Power of Propaganda in the Face of Facts

On the first day of 2019, the Washington Post printed a story summarizing the numerous extreme signs of climate change in 2018. The list of extreme hurricanes, floods, wildfires, droughts and heat waves around the world of unprecedented intensity, impressed even the most cautious scientists.

Most climate scientists are unwilling to attribute a particular event directly to global warming. It is far too complicated for that. The heating of the atmosphere affects the entire climate system, so it influences patterns of weather everywhere rather than “causing” single events.

Change in Surface Temp.1901-2012_IPCC-grap-02

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ~ Public Domain

Nothing is Normal Now

But, so many weather events now fall so far outside the normal range of weather that no other factor can explain it. They have grown more intense and frequent as humans pour more carbon into the atmosphere. That is why scientists are now willing to conclude that the frequency and intensity of such extreme events are due to global warming. Scientists are a conservative lot; they resist making claims without overwhelming evidence to support their assertions.

That is both good and bad. In ascertaining the validity of a finding, scientists rightly find it important that the evidence is overwhelmingly strong. Climate science builds its findings on the entire history of the physical sciences. They apply basic physics and chemistry to the extreme changes in climate conditions and events that have emerged over the past several decades. Global heat retention due to industrial-consumer economies pumping ever more carbon into the atmosphere is the scientifically undisputed cause of those changes.

However, scientists have preferred, for the most part, just to report the facts and the projections of change into the future that they have concluded are justified by the evidence. They leave it up to the public and the politicians to develop policies to respond to the dangers inherent in the facts they report.

Power of Propaganda

Not only have climate scientists projections proved much more optimistic than later facts revealed, but the whole process is accelerating because of previously unaccounted for positive feedback loops. These include darker arctic seas absorbing more sunlight than the white sea-ice that has melted, and melting tundra releasing methane, to name just two.

Politician and citizen alike easily ignore extremely dangerous conditions projected into the distant future. Now, however, the most recent research reveals we have little more than a dozen years to reduce net carbon emissions to near zero to avoid catastrophic consequences for societies all over the world. The U.S. government’s most recent Climate Assessment Report concludes that the damage from extreme climate events will cost hundreds of billions of dollars in the near future.

At the beginning of this past October, a special report by the IPCC revealed very disturbing findings. At current rates of carbon emissions (which have not slowed), sea rise from melting polar ice caps and the giant Greenland glacier will inundate coastal cities worldwide. Droughts and poverty will intensify. The data from numerous studies projecting the catastrophic consequences of inaction just keep piling in.

Science and Political Action

However, as the decades pass, more and more scientists have come to recognize that propaganda has effectively countered the facts. The fossil-fuel industries and their lackeys in Congress, extremist talk-radio, and partisan cable “news” outlets continue to dominate the politics of global warming. The climate-denying president attempted to bury the U.S. Climate Assessment Report by releasing it the day after Thanksgiving, a “dead” news day when so many consumers were out shopping for bargains in the industrial-consumer economy that is the primary cause of global warming.

At some point soon, the overwhelming impact of devastating events will overcome the propaganda of politically motivated climate denial. The problem is that soon it may be too late to prevent some of the most catastrophic consequences for planet and people, which humanity could have avoided if policies based on the factual evidence of science had prevailed over counter-factual propaganda.

Science and Our Sanity: We Need the One to Keep the Other

The world has become so complex these days that it is often hard to find solid ground to stand on. The barrage of all kinds of claims to the truth is unrelenting. Not only arguments of fact and complex detail, but subtle and not so subtle images of glory or destruction compete for our attention. Every manner of powerful interests attempts to influence our emotions as a way to get to our intellect. Images often have more emotional impact and exert more power than words do.

We are bombarded with, in Carl Sagan’s words, “pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.” Some especially egregious congressional apologists for ‘climate denial’ come to mind. But it is when we recognize propaganda and weigh it against the available evidence that we can retain our sanity and make reasoned decisions.

Marketing Democracy
Propaganda is everywhere. Marketing is its most pervasive form of ‘communication.’ Unfortunately, marketing is in part based on some fairly solid scientific evidence of how human beings can be influenced. Also unfortunately, the science of marketing has invaded the political arena in some very powerful ways. Nothing is off limits in the art and science of political persuasion. On top of that, the power of persuasion is exercised in extremely lopsided ways because of the accelerated impact of money on access to the channels of mass communications.

When money talks, democracy walks. When communication is controlled by a hierarchy of elites, democratic political deliberation is not on the agenda and is nearly impossible. Any debate that occurs is framed in the ideological terms chosen by the power elites. After all, they own the channels of mass communication. As U.S. society reaches unparalleled levels of hierarchy, communication is more and more controlled by the increasingly powerful plutocracy. No amount of ‘democratic’ formality can change that. Sheldon Wolin calls this “Managed Democracy,” with democratic appearing social formations which are actually controlled by the corporate state.

The congress has become the paid agent of the corporate elite. The cultural acceptance of directly observable political corruption never ceases to amaze. The pandering to corporate interests by both the congress and the Supreme Court is nearly grotesque. The president’s actions seem bounded by his obeisance to the Wall Street bankers who got him elected. It’s all such a tidy package.

The so-called ‘debate’ over the reality of anthropogenic climate chaos demonstrates the power of marketing over the power of facts. What is demonstrable scientific fact becomes politically debated by the crude application of pseudoscience and superstition. On top of that, crass rhetorical tricks and media filtration of information suppress even the most urgent real-world crisis. Interestingly, the recent surge of climate disruption all over the world, but especially in the U.S., has placed powerfully experienced facts right in the face of propaganda. When disruptive climate events become a personal experience, no amount of Koch brothers’ propaganda can override the factuality of damage to one’s farm, business, or household.

Science and Sanity
The powerful fossil-fuel corporate lobby will force congressional inaction and manipulate state legislators as long as it can. The petroleum-industrial-congressional complex would squeeze the last possible profits out of the petro-industrial era before being forced to change by the power of facts. If allowed, it would continue its insane course until the consequences bring down not just the whole economy, but threaten the survival of humanity. However, the evidence is now overwhelming and ordinary people can understand direct evidence of danger to them and their families. Threats to survival stimulate very sane responses, like paying attention to the science of climate change.

Years ago, Carl Sagan deplored the “decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media,” which constricts any meaning into 10 second sound bites. The result has been the blurring of facts with vague impressions and imagery, shaped for emotional impact rather than conveyance of information. Sanity may yet be saved by the direct experience of people. Although the U.S. education system has been ‘dumbed down’ for generations, the native intelligence of people cannot be overridden by propaganda in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Science shall prevail, and if it does soon enough, our sanity may yet survive.