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Melting Ice Sheets and Media Contradictions

MediaLens | 04.07.2007 19:40 | Climate Chaos | Other Press

An Exchange with George Monbiot of the Guardian

The collision of commentary and advertising in the corporate press is sometimes comically surreal. Take George Monbiot’s column in this week’s Guardian:

“Reading a scientific paper on the train this weekend, I found, to my amazement, that my hands were shaking. This has never happened to me before, but nor have I ever read anything like it. Published by a team led by James Hansen at Nasa, it suggests that the grim reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could be absurdly optimistic.”

The collapse of ice sheets in Greenland and west Antarctica may already be underway, and at a much faster rate than predicted by the IPCC. Devastating sea level rises of several metres could follow. Monbiot warned that “the public interest is being drowned by corporate power” even as “we drift into catastrophe.” (George Monbiot, ‘Stop doing the CBI's bidding, and we could be fossil fuel free in 20 years’, Guardian, July 3, 2007)

The message could hardly have been more serious.

Above Monbiot’s online article was a jokey animated advertisement featuring whizzing little cars on which were superimposed the smiley faces of Guardian journalists. The ad plugged the SEAT Leon Cupra car, “the embodiment of SEAT's motto - Auto emoción.”

The ad’s text comprised four short lines zapping into view from right to left, one above the other:

“Win VIP tickets to a BTCC [British Touring Car Championship] race
And check out our
writers’ driving skills
In the SEAT race day challenge”

A click on the ad took Guardian readers to a breathless “story” about the product:

“If you love the thrill of the chase, the rush of competition and the exhilaration that comes from having the edge over the pack, keep reading - you're the person the new SEAT Leon Cupra hot hatch was designed for. [...] Blasting from 0 to 62mph in just 6.4 seconds, the direct injection of the 2.0-litre T FSI 16-valve petrol unit (an even more forceful version of the 200PS petrol engine in the Leon FR) pumps out a heady 240PS (179 kW) - performance worthy of the Leon Touring Car, which helped SEAT secure the BTCC Manufacturers' Trophy in 2006.” ( seatleoncupra/story/0,,2022509,00.html)

The car, we were assured, “is the choice for those in the know, who aren't prepared to compromise on performance and are savvy enough to bag themselves an affordable, powerful, sporty and stylish drive.”

Countless examples like this, day after day, highlight the Guardian’s role as a tireless booster of corporate-fuelled consumerism, covered by a superficial veneer of environmental ‘credentials’.

The Pathology of Normalcy

It is rare indeed when opportunities arise to broach these issues in the corporate media. Last month, Guardian Online hosted a live public debate with George Monbiot. (Live online: Q&A, June 20, 2007; WebX? 128@147.djq7ckKAUVO@.775eaab4)

We posted the following contribution for Monbiot to address:


The Guardian website today proudly boasts:

"Over the last 12 months, the GNM [Guardian News and Media] total audience accounted for:

"20% of all champagne drunk. One in six of all city breaks taken. One in five Acorn ‘Urban Prosperity’. £1 in every £7 spent on computer hardware or software. 1/6 of all MP3 player expenditure." (

Andy Pietrasik, the Travel editor, also writes:

"The section is designed to address the way we travel now:

"Weekend - for the budget airline generation that takes more short breaks than ever before at home and abroad

"On Location - for the new generation of jetsetters, who have been inspired to travel to a destination because of a film they have seen." (

Doesn't this make a mockery of the Guardian's claims to be responding to climate change? Is it really credible to expect a newspaper dependent on corporate advertising for 75 per cent of its revenue to seriously challenge the corporate system of which it's a part and on which it depends? Why don't you discuss this inherent contradiction in your journalism?

David Cromwell and David Edwards - Media Lens

George Monbiot then cherry-picked the bit he wanted to answer:


"Doesn't this make a mockery of the Guardian's claims to be responding to climate change?"

Yes, it does.


While Monbiot’s candour was welcome, his response was minimal. And so we followed up a few minutes later:


Thanks, George, but you failed to answer our third question:

"Why don't you discuss this inherent contradiction in your journalism?"

Isn't it vitally important that this structural problem of the corporate mass media system be exposed? Doesn't your silence on this issue indicate the very real limits of free speech in our 'free press'?


