Guardian seeks to rouse media from its climate torpor

Below is my article as it appears in the current edition of Village magazine:

THERE is nothing new about newspapers striking poses over climate change. On December 7th, 2009, some 55 major newspapers from all over the world (including the Irish Times) ran a joint editorial just ahead of the opening of the Copenhagen UN climate conference.

Who could forget the dramatic call to arms from some of the world’s most respected newspapers, which began: “humanity faces a profound emergency”.

“Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting… In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world’s response has been feeble and half-hearted.

“Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over short-sightedness. The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history’s judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.”

Stirring stuff indeed. The Copenhagen conference, mired in phony controversy and crippled by internecine squabbling, was a wretched failure. Less than four weeks later, with Ireland in the grip of a (climate change-related) freezing spell, the Irish Times editorial writer had a Damascene conversion. So much for all of that guff about global warming! Are world leaders having the wrong debate? We are experiencing the most prolonged period of icy weather in 40 years and feeling every bit of it”.

Humanity’s ‘profound emergency’ turned out to be little more than a nine-day wonder, as the media folded up its collective tent and moved on to more promising editorial fare. After all, who could be bothered reading (or writing about) the dull, technical and seemingly interminable non-story that climate change and the relentless destruction of our planet’s biodiversity and habitability had become.

Sprinkle this journalistic ennui with a side order of character assassination of selected individual scientists and voila, the greatest crisis humanity ever faced morphs into the greatest non-story of the century. That may be how the media works, but nature itself continues to be stubbornly cooperative with the grimmer prognostications of those wearisome scientific eggheads.

“Climate change is one of those stories that deserves more attention, that we all talk about,” Jeff Zucker, president of news network CNN said last year. “But we haven’t figured out how to engage the audience in that story in a meaningful way. When we do do those stories, there tends to be a tremendous lack of interest on the audience’s part”, was Zucker’s candid appraisal.

Paul Weller opened The Jam’s 1980 single, ‘Going underground’ with the line, “the public gets what the public wants”, but as the song unfolds, this inverts to become: “the public wants what the public gets”.

The Irish public today knows far more about the disturbed sexual fantasies of one south Dublin architect than it does about the existential noose that draws ever tighter around our collective neck. Since these salacious stories, along with exhaustive ‘economic’ analysis predicated solely on growth and consumption, are what the public gets, day after day, ergo this must be what the public wants. Small wonder then that our politicians and public servants shrug off environmental angst as being not on the public agenda, and therefore nothing for them to bother with.

To put a number on our collective failure, consider the following: the world’s political leaders have known since 1990 that CO2 emissions were putting humanity in jeopardy. Countless conferences, protocols, treaties and solemn declarations later, and, rather than reducing, global emissions have instead spiralled by 61% since Jack Charlton led the Irish team to the World Cup quarter finals in Rome. In the same period, species extinctions have intensified and global biodiversity has gone into freefall.

The neoliberal assault on the foundations of life on Earth is fast approaching its triumphant, albeit suicidal, apotheosis. Anyone who pays more than fleeting attention to the output of the world’s leading climate journals and scientific academies will realise this is not mere journalistic hype. It is instead an unremarkable observation on a species that has run amok and has been blindsided to the fact that its own fate is inextricably linked with the very fabric of the natural world it is carelessly unravelling.

In recent weeks, the UK Guardian newspaper, under outgoing editor, Alan Rusbridger, has sought to break this communications impasse. And it has done so in the most spectacular style, beginning its campaign with full wraparounds on several editions of the newspaper carrying in-depth articles from Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben, among others.

Both the newspaper and its editor are out on a limb, and success is far from assured. Explaining his thinking, Rusbridger described journalism as a rear-view mirror. “We prefer to deal with what has happened, not what lies ahead. We favour what is exceptional and in full view over what is ordinary and hidden.”

Vast, complex stories with no apparent beginning, middle or end, in which there is no clearly identifiable bad guy and in which we in the rich world and almost everything we do is to blame are an exceptionally poor fit for the news paradigm.

“Changes to the Earth’s climate rarely make it to the top of the news list. The changes may be happening too fast for human comfort, but they happen too slowly for the newsmakers – and, to be fair, for most readers”, he expanded. “These events that have yet to materialise may dwarf anything journalists have had to cover over the past troubled century. There may be untold catastrophes, famines, floods, droughts, wars, migrations and sufferings just around the corner. But that is futurology, not news, so it is not going to force itself on any front page any time soon”.

