Are the media getting the message? Mainstream media begin to cover the climate emergency – updated

Re-written on May 28 to include an article appearing in The Tyee: “Dear Journalists of Canada: Start Reporting Climate Change as an Emergency” .


The traditional media have been criticized for their indifference to the climate change issue – recently, in the Columbia Journalism Review, “The media are complacent while the world burns”, and in The Tyee,  “Dear Journalists of Canada: Start Reporting Climate Change as an Emergency”. 

Both article refer to a  Media Matters report that only 22 of the 50 largest newspapers in the U.S. even bothered to cover the landmark IPCC Report in October 2018. The article in The Tyee is presented as an open letter to media owners and journalists, and reports the author’s own search of  Canadian Newsstream — a database which covers 569 different English language news sources – mostly newspapers, as well as national evening news broadcasts by CBC and CTV television.  Giving examples, he identifies problems of lack of climate change coverage, failure to provide local context about international stories, and failure to seek accountability in story coverage. Finally, he calls upon Canadian journalists “to do these five things: properly placecovercontextualize, and localize the biggest story of our time, and hold public and private institutions to account for their actions and inactions on climate change.”

Improvements are on the way:    The Guardian newspaper in the U.K.  has been called  “one of the best-respected and most widely used international sources of information on the crises of the climate and the natural world” by Climate Home News.  In April 2019, The Guardian became the first newspaper to publish global carbon dioxide levels on its daily weather pages, and on May 17, it announced that it has updated its internal Style Guide to better reflect the reality and depth of the climate emergency. Now, instead of using the term  “climate change” in its reports,  the preferred terms will be “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown”. Other changes:  “global heating” rather than “global warming” and “climate science denier” rather than “climate sceptic”. In its explanation, Editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner is quoted as saying:  “The phrase ‘climate change’, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”

In a follow-up report by The Guardian,  the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is cited as the furthest along amongst traditional news outlets (including the New York Times and Washington Post)  in adopting The Guardian’s  language:  “Senior CBC management told staff they were able to use the terms “climate crisis” and “climate emergency” when covering the wide-ranging impacts of temperature rises around the world.”  On CBC Radio, the host of Metro Morning interviewed a spokesperson from The Guardian on this issue here (9:34 minutes audio). Although the CBC guidance is permissive rather than prescriptive, it hardly seems possible to avoid the term “climate emergency”, when  the parliaments of both the federal and the Ontario government formally debated declaring a “climate emergency” in May, and municipalities across the country have already done so (over 300 municipalities in Quebec alone).

Most recently, the Toronto Star began a new newsletter series in May, Undeniable: Canada’s Changing Climate . So far, topics have included: “Toronto’s Ninja Storm” (re the 2018 flooding) (May 21); “Life and Death Under the Dome”  (when 66 Montrealers died in a heat wave)  (May 23) ;  and “Open for Business” (May 27) (re mining in Ontario’s North) . Much more to come from The Star, which has previously collaborated with the  National Observer, Global News, the Michener Awards Foundation, the Corporate Mapping Project and four journalism schools on a special investigative series, The Price of Oil, regarding the impacts of the oil and gas industry on Canadian communities.

Finally, the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation announced a new international initiative in late April,  the Covering Climate Now project, which  aims to improve the media’s coverage of “the most  urgent story of our time” . The project  “will provide substantial resource guides for journalists, tutorials, source lists, and web briefings; we’ll gather the best of climate coverage in an online blog, and provide commentary on how other reporters can replicate it; and we will increase our own reporting on how news outlets are covering the climate crisis, highlighting what is working and calling out what isn’t.”  The first big goal: to organize a  week of concentrated climate coverage beginning September 16,  in the lead-up to the UN climate Summit in New York City on September 23. They’ll have lots to cover, now that 350.org is also organizing a one-day global strike for September 20.

 

Labor’s voice in support of the Green New Deal

Joe Uehlein of Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) was interviewed by Counterspin Radio on May 3 concerning his views on the Green New Deal; a transcript was published by FAIR on May 8 as “Climate Change is the Real Job Killer”  . Uehlein and colleague Jeremy Brecher have written numerous articles on this theme – including  “12 reasons why labor should support a Green New Deal”, which appeared in Working In These Times in 2018.  LNS monitors the situation and posts new GND endorsements by U.S. labour unions in a dedicated “Green New Deal” section of its website, building a compilation of documents. Labor Network for Sustainability co-hosted a Labor Convergence on Climate on April 13, along with the Alameda Labor Council in California; the next Labor Convergence will take place in Chicago at the end June, with the theme Strengthening Labor’s Voice to Help Shape the Green New Deal. Details are here 

For those interested in the issue of how the Green New Deal is being communicated in mainstream media, “Establishment Media and the Green New Deal: New Wine in Old Bottles” appeared on May 1 in FAIR . The article tracks mainstream U.S. newspaper and network coverage of the announcement by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey on February 7 (and 8th), and a subsequent snapshot of coverage two weeks later.   It documents the chronology with  sample headlines and quotes, with some analysis. While none of it is surprising, taken together it condenses the tone and atmosphere of the GND launch. The conclusion: “To meet that level of public concern, the mainstream media should be covering how to leverage climate action quickly and broadly enough to make a dent in the crisis, as well as probing how and if solutions can also bring a clean and just energy economy into existence.”

