/holder of reserves is Gazprom. Number two is Exxon Mobil. So why does George (and Lord May and Bob Ward) think that Exxon would be obsessed with undermining policy change that would drive up demand (and prices) for gas? Exxon certainly didn’t like the way in which Kyoto impacted differently across the Atlantic, but many of its funds went to think tanks and recipients whose activities in climate scepticism were incidental to other activities. And, as you point out, the sums it invested were derisory.

    George’s fantasies just don’t stand up to critical scrutiny. But we do know that he sponsors an activity that despatches righteous posters on a daily basis to sceptical blogs, so perhaps he is convinced others do the same.

  12. The largest global gas producer/holder of reserves is Gazprom. Number two is Exxon Mobil. So why does George (and Lord May and Bob Ward) think that Exxon would be obsessed with undermining policy change that would drive up demand (and prices) for gas?

    Indeed — if Big Oil/Big Gas wants to fund political stooges to protect its profits, it would make more sense to fund anti-nuclear-power campaigners, rather than AGW sceptics. Gazprom did indeed do this, by employing former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on a lavish salary, as a reward for his imposing a phase-out of nuclear energy in Germany.

  13. When someone drifts to a position which hold that everybody who disagrees with him, veen in the slightest degree, is part of a much larger conspiracy, we recognize that paranoia is setting in.
    Looking at the fiscal implications of this alleged ‘astroturfing’, it would seem that the act itself requires a great deal attention from highly skilled individuals, and is thus expensive in the extreme. Any business with an eye on the bottom line would ask “what financial gain would we get from this? The answer, of course, is none, since the vast majority of blogs and comments are read by very few, and almost never by those in a position to craft policy – i.e. those with real power.
    OTOH, the need of people (like Monbiot) to find validation of their ideas becomes unsteady when it becomes apparent that a large number of people disagree with them, and the frail psyche reaches out for *some* mechanism to cope with this invalidation. Very few of us true scientists are ready and able to abandon an empirically discredited concept with facility.

  14. Sometimes i feel like i’m the only person on the left who hasn’t elevated the most banal concerns about where my food comes from or how i get to work in the morning or what kind of shopping bags i use, above poverty and welfare and equality.

    If you’re idea of socialism is abundance for all, and you’d quite like every human being to have everything from clean drinking water and education, to international travel and the free time to pursue whatever they want. If, basically you agree with him but you’re prioritising everything differently. Then how can all of this supposed corporatist propaganda effect you? Even if it existed it isn’t relevant.

    Oh wait, i feel like i’m the only person… etc etc

    That’s Monbiot’s real crime, he’s destroyed any elite opposition to liberal capitalism or austerity. He’s taken over the space that should be for the left and filled it with bullshit.

    The fact that he thinks everyone’s an idiot except him seems to be the default position amongst the educated for all of human history. I wouldn’t worry about it to be honest, unless you think these guys are in a unique position to enforce their will.

  15. Ben Pile (February 25, 2011 at 7:40 am):
    “There’s a lot of effort and research going in to the persuasion of people as individuals and en masse, and much of academia are complicit with this political agenda. It’s especially surprising to see the Conservatives, for instance, embracing the ‘Happiness Index’, and recruiting psychologists to find ways to ‘nudge’ us into behaving correctly. That entire phenomenon is legitimised by a very diminished sense of the individual, both as a political subject, and in a philosophical and moral sense”.

    Very true. Having outsourced most government activity, they’re now outsourcing politics itself, handing over the job of convincing the electorate to psychologists and advertisers – the same people who for decades have been telling the government what the electorate think. The same tiny group of marketing men and focus groupthink experts is now in charge of communication between rulers and ruled in both directions. The wider the chasm in understanding between politicians and the electorate, the more experts are poured in to fill the gap.
    Monbiot, to his credit, still has enough libertarian instincts to want to counter this tendency. As a media person himself, the only alternative he can imagine to politics mediated by Exxon marketing men is politics mediated by people “like himself”. He has just enough political nous to realise that this privileged position he claims for himself cannot be justified on poitical grounds – it requires some superior justification, some unassailable truth – hence the “science”, and its supposed moral imperatives.

  16. [...] at Climate-Resistance.org Ben Pile has authored a brilliant analysis of attempts by UK newspaper columnist George Monbiot to blame climate skepticism on a [...]

