Wen Stephenson is my new hero.
Seriously, Wen Stephenson is the man. For those of you who don’t have a feed of the local NPR broadcast going directly into your prefrontal cortex, Wen Stephenson was most recently the senior producer of NPR’s On Point, as well as an editor at The Atlantic and The Boston Globe.
Mr. Stephenson is also a former member of what he calls the MSM (main stream media) turned full-time climate activist. He recently wrote a piece that all but assured his role as a “former” MSM contributor will be a permanent one. The piece entitled A Convenient Excuse, WHICH YOU ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY MUST READ, is the story of one man’s desperate pleas for sanity falling on deaf ears. His desperation and sadness at the dimming prospects of a bright future should feel deeply personal to all of us, but they don’t. Wen thinks the mainstream media is complicit in our misconstruction. Wen is right.
Stephenson correctly understands how well positioned the mainstream media is to affect the urgency of our response to climate change. However, urgency has been all but absent from the tone taken by all of our major news outlets, including the “liberal lame stream media elite” at The New York Times, NPR, and PBS. To be clear, they have certainly covered climate change and global warming. Much more so than the folks at The Wall Street Journal or the National Review, but the coverage is topical instead of systemic. The MSM handling of climate change typically hones in on individual pieces of evidence like melting ice sheets, regional devastation from drought, or massive storms. This micro-journalistic view is completely inadequate; what we need is macro-journalistic coverage. We need cogent explanations of the systemic challenges our human civilization is currently up against. And we needed it like…yesterday.
If there’s one thing our modern media knows how to do, it’s sensationalize a crisis. That’s the type of coverage Wen is insistent upon and he won’t rest until he has convinced his former colleagues to oblige. Why? Well…the dispatches from sources of scientific consensus are becoming increasingly apocalyptic. Take this November 2012 release from the World Bank entitled Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4° C Warmer World Must Be Avoided as the most recent example. The World Bank is not exactly a bastion of liberal environmentalism, but they clearly recognize the magnitude of the crisis at hand. They conclude that, “[We’re] on track for a 4°C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.” Now that’s a headline!
“A planetwide temperature rise of 4 degrees C—and the report notes that the tepidness of the emission pledges and commitments of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will make such an increase almost inevitable—will cause a precipitous drop in crop yields, along with the loss of many fish species, resulting in widespread hunger and starvation. Hundreds of millions of people will be forced to abandon their homes in coastal areas and on islands that will be submerged as the sea rises. There will be an explosion in diseases such as malaria, cholera and dengue fever. Devastating heat waves and droughts, as well as floods, especially in the tropics, will render parts of the Earth uninhabitable. The rain forest covering the Amazon basin will disappear. Coral reefs will vanish. Numerous animal and plant species, many of which are vital to sustaining human populations, will become extinct. Monstrous storms will eradicate biodiversity, along with whole cities and communities. And as these extreme events begin to occur simultaneously in different regions of the world, the report finds, there will be ‘unprecedented stresses on human systems.’ Global agricultural production will eventually not be able to compensate. Health and emergency systems, as well as institutions designed to maintain social cohesion and law and order, will crumble. The world’s poor, at first, will suffer the most. But we all will succumb in the end to the folly and hubris of the Industrial Age. And yet, we do nothing.”
Can you imagine the ensuing controversy if The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times printed something like that? We need crisis-level coverage, because we’re up against the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced. The World Bank (and virtually every other credible scientific institution) is telling us that we’re on track to completely wreck our atmosphere by doing nothing else but more of what we’re already doing. Business as usual is more than enough to ruin the greatest non-renewable resource of all: a livable climate.
So why isn’t this on the front-page every single day? Why is Hedges’ analysis the exception to the climate coverage rule? Is it too grim? If we believe the best minds the scientific community has to offer, Hurricane Sandy is but a harbinger of the world we’re creating for our children. Super storms like Sandy will be a common occurrence that will wash up on our shores more precipitously every year. Yet, for the most part reporting on global climate change stays focused on symptoms and not causes, on individual events and not systemic planetary shifts. Non-scientific reporters have a bad habit of pretending to be wonks. What the hell is 4° C anyways? It really doesn’t sound that bad. How could 4° C create the type of apocalypse I’m talking about? After all, here in the Pacific Northwest an extra 4° C would make for a pretty nice summer, right?
