Brush Fire in Australia. Photo from The New York Times.
Looking back at climate coverage in 2013 from the vantage point of 2020, it seems like there’s been real progress — coverage of the climate crisis is much better then when I wrote this piece for Project Censored. Still, the deniers are as brazen as ever, giant Fossil Fuel corporations insist on extracting the last drop of profit from our overheated planet, and most media still treat this life-or-death crisis as if it was just one more issue.
We’re running out of time. Thousands are already climate refugees, and in Australia, hundreds of millions of animals have died in the brush fires there. But it’s not too late, and the solutions are within reach.
The most censored story of our lifetime is hiding in plain sight. We humans are disrupting the climate of the planet to the point where the world our children and grandchildren will inhabit may be unrecognizable.
The risk we are taking is not something discussed in polite company, much less in the corporate press. Instead of covering the many facets of this impending crisis and the options for mobilizing a response, the corporate press has largely served up a diet of distortion and distraction. Even the progressive media has a mixed record on covering the climate crisis.
Yet stories that explore the depth of — and solutions to — the climate crisis are essential to any prospect that we will respond at the scale needed.
The Failure to Report on a Crisis
After years of record-breaking fires, droughts, heat waves, and storms, public opinion is beginning to move toward greater comprehension, although at a rate that is still dangerously slow. While 97 percent of peer-reviewed scientific studies conclude that the Earth is warming because of human influences, just 42 percent of the general public in the United States believes the world is warming because of human activity.
And though journalists cover the stories of particular wildfires, droughts, megastorms, floods, and other events exacerbated by the shifting climate, until recently the corporate media have neglected to explore something that scientists are warning about and that many people perceive with their own senses: that these are not isolated incidents, but signs of a long-term and accelerating disruption in climate stability.
The hard truth is that scientists predict a temperature rise of six degrees Celsius by the end of the century unless we take action. This level of heating will hobble agriculture, deplete water supplies, and move shorelines. It will make many areas uninhabitable and cause famine, widespread extinctions, and massive movements of climate refugees. And it will be largely irreversible for centuries thereafter.
Corporate Power and Censorship
Why have we been unable to take action in the face of a threat larger and more long-lasting than terrorism? The climate crisis highlights a systemic flaw in human society today: the power of large corporations over our economy, governance, and way of life overwhelms other forces.
Corporations dealing in fossil fuel are among the biggest and most powerful on the planet. Together with other large corporations, as well as the think tanks and lobbyists they fund, they have undermined efforts to reach international agreements on climate change, and to get government action on renewable energy and energy efficiency, smart transportation options, and other policies that could counter the threat of climate disruption. With a focus on making the most money possible for shareholders and executives, the fate of human and other life on the planet just doesn’t show up on the quarterly balance sheet. With billions of dollars in profits and a Supreme Court friendly to the power of big corporations, corporate influence on government goes largely unchecked.
An economy that concentrates more wealth and power each year, while undermining our world’s capacity to support life, goes unquestioned when the media is owned by big corporations that rely on corporate advertising.
We also have a cultural flaw. Influenced by billions of dollars of advertising, popular culture has come to equate having lots of stuff with success and happiness. Those at the top can accumulate with abandon and without considering the implications for the future. Meanwhile, people in the 99 percent increasingly struggle just to get by. Other values that are just as much a part of the founding culture of the United States — frugality, community, neighbor-helping-neighbor, contribution to the whole — have been pushed aside by the advertising-driven impulse to buy. The production and eventual disposal of all that stuff exacts a price on the finite resources and energy capacities of the planet, and the bill is coming due.
Climate coverage: the bad and the ugly
Facing the dire reality of a destabilized climate is not easy, and some of the country’s most influential media don’t even try. The Wall Street Journal’s notoriously right-wing opinion section published a column on May 9, 2013, titled “In Defense of Carbon Dioxide.” The piece celebrates rising levels of carbon dioxide as a boon to plant life. Columbia Journalism Review columnist Ryan Chittum, who is a former Wall Street Journal writer himself, called it “shameful even by the dismal standards of that page.”
According to a January 2013 Media Matters report, not a single climate scientist appeared as a guest on the influential Sunday morning television talk shows during the previous four years, nor were any climate scientists quoted. Most of those invited to speak on global warming were either media figures or politicians, but, among the politicians, not a single one was a Democrat. Climate change deniers on the shows went unchallenged.
