As The Planet Burns, Why Is The Media Still Downplaying The Severity Of Climate Collapse? – OpEd


The world is on fire, like never before. As the author Gaia Vince explained in the Guardian on July 18, “This June was the hottest ever recorded on Earth. July led with the hottest ever day, swiftly followed by a hotter hottest ever day, then the hottest week — and, possibly, the hottest month. A few years hence, during the ceaseless climate catastrophes of the 2030s, as my kids’ generation reaches adulthood, they might ask about that terrifying summer of 2023 when 120,000-year-old heat records were smashed day after day: how did everyone react?”

For the ever-growing number of people who are aware of the scale of the crisis, in which catastrophic climate collapse is happening much quicker than even the most pessimistic climate scientists predicted, our options, sadly, are severely limited.

While brave protestors take to the streets, and interrupt significant events to try and raise the alarm, they face arrest, often through draconian new laws introduced specifically to try to prevent them from raising the alarm, and often face hostility, from mildly inconvenienced drivers, for example, whose disproportionate rage is often genuinely alarming, or from a wide array of ‘commentators’ — some ‘professional’, some not — who seem to regard interrupting a major sporting event for a few minutes, to highlight the suicidal nature of our collective inaction — as some sort of unforgivable crime.

Shamefully, those who react appropriately to the imminent demise of a liveable climate on earth are largely operating in a vacuum, because those with the power to let people know the unprecedented scale of the crisis we face — our politicians, and our mainstream media — are, almost entirely, abdicating their responsibility to tell us the truth: that climate collapse is here, that it is entirely man-made, through our prolific and almost entirely unfettered burning of fossil fuels, particularly over the last 40 years, that it is already severely threatening global food supplies, and that it will soon lead to sea level rises that will make much of the world’s coastlines — where countless vast cities are located — uninhabitable.

And the heat? Despite heat records being shattered as I write this, and as you read it — with temperatures well over 40°C (and, in some cases, climbing towards or even beyond 50°C) being recorded in southern Europe, the southern United States, China and elsewhere, and with wildfires still raging in Canada, and now ravaging Greece — it remains likely that even this will be the least hot summer of the rest of our lives.

As Friederike Otto, a senior lecturer in climate science at Imperial College London, told BBC Radio 4’s ’Today’ programme on July 18, “As long as factories, power stations, ships, cars and planes continue to spew their exhaust gases into the atmosphere, things can only get hotter”, adding that, “depending on when we stop burning fossil fuels, in the future this might not even be a hot summer.”

To understand the failures of our politicians and our mainstream media, we need to recognise how rare it is for the media to allow climate scientists to tell the truth about an impending disaster that they have been warning about for at least 35 years.

Even with all of the evidence of catastrophic climate collapse confronting us on a daily basis, the media — at least in the West — largely shies away from pointing out the reasons for it: the ceaseless burning of greenhouse gases, which has pumped so much carbon dioxide, methane and other gases into the atmosphere that we have turned the atmosphere into a heat trap, ending, by our actions alone, what Gaia Vince described as the “congenial, relatively predictable climate” of the last 11,700 years — the Holocene, which enabled human civilisation to thrive — and replacing it with “the uncharted Anthropocene, an age brought about by human activities and characterised by global climate chaos and ecological degradation.”

Progress and backsliding over the last five years

My main reference point for understanding the scale of the climate collapse is the report issued in October 2018 by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warned that we had just 12 years left — until 2030 — to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally to try to keep the rise in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution to 1.5°C. Beyond that point, as the Guardian described it, “even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.”

Despite decades of awareness about climate change on my part, that report was my wake-up call, and it coincided with the appearance on the world stage of Greta Thunberg and her ‘School Strike for Climate’ movement, and of the climate activists Extinction Rebellion, who engaged in colourful non-violent direct action in an effort to get governments and the media to ’Tell the Truth.’ For a moment, the climate crisis succeeded in rising up the agenda of politicians and the media. Governments and councils declared “climate emergencies”, and polls showed that a majority of people accepted the gravity of the crisis.

Disgracefully, however, most of the political response was purely performative, and, lacking leadership, the impetus for change dwindled. Subsequent polls showed that, although people accepted the severity of man-made climate change, they didn’t really want to make significant changes to their lifestyles to do anything about it.