  17. I am interested in the comments by paper Moon about all of the things that he feels people should have. eg Clean water, education ect. He then states that he is a socialsit and that Monbiot is a problem because he has destroyed any elite opposition to liberal capitalism. The history of the 20th century tells us that socialism has totally failed in this respect and all of those things have been provided by liberal capitalist democracy. I am interested to understand this position which seems to discount all of the real world evidence? Perhaps Paper Moon could enlighten me?

  18. A colleague of mine had this comment allowed through pre-moderation on the Monbiot thread, which suggests to me that the moderators, though occasionally perverse, are independent of the writers.

    “[Monbiot’s] real complaint is directed to the moderators at CiF who let through too many critical remarks for his liking.
    Monbiot first went after astroturfers on 20th May, 2009, when he accused a perfectly innocent commenter of being an astroturfer. He never produced any evidence, and never apologised. If he wants to be taken seriously as an investigative journalist, he should rectify this”.

  19. of course, George Monbiot is Honourary president of the Campaign Against Climate Change…(CaCC) and a hypocrite

    The CaCC send out activists on sceptic alerts.. Booker, Delingpole (Telegraph ) and Bishop Hill being prime targets.. Delingpoles comments are now just unreadable, because of troll like CAGW activist behaviour.

    Caroline Lucas (Green Leader, MP) Jean Lambert (Green MEP), Michael Meacher MP) Mark LYnas, George Marshall are VP’s and on the board of CaCC

    How they would whine, if hte boot was on the other foot (should politicians be associated with this.. CACC also has a Hall of Shame (Delingpole, Booker, Lomborg, LAwson included)

    http://www.realclimategate.org/2010/12/george-monbiot-complains-about-astroturfing/

    Sceptic Alerts
    http://www.campaigncc.org/node/384

    Who we are
    http://www.campaigncc.org/whoweare

    Hall of Shame
    http://www.campaigncc.org/hallofshame

    Bishop Hill- Sceptic Alerts
    http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2010/4/19/skeptic-alerts.html

  20. eg Clean water, education ect. … The history of the 20th century tells us that socialism has totally failed in this respect

    Socialism hasn’t “totally failed”. The Socialists in New Zealand helped ensure the 40 hour working week, a workable accident compensation scheme, cheap medical care etc. Many of their advances are now so sacred no party, left or right, has the slightest chance of overturning them in the foreseeable future.

    It’s particularly funny you mention education as a failing of Socialism. That was one of the areas Communism actually gave Capitalism a good run for its money. Meanwhile free market US ideas are conspicuously failing in school education.

    I like to think that NZ has moved on, mostly, from classical Socialism. But if social advances like that are failures, then bring on more “failure”!

  21. (Ben Pyle, I consider myself on moderated probation – all I can say is, I apologise for sometimes getting carried away and I promise to stay on topic and ‘rational.)

    Just to put this in it’s ironic context – ironic because it originated from a blatantly illegal hack by the so called ‘Anonymous’ and is being used by the very same people, including the Guardian and the New York Times, who disdained the ‘dirty pilfered’ emails of CRU – that on the 6-7 Febuary HGBary Federal and HGBary, internet security companies, were hacked by ‘Anonymous’ and their email accounts dumped. The reason for the blatantly illegal hack was because the rather hubristic CEO of HGBary Federal, Aaron Barr, boasted, in the Financial Times, more as a publicity stunt than anything else, that he ‘knew’ the identities of some alleged Anonymous ‘Chiefs’ (there, apparently, aren’t any and the alleged ‘identities’ he found ended up being quite innocent people!). Be that as it may, among the dumped emails where ‘proposals’, very much far fetched, to create multiple fake accounts, controllable by one operative at a time, that could ‘propagandise’ or ‘disrupt’. Now the putative ‘left’, handing around these emails like grandma’s cookies, are all up in arms about Aaron Barr’s fantasies.

  22. Every single thing i listed is the direct result of government or social intervention and planning. Well i should really say “good” intervention and planning. There’s plenty of the bad sort. Though strangely enough i can’t really put my finger on any economic activity that’s free of planning or intervention.

    Incidentally i find this sentence very bizarre and i’m not sure why:

    “all of the things that he feels people should have. eg Clean water, education etc”.

    (sorry for derailing)

  23. Paper Moon,
    I don’t wish to debate the merits of socialism per se. They are mixed, though I note that intervention for public health (such as the sewering of London and provision of drinking water preceded socialism (and the germ theory of disease) by some time. (There’s an old book by David Roberts, ‘The Victorian Origins of the British Welfare State’, I think, that discusses all this).

