Monday, March 21, 2011

It’s their DNA that drives NGOs to embrace climate porn

A few years ago, the global warming lobby almost succeeded in creating mass hysteria around issue of the Himalayan Glaciers melting due to global warming effects. They warned the consequence would be that soon much of India would experience a huge water crisis, widespread agriculture failure, uncontrollable political unrest and mass migration - just to mention a few elements in their long list of fallout.

Thanks to our Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh and his ministry’s research studies, we now know that there is no factual basis to this claim, confirmed by the UN-Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) retracting its findings. Read our archives here and here.

The Himalayan Glacier melting fiasco punctured the credibility of these groups who were forced to rein in their climate advocacy programmes for past two years. Not known to waste exploiting a crisis, the recent Japanese Tsunami have lifted their spirits with some toying going back to their old game of creating climate hysteria. The new climate porn - you guessed it - Tsunamis are caused by global warming and of course you are to blame!  Why this claim is pure nonsense, please read our archive (here).

If NGOs succumb to this temptation to take advantage of the Japanese tragedy by spreading climate myths, it won’t be first time. In 2004, Tim Costello hit the headlines for making the claim that the Asian Tsunami of 2004 was linked to global warming. 

So just who is Tim Costello? He was then the boss of World Vision, Australia. So what’s his background that he could claim so authoritatively such a link which even the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s reports, did not dare to make?


According to Wikipedia, Tim Costello was a brother of a Labour MP, Higgins Peter Costello in Australia. Tim Costello on the other hand is a criminal lawyer by basic training; a past Labour mayor of St Kilda Council in the State of Victoria before taking up a Theology degree in Switzerland. He then, was ordained as a Baptist priest and eventually joined World Vision due to his involvement with social causes such as anti-alcoholism, anti-gambling and anti-gun programmes. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s he was frequently seen in the Australian national media commenting on gambling and other social problems. Also he is an Australian Living Treasure - an honour given by Australian Council of National Trusts (ACNT) that promotes the conservation of Australia's indigenous, natural and historic heritage.

So there we have it - his credentials. Tom Costello is a criminal lawyer, a politician turned theologian of the Baptist variety who now dabbles in social and radical environmental activism all rolled as one.  No matter how impressive or chequered (take your pick) such a background may look like, why should anyone take a science illiterate’s pronouncement seriously? All he succeeded was provoking derisive laughter in the scientific community. 

But Tom Costello and World Vision is not the exception in the NGO/environmental world. Somehow the mere designation of CEO or Climate Adviser in an international NGO induces  many to suffer from delusion of grandeur syndrome. Like Costello, many pretend to the general public, a claim to expertise, when actually they have none. By trying to offset knowledge deficiencies by rhetoric, they only end up sensationalizing their claims, or quickly associate the latest weather to climate change.

But what if a qualified climatologist is at the helm of their organization? Would their behaviour be any different??  Apparently not, as the case of Gerd Leipold and Greenpeace illustrates. 

During Leipold’s tenure, on July 15th 2009 Greenpeace issued a press release titled Urgent action needed as Arctic ice melts.” In the release, a number of stark and fearful claims were made. Among the most astonishing, the group claimed, “As permanent ice decreases, we are looking at ice-free summers in the Arctic as early as 2030.” Just a month later, Leipold was forced to admit that his organization put out false and misleading information about the Arctic ice melts. This press release may have been released by some junior staff, without Leipods's knowledge.  But when confronted on the BBC’s ‘Hardtalk’ program by host Stephen Sackur, Leipold said it “may have been a mistake” but justified the claims saying:
 “We as a pressure group have to emotionalize issues and we’re not ashamed of emotionalizing issues.”

As a climatologist Leipold should have known the Greenpeace claim of permanent Arctic melt was complete scientific nonsense. But instead he justifies this decision on the ground that emotionalizing issues is a compulsive behaviour of a pressure group as if dictated by a recessive trait of its DNA!  As Leipold moulded the climate communication policies of leading NGOs like Oxfam and Action Aid, it is little wonder that this recessive trait also shows up in their DNAs as well.  But by a single statement, Leipold unintentionally was telling the world that their climate alarms should be taken by a pinch of salt, if not ignored altogether!

These kind of hysterical rhetoric used by many environmentalists and NGOs to hype the threat of global warming had been termed by a leading U.K. think-tank as ‘Climate Porn'.  A study carried out in 2006 by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a left-leaning British think tank that was close to the Labour Party, criticized the global warming lobby:

"This alarmist interpretation is characterized by an inflated sense of urgency and "cinematic tones. The public become disempowered because it's too big for them; and when it sounds like science fiction, there is an element of the unreal there."
Environmental organizations and NGOs from then on followed the script written by IPPR who recommended:
“To help address the chaotic nature of the climate change discourse in the UK today, interested agencies now need to treat the argument as having been won, at least for popular communications. This means simply behaving as if climate change exists and is real, and that individual actions are effective. The ‘facts’ need to be treated as being so taken-for-granted that they need not be spoken.”

