Undoubtedly what made Sandy so unique in comparison with previous hurricanes was the size and scale of the blast, stretching from Southern Florida into Canada. The impact of the storm was so great, in fact, that residents of inland Chicago were warned to steer clear of Lake Michigan because of the intense winds and waves saturating the lake. The Tennessean reported 4 inches of snow and strong winds in eastern Tennessee, unquestionably a result of the hurricane.
But while the hurricane and its aftermath have been shocking, perhaps what’s even more frightening is the media’s total unwillingness to even mention the words “climate change” alongside or point to the possibility of a connection during its live broadcasts.
The science around climate change has been essentially settled for quite some time, with very few skeptics (some of which have been found to be on the payroll of the fossil fuel industry). Scientific institutions that support the basic proposition that Climate Change is real and human induced include, but are not limited to:
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
American Association for the Advancement of Science
The National Academy of Sciences
American Chemical Society
American Geophysical Union
American Institute of Biological Sciences
American Meteorological Society
American Physical Society
Consider this; The National Academy of Sciences, a relatively conservative organization, issued a remarkable statementon the media’s disservice in relaying crucial information on the issue to people that would otherwise have no way of knowing:
“Most people rely on secondary sources for information, especially the mass media; and some of these sources are affected by concerted campaigns against policies to limit CO2 emissions, which promote beliefs about climate change that are not well-supported by scientific evidence. U.S. media coverage sometimes presents aspects of climate change that are uncontroversial among the research community as being matters of serious scientific debate. Such factors likely play a role in the increasing polarization of public beliefs about climate change, along lines of political ideology, that has been observed in the United States.”
NASA Climate Scientist James Hansen, one of the most respected climate scientists in the world, penned an Op-Ed in the New York Times concerning the Keystone Pipeline and the destruction (as in game over for the climate) the project would carry if approved. One would think that such an Op-Ed would gain considerable traction all over media considering the source and the implications of the piece. If the media can give large amounts of coverage to pompous evangelical leaders predicting doomsday apocalyptic horror (predictions that have repeatedly been proven wrong), then certainly it can report on the warnings of respected scientists, right?
While the environmentalist movement has been working hard at advancing the issue, it’s important to remember that this is no longer an issue that can be chalked up to the concerns of a few “nut job environmentalists.” A growing percentage of the country believes not only in the legitimacy of climate change, but its anthropogenic (human caused) nature. Polling done by the Pew Research Center points to 67 percent of Americans perceiving the reality of climate change, with 42 percent under the impression that it is anthropogenic, in spite of media attention.
Tracking media coverage on this issue is expensive and extremely time consuming at that. Luckily Media Matters, a progressive Media watch group, conducted a study on Climate Change coverage in the news, using the record July heat wave this summer as backdrop. The study found that in both print and television media, a paltry 14 percent of media coverage mentioned the words “climate change.” Within those numbers the study also found that ABC and CNN television stations mentioned the issue in heat wave related stories an abysmal 2 and 4 percent of the time respectively. Predictably MSNBC mentioned climate change the most while Fox News unsurprisingly mentioned the issue once, and then later went on to “debunk” it.
All of this was happening while 60 percent of the country was experiencing record drought, large-scale wildfires were torching much of the southwest, the ever flowing Mississippi River was looking at major levels of shrinkage, Artic ice had reached its largest melt ever in a year, and farmers were facinghuge losses on crop yields. This wasn’t bad for everyone, however. Shell Company took the opportunity to capitalize on Artic melt by setting up offshore drilling operations in a more seemingly hospitable oil drilling environment. All of this was happening as the climate was doing exactly what climate scientists predicted it would do, and in some cases more. Increased droughts, floods due to sea level rise, increased intensity in storms–all part of the changing weather patterns predicted by scientists. Could you imagine if Harold Camping or some other evangelical schmuck had been anywhere near this correct in their analysis of future events?
The political class has apparently also come to the conclusion that the issue is off the table. In all four debates, not one time was the issue raised. Not once. Candy Crowley, CNN journalist and moderator of the second presidential debate in speaking afterwards about the issue and its conspicuous absence informed us that “we knew that the economy was still the main thing, so you knew you kind of wanted to go with the economy.”
Mitt Romney, in his closing speech at the RNC, mocked the president for wanting to address rising sea levels, a move that earned the laughter and applause of many conventioneers, but probably the shocking dismay of most people around the world. President Obama would go on and tell MTVafter the debates that he was “surprised it did not come up.” The President apparently forgot that he had 3 debates to bring up the issue on his own. The President had no difficulty bringing up Romney’s suspect tax plan, the policies of George W. Bush, or the bailout of General Motors. The closest we got to any talk on climate change was when both candidates were arguing about domestic energy. Instead of speaking to the seriousness of the issue, the President wasdefending his pro-fossil fuel policy. As a good friend of mine watching the debate noted at the time, “I can’t believe these guys are having a contest of who can rape the planet more.”