    On Monbiot, however: he is typical of those from a rather comfortable background who discover radicalism through environmentalism or some similar cause. They think that anything that corporate business wants must accord with capitalism, and opposing corporate business is ‘left wing.’ My more naive students are like this; my task is, by the end of the semester, to make them aware that regulation creates winners and losers and, by attacking ‘fossil fuel interests’ you are actually supporting other business interests (nuclear, gas, renewables, carbon traders, etc). Businesses do not support ‘capitalism’, they support regulation that advantage their interests, while opposing those that disadvantage them. Political and economic theorists support capitalism and real socialists oppose the whole capitalist edifice. Monbiot is just another in a long line of naive ‘anticorporate’ campaigners who fails to recognise he is not ‘anticapitalist’ at all.

  24. Sorry, this is somewhat off-topic but I thought you might be interested in this transcript:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/spl/hi/programmes/analysis/transcripts/25_01_10.txt

  25. Lewis, that was indeed a very interesting programme, with some rather telling statements made by a number of people, plus it has Solitaire Townsend’s excellent “carbon fairy” thought experiment. There was a follow-up programme on Radio 4 a few days later, and a transcript is here:
    https://sites.google.com/site/mytranscriptbox/home/20100131_r4

  26. Alex, Lewis
    Those two transcripts are brilliant. Now we know what “balanced” BBC reporting on climate change looks like – much like the meetings of the Early Church to discuss the nature of the Trinity. You can’t have orthodoxy without heresy.
    We should probably avoid calling environmentalism a religion, as we should avoid comparing it to fascism. But it undoubtedly provides its believers with the same satisfactions. Solitaire Townsend’s thought experiment – asking Greens how they’d feel if they could achieve a low carbon world without sacrifices – was exactly like asking Christians how they’d feel if they could get to heaven without giving up meat for Lent and having a white wedding – it seriously misses the point. The negative reaction was entirely logical, from the point of view of true believers.

  27. A good article, and about time something like this was written.

    Don’t forget that the climategate email leak showed CRU being a recipient of Shell funds for research. Which must be why the CRU staff did more for skepticism than just about anyone else. Presumably the recipient of Shell funds was the one who leaked the information and wrote all those damaging emails. (/sarc)

    I’d be willing to bet that $3.5m/year wouldn’t even cover the stationery bill for ExxonMobil. Meaning they put less emphasis on funding ‘deniers’ than they do funding staplers and pens.

  28. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus have revisted their ‘Death of Environmentalism’ over at Breakthrough. In it, they visit the other side of this issue, which Monbiot, May, Ward, et al conveniently overlook: substantial funding from ‘charitable trusts’, including some founded by oil barons that have been hijacked by their trustees (often heirs) to support their pet causes such as environmentalism. (I cover this in my book). Among the causes thus funded is EMS, host of Real Climate, which sprang up to defend the Hockey Stick.

    Of the collapse in support for AGW in the US they write:

    ‘In the wake of the crash, environmentalists pointed their finger at the usual bogeymen. They claimed that the problem has been that fossil fuel interests have massively outspent underdog environmental groups, funding skeptics to mislead the public and duping the media into giving too much credence to skeptical views about climate change.
    In reality, the environmental lobby massively outspent its opponents. In just the last two years, by our rough estimate environmental organizations and philanthropies spent somewhere north of $1 billion dollars advocating for climate action. In contrast, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Exxon-Mobil, the Koch Brothers, Big Coal, and the various other well publicized opponents of environmental action might have spent, when all was said and done, a small fraction of that. Indeed, much of the U.S. energy industry, including the largest utilities, helped write and lobbied for U.S. climate legislation.’
    http://thebreakthrough.org/blog/2011/02/the_long_death_of_environmenta.shtml

  29. Talk of how much money has been spent by advocates of climate action brings up another point: why hasn’t some of this money been spent on things which actually reduce CO2 emissions, like (for example) extinguishing underground coal fires?

  30. The climate debate is really almost completely about people.
    -The follower type, who will just simply support what they feel is the popular side, so they feel like they fit in. They will also switch they allegiance if the public mood sways.
    -The leader type, who dont really care what they are leading, just that they are in charge. They see something becoming popular and then immediatly attempt to portray themselves as more “green”,or whatever the current fad, than anyone else.
    -The individual type, who wants to stick out. They will buy a rare product, not because it is better, but because they will be the only one that has it. Not following the crowd makes them feel important.
    -The rock type, who resists change in all it’s forms. Better to stay with the known, even if terrible, than risk the unknown.
    -The changer, who wants to change things endlessly. It doesn’t matter if you are changing things for the better or worse. The important thing is to put your mark on it by changing it.
    -The pivot type, who can often make up their mind fast or slow, but when makes their choice is outraged that anyone would/could disagree and will never change it.