We received no further response during the live Q&A session; perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Monbiot was wading through many queries from the public. However, a few days later we received this email:

Dear David and David,

I am taking your request seriously and looking into the implications of the newspapers not carrying ads for cars, air travel and oil companies. Like you, I believe this is necessary if we are to have a chance of preventing runaway climate change. But if this call is to carry weight, I must be able to present an alternative: to demonstrate to news organisations, including the Guardian, that they can keep their heads above water while refusing this advertising. Assuming, as I think I will find, that they account for a large proportion of a newspaper's income, and assuming that all newspapers are in financial trouble (all the former broadsheets are, I think, now cross-subsidised by proprietors or other commercial outlets) what alternative funding models would you suggest?

If you wish to ask for ideas from other people, please do so.

With best wishes, George (Email, June 25, 2007)

We responded:

Dear George

Many thanks for your email and for taking our challenge seriously. A few obvious points spring to mind.

The first is that slave owners insisted for years that abolition was an economic impossibility - that turned out to be nonsense, of course, as well as being morally unsustainable.

Newspapers - as well as the motor racing industry - also shrieked about the impossibility of doing without tobacco advertising. But both appear to be thriving despite the loss. Why could the media not survive the loss of fossil fuel advertising?

The simple fact is that the media +have+ to change. If not, there will be no funding models, no advertisers, no media. They have to change because fossil fuels will eventually run out. They have to change because it is a moral obligation - their promotion of unrestrained fossil fuel consumption is not morally defensible.

Perhaps with your prompting the Guardian could open a debate with 'liberal' media rivals like the Independent to seek a consensus on the way forward.

Could such papers seek out replacement advertisers in the growing renewables market? They could open a debate with readers to discuss replacing fossil fuel advertising with a higher cover price. There is, of course, a precedent - the Guardian already charges for an advert-free online service.

Could newspapers begin by refusing the worst fossil fuel advertising - SUVs, for example? Could the Guardian sell off its majority stake in the Trader Media Group - including its outrageous Auto Trader magazines - which is valued at around $1.35 billion? ('Guardian Media Group announces sale of stake in Trader Media Group,' March 23, 2007; pressreleases/tabid/213/default.aspx?pressreleaseid= 3&cid=viewdetails). Could that money be invested in renewables somehow?

We need to be cautious about focusing exclusively on the issue of funding. You ask: "what alternative funding models would you suggest?"

This, in effect, asks: How can a psychopathic corporate media system be funded in a way that makes it less destructive? The corporate media subordinate people and planet to profit as a matter of necessity rooted in legal obligation. They will not reverse these priorities as a result of altered funding. It would no doubt be preferable if Hannibal Lecter changed to a vegetarian diet, but he would remain a dangerous psychopath.

One of the reasons we are at the very brink of catastrophe, is that mainstream media and politics have tirelessly persuaded us that a system that naturally subordinates human values to profit is best placed to protect human welfare. History demonstrates that progressive change happens when people escape this illusion by rejecting the compromises involved in cooperating with destructive systems of power and instead demand change from outside.

Arguably, you are one of the most powerful supports for the delusion that the corporate media are willing to tell the truth that matters in a way that can lead to the change we need. Your excellent articles on climate change shout a loud message of honesty, action and hope. But the news reports, comment pieces and adverts that surround your work powerfully reinforce a "pathology of normalcy" and prevent people from seeing the pathology for what it is. Andy Rowell, who has often written for the Guardian, noted in a speech last month:

"...advertising reassures people that it is OK to buy and consume. It provides a safety net to make it acceptable to consume. What makes this so important is the media are often the windows through which we see the world. If we open a paper and see fast cars it makes it acceptable to drive one, if we see cheap flights it makes it acceptable to go on one".

We at Media Lens have achieved whatever impact we've achieved on a shoestring, with virtually no resources. We operate out of one of the richest nations on Earth. If even a small number of people directed their money and talents away from supporting the mainstream media to supporting alternative, non-corporate media, real progress could be made. In our view, this is a much more worthwhile focus than concentrating solely, or primarily, on how to reform a psychopathic corporate system. It's worth attempting what you suggest, but it's vital that we also focus on building genuine alternatives to these media.