One might also add that mainstream media should be seeking out the voices outside of  political and academic circles – such as Joe Uehlein’s and those of other labour leaders. One such article, “Labor Unions are skeptical of the Green New Deal, and they want activists to hear them out” appeared in The Intercept  in February, and describes the complex conflict within the labour movement – a topic also addressed by Naomi Klein in   “The Battle lines have been drawn on the Green New Deal” , which appeared in The Intercept (Feb. 13).

 

 

Economists weigh in on deceptive carbon pricing messages

Economist Brenda Frank contributes to the ongoing battle of ideas about carbon pricing in Canada with his  January 9 blog : “Carbon pricing works even when emissions are rising”. Frank begins:  “An old, debunked argument against carbon taxes has flared up recently: If total emissions aren’t falling, the tax must not be working. Let’s quash that myth.”  Continuing the arguments he published in a 2017 blog, “The curious case of counterfactuals”, his central question is, “if emissions are still rising, how fast would they have been rising without a carbon price?”  He cites recent studies, such as “The Impact of British Columbia’s Carbon Tax on Residential Natural Gas Consumption” (in  Energy Economics, Dec. 2018), as well as  the extensive carbon pricing reports produced by the Ecofiscal Commission, most recently Clearing the Air: How carbon pricing helps Canada fight climate change (April 2018).  The  conclusion: carbon pricing is more “complicated than something you can fit in a tweet”, and  complex analysis demonstrates that it does work.

Marc Hafstead , U.S. economist and Director of the Carbon Pricing Initiative pursues a similar theme in  “Buyer Beware: An Analysis of the Latest Flawed Carbon Tax Report” ( November 28).   Hafstead contends that “some papers can introduce confusion and misinformation”, and demonstrates how this is done in  The Carbon Tax: Analysis of Six Potential Scenarios , a study commissioned by the Institute for Energy Research and conducted by Capital Alpha Partners.  Hafstead critiques the modelling assumptions and concludes they are flawed ; he also charges that the paper fails to explain its differences from the prevailing academic literature.

Even without Hafstead’s economic skills, one might be wary of the U.S. paper after a check of the DeSmog’s  Global Warming Disinformation Database , which provides mind-blowing detail about the financial and personnel connections between the Institute for Energy Research and  Koch Industries . DeSmog maintains records on organizations and individuals engaged in “climate change disinformation” in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

Canadian press coverage of pipelines lacks workers’ voices

ccpa-bc_jobsvsenvironment whose voices are missingJobs vs the Environment? Mainstream and alternative media coverage of pipeline controversies  examines how the press—classified into corporate and alternative outlets —treats the relationship between jobs and the environment, and how frequent and influential are the voices of workers and labour unions. The report uses two sophisticated methods of communications analysis – content analysis and critical discourse analysis – to examine two samples:  The first sample comprises 129 articles about Canadian pipeline projects from the Vancouver Sun, the Edmonton Journal  and the Toronto  Globe and Mail  representing corporate media; articles from Ricochet, The Tyee, and the National Observer  represent alternative media.  The second examination was slightly different, made up of 170 articles about the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion which appeared in the Vancouver Sun and two commuter tabloids in Vancouver, and including Rabble.ca  to the previously examined alternative sources of  Ricochet, The Tyee, and National Observer.

The analysis is detailed and makes many interesting observations. Briefly, the authors conclude from these samples that both  mainstream and alternative media frequently reinforce the assumption that there is a trade-off between environmental protection and job creation. Though alternative media are more critical  of pipeline projects and provide more of the  perspectives of Indigenous people and environmentalists, the authors conclude that  “neither corporate nor alternative media gave much voice to the perspectives of workers and their unions.” And  “while job creation is often touted as a rationale for pipeline projects, the actual workers and their unions—the presumed beneficiaries of fossil fuel expansion—appear to be largely missing from news reportage.”

To sum up, they write that : “… alternative media provide analyses and sources that help counterbalance the apparent extractivist orientation of the corporate press. They make a valuable contribution to well-rounded public discussion and offer perspectives on energy, climate and economic policies that are evidently under-represented in the corporate press.

The authors briefly discuss the labour press – mentioning Rank and File.ca  specifically, and see a role for the labour media in the climate and energy debate. They state: “….. labour’s voice in the media system is muted. There are many reasons why a movement for a just transition has not gained greater traction. Governments have not sufficiently committed to retraining and other supportive measures, and thus there are few working examples for just transition advocates to highlight. But part of the problem lies in the lack of public arenas for exploring the common ground between workers and environmentalists regarding a low-carbon economy. Engaging the public imagination about such a necessary transition would be a valuable goal for corporate and alternative media, as well as media produced by the labour movement itself.”

The authors are Robert A. Hackett, a professor emeritus, and  Philippa R. Adams, a PhD student, both from the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.  The publisher is the Corporate Mapping Project, a research and public engagement initiative investigating the power of the fossil fuel industry,  jointly led by the University of Victoria, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ BC and Saskatchewan Offices and the Parkland Institute.

“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.”