    These are just a few, but I am sure we all have read or are examples of some of them. Climate is based on people simply because there is not enough data and evidence to settle the debate in either direction. So it is a debate on personality as much as science. This is why people like Monbiot and Mann are so outraged at dissent because they recogognize, on some level, that the dissent is actually a rejection of them personally and not of science. They have asked to world to, in a sense, trust them. That people reject it is a grave personal insult, so they respond with personal attacks.

  31. @geoffchambers

    Since you mention religion, I thought I’d mention I often read blogs by Muslims, and it seems like a a depressingly large proportion of them are on the catastrophic AGW bandwagon.

    The two British Muslim blogs I read most — Yusuf Smith’s Indigo Jo Blogs and Osama Saeed’s Rolled-Up Trousers — both have front page links to George Monbiot’s website. John Dunne (American but now living in Singapore) has also brought the subject up (I put my own reply there BTW.)

    He mentioned that Muslims view themselves as stewards of the earth. Interestingly the Arabic word they use for this — khilafah — is the same word used to describe the historical Islamic empire (in the latter sense it is anglicized to “Caliphate” btw). However, this is not the definition of “environmentalism” we’d use here at Climate Resistance, which integrally includes the desire to rein in human ambitions.

    I wonder if Muslims are particularly vulnerable to ascetic thinking because the sorry state of the Muslim world at present causes them to make a virtue of poverty, just as people in the West did during the West’s Dark Ages.

  32. I wonder if Muslims are particularly vulnerable to ascetic thinking because the sorry state of the Muslim world at present causes them to make a virtue of poverty, just as people in the West did during the West’s Dark Ages.

    Why not just think that they tend to side with those who tend to agree with them in other spheres?

    The conservative right in Europe and the US is not friendly to Islam on the whole. Add in supporting Israel and it gets worse.

    The green and left wing tend to be less into the concept of a clash of civilisations. They also tend to take the Palestinian side.

    Then there is the fact that CO2-AGW is an incredible stick with which to beat the West. We’re not rich because we are pro-enterprise and innovation. We’re rich because we are pillaging the future. We need to give our money to them to make it right.

    No surprise then that the Moslems trust the CO2 warming line. To support the sceptics would align them alongside people with whom they have little in common, at the expense of opposing those who side with them. And it would stop the cash too.

  33. @Mooloo

    The thing is though that although “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” may be an old Arab saying, it isn’t always true. I’ve commented on some of those Muslim blogs, suggesting that Muslims could be cutting their own throats by supporting Green politics, because of the Malthusian population-reduction tendencies of some Green radicals. If there was a plan to cull the human population, who do you think they’d start with? Muslims aren’t exactly popular at the moment…

    I noticed one other Muslim site has attacked environmentalism (or at least Malthusianism).

    Then there is the fact that CO2-AGW is an incredible stick with which to beat the West.

    Why would Muslims want to bring down Western civilization (as opposed to stopping Western imperialism)? Isn’t that just clash-of-civilizations thinking from the opposite side of the line? (I’m against clash-of-civilizations types on both sides, BTW.)

    One of the reasons I support nuclear energy (and its use to make synthetic liquid fuels) is a hope that it could render Western imperialism in the Middle East unnecessary.

  34. I don’t think many Moslems (Bin Laden types excepted) want to bring down the West. The rulers want to sell us their stuff and most of their citizens seem to want to shift there.

    But they do like to be able to extract any aid they can: military or development or carbon credits, it’s all money in the bank.

    The Pacific Islands, similarly, love to try and blackmail the West into giving money to cope with sea level rise. (The fact that coral islands are effectively immune to sea level rise is something they are aware of, but like to forget.) They see lots of money in backing the warmists, so they back the warmists. Science, as usual, is irrelevant.

    And it’s not just that people follow the Greens for realpolitik reasons. It’s just that heads tend to follow where hearts lead, and if a group is sympathetic in one area, one tends to follow them in others.