Why not look to the example of the online OhmyNews service in South Korea, as we did in our book, Guardians of Power (Pluto Books, 2006)? OhmyNews was started by Oh Yeon Ho who said:

"My goal was to say farewell to 20th-century Korean journalism, with the concept that every citizen is a reporter... The professional news culture has eroded our journalism, and I have always wanted to revitalise it. Since I had no money, I decided to use the Internet, which has made this guerrilla strategy possible."

The success of libertarian, internet-based sites in South Korea suggests that internet media relying mostly on contributions from ordinary readers can become a potent democratising force.

And while the mainstream media have mostly sent back propaganda from Iraq, Arabic journalists and Western bloggers have emailed a steady flow of horrific images and honest reportage fuelling deep concern across the Arab world and beyond. Jo Wilding's brave and compassionate reporting (, and Dahr Jamail's MidEast dispatches ( are two inspirational examples.

There is plenty of scope for debate. Perhaps you can kick it off in the pages of The Guardian. (Email, July 2, 2007)

We look forward to seeing whether there is any follow-up to the above exchange.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you decide to write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

You may wish to ask the editors of the Guardian and the Independent to invite the public to debate the issues raised in this alert. Ask the papers how dependent they are on fossil fuel-related advertising and what they are doing to wean themselves off it.

Write to Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor

Write to: Simon Kelner, Independent editor

Please send a copy of your emails to us



A Sudden Change of State

04.07.2007 20:52

Reading a scientific paper on the train this weekend, I found, to my amazement, that my hands were shaking. This has never happened to me before, but nor have I ever read anything like it. Published by a team led by James Hansen at Nasa, it suggests that the grim reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could be absurdly optimistic(1).

The IPCC predicts that sea levels could rise by as much as 59cm this century(2). Hansen’s paper argues that the slow melting of ice sheets the panel expects doesn’t fit the data. The geological record suggests that ice at the poles does not melt in a gradual and linear fashion, but flips suddenly from one state to another. When temperatures increased to 2-3 degrees above today’s level 3.5 million years ago, sea levels rose not by 59 centimetres but by 25 metres. The ice responded immediately to changes in temperature(3).

We now have a pretty good idea of why ice sheets collapse. The buttresses that prevent them from sliding into the sea break up; meltwater trickles down to their base, causing them suddenly to slip; and pools of water form on the surface, making the ice darker so that it absorbs more heat. These processes are already taking place in Greenland and West Antarctica.

Rather than taking thousands of years to melt, as the IPCC predicts, Hansen and his team find it “implausible” that the expected warming before 2100 “would permit a West Antarctic ice sheet of present size to survive even for a century.” As well as drowning most of the world’s centres of population, a sudden disintegration could lead to much higher rises in global temperature, because less ice means less heat reflected back into space. The new paper suggests that the temperature could therefore be twice as sensitive to rising greenhouse gases than the IPCC assumes. “Civilization developed,” Hansen writes, “during a period of unusual climate stability, the Holocene, now almost 12,000 years in duration. That period is about to end.”(4)

I looked up from the paper, almost expecting to see crowds stampeding through the streets. I saw people chatting outside a riverside pub. The other passengers on the train snoozed over their newspapers or played on their mobile phones. Unaware of the causes of our good fortune, blissfully detached from their likely termination, we drift into catastrophe.

Or we are led there. A good source tells me that the British government is well aware that its target for cutting carbon emissions – 60% by 2050 – is too little, too late, but that it will go no further for one reason: it fears losing the support of the Confederation of British Industry. Why this body is allowed to keep holding a gun to our heads has never been explained, but Gordon Brown has just appointed Digby Jones, its former director-general, as a minister in the department responsible for energy policy. I don’t remember voting for him. There could be no clearer signal that the public interest is being drowned by corporate power.

The government’s energy programme, partly as a result, is characterised by a complete absence of vision. You can see this most clearly when you examine its plans for renewables. The EU has set a target for 20% of all energy in the member states to come from renewable sources by 2020. This in itself is pathetic. But the government refuses to adopt it(5): instead it proposes that 20% of our electricity (just part of our total energy use) should come from renewable power by that date. Even this is not a target, just an “aspiration”, and it is on course to miss it. Worse still, it has no idea what happens after that. Last week I asked whether it has commissioned any research to discover how much more electricity we could generate from renewable sources. It has not(6).