Then came Covid, and the lockdowns that gave us a glimpse of what a calmer, quieter, cleaner world could look like, but when the restrictions were lifted, governments frantically sought to revive the environmentally ruinous “business as usual” that had existed before, and far too many people forgot about whatever lessons they had briefly learned about the destructive effects of our frenetic sense of entitlement, and leapt back into the frenzied merry-go-round of over-consumption.

Shamefully, despite their promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions — by 50% by 2030, leading to net zero in 2050 — the world’s governments have almost entirely failed to rein in the polluters for whom profits mean more than life itself, and, as a result, greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise, rather than to fall, with the UN reporting last November that, based on reality, rather than on whatever ‘commitments’ to cuts countries had made, the world was now facing a 2.5°C temperature increase rather than 1.5°C.

As the Guardian explained, the UN’s November 2022 report showed that current agreements “would lead to an increase in emissions of about 10.6% by 2030 compared with 2010 levels”, far removed from the IPCC’s assessment that “greenhouse gas emissions need to fall by about 45% by 2030 compared with 2010 levels, to give the world a chance of staying within 1.5°C.”

This is disturbing in and of itself, of course, but what 2023 is showing us, in no uncertain terms, is that the models of climate collapse, with their targets of 2030 and 2050 — always comfortably in the future — have been overwhelmed by reality. At just 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels currently, the climate is now collapsing in ways that have erased any notion that we have any time left to prevaricate or delay. That totemic temperature rise of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels — until recently thought of as far-off — now seems likely to be breached as early as next year, as the El Niño weather pattern, a natural warming phenomenon last felt in 2016’s ferocious heat, pushes the fossil fuel-heated atmosphere into overdrive.

What we need now is revolutionary change. All new oil, gas and coal extraction must be stopped, and we must finally recognise that, to stand a chance of the planet remaining habitable even by 2030, severe cuts to greenhouse gas emissions — of at least 50% — must take place immediately.

As the climate scientist Bill McGuire described it on Twitter, in response to a Guardian article about the heatwave in Europe, which had led to red alerts being issued for 16 Italian cities, “Our once stable climate is falling apart before our eyes and governments and world leaders remain relaxed about net (not real) zero in three decades time or even longer. This is literally insane. We need to be on a war footing now.”

The media MUST tell the truth

Because our governments have failed to honour their commitments, suicidally allowing new oil and gas extraction, while failing to do anything to meaningfully reduce emissions, it is up to the mainstream media to take action.

It shouldn’t need spelling out, but the climate crisis is by far and away the biggest story of all our lifetimes — bigger than all the wars we’ve experienced, bigger than any disaster that has previously happened, and certainly far bigger than the endless diversions we are presented with on a daily basis.

TV channels should be featuring the climate crisis prominently in all of their broadcasts, permanently spelling out the existential threat it poses to a habitable planet, permanently pointing out the gulf between the emissions cuts required, and the continuing rise of emissions, and permanently illuminating the fact that the collapse we face is entirely man-made.

In June 2021, Mark Hertsgaard, the environment correspondent of the Nation, and Kyle Pope, the editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, who are the co-founders of Covering Climate Now, wrote in a Guardian article, “To convey to audiences that civilization is literally under attack, news outlets should play the climate story much bigger, running more stories — especially about how climate change is increasingly affecting weather, economics, politics and other spheres of life – and running those stories at the top, not the bottom, of a homepage or broadcast. News reports should also speak much more plainly, presenting climate change as an imminent, deadly threat.”

And yet, as is readily apparent, the crisis slips in and out of the mainstream media’s consciousness, the need for drastic and urgent cuts to greenhouse gas emissions is hardly ever mentioned, and the 100% certainty that catastrophic climate change is man-made is rarely spelled out.

In October 2021, researchers at Cornell University surveyed nearly 90,000 climate-related academic studies, and established that over 99.9% agreed that climate change was man-made, making the consensus “similar to the level of agreement on evolution and plate tectonics”, as the Guardian explained, and any study of the increase in greenhouse gases over the last 60 years, and the increase in human production of those gases over that same period, will confirm that, actually, there is no margin of error whatsoever.

And yet, despite this, just three days ago the BBC ran an article in which two journalists, Esme Stallard and Mark Poynting, absurdly claimed that “[i]t’s too early to say for certain whether the ongoing July 2023 heatwaves across parts of Europe, south-west US and China have been made significantly more likely by climate change.” In addition, it’s only in recent years that climate change deniers seem to have been prevented from airing their views as part of an obsession with ‘impartiality’ and ‘objectivity’, and even now many broadcasters’ default position is to report on extreme weather as though it exists in a vacuum, and isn’t, in fact, the result of humans burning vast amounts of greenhouse gases in an ever-increasing orgy of fatal pollution.

