“Hothouse Earth” and “Losing Earth” reporting missed the point – there is still time to act

earth from spaceTwo high-profile news stories appearing in August highlight the perils of climate change journalism: the “Hothouse Earth”  article, and  “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” in the New York Times Magazine.  Both prove the old adage that there are two sides to every story; if you only read the original articles, here is some discussion and context to counter the fatalistic news coverage.

“Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene” published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS) on August 6 was  widely reported as the “Hothouse Earth” article. It reviewed the existing studies about feedback loops which could push the Earth System toward “a planetary threshold”  that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperatures and cause “continued warming on a “Hothouse Earth” pathway”.  The Guardian translated the  scientific language and quoted some of the authors in “Domino-effect of climate events could move Earth into a ‘hothouse’ state”  (Aug. 7), but the byline “Leading scientists warn that passing such a point would make efforts to reduce emissions increasingly futile” typifies the sort of fatalistic coverage which followed.  One of the worst examples appeared  in an Opinion piece from The Tyee on August 12  “If We Can’t Stop Hothouse Earth, We’d Better Learn to Live on It” .

In fact, the original PNAS paper was a call to action,  calling for “ stewardship of the entire Earth System—biosphere, climate, and societies—and could include decarbonization of the global economy, enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, behavioral changes, technological innovations, new governance arrangements, and transformed social values.”   It was accompanied by a supplementary document  which included specifics in  Table S5: Human actions that could steer the Earth System onto a ‘Stabilized Earth’ trajectory.  The authors have also been active in promoting  their main message: “World is finally waking up to climate change, says ‘hothouse Earth’ author”  (August 19) in The Guardian, in which Hans Joachim Schellnhuber states: “There’s a time to sit down and work at your desk and there’s a time to get up and leave the area where you are comfortable. That time is now.”

Similarly, in  “Hothouse Earth” Co-Author: The Problem is Neoliberal Economics” by Kate Aronoff in The Intercept (Aug. 14)  another co-author,  Will Steffen states:  “the obvious thing we have to do is to get greenhouse gas emissions down as fast as we can. That means that has to be the primary target of policy and economics. You have got to get away from the so-called neoliberal economics.” He suggests something “more like wartime footing”  at very fast rates for renewable energy , transportation and agriculture ”.

Others also call for action: Eric Holthaus, in “Terrified by ‘hothouse Earth’? Don’t despair — do something”  in The National Observer (Aug. 7) states  “Humanity is now facing the need for critical decisions and actions that could influence our future for centuries, if not millennia” .  David Suzuki struck a similar note in “David Suzuki: Cool solutions mean a hothouse planet isn’t inevitable” in The Straight (August 14) and also in Rabble.ca , saying, “The research is profoundly disturbing. But the media coverage often missed or downplayed a crucial element: the solutions the report outlines toward a “stabilized Earth pathway.”  Suzuki states: “We must insist that politicians represent the interests of citizens rather than corporations. We must stand up to the fossil fuel industry and climate science deniers.”, and quotes Professor Simon Lewis from University College London and University of Leeds, saying “diagnosing global warming and its consequences is a scientific issue, but solving climate change is about power, money, and political will.”

For a review of other scientific studies : “Is our planet headed toward a ‘Hothouse’? Here’s what the science does — and doesn’t — say” in the  Washington Post (Aug. 10)  by Richard Betts, a U.K. scientist, who credits the importance of the article but speculates that it has received such outsize press response because of the timing of being released in the midst of the world’s heat waves, and because of the use of the perjorative “hothouse” term.

The second case which needs some context:  “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” , published on August 1 in the New York Times Magazine . The article was preceded by extensive publicity to establish its importance and authority:  “with support from the Pulitzer Center, this two-part article by Nathaniel Rich is based on 18 months of reporting and well over a hundred interviews, documenting the history of climate change science and activism between 1979 and 1989.” Sounds unassailable, and presents a highly detailed historical account, yet criticism followed immediately. From The Atlantic, “The Problem With The New York Times’ Big Story on Climate Change” (Aug. 1) with the byline: “By portraying the early years of climate politics as a tragedy, the magazine lets Republicans and the fossil-fuel industry off the hook”.  In an interview in Democracy Now, ““Losing Earth”: How Humanity Came to Understand Climate Change & Failed to Act in Time”, Amy Goodman invites Nathaniel Rich  to refute some of the criticism.  Finally,  “Capitalism killed our climate, not human nature”  by Naomi Klein appeared in The Intercept (Aug. 4), stating: “ it is so enraging that the piece is spectacularly wrong in its central thesis.”  … Klein argues that climate activism  “suffered from an epic case of historical bad timing… governments were getting together to get serious about reining in the fossil fuel sector, the global neoliberal revolution went supernova, and that project of economic and social reengineering clashed with the imperatives of both climate science and corporate regulation at every turn.” She concludes: “We aren’t losing earth — but the earth is getting so hot so fast that it is on a trajectory to lose a great many of us. In the nick of time, a new political path to safety is presenting itself. This is no moment to bemoan our lost decades. It’s the moment to get the hell on that path.”

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