The nightly news shows had somewhat more coverage, and most of that was driven by extreme weather events, according to the report. But this coverage, too, was biased: 60 percent of the politicians on the air were Republicans.
Most journalists want to be perceived as objective, and so for years much of the climate reporting included an ersatz balance: climate deniers were given equal time even though they were a tiny fraction of the scientific community; the fact that many were funded by the fossil fuel lobby was rarely mentioned. The New York Times is among those that now explicitly reject this he-said-she-said approach.
The result of this distorted coverage is that precious years, during which a well-informed people might have acted, have been lost to confusion produced by so-called “objective” journalism.
There’s an additional, less recognized flaw with journalism as currently practiced. Journalists are considered objective when their reporting accepts the dominant worldview as a given, without questioning beliefs and assumptions that may or may not hold up to scrutiny. The good journalist, in other words, goes along with the worldview of the powerful. Today, that worldview includes the assumption that all growth is good and can go on indefinitely, that a rising tide will lift all boats (an ironic phrase in this time of sea-level rise), that technology and free enterprise will solve any problem, and that the Earth will provide all we need.
Real objective journalism would question these assumptions, especially those contradicted by the evidence on the ground — and in the glaciers.
Climate Coverage: Who’s Doing It Well?
Although some of the media has flouted their responsibility to truth-telling, others have been extraordinary. Rolling Stone published a game-changing piece by Bill McKibben on the math of climate change, which shows that most of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground if we are to avert climate catastrophe. And among Project Censored’s Top 25 stories is Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed’s article from The Guardian on the likelihood of food shortages becoming the new normal, in large part because of the impact of climate change on crop yields. The Guardian’s coverage of the climate crisis has been among the best and most consistent among the large newspapers. (Full disclosure: I occasionally write a column for the Guardian). And there are some extraordinary blogs like InsideClimateNews, Grist, Climate Progress, ClimateWire, and Real Climate, which are out in front on climate coverage.
Project Censored has highlighted some of the key climate stories of the last decade. Among the project’s annual list of the censored stories over the past years are independent journalists’ reports on the disruption to marine species resulting from global warming, the role of excessive consumption in the climate crisis, and the flaws in World Bank cap-and-trade schemes, which result in the displacement of indigenous farmers.
Still, there is a mixed record among the progressive press on climate coverage. Perhaps this is a reflection of a split within the progressive world, which until recently was divided between those who focus on the environment and those who focus on politics and social justice. Much of the progressive press has left climate change to environmental magazines.
The implicit view that environmental issues are for backpackers, conservationists, and middle-class white folks is outdated and dangerous. The climate crisis is changing everyone’s life — especially the poor and vulnerable.
Making Solutions Visible
More truly objective reporting on the climate crisis and its systemic causes would be a huge improvement over what we find now. But still it would be just half the story. The other half is the solutions. We need much more reporting on solutions, and not just to keep despair from sending us screaming into those rising seas.
We need solutions journalism because it is the only way we can develop the global consensus we need to take action and the knowledge base that makes that action effective.
Over just a few hundred years, we clever humans have transformed our world, creating a vast fossil fuel-driven industrial economy that permits high-consumption lifestyles (for some). Until recently, we lacked an understanding of what industrialization was doing to the prospects for our children and their children.
But we have the smarts to create a world in which the climate is stable, diverse species thrive, and all people have a shot at a good life. The means to do that are as diverse as the factors that cause the problem. Renewable energy can displace carbon-based fuels. Buildings can be built or retrofitted for super-efficiency. Organic fertilizers can build the fertility and resilience of the soil while safely storing carbon, replacing the chemical fertilizers that are a major contributor to the climate crisis. Fuel-efficient vehicles, fast trains, and bicycles can replace gas guzzlers. A greater appreciation of time well-spent with family and friends, and of the satisfaction of meaningful work, can replace an obsession with owning and using up stuff.
Each of these shifts improves our chances of stabilizing the climate, and most of them have multiple benefits: they improve health, clean up air and water, improve community life, create new economic opportunities, and promote equity. And some do all of these at once.
But the potential of these solutions can’t be fulfilled unless people find out about them. That’s why the media is so important.
