Climate Change and the Media

Paradise, California after the 2018 fire that destroyed it

Greenpeace recently announced that the average American talks about climate change about once a year. Research by Public Citizen shows that the media mentions climate change in just 4 percent of their stories about extreme weather events like hurricanes, fires, droughts and heat waves. The role of the media is very important, because of the way our brain works. According to psychologist Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, the “mere exposure effect” is enough to make our brains consider familiar information as truer than unfamiliar ones. Most reporting in the media is repeated, usually to create a consensus about wars or economic policies, while the top priority for humanity is mostly ignored. It is especially puzzling that a technologically advanced culture like ours tries its best to ignore the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding the urgency of dealing with climate breakdown.

Even cultural entities that appear to accept human causality in climate change don’t seem to be on board with real action on climate. The New York Times hired the former Wall Street Journal journalist and climate change denier Bret Stephens on April 2017. They justified their decision by pointing out the sizable number of climate change deniers among their readers. The New York Times doesn’t seem to notice that climate change is not a matter of opinion, it is a reality that we are already facing. If the paper of record has such a doubtful view on climate change, what can we expect of publications that cater to less educated populations?

Another example of the media’s lack of time for climate change reporting happened when CNN recently refused the proposal of environmental activist and Oscar-winning filmmaker Josh Fox for a series on climate change. According to CNN, a topic like climate change doesn’t merit a series. CNN, like the rest of the mainstream media, repeats endless petty partisan stories and war propaganda ad nauseam, but what is really important, the climate breakdown that will affect us all, doesn’t merit a series. Even seemingly independent outlets like PBS and NPR appear to be on the right side of the issue, but instead, rely on their liberal brand to get away with inviting experts from think tanks like Americans for Prosperity, funded by climate change deniers, the Koch brothers.

This is a sad state of affairs, our culture appears to value quality of life and that of our descendants, but seems unaware of the impact climate change will have on the survival of humanity. Our culture, through the mainstream media outlets, has a big problem communicating this very important question to big audiences and even though the internet has gained a lot of importance recently, traditional media is still the preferred means of information for most people. Getting good information on the internet requires effort and judgment based on previous knowledge, while the information from the mainstream media is easy and lulls us into complacency. It is evident that the media should be held accountable for their failure to correctly inform the public about a topic that is the absolute priority for humanity’s future.

The media is essentially a mouthpiece for the consumerist cultural consensus that encourages apathy about dealing with the climate breakdown and has little desire to encourage accurate reporting of climate change issues. The concentration of the media in just 6 corporations, caused by the privatization of the airwaves following deregulation of the FCC under the presidency of Bill Clinton, has had an impact on the health and diversity of the media. Advertisers and huge corporations care about profits, not about informing the public about climate change, and the concentration in just a few hands doesn’t allow for independent productions with non-commercial aims to have access to the public. Which mainstream media outlet interviews serious climate scientists who are willing to speak the truth about the state of the Earth, instead of sugar coating the issue not to offend any advertisers? Not one, it doesn’t matter how liberal or climate change accepting they claim to be. The business-friendly and profit-obsessed media focuses on stock market numbers and the lives of the rich and famous, reinforcing beliefs and behaviors that preclude any climate change action.

A good example of how the current media culture prevents real assessments of the dire reality of climate change is Harvard Professor and New York Times bestseller list author Steven Pinker. In his recent book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Pinker argues we are living in a new Enlightenment because of the preponderance of reason in our culture. If reason were truly part of our culture, the climate change consensus of the scientific community would have priority access to the media. In his book, Pinker does not even use the scientific method that is supposed to rule our culture. He seems to forget that in the true scientific method, you use data to arrive to a conclusion and not the opposite. In one of his examples Pinker shows a graph of CO2 compared to GDP growth in which he chooses a specific short time span so it proves that GDP can grow while CO2 emissions remain the same. His choice of time frame is made to suit his prechosen conclusions, that business as usual can continue without any consequences for the planet and that a few market carbon pricing mechanisms and geoengineering developments are all the solutions required to deal with climate change. He conveniently omits the graphs showing that CO2 has reached heights of 412 ppm, when the safe upper limit is 300ppm. The apparent stall in CO2 that Pinker used for his graph can also be explained by a concurrent rise in emissions of other greenhouse gases like methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas. The increased warming of the Arctic is causing the release of methane from under the permafrost creating a dangerous situation beyond our control. If we add the boom in fracking with its extensive methane leaking and the increase in cattle raising, we can conclude that record amounts of greenhouse gases are clogging the atmosphere. Pinker’s misleading assessment of economic growth with no consequences for greenhouse gas emissions is then repeated in the media to create an overly optimistic consensus that will prove very harmful for humanity’s survival.

We think there is a choice in information, but it is an illusion since so few corporations own most of the media. Climate scientists know the reality, but are rarely invited to give their opinion. If these scientists are too ‘negative’ in their assessment, they are vilified and their books, though published, are never promoted, so the chances of getting to the New York Times bestseller list are null. This keeps people in the dark about the realities of what is happening to the Earth’s systems and how the feedback mechanisms of these geological events spell trouble for humanity. As a consequence, many people still believe that the effects of climate change will only affect their descendants very far in the future and tend to focus only on what happens locally, deducing that global warming can be denied if their area has a cooler summer or warmer winter. The media is clearly failing humanity at one of the most crucial moments in its history.

We trust technology with no questioning and the media is ready to give us updates on the latest gadgets, but we lag dramatically in our understanding of the functioning of our home, the Earth. In order to understand the seriousness of climate change, there has to be a concerted effort to correct this lag. Only if many people understand the causality between the record levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the melting of the ice in the Arctic and the subsequent feedback loops, can there be a population that demands climate action. Unless a majority is aware of the dire effects of planetary mechanisms like the methane release from under the permafrost, the disturbance of oceanic and atmospheric currents and the changes in ocean levels and of pH and oxygen concentrations, we won’t attain the necessary global consensus. This requires a change in the thinking of many people, from being unaware of the problem’s severity, to being proactive. The media has the power to influence peer group behavior by meme repetition and once you have convinced enough people, the rest of their peers will follow. If the media can manage to create memes to justify unjust wars and detrimental economic policies, why wouldn’t it be able to do the same for climate breakdown? If we are a species that has arrived at a high technological advancement based on science, why do we stop at the technology and not make an effort to question the empirical evidence of its failures and update our scientific knowledge in order to save our species?

Such an important problem can only be addressed globally and with a strong consensus of most of humanity. In order to address the problem correctly, we require a paradigm shift in global thinking and for this to happen we need a majority of people questioning the motives of the corporate media and our cultural belief in the eternal progress of technology. Once we understand that Earth’s systems will have an increasing role in limiting our current way of life, our economic system and set of values will have to adapt to suit the reality of a planet that we have damaged by taking for granted. If we continue to ignore the Earth as a system based on physics laws that do not respond to our whims, we will end up in real trouble quite soon.

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