Unfortunately for climate activists, a series of setbacks starting from Climategate; errors in the IPCC Report and finally the “climate” turning against them (increasing cold winters) made them look and treated as buffoons or scamsters even within their own organizations. Once this happened, the fire went off the belly of the environmental organizations and NGOs even if they still offered lip service to the cause of climate activism.

Back to Tim Costello, it is interesting that  he headed a NGO that is frequently accused of also engaging in poverty porn on account of their fundraising advertisements depicting people without dignity and determination. They tend to use photos such as a teary-eyed African child, dressed in rags, smothered in flies, with a look of desperation and stomach bulging out with punch lines designed to exploit the emotions of the public.  “Before you turn this page, 100 children would die in Africa” is kind of advertisements they used in the past to whip up emotions of their targeted donors. 

The blog Aid Thoughts elaborates this tendency by commenting on above Guardian photograph: 

“Imagine flipping through all of the shots this photographer took. There would have been multiple photos of this same boy, looking slightly different in each one. In some he might not quite have been gazing up the way he is, or holding the pot out at the same time. When viewed alongside all these alternate images, would the above constitute poverty porn?

......poverty porn, also known as development porn or even famine porn, is any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.... The statement that this sort of media makes is “We have a group of people who are utterly helpless, and only you can save them”

As a PhD thesis observed, although emergency appeals are designed to eventually benefit people affected by disasters they are first and foremost a vital source of a charity’s income. NGOs, bi-laterals and multi-laterals need to satisfy their ultimate donor - man/woman on the street to raise funds. Within this context, photographic frames and their accompanying messages are powerful tools able to impose meaning as well as psychological stimuli for audiences to process. The person in the street has a distinct image of what poverty is, and what aid is supposed to do. Often this image maybe grossly inaccurate, and if reflected in a NGO programme, would distort the aid and development process. Nevertheless, to tap their support, NGOs need to find a fit. Consequently, for their survival and growth, NGOs and agencies often throw all principles to the wind to quench the appetite of their targeted donors for poverty porn.

As early as 1994, at the start of the genocide in Rwanda, several of the world’s largest aid organizations signed on to a code of conduct intended to govern communication with the press and the public. It was compiled by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Signatories to the code agreed that in their briefings, publicity and advertising they would acknowledge victims of disasters to be “dignified human beings, not hopeless objects". They included major charities like Oxfam, Save the Children (SCF) and Christian Aid who developed new guidelines on their advertising. 

The above photo clicked by a little known photographer, Kevin Carter’s won the Pulitzer-Prize. The context was the Southern Sudan, which was amidst civil war and famine. The subject was a starving child crawling towards a UN feeding station while a vulture waited nearby, a scene that made the world weep.  SCF used this image in one of their advertising campaigns at a time when the organisation had no operations in Sudan. For an agency known as the global leader of child rights, SCF found itself embroiled in the centre of an ethics controversy. The same PhD Thesis observed:

"Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning image proved beneficial for a charity that neither provided famine relief in Sudan, nor intervened to prevent the likely fate of the little girl. Moreover, abusing the image in a different context the SCF willingly altered the ethnicity, nationality, religion and country of origin of a suffering human being. A nameless infant girl wearing nothing but tribal jewellery became a symbol of the inclemency of Sudanese life."

The SCF case illustrates that it is difficult for NGOs to keep in check their natural impulses to practice poverty porn as these are basically driven by a recessive trait in their DNA that are so powerful that NGOs end up often violating their own guidelines when imperatives of fundraising temporarily supplant a charity’s promise to safeguard its own ethical standards.

Given this as it may be, it can be also argued that unless donors are aware of a crisis or a problem, how can their support be enlisted to mitigate or eliminate them?  Despite excesses and abuses, poverty porn facilitates personal connection across geographic and cultural boundaries that in turn facilitate support for an unquestionably good cause - the reduction of suffering and poverty. The end outweighs the means argument makes the practice of poverty porn somewhat palatable.


“Under Stocking's leadership, turnover has hit £300m. Oxfam now has more than 750 shops in the UK, 6,000 staff all over the world and sister organisations in 13 countries. Oxfam officials have gone from the charity into government and helped make new Labour the most charitable administration ever”  Wikipedia
Graduating from poverty porn to climate porn can be seen as a natural progression in the evolution of NGOs. As Wikipedia illustrates a section of mega NGOs have transformed from charities to disguised corporate establishments where worth of a CEO is primarily assessed to the extent they contributed to increased revenue and expansion of staff strength of their respective organizations and significantly, not on their contribution to vision and impact on the field.