So why is it, in the face of grave and sober warnings of planetary crisis, do we get a media and political class unwilling to even seriously discuss or address the issue as extreme weather patterns persist? Many journalists and pundits point to the issue being one of interest for a concentrated group of “tree hugger activists,” and nothing more. But the polls clearly point to a different story, given the growing public concern and acceptance of climate change as a legitimate theory. Others point to the politicization of the issue, and there is a degree of truth to this. Climate change denialism has in a sense gone the way of hallowed ideals such as tax cuts and deregulation, which is to say that all these dogmas have either been disproved or at the very least have the capacity to be, but appeals to reason, science, and facts no longer hold any sway or influence. Just like tax cuts for “job creators” have shifted from the economic sphere to the cultural sphere, so has climate change denialism been cemented as a robust cultural conservative ideal impervious to any mode of rationality. Big networks, the argument goes, understanding polarization on the issue, may be wary of appearing to be biased in reporting scientific findings.
While the politicization of climate change is certainly an issue, that explanation does not really suffice in explaining the lack of media attention on such an important topic. The media covers issues all the time in ways that could be viewed as “politicizing.” Whether its raising issues of Romney’s tax plan, Obama’s Libya affair, or even Sarah Palin’s bizarre criticism of the first lady’s obesity initiatives, the media loves polarization. It makes for good drama, and if television ratings and public polling are any indication, viewers love drama, a fact that television producers are well aware of. With news constantly finding itself in competition with entertainment as a result of larger television programming, the media has been forced to take on a more entertaining role, covering news through horse-racing lens (who’s winning, who’s losing?) rather than reporting on the issues that matter the most to people. It’s not the polarizing aspect of climate change that repels media.
No, the answer is much more simple than that. Climate change is subversive. To believe in the threat that is climate change is to look at the present economic structure, point to the very premise of that structure, limitless extraction of fossil fuels, and recognize that it is broken and merits radical restructuring. To believe in the threat that is climate change is to acknowledge that we can’t continue as we are, and that change is not only desired, but mandatory if we are to continue to live on this beautiful planet we call Earth. And the executives at the major energy companies are all very aware of this.
This is in large part why the initial “denialist” strategy adopted by the energy industry has been amended over time. It is no longer possible to simply fund think tanks and research groups that deny the existence of the phenomenon and be taken seriously. Because of the scientific consensus on the issue, the argument has essentially changed, from one of denialism, to one of acceptance of climate change as a legitimate scientific theory with one very important distinction: The subversive element has been thrown out, the idea that climate change is human induced. And why not? This allows for a keeping with the status quo, an evasivenesss in coming to terms with the culpability of energy producers with the help of political elites. In a nutshell, it lets all of us off the hook.
Naomi Klein wrote a blockbuster piece last year (long, but seriously worth a read) discussing the common sensical reluctance the fossil fuel industry has in any kind of talk about climate change action. While the essay details levels of cynicism and sheer lunacy shared by both business elites and politicians on the subject, the piece spends most of its time discussing legitimate alternatives, actions and policies that the country could be undertaking to combat the growing threat. Essays like these are important because they present concrete alternatives that can feed into fresh sources of imagination as they remind us that things don’t have to be the way that they are.
While it is increasingly becoming clear that we may not have enough time, all hope is not lost. For one, people that have never really spent much time considering the issue are slowly starting to come around to the idea that the climate is changing, and we as humans may be driving it. A bunch of activists in Texas are setting up camp on private land to be used for Keystone pipeline placement, and they have done this by building makeshift platforms in the midst of trees, engaging in civil disobedience. Students are pushing for universities to divest from fossil fuel companies, a move reminiscent of the divestment movement in the 1980s concerning apartheid South Africa.Young evangelicals have joined in the action as well, trying to hold not only politicians accountable but their faith leaders as well.
Other nations are addressing the climate catastrophe headstrong. In 2007, Scotland had set out for achieving half its energy needs by 2020, and as a result of aggressive policy making, that goal could be achieved as soon as 2015, and by 2020 it is very possible that Scotland achieve all its energy needs through renewables. Germany has made solar energy a priority with half its energy needs coming from the Sun at one point this summer. After the Fukushima disaster unfolded last year, Japan has made plans to phase out its nuclear program and aggressively invest in alternative renewable energy.
The time to act is now. Small decisions like choosing to recycle or going the compost route are certainly great, but it’s important that we not fall into the trap of thinking that this is where it ends. This is a large-scale modern disaster and to quote the always quotable Dave Chappelle, “modern problems require modern solutions.” The media may be unwilling to make a connection, but perhaps a hurricane that hits the largest metropolitan area in the country may serve as a wake up call to its residents and the rest of the country.
Economists have been running around the country the last several years telling everyone that there is a debt crisis, taking to countless editorials and Op-Eds with the message that budget cuts must take priority in order that we might save our children and grandchildren from massive levels of debt. Well, if the problem of climate change isn’t addressed any time soon, there won’t be any posterity, let alone a stable planet, to pass our “massive levels of debt” to.
David Tigabu is a graduate student studying Political Science at American University and a devout follower of Dean E. Smith.
About the Authors
Tripp York teaches religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the author of more than half a dozen books including, Third Way Allegiance, The Purple Crown, and Living on Hope While Living in Babylon. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming three-volume collection called the Peaceable Kingdom Series. An actor and a lighting designer, Tripp also surfs and spends his weekends shoveling elephant and giraffe poop.