With international talks at a standstill and little national leadership on this issue, the focus of action has shifted, becoming much more bottom-up. Local and state governments (and an exceptional few national governments) around the world are instituting policies, like carbon taxes, that help shift the market toward cleaner energy sources. Policy makers are rethinking the use of economic growth and the gross domestic product as a measure of progress. Inventors and entrepreneurs are coming up with new ways to produce clean energy or to cut the inefficient use of energy.
The Solutions at the Grassroots
Importantly, there is a climate justice movement happening that few know exists — a movement founded in the grassroots and especially in communities that are often ignored by the corporate media: Appalachia, indigenous communities, youth, farmers, fishermen, and small businesses. It’s a movement that doesn’t separate environmental concerns from human concerns, but that recognizes that they are one and the same.
At the forefront of this movement are young people, ranchers, tribal leaders, people living near refineries, those resisting hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking), and others who are most affected by the fossil fuel industry. People are using their bodies to block the building of tar sands pipelines, to stop mountaintop removal, to prevent drilling in their communities—both to protect their land, water, and health, and to protect the climate.
The 350.org campaign, headed up by Bill McKibben, is spurring actions around the world, including civil disobedience in front of the White House aimed at convincing President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.
Others are responding to the climate crisis through changes in their own lives. Many are finding much greater satisfaction in ways of life focused on community or personal development. Young people are seeking out livelihoods that allow them to contribute to a more sustainable planet and to ride out the storms they see on the horizon. There’s extraordinary interest in developing local food systems. These deeper cultural shifts offer another part of the solutions matrix.
These new policy initiatives, innovations, social movements, and lifestyle shifts are rarely covered, but with all that’s at stake, these responses deserve to be front-page news. We need this sort of reporting to seek out the many solutions, investigate which ones are working, and tell the stories through the media now available. Out of those many stories and many solutions, the answers can emerge. If these answers spread, are replicated, and inspire others, we have a shot at preserving a healthy planet and our own future.
What Solutions Journalism Makes Possible
The truth is that there is no shortage of solutions — whether it’s Germany’s turn to solar power or the carbon-storing power of restored soils. But given the shortage of stories about solutions, it’s little wonder that so many people — once they understand the implications of the climate crisis — leap right from denial to despair. When stories of people taking action are censored, when the innovations that could help us tackle the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced go unreported, when the ordinary people and grassroots leaders working to build a sustainable future go unquoted, people are left isolated and feeling powerless.
That’s what makes solutions journalism so important at this point in human history.
When the myriad efforts to build a sustainable world are covered, the rapid evolution of our society toward solutions becomes possible. The best innovations can travel quickly and build on one another — bike lanes in one city become a linked system of bike lanes and public transit in another. A public food forest, where all are free to harvest fresh fruits and nuts, sparks the same idea in another community. One city sets out to be carbon neutral, to reduce asthma and heart disease, and inspires other cities to follow suit. If they encounter these sorts of stories, people don’t feel alone, powerless, or foolish when they pick up a shovel and plant a tree, start an urban garden, or risk arrest blockading a tar sands pipeline. They see their work as part of a much larger fabric of change — one with real possibility for a better world.
So here’s where solutions journalism is at its best. Just as an individual coal plant is not the whole picture in terms of the climate crisis, the individual windmill is not the whole solution. To meet its potential, solutions journalism must investigate not only the individual innovations, but also the larger pattern of change — the emerging ethics, institutions, and ways of life that are coming into existence.
The change will not happen from the top down — most of the leaders of big government, big business, and even big religion are too entrenched in the status quo to offer much help on this score.
Instead, it is the actions of millions of ordinary people that have the best chance of transforming our society to one that can live within its ecological means and meet the needs of humans and other life forms. To do that, we need evidence-based stories of practical, feasible innovations. But we also need to see the larger picture that they are a part of, the new ways of doing business that are rooted in community and work in harmony with our ecosystems, along with the emerging values and ways of life that create genuine well-being without compromising the life-sustaining capacity of the planet. We need to experience the democratic impulse, which, at times, can overcome the top-down power of giant corporations.
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Journalists, it has been said, write the first draft of history. In that spirit, discerning these patterns of change — which ones have promise, which ones are taking hold — is an inexact science. But a bottom-up global process thrives when the first draft is available, and all of those with a stake in the future can see that they, themselves, are its authors.
Sarah van Gelder wrote this article as the forward to the book Project Censored 2014: Fearless Speech in Fateful Times.