Let’s think about it another way in order to illustrate how truly horrifying 4° C is. The current global consensus, agreed to in the Copenhagen Accord and signed by countries responsible for 80% of global emissions, is that human civilization must not allow the global temperature to rise more than 2° C. Beyond two degrees, the climate scientists say, global physical/social/economic systems start to break down. Bill McKibben has more on 2° C in this landmark Rolling Stone article, where he explains the frightening math behind the challenge to keep warming to that level. So if 2° is the upper limit we’ve all agreed to, and we’re actually on track to double that by the end of this century, what exactly does it mean?
A healthy human body has a resting temperature of about 98.6° F or 37° C. The Copenhagen Accord allows a two degree Celsius increase; in other words we’ve all agreed that we’re comfortable with the climactic equivalent of a 102.2° F fever. It’s bad, but not life-threatening. You wouldn’t want to walk around with a 102° fever for more than a couple days but you’ll probably recover. Four degrees is a whole different story. At 4° C, it’s the same as trying to survive a protracted 105.8° F fever. A fever of 106° F requires immediate medical attention and left untreated can cause brain damage or death. Four degrees kills people, and it kills civilizations too. Your body and the Earth that gave it life are similarly complex, and similarly sensitive to small changes in average temperature. The amount of disruption caused by 4° C of warming would render our planet unrecognizable to generations of very recent history. The world my grandmother grew up in will be nonexistent if we continue with business as usual.
Here’s a question. How do you stay informed on local and global happenings? If you have figured out some sort of metaphysical trick to be everywhere on the planet in order to witness everything that happens, please don’t answer that question. If you’re like the rest of us, you get your information from the information givers. The news! Granted, there’s a lot more of them out there today; with online papers, magazines, independent broadcasts like Democracy Now! and blogs, our options are more stratified than ever. It’s wonderful because new media has given dissidents like Chris Hedges and Wen Stephenson a platform from which to broadcast. However the vast majority of Americans still get their news from television broadcasts or widely distributed newspapers. And television newscasts and newspapers aren’t willing to print the kind of real shit that Hedges and Stephenson are onto. They can’t or won’t tell you the truth about the climate disaster which as already begun to unfold.
Do you follow? It won’t be possible to catalyze a global movement to confront our greatest of challenges without a mainstream media that takes its journalistic responsibility to the public seriously.
Climate change is not a niche “environmentalist” issue to be covered in some below-the-fold ad hoc fashion. Just the contrary: it’s a headline, in your face, we’re all fucked unless we do something right now kind of story that is barely making Section A. What’s worse, the MSM journalists who are willing to “go there” are setting the pace and tone of climate change coverage going forward, and guess what, it’s a pretty tepid response.
If climate change were getting the type of coverage the non-scandal in Benghazi has had heaped on it, people might begin waking up and asking some very important questions. Perhaps they could see through the myth that disruptive climate change is some far off event. It’s here now; 2011 was the hottest year on record and 2012 is shaping up to be even hotter. Perhaps they wouldn’t be satisfied with the Associated Press’ brilliant conclusion that over half the United States remains in serious drought conditions, simply because it didn’t rain. No, it’s got nothing to do with climate change. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. This is just the new normal, and why wouldn’t it be? It turns out, if you’re 27 years of age or younger, you’ve never lived on a planet which has recorded a colder than average month. These are not new trends.
I beg of you, please read Wen Stephenson’s article A Convenient Excuse in The Phoenix. It’s too bad that the MSM doesn’t have the journalistic integrity to report in any meaningful way on climate change, or to take their responsibility one step further and advocate for a higher choice on behalf of all of humanity. If you’re a MSM journalist and you understand the high stakes of the Climate Craps game we’re all currently embroiled in, why aren’t you piping up? Why aren’t you advocating? Why aren’t you confronting your editors like Mr. Stephenson did? How can you look at your children or grandchildren and not feel as though you’re failing them on a very deep level?
Hear us loud and clear MSM: at this decisive moment in human history we don’t need your objectivity, we need your integrity. Give us the news, not the weather.