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:

Media Failure And The Dying Oceans

CNN takes detailed note of the grim future of oceans, and the fish and mammals that live in them:

Remoteness, however, has not left the oceans and their inhabitants unaffected by humans, with overfishing, climate change and pollution destabilizing marine environments across the world.

Many marine scientists consider overfishing to be the greatest of these threats. The Census of Marine Life, a decade-long international survey of ocean life completed in 2010, estimated that 90% of the big fish had disappeared from the world’s oceans, victims primarily of overfishing.

Tens of thousands of bluefin tuna were caught every year in the North Sea in the 1930s and 1940s. Today, they have disappeared across the seas of Northern Europe. Halibut has suffered a similar fate, largely vanishing from the North Atlantic in the 19th century.

In some cases, the collapse has spread to entire fisheries. The remaining fishing trawlers in the Irish Sea, for example, bring back nothing more than prawns and scallops, says marine biologist Callum Roberts, from the UK’s York University.

“Is a smear of protein the sort of marine environment we want or need? No, we need one with a variety of species, that is going to be more resistant to the conditions we can expect from climate change,” Roberts said.

The situation is even worse in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, people are now fishing for juvenile fish and protein that they can grind into fishmeal and use as feed for coastal prawn farms. “It’s heading towards an end game,” laments Roberts.

It’s as dismal a picture as you can imagine, and the collapse of fisheries and acidification of the ocean, apart from the moral failures involved, will have profound effects on humanity’s future. Usually, if self-interest is at stake, people care.

So here is my question: why are these global threats–to the climate, to the oceans, to other species–not front page news each and every day on every media platform modern man has devised? They are existential threats, threats that dwarf the issues and problems that regularly get coverage, threats that dwarf most challenges we have ever faced because they are truly global and go to the core of how we live.

I am sure that media companies would answer that the public doesn’t want to read or hear about the scale of the problem, and the role of humanity and its hyper-materialistic culture in creating the problem. Doesn’t want to hear about sacrifice and the need for change. Covering that stuff is a money-loser.

But if Hitler or Dr. Evil, or an alien invader was threatening to heat up the planet, acidify the oceans, and force mass extinctions, I assume mainstream media would think that was newsworthy, and the public would agree. The occasional due diligence report, like this one, just doesn’t cut it. We need to be going to Defcon 1, and instead we are being hypnotized by the modern opiate of the masses, celebrity worship and endless and feckless video distractions.

Here is one point of agreement I have with Sarah Palin. Mainstream media = Lamestream media. And its failures, like ours, will seem criminal and shockingly blind to future generations trying to cope with the compromised planet we have bequeathed them.