To be able to refuse government dollars, these agencies would have to radically reduce or limit the size of their organisations and operations. The alternative is to rely on governmental funds. This reliance has grown to 33% in case of NGOs like Oxfam or Christian Aid to 70% as in the case of Save the Children; CARE. Because NGOs are increasingly relying on governmental funds to such a high degree, it is difficult for them to defend allegations that they are simply appendages of their government on the rationale of the idiom “He who pays the piper calls the tune”

In case of NGOs like Oxfam for example, this embarrassment is made much worse as their staff are able to easily move back and forth between NGOs and government, giving an impression that relationship between the two is mainly incestuous in character. Oxfam has come a long way since beginning as a university movement to send food relief to Nazi-occupied Greece in opposition to British legislation barring aid to countries under occupation. This is in contrast to the origin of a NGO like CARE who delivered surplus US army food parcels during the Marshall Plan and from the beginning operated to align itself to their county’s foreign policy. The difference between these two types of NGOs has now been blurred. Apparently, an Oxfam or a Christian Aid has metamorphosed as CARE and not vice versa.

In a paper entitled “Eco-Imperialism: The Global North’s Weapon of Mass intervention” published in Journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciences, authors Lim Soomin and Dr. Steven Shirley, Keimyung International College, Daegu, Republic of Korea, warn that the issue of Climate Change has become the new tool called Eco-Imperialism:

"We are seeing a new type of imperialism emerge, an imperialism based not on the acquisition of territory, but on a radical environmentalist agenda, an agenda that seeks to reserve the earth and its resources for the wealthy and elite, to freeze energy use at current levels, and to restrict nation states from exploiting indigenous resources for the benefit of their people.

The hypocrisy and ill-informed policy of the new Eco-Imperialists, as they have been rightly called, seems to know no bounds. Just a few years ago it would have been almost inconceivable that in a world where starvation is a reality, the most advanced nation-states would follow the radical environmental idea of using food supplies for fuel oil (Clayton, 2008). Moreover, in a world where malaria still kills millions of men, women, and children, it is absurd that the global North would attempt to restrict and even deny the technology to eradicate disease-baring mosquito populations (Roberts, 1997).

While the promise of alternative fuels is decades if not centuries away from reality, the affordability of fossil fuels holds the key to lifting entire populations out of poverty today, and yet the developed world is looking to tax and restrict its use, as well as outlaw new exploration of this most vital form of energy (Carbon, 2009; Evans, 2007). Again, it is absurd, ridiculous, but true."

The Guardian quoted Lord May, former president of the Royal Society in his observation that:

"Much of the green movement isn't a green movement at all, it's political... Environmental policies that seek to reinforce the rural status quo as a means of limiting carbon emissions may be of benefit to the developed world, but they are detrimental to the long-term ability of the poor...”

Climate change has accordingly nothing to do with environmentalism but more to do with politics of eco-imperialism.  The costs today is readily evident - food riots, geopolitical tensions, global food inflation that increases hunger and starvation deaths. One blog describes this pathetic situation:

“One child dies of hunger every four seconds, every five seconds, a child dies from malnutrition-related diseases. Mud pies, tree barks, and leaves are part of the menu of the starved. As their stomach gnaws for food, they are even forced to try poisonous plants risking paralysis and even death. Hunger, humanities oldest enemy is getting ready to strike an ever-deadlier blow.” 

The above photos may fall under the category of “climate porn” but the responsibility for such starvation deaths is clearly at the doors of environmental organizations and NGOs who supported bio-fuels and increase in energy prices. No longer can they champion the cause of eliminating hunger in the third world except if they are thick skinned, which they undoubtedly are.

The fallout of this hidden agenda has also destabilised the regimes of many Arab countries in the Middle East. With all the talk of western countries encouraging the third world to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, they invade Iraq and now Libya (see our archive) to capture their oil and gas fields - exposing their commitment to renewable energy as just a mask. These NGOs who call themselves as championing the cause of Climate Justice have nothing to say about the aggression of their governments in Libya. How can they when their governments are the hand that feed them? Oxfam was an exception in the sense they at least came out with a statement. This is an extract from their statement:

“If military action is taken by the international community on the basis of the UNSC resolution, it is essential that this is designed and implemented in a way that maximises the protection of civilians. Such operations are complex and unpredictable, and must be undertaken with great care. We therefore call on the international community to ensure there is monitoring of the conduct of all parties to the conflict in Libya, and regular reporting to the UN Security Council”

For an organization positioning itself on the Justice agenda, did Oxfam condemn the Western Aggression on a sovereign nation? Search all you can, you won’t find one! The justice credentials of so called NGOs in the Climate Justice Network stands exposed!


  1. Outstanding piece of work. It deserves to be widely known and referred to.