It’s a critical question, whose answer – if its results were applied globally – could determine whether or not the planetary “albedo flip” that Hansen predicts takes place. There has been remarkably little investigation of this issue. Until recently I guessed that the maximum contribution from renewables would be something like 50%: beyond that point the difficulties of storing electricity and balancing the grid could become overwhelming. But three papers now suggest that we could go much further.

Last year, the German government published a study of the effects of linking the electricity networks of all the countries in Europe and connecting them to North Africa and Iceland with high voltage direct current cables(7). This would open up a much greater variety of renewable power sources. Every country in the network would then be able to rely on stable and predictable supplies from elsewhere: hydroelectricity in Scandanavia and the Alps, geothermal energy in Iceland and vast solar thermal farms in the Sahara. By spreading the demand across a much wider network, it suggests that 80% of Europe’s electricity could be produced from renewable power without any greater risk of blackouts or flickers.

At about the same time, Mark Barrett at University College London published a preliminary study looking mainly at ways of altering the pattern of demand for electricity to match the variable supply from wind and waves and tidal power(8). At about twice the current price, he found that we might be able to produce as much as 95% of our electricity from renewable sources without causing interruptions in the power supply.

Now a new study by the Centre for Alternative Technology takes this even further(9). It is due to be published next week, but I have been allowed a preview. It is remarkable in two respects: it suggests that by 2027 we could produce 100% of our electricity without the use of fossil fuels or nuclear power, and that we could do so while almost tripling its supply: our heating systems (using electricity to drive heat pumps) and our transport systems could be mostly powered by it. It relies on a great expansion of electricity storage: building new hydroelectric reservoirs into which water can be pumped when electricity is abundant, constructing giant vanadium flow batteries and linking electric cars up to the grid when they are parked, using their batteries to meet fluctuations in demand. It contains some optimistic technical assumptions, but also a very pessimistic one: that the UK relies entirely on its own energy supplies. If the German proposal were to be combined with these ideas, we could begin to see how we might reliably move towards a world without fossil fuels.

If Hansen is correct, to avert the meltdown that brings the Holocene to an end we require a response on this scale: a sort of political “albedo flip”. The government must immediately commission studies to discover how much of our energy could be produced without fossil fuels, set that as its target then turn the economy round to meet it. But a power shift like this cannot take place without a power shift of another kind: we need a government which fears planetary meltdown more than it fears the CBI.

George Monbiot’s book Heat: how to stop the planet burning is now published in paperback.


1. James Hansen et al, 2007. Climate Change and Trace Gases. Philiosophical Transactions of the Royal Society – A. Vol 365, pp 1925-1954. doi: 10.1098/rsta.2007.2052.

2. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, February 2007. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis – Summary for Policymakers. Table SPM-3.

3. I am grateful to Marc Hudson for drawing my attention to this paper and giving me a copy.

4. James Hansen et al, ibid.

5. In the Energy White Paper it says the following: “The 20% renewables target is an ambitious goal representing a large increase in Member States’ renewables capacity. It will need to be taken forward in the context of the overall EU greenhouse gas target. Latest data shows that the current share of renewables in the UK’s total energy mix is around 2% and for the EU as a whole around 6%. Projections indicate that by 2020, on the basis of existing policies, renewables would contribute around 5% of the UK’s consumption and are unlikely to exceed 10% of the EU’s.” Department of Trade and Industry, May 2007. Meeting the Energy Challenge: A White Paper on Energy, page 23.

6. Emails from David Meechan, press officer, Renewables, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

7. German Aerospace Center (DLR) Institute of Technical Thermodynamics Section Systems Analysis and Technology Assessment, June 2006. Trans-Mediterranean Interconnection for Concentrating Solar Power. Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Germany.

8. Mark Barrett, April 2006. A Renewable Electricity System for the UK: A Response to the 2006 Energy Review. UCL Bartlett School Of Graduate Studies – Complex Built Environment Systems Group.

9. Centre for Alternative Technology, 10th July 2007. ZeroCarbonBritain: an alternative energy strategy. This will be made available at

George Monbiot
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  1. Dear Mr Monbiot... — Jubal Harshaw
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