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'You Can't Spin Mother Nature'

PR pro Jim Hoggan picks a fight with the climate change deniers.

David Beers 13 Jul

David Beers is the founding editor of The Tyee and serves as current editor-in-chief.

He started the publication in 2003 as an experiment in new ways of doing online journalism in the public interest, including solutions-focused reporting, crowd-funded support and a humane work culture. He loves what The Tyee has become thanks to amazing colleagues and readers.

He has lived in Vancouver since 1991. Before The Tyee he was a senior editor at Mother Jones Magazine and the Vancouver Sun, and his writing has appeared in many U.S. and Canadian outlets. He is an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia's graduate school of journalism.

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Hoggan: When PR becomes 'propaganda.' Photo by Sarah Race.

Jim Hoggan sees the human race being herded toward doom by villains within his own industry. Hoggan, one of B.C.'s top public relations pros, has made it his mission to blow the whistle on other PR firms, the ones paid big money to convince the public that global climate change is no big deal. To that end, he founded a buzz-generating web site called DeSmogBlog, which regularly debunks climate change "skeptics" and identifies the spinners spreading their message.

If some call him a traitor to his tribe, it won't keep Hoggan up at night, judging from the blistering "manifesto" he published on DeSmogBlog: "It is infuriating -- as a public relations professional -- to watch my colleagues use their skills, their training and their considerable intellect to poison the international debate on climate change. That's what is happening today, and I think it's a disgrace…"

Clients of James Hoggan and Associates include the University of British Columbia, GRVD, David Suzuki Foundation, Concord Pacific, Canadian Pacific Railway, ALCAN, BC Hydro and Ethical Funds. For that group, Hoggan has been trying to figure out what the public knows and is willing to do about creating a more eco-friendly economy. He calls this "the biggest piece of public opinion research ever conducted in Canada on sustainability."

Among the findings: people want business to engage in more environmentally sustainable practices, but when businesses actually do, the public is unlikely to believe it. People also want government to take a firmer hand in regulating industry to promote more sustainable practices. Even some corporate leaders would welcome such regulations, he says, because it would create "a level playing field" for companies already striving, and voluntarily paying the price, to be more environmentally friendly.

In a recent interview with The Tyee (listen here), here is what Jim Hoggan had to say:

On fighting 'PR pollution':

The DeSmogBlog is a news and information blog that is aimed at clearing up the PR pollution around climate change. There is a well-orchestrated campaign taking place in Canada, the United States and Europe that is actually designed to slow down public understanding of climate change. And there are people, mainly people who are getting paid by oil and coal interests, and [some] who are just basically ideologues, who are trying to confuse the public about climate change.

On whether climate change deserves 'debate':

Basically there is a scientific consensus on climate change that has concluded that CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing and it is actually causing an increase in the average temperature of the earth. And that a lot of that CO2 is caused by human activity, mainly burning fossil fuels.

An editor at Science magazine...looked back over 10 years to see how many peer-reviewed papers had been written on this consensus on climate change, and how many of these peer-reviewed papers had actually criticized this consensus. She found about 1000 papers, peer-reviewed papers, and she couldn't find one that questioned the scientific consensus on climate change. So the perception that there is actually a scientific debate, particularly a healthy debate, is totally wrong.

Now, there is a lot of debate about what the eventual impact on the environment will be. Around the world, some of the most sophisticated computers that have ever been built are doing this climate impact calculation right now. And some of the outcomes are quiet frightening, others aren't, but there is no doubt among the world's major scientific academies that the climate is changing. It's being caused by human activity, and the consequences of that are going to be serious.

On why the scientific consensus isn't reflected in the news media:

[That] is a testament to the power of public relations. Most people have heard it said that you shouldn't believe everything you read in the newspaper. Well, let me tell you, if you've spent your time with PR people, you'd feel that very, very strongly. Most public relations people spend far more time on a story than a reporter can. And many of those stories, particularly as they relate to climate change, are manufactured, basically. There is actually a group of people who are out there trying to confuse the public about climate change, and they are very skilful at it. These people are good communications people.

There is no question that the media is manipulated [on various issues] on a daily basis. But I don't think there are very many examples of this scale of manipulation. This is a very, very high-level kind of manipulation. It almost moves beyond public relations into an area I would call propaganda.

