The Media #FAIL On Climate Change

I’ve long thought that if Dr. Evil, or an alien race, or Al Qaeda, threatened to slowly warm the planet, acidify the oceans, intensify extreme weather events, wipe out or alter countless species and habitats, and flood low-lying countries, the global media, and the US media in particular, would treat it as the greatest threat to humanity since fascism. Headlines would scream. Editorials would scathe. News article after news article would detail the latest evolution of the threat and its implications. The media would go into full war-footing mode and treat an existential threat like a, well, existential threat. Which is to say it would be given the prominence that it truly deserves.

But if we–humans–are doing it to ourselves, not so much. As the full impact of climate change accelerates and makes itself felt, how the media handled climate change in our era will be a perfect case study in failure to report and communicate the most important news. And it will look all the worse to future generations of media scholars in contrast to the infotainment and twerking obsessions that instead dominate the media.

It may be understandable that the public–endlessly poking away at its smartphones in search of the latest meaningless distraction–gives the media a free pass on the epic climate change fail. But thinkers and leaders don’t get the same pass on not calling out the media. So it is nice to see Al Gore speaking plainly:

Gore, the former vice president who should have been president but instead used Powerpoint to put climate change on a lot of regular folks’ radars, is not shy about using his outsized soapbox. He was blunt in sharing his reflections Friday during a talk at the Brookings Institution. Here are some choice quotes, as transcribed by The Hill:

“Here in the U.S., the news media has been intimidated, frightened, and not only frightened, they are vulnerable to distorted news judgments because the line separating news and entertainment has long since been crossed, and ratings have a big influence on the selection of stories that are put on the news.”

“And the deniers of the climate crisis, quite a few of them paid by the large fossil fuel polluters — really it is like a family with an alcoholic father who flies into a rage if anyone mentions alcohol, and so the rest of the family decides to keep the peace by never mentioning the elephant in the room. And many in the news media are exactly in that position.”

“They get swarmed by these deniers online and in letters and pickets and all that if they even mention the word climate, and so they very timidly, they get frightened and they are afraid to mention the word climate.”

“Their purpose is to condition thinking and to prevent the consideration of a price on carbon. It’s just that simple.”

I think this is right, but there is a feedback loop that intensifies the problem. As Gore notes, the media these days (especially cable TV) is much more about entertainment than it is about truth-telling or reporting inconvenient truths. But I think the media’s reluctance to really report climate change is less about being intimidated by the drunk fathers of climate denialism than it is about a craven effort to throw before the public anything and everything that will get attention, or go viral, or get page views. And downer news about how we are destroying our own planet with lifestyles driven by materialism and self-gratification, is just not…popular (though dramatic superstorm reporting is). At the same time, if you are going to subject your audience to a grim reality it’s vastly more entertaining to put the drunk uncle in the mix, and let him rant against reality, than it is to tell your audience that the drunk uncle is crazy and needs to be ignored.

And that, in turn, creates the impression that the facts are murky, there are two sides to the debate, and that sacrifice or a deep re-thinking of the destructive culture we have perfected over the past 50 years is simply unwarranted.

But, hey, even Al Gore can make climate reality entertaining:

How Bad Will Climate Change Be?

Chris Mooney, at Mother Jones, breaks down the 5 most worrisome conclusions of the upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2013 Summary for Policymakers report:

We’re on course to change the planet in a way “unprecedented in hundreds to thousands of years.” This is a general statement in the draft report about the consequences of continued greenhouse gas emissions “at or above current rates.” Unprecedented changes will sweep across planetary systems, ranging from sea level to the acidification of the ocean.

Ocean acidification is “virtually certain” to increase. Under all report scenarios, the acidification of the world’s oceans will increase—the draft report calls this outcome “virtually certain.” As we have previously reported, more acidity “threatens the survival of entire ecosystems from phytoplankton to coral reefs, and from Antarctic systems reliant on sea urchins to many human food webs dependent on everything from oysters to salmon.”

Long-term, sea level rise could be 5 to 10 meters. Journalists are already citing the draft report’s prediction that by the year 2100, we could see as much as three feet of sea level rise. But there is also a more long-range sea level scenario alluded to in the draft report, and it’s far more dramatic and alarming.

This also implies a substantial melting of the Greenland ice sheet. The draft report adds that during the last interglacial period, the melting of Greenland “very likely” contributed between 1.4 and 4.3 meters of global sea level rise, with additional contributions coming from the melting of Antarctica. If Greenland were to melt entirely, it is estimated that sea level would rise by about seven meters.

Much of the carbon we’ve emitted will stay in the atmosphere for a millennium…even after we’ve stopped emitting it. The draft report says that 20 percent of the carbon dioxidecurrently in the atmosphere will stay there for an almost unimaginably long time—more than 1,000 years. Even if we were to completely cease all greenhouse gas emissions, the draft report adds, warming would continue for “many centuries.” “A large fraction of climate change,” the document intones, “is thus irreversible on a human time scale.”

Read Mooney’s full analysis here.

Depressing, no? Well, at least Al Gore is optimistic about the future, at least in this interview with the Washington Post:

But in spite of the continued released of 90 million tons of global warming pollution every day into the atmosphere, as if it’s an open sewer, we are now seeing the approach of a global political tipping point.

The appearance of more extreme and more frequent weather events has had a very profound impact on public opinion in countries throughout the world. You mentioned my movie back in the day. The single most common criticism from skeptics when the film came out focused on the animation showing ocean water flowing into the World Trade Center memorial site. Skeptics called that demagogic and absurd and irresponsible. It happened last October 29th, years ahead of schedule, and the impact of that and many, many other similar events here and around the world has really begun to create a profound shift.

A second factor is the sharp and unexpectedly steep decrease in prices for electricity produced from wind and solar and the demand destruction for fossil fuel energy from new efficiency improvements. The difference between 32 degrees fahrenheit and 33 degrees fahrenheit seems larger than just one degree. It’s the difference between water and ice. And by analogy there’s a similar difference between renewable electricity that’s more expensive than electricity from coal and renewable electricity that’s less expensive. And in quite a few countries in the world and some parts of the United States we’ve crossed that threshold and in the next few years we’re going to see that crossed in nations and regions containing most of the world’s population.

Gore’s optimism, unfortunately, is not really about mitigating the damage that the IPCC predicts. It’s more about finally “winning the conversation” about climate change and starting to react to climate change on a global scale. Of course, we are very late in the “conversation” and much of the damage warming will cause is already baked (get it?) into our future.

Full Gore interview is here.