Unless, that is, an editor, backed by his newspaper, refuses to accept the failed and increasingly dangerous model of journalism that has us all stumbling blindly off a cliff, too distracted by trivia and bedazzled by celebrity to even notice our world rapidly vanishing behind us.

“To my mind, the science of climate change is without doubt. The threat to the species is so severe that this is one of those rare subjects where you can move from reporting to campaigning,” Rusbridger explained.

The Guardian has taken this campaign up a notch, by launching its ‘Keep it in the ground’ campaign to encourage and shame institutions and organizations, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the Wellcome Trust, to dump their investments in fossil fuel companies. The Guardian Media Group has itself divested from any such interests.

The numbers here are surprisingly simple. For there to be any reasonable prospect of preventing global warming from breaching the +2C ‘red line’, at least 80% of the world’s proven fossil fuel reserves can never be burned. Since these reserves are worth trillions of euros on the balance sheets of the major energy companies, nothing short of a revolutionary shift in public attitude can have even the slightest prospect of preventing their being burned, and humanity being destroyed in the process.

From where we are now standing, the prospects for success seem slim. The energy industry is the richest business the world has ever known, and its wealth buys political and media obsequiousness. But since the alternative to fighting is to sit helplessly and wait for everything we know and value to be destroyed, that’s reason enough to battle on, no matter how unpromising the odds.

History reminds us that there are invisible social tipping points, moments where the unimaginable becomes, almost overnight, inevitable. The ending of the global slave trade, the women’s suffragette movement and even the spread of democracy itself are examples of ideas that initially appeared to have few powerful advocates and little chance of success. South Africa’s Apartheid system and the Soviet Union also once seemed unassailable – just as neoliberal capitalism and globalised consumerism appears today.

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking”, remarked Albert Einstein. “It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

– John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

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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5 Responses to Guardian seeks to rouse media from its climate torpor

  1. EGFx says:

    While hats off to the Guardian it’s about time certain aspects of the debate were opened up by campaigners to proper deliberation: For example “we in the rich world and almost everything we do is to blame” is an oversimplification of class emissions to the North-South frame so typical of environmentalists and campaigners. It reminds me of the “we all partied” comments used to displace blame for the property bubble from the regulators, developers, speculators and bankers, to the general public. In fairness there are billionaires in the poor parts of the world as well, and while even welfare payments here may put people in the richest half of the world’s population it is still disingenuous to attribute the same blame to people on low wage employment to the likes of mansion-owning, private jet-setting, multiple car owning, heated swimming pool elites.

    Also “the science of climate change is without doubt” is also an attempt to silence debate where room for debate does exist and I’m not talking about fossil-fuel funded climate change misinformation. The IPCC is largely a political entity geared towards policy-friendly findings. It has consequently a ‘best estimate’ approach that seeks to cover over genuine uncertainty in favour of neat future projections. Its headline future scenarios have therefore failed to take into account potential abrupt systemic changes brought about by positive feedbacks. Many scientists are therefore arguing that the IPCC report is a conservative document. In addition the +2C ‘red line’ is a really a fairly arbitrary figure incorporating value-judgements by scientists and policy-makers about the acceptable level of risk. Again many scientists have criticised it such as Henson and Anderson as again being a conservative estimate — the purpose of which is for policy-makers to continue to work inside a framework of infinite economic growth. The public has had no role or input into what is largely a moral and ethical choice for a carbon budget of 2C.

    Although the pressure is on to amass a public following there’s still room for proper plurality, honesty and openness in what is has been a very alienating and disenfranchising debate.

  2. Paul Price says:

    Yes, hats off to The Guardian. As John points out, this should be an all-media, all-politics campaign against an implacable and ever increasing danger to all ecosystems including the human. Other media need to get on board or they will find themselves ever more at odds with reality as time goes by and their audience will likely blame them for denial.

    @EGFx is right to point to fact that climate action requires equality to be at the forefront of global action. Yes, the poorest will be affected first and most need to be protected from both direct climate damage and from the financial effects of climate action. And yes, it is the wealthiest and the relatively wealthy (within as well as between nations) that need to act first and fastest.