  35. The Monbiot astroturfer article is currently the most viewed during the past 24 hours on Guardian Environment, way ahead of “Millions of sardines die in Californian marina” and “albatross in her 60s lays egg”, despite the fact that comments closed 9 days ago. (There were 528 comments, way down from the 3000 the last time Monbiot tackled this subject, two years ago).
    A colleague of mine, in the course of commenting, discovered that, while comments were allowed on most articles at Monbiot.com (which reproduces his Guardian articles) this was not true of articles about climate change. Since this information was posted as a comment to the Guardian article, comments have been switched off on all articles at Monbiot.com.
    The reason Monbiot makes such a big deal out of Exxon money is that it provides the link to the tobacco companies’ financing of anti-cancer scare science, via the free enterprise think tanks financed by both Philip Morris and Exxon. It’s no better than the argument, often aired on sceptical blogs, that Hitler was Green, therefore all Greens are fascists.

  36. Following on from my attempt to put myself in Big Oil’s shoes, I think I can explain why AGW scepticism is strongly represented in US politics (via the Republican Party), but is not represented in Europe outside of fringe parties (such as UKIP here in Britain, for example).

    The companies which we refer to as “Big Oil” get their revenue from two sources: liquid fuels (used predominantly for motor transport) and gas (used predominantly for electricity generation). While in the former area climate campaigners are Big Oil’s enemy, in the latter area they are its ally, as gas emits less CO2 than its main rival (coal) for a given amount of energy. As I mentioned earlier, the mechanical nature of gas-fired power stations also makes them ideal for backing up unreliable wind or solar power (another reason why gas is favoured by the greens).

    While the latter effect of climate campaigners on Big Oil would be about the same in America as in Europe (except in countries like France or Sweden, where it would be negligible as nuclear and/or hydro provide almost all the electrical power), the impact via transportation fuel usage would be much greater in the United States. This is because many Americans still drive oversized gas-guzzling vehicles, and therefore have a lot more ability to reduce their fuel consumption by greater efficiency (or smaller vehicles), while Europeans already drive smaller and more efficient vehicles (due to heavy motor fuel taxes), so would have extreme difficulty reducing consumption still further in response to the appeals of climate campaigners. This means that climate campaigners are a major threat to Big Oil profits in the United States, but only a minor threat (or perhaps even a help) to Big Oil profits in Europe.

    Following on from this logic, loosening the onerous restrictions on nuclear energy would show whether or not climate sceptics were astroturfing for Big Oil or not.

    If they are astroturfers for Big Oil interests, then they would become more prominent after nuclear liberalization, as AGW campaigners would be an existential threat to Big Oil’s stake in the electricity generation field once the main competitor was zero-carbon nuclear rather than high-carbon coal.

    On the other hand, if the AGW sceptics were mostly ordinary people who fear the anti-energy, anti-development agenda of the Green radicals, they would become less prominent due to the weakening of the enemy. It would be hard for Greens to make a case for restricting energy use, if nuclear energy (which is abundant and doesn’t generate CO2) was free to expand without significant regulatory interference.

  37. This is John Dunne of whom George Carty mentioned above.

    @ Mooloo: It’s just that heads tend to follow where hearts lead, and if a group is sympathetic in one area, one tends to follow them in others.

    This statement and the other comment dated March 7th are both somewhat simplistic in terms of with whom Muslims affiliate with politically. In one sense, a quotation by “Treebeard” in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings sums up Muslim feelings: “I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side…” Muslims, in general, tend to be politically moderate; the specific leanings toward the left or the right depend upon the issue. With respect to some issues we side with the right, and with respect to other issues we side with the left. There is not necessarily any sympathy that because we side with one group on one issue that we will continue to side with them on other issues. It doesn’t work that way. Our politics are guided more by the Qur’an and Sunnah; as a result, our political positions tend to remain stable over time.

  38. @ JDsg: Wasn’t expecting to see you over here!

    I also feel a bit lonely politically because I have sharp disagreements with both of the main political camps.

    Oh, I mentioned UKIP earlier up the thread. My mother voted for them in the past — she views former PM Edward Heath as a traitor for taking Britain into the EEC, as it was then known. However, in the last election she voted differently, saying that UKIP now are “too much like the BNP” (which I presume is a reference to their Islamophobic turn).

  39. Surprised no one has mentioned desmogblog – created by a PR company specifically to smear ‘deniers’, though I’ve seen this site mention it before. Some of their team shill internet forums – I witnessed one get ‘outed’ once.

    The same PR company used to represent a very large, shady company that went belly up in the 90s so they can hardly take the moral high ground…

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