On how PR pros live with themselves after accepting big cheques for helping to bamboozle us into sealing our own doom:

It's a good question, and I wouldn't pretend to have the answer to it, but money and ideology are blinding. And I think when you have an ideologue, they are apt to believe anything. And money certainly helps people justify even the wildest kinds of statements. The fact is that, regardless of what their motives are, what they are doing is misleading people.

On why people say they are for sustainability, but don't live it:

I think what they're saying is, why should I be the chump? Why should I be the person who does everything right when nearly everyone else doesn't? They know the big impact on the environment isn't coming necessarily from them, but it's coming from lack of government policies, lack of real government regulations and changes in the way we go about structuring the economy.

Probably the most interesting question in our research was: "Why is it that you don't behave more sustainably?" People said the first reason was that there is a lack of government leadership. The second answer was, "I need more information."

Then if you ask the same people, "Why is it that other Canadians don't act more sustainably?" the first reason they give is the same: lack of government leadership. But the second reason is: "Other Canadians don't care."

To me, what it says is that people, outside their small circle of friends and family, just don't trust other Canadians. The public's mistrust in corporate Canada is at an all-time high as it relates to environmental issues. There is a similar mistrust of politicians and government.

When you get a serious problem like energy efficiency in automobiles, and you have the government coming out with a memorandum of understanding that basically says it's going to place voluntary regulations instead of mandatory regulations with penalties that would require the automobile industry in Canada to increase fuel efficiency by a certain period by a certain time, people see through that. They just see the government kind of backing away from its responsibility and just playing politics. And they see it in everything from fisheries to forestry to air quality to water quality.

So people understand that. People don't want to be the only ones [to do something] because they realize that they're not enough.

On the economic damage climate change deniers do:

The real shame here is that there is a huge opportunity for Canadian business to be a leader in the world in clean technology. We are in a privileged position in the world, and these folks are standing in the way of the kinds of political changes and public policy changes that have to be put in place for us to realize the opportunity that we have.

Spin is a lot less expensive than change when it comes to climate change. Hiring a PR firm or creating a PR department and paying it lots of money is much less expensive than increasing energy efficiency in fleets of automobiles, or changing the type of fuel that you're using, or developing alternative types of fuel.

On whether the climate change deniers will win (meaning we'll all lose):

I'm quite an optimistic kind of person, and I think that there are enough folks out there trying to point this thing out that people will figure it out. What I'm worried about is how long it takes.

In the end you can't spin Mother Nature. But with this kind of stalling that is going on, it may end up biting us in a way that we don't want.

Business and government are the two institutions that are going to do something about this; it's not environmental groups. There needs to be big changes in government policy and legislation, in the way we run our economy. There needs to be changes in the way the business world works, and the public needs to demand it.

And I think that anything that stands in the way of the public understanding what this problem is, is slowing down that process. Because in the end it's public demand that's going to change business, that's going to change government.

On whether he's treated as the enemy within PR circles:

You know, I don't get that at all. I get people in my industry saying "good on ya." There are a lot of people in my business who do great work. We represent children's hospitals. We represent all sorts of important issues. We work for Greenpeace. We work for the Red Cross. There are communications people who work for organizations all over the world that are doing great things socially and environmentally.

But there is also a bad element, and I think a particularly bad element.

And so I think there are a lot of people in my industry who appreciate the fact that somebody is standing up and saying what I'm saying, because they don't like being associated with these people. I want to put as much distance between me as a public relations person, and these people, as I possibly can. And I know there are a lot of my peers who feel exactly the same.

On whether he worries about being taken to court by powerful interests trying to shut him up:

I'd welcome it. Any opportunity there is to get the truth out on the table, I think is a good opportunity.

DeSmogBlog, co-edited by Kevin Grandia and Sarah Pullman, can be found here. Listen to a full podcast of the interview on the blog, here.

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.

Related Tyee stories: Brian Toth zeroed in on global warming's impact on B.C. salmon; Donald Gutstein traced the roots of the 'Global Warming Denial Lobby'; and Crawford Kilian observed that 'Climate Change is Easy, Culture Change is Hard.'  [Tyee]

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