The most dangerous man in the world?

It’s almost always a mistake to characterise any one person as ‘evil’. There’s good and bad in everyone, as the song says. Well, almost. You could make an exception for one noxious Antipodean nonagenarian who has, over the span of the last five decades or so, done more than perhaps any other one individual alive to make the world a nastier and ever more dangerous place. No cat-stroking Bond villain caricature has ever captured the true mendacity of this individual, as I explained in this piece for the Business Post in September.

MEDIA TYCOON Rupert Murdoch “isn’t just an Australian problem or even an Anglosphere one. He has become a planetary problem”. That is the scathing view of former Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd.

While such acute criticism might usually be dismissed as politically motivated, in fact Rudd’s analysis is shared by another former PM from the opposite end of Australia’s political spectrum, Malcolm Turnbull.

“The most effective voice for climate denialism in the English-speaking world has been Murdoch’s,” according to Turnbull. It is difficult to understate the malign influence this one individual has exercised globally.

In a world without Murdoch, there most likely would have been no Brexit and no Trump presidency, while critical actions to address the global climate emergency might well have been taken 10, even 20 years ago. The world today, in other words, would probably be a safer place, both climatically and politically.

One of the great historical ironies is that former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, the doyenne of the political right that Murdoch has come to dominate, truly grasped the nature of the climate crisis decades ago.

Addressing the United Nations in New York in November 1989, Thatcher delivered a lengthy  speech that even today resonates for its scientific fidelity and moral clarity. “What we are now doing to the world, by degrading the land surfaces, by polluting the waters and by adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate—all this is new in the experience of the Earth. It is mankind and his activities which are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways”, she stated.

However, for her own short-term political gain, Thatcher had secretly conspired with Murdoch in 1981 to allow him to establish a near-monopoly in the UK, which he then leveraged to build his global media empire.

While Thatcher is long gone, Murdoch’s dark shadow remains. This week came the surprise announcement that Murdoch’s Australian media outlets are about to launch an editorial campaign supporting a carbon-neutral future. This is timed for the run-up to the UN COP-26 climate congress in Glasgow in November.

To get an insight into the extreme anti-science positions routinely taken by Murdoch’s media assets, consider that last month, YouTube suspended Sky News Australia from its platform for its egregious anti-vaccine propaganda.

In 2020, as Australia endured its worst fire season in recorded history, during which an estimated three billion wild animals died and 24 million acres of land were destroyed in a climate-fuelled inferno, Murdoch’s media outlets mounted a co-ordinated campaign to blame the disaster on nameless “arsonists”, even ludicrously attempting to implicate environmentalists.

The public backlash to these brazen lies alarmed major advertisers, many of whom now realise that associating their brands with funding climate denial is bad for business.

While entirely unmoved by scientific evidence, and with most politicians terrified of speaking publicly against him, the only thing that Murdoch seems to fear is losing money, and this may be the real reason behind his Pauline conversion on the climate issue.

Prominent US climatologist, Prof Michael Mann described Murdoch’s moves this week as “hollow promises that should be viewed as a desperate ploy to rehabilitate the public image of a leading climate villain”. He added that if Murdoch’s action was to have a shred of credibility, he would also have to “call off the attack dogs at Fox News and the Wall Street Journal”.

One feature of climate denial is the age profile of its most ardent supporters. As a recent Financial Times report noted regarding Murdoch, who turned 90 earlier this year: “disinformation on climate seems to stem disproportionately from one old man, using old media”.

The UK’s most prominent climate denier, former Tory minister, Nigel Lawson, turns 90 next year, while among the most outspoken US science deniers are Richard Lindzen (81) and William Happer (82).

Both Lindzen and Happer have given presentations in recent months to an Irish-based denier group consisting mainly of retired engineers that is actively lobbying against climate action in this country. Lindzen’s presentation in March was titled: “The imaginary climate crisis – how can we change the message?”

A 2017 study exploring the likely motives behind such individuals pinpointed that their actions are less about science denial per se and more to do with “regulation phobia”. This explains why their fringe views, while long ago rejected by mainstream science, are given an uncritical platform in right wing media outlets whose billionaire owners share this aversion to regulatory oversight, including taxation.

Another key advantage that elderly deniers enjoy is the knowledge that they will not be around to face the public wrath as climate breakdown accelerates in the years and decades ahead.

Alongside a handful of rogue scientists, some prominent economists have played a key role in providing cover for decades of inaction and tragically missed opportunities to deal with climate before it became an existential crisis.

In his acceptance speech for the 2018 Nobel Prize in Economics, William Nordhaus (80) described a 4ºC global average temperature rise as “optimal”, this being the point at which he argued the costs and benefits of climate action are in balance.

In the real world a 4ºC climate shift translates into a civilisation-ending global mass extinction event, or, in the words of the World Bank’s president: “a doomsday scenario”.

More than 30 years ago, as Thatcher set out, the science was already crystal clear: action to stabilise the global climate system would be the best investment humanity could ever make.

Back then, time was not an issue. There were decades in which to steadily wean the global economy off fossil fuels and transition to a low-carbon, biodiversity-rich future in the 21st century.

However, thanks in no small part to the mendacity of Murdoch and a handful of other billionaires and their acolytes in the media and politics who have helped poison democracy and destroy the public’s trust in expertise, humanity instead finds itself in the grip of an ecological unravelling that threatens global immiseration on a scale almost beyond imagining.

Thatcher’s warning from 1989 still rings true today: “the multinationals have to take the long view. There will be no profit or satisfaction for anyone if pollution continues to destroy our planet.”

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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