As the New Republic reported in an article last July, entitled, ‘Last Century’s Approach to Journalism Is Useless in a Climate Crisis’, “Legacy media outlets are notoriously slow to change; many reporters continue to uphold a professional code of ethics dominated by twentieth-century myths of “objectivity”, despite the fact they patently fail to meet the demands of the current moment.”

There are other explanations, of course — fraught discussions in newsrooms about how to frame the crisis so as not to induce too much panic or fear, for example, or more cynical calculations about not alienating viewers or readers, but both of these fail to address the uniquely powerful reality of the climate crisis: that, unlike any other cataclysmic event in human history, even the Second World War, this one is truly global, and there is absolutely no escape from it, so that any kind of delay in telling the truth will only mean that the genocidal crisis gets worse.

Another angle emerged in Byline Times in May, when Rachel Donald highlighted how, following the inaugural Beyond Growth conference at the EU Parliament, a three-day event on Pathways towards Sustainable Prosperity in the EU, for which “400 experts signed a letter calling for European leaders to implement a well-being economy, saying a post-growth Europe is ‘critical’ to survival as endless economic growth in high-income nations negates effective environmental policies”, not a single mainstream media outlet discussed it.

In a tweet, the academic Julia Steinberger noted that, although there were many journalists there, from major outlets all over Europe and the world, every single one that she spoke to told her, “my editor refuses to print any story critical of economic growth.” This may well explain some of the refusal by mainstream media outlets (almost all corporate-owned) to take the crisis as seriously as they should, because the only way to reduce our emissions as required is not only to bring the notion of “economic growth” to an end, but also to fundamentally challenge the very basis of the capitalist system that fetishises it, and that, of course, is the driver of all our woes. Cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 50% essentially means dismantling the current capitalist model, and, to some very real extent, admitting that it has been a disaster, as all of its supposed ‘miracles’ of technology have in fact been killing us all by degrees.

Unfortunately, for capitalism’s defenders, who, on the one hand, make up those who lord it over us, and, on the other, also make up so many of our fellow travellers on this miraculous but beleaguered planet, there is no way to even have a chance to keep the planet habitable without dismantling capitalism, seizing its ill-gotten gains and using them to mitigate the worst effects of its astonishingly myopic success, measured solely in profits. Of all Extinction Rebellion’s clever slogans, ’No Money on a Dead Planet’ remains my favourite.

And finally — and perhaps this is contentious — I can’t help but think that part of the problem is also that the gate-keepers of the mainstream media are too old and too wealthy to take the crisis as seriously as they should. No one can be in any doubt that the super-rich are hoping that their immense riches will somehow shield them from the levelling effects of a ravaged and increasingly inhospitable planet, as reports about their bunkers show, but I also suspect that, beyond the 0.01%, even the 1%, who include the media’s managerial gatekeepers, must believe that they too will be shielded by their comparative wealth from the worst effects of what is coming.

As for age, as a 60-year old myself, I know that most of my life is now behind me, and that, even if the climate collapses spectacularly by 2030, as I finally become a pensioner, I had a full life before the planet became an inferno. I have no doubt that, the older people are, the more they generally feel this, but I can’t really understand how people with children and grandchildren aren’t rising up for their future.

My only conclusion — and it’s pretty bleak — is that, when it comes down it, far too many people are fundamentally quite profoundly selfish, and don’t care as much about anyone else (even their children) as they claim to do. Otherwise, they’d be trying to do something about it, like the parents and grandparents risking arrest and violence on Just Stop Oil’s slow marches, who, like their younger companions, are compelled to act because, faced with the previously unthinkable — the collapse of a habitable earth — doing nothing is not an option for them.

This essay of mine is also my own small effort to do something rather than nothing, in the absence of what I’d truly like to see — a people’s revolution, overwhelming the tired old killers in their corporate offices, and their pimps in Parliament, and working like crazy to salvage what we can from our burning atmosphere.

But for that to even have a chance to happen, people need to know not only that their home is on fire, but also who is responsible, so that they too might wake up to the unparalleled severity of now. And for that to even have a chance of happening, the mainstream media need to be doing far, far more than they’re doing now.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is an investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers). Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison"

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