    However, I disagree with EGFx if (s)he is suggesting that inequality is a reason to delay action. Delaying action will cost the poorest (and the wealthiest) even more. Deep and urgent action is needed starting now and reducing inequality should be a core part of action. Too often ‘concern trolling’ the poorest is being used as an excuse for rich countries and the richest to do nothing.

    Similarly, the concerns EGFx raises about the 2ºC target are also being used by the wealthiest who would prefer to do nothing. [This may not be EGFx’s intent but I’m noting that it is a common meme.]

    The IPCC is definitely NOT “largely a political entity” as EGFx claims. The long main reports of the Working Groups and the Technical Summaries they produce are the expert summaries. Anyone looking for the unvetted IPCC expert assessments should look there. They may be conservative in estimating future change but that is part of science and they are very clear that fat tail risks and tipping points are very real. EGFx is not correct to suggest otherwise.

    Note that it is only the Summaries for Policy Makers (SPMs) that are directly politically influenced and agreed by the vetting of nation states. Anyone looking for the best summary of IPCC science should instead look at the Highlights and the Technical Summaries. Too often the political SPM approval process is being used as slur on the IPCC to undermine the deeply challenging results of it’s transparently produced and very high quality assessment.

    Similarly, creating doubt about the validity of the 2ºC target is outdated thinking. Yes the 2ºC limit is a value judgement that may well lack public input and yes it was politically agreed based on early science that ‘dangerous impacts’ might begin above 2ºC. Note that this means it was NOT arbitrary, it was based on the impacts science that was available at the time.

    As EGFx says, the revised impact science now says that the same ‘dangerous impacts’ are more likely to occur earlier at 1ºC or 1.5ºC. However, Kevin Anderson and James Hanson both agree that the carbon budgets for these are almost entirely impossible at this stage. Anderson says that 2ºC is barely possible at this stage but also says that maintaining and redoubling efforts to meet 2ºC as the target is a vital part of action.

    The inconvenient truth for policy makers and climate delayers is that having agreed 2ºC as a limit the science then came up with a remaining global carbon budget to give a good probability of meeting that target, a quota that turns out to be extremely limited and likely to run out very quickly indeed unless urgent action to reduce global emissions starts immediately.

    Far from “alienating and disenfranchising debate” the 2ºC limit with its defined and IPCC endorsed carbon budget should stimulate and encourage action among citizens and nations. If we delay on constraining future emissions within the 2ºC limit then we will very soon be on the road to 4ºC and more.

    Let’s just get on and act, the 2ºC limit is already very challenging, all the more reason we should hold to it.

  3. johngibbons says:

    Well said, Paul. I agree entirely with your analysis both of the role and function(s) of the IPCC, as well as the critical importance of drawing some kind of science-based temperature ‘red line’. And, as you know, 2C represents a place we do not want to arrive at, under any circumstances, not some arbitrary political talking point.

    Knowing where we don’t want to go is one thing, figuring out how not to get there is quite another, but however challenging this may be, unless it’s based on measurable targets which in turn are informed by the best science, then we’ll just continue spinning around in circles while the biosphere circles the drain marked ‘climate change’ in ever-tightening ellipses.

  4. johngibbons says:

    @EGFx I am certainly not interested in silencing (legitimate) debate. There are quite literally 1,001 crucial debates we need to be having right now about the ever-diminishing set of options that remain open to us to first stabilise the global climate system, while also figuring out how to provide for the legitimate needs (as opposed to the greed) of several billion people, while not forgetting the equally legitimate ‘right to exist’ of the several million species we share this living space with.

    As stated below, I’m not a fan of IPCC-bashing, I think it’s done about as well as any transnational scientific and policy-making collaboration on this scale and facing the almost unknowable complexity of the global climate system could have reasonably hoped to achieve. I would, however, share your concern about the undoubted pressure on scientists within the IPCC framework to ‘low-ball’ risks and to ignore or downplay may ‘outlier’ risks (eg. abrupt climate change) in order to get the sign-off of participating governments. That’s not a conspiracy, that’s just how policymaking works.

    I think it’s quite legitimate for Hansen, Anderson and others to set out scenarios and articulate the many ‘unknown unknowns’ within a restive climate system, so we can, if anything, act with even greater care and conservatism (in the true sense of the word) towards the biosphere and, by extension, the climate system.

  5. Pingback: A crisis in media and climate communication | ThinkOrSwim (the Blog)

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