Planet guardian

By John Gibbons

There is nothing new about newspapers striking postures over climate change. On December 7th, 2009, some 55 major newspapers from all over the world (including the Irish Times) ran a joint editorial just ahead of the opening of the Copenhagen UN climate conference.

Who could forget the dramatic call to arms from some of the world’s most respected newspapers? It began:

“Humanity faces a profound emergency. Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting… In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world’s response has been feeble and half-hearted.

Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over short-sightedness. The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history’s judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice”.

Stirring stuff. The Copenhagen conference, mired in phony controversy and crippled by internecine squabbling, was a wretched failure. Less than four weeks later, with Ireland in the grip of a (climate change-related) freezing spell, the Irish Times editorial writer had a Damascene conversion. “So much for all of that guff about global warming! Are world leaders having the wrong debate? We are experiencing the most prolonged period of icy weather in 40 years and feeling every bit of it”.

Humanity’s ‘profound emergency’ turned out to be little more than a nine-day wonder, as the media folded up its collective tent and moved on to more promising editorial fare. After all, who could be bothered reading (or writing about) the dull, technical and seemingly interminable non-story that climate change and the relentless destruction of our planet’s biodiversity and habitability had become.

Sprinkle this journalistic ennui with a side order of character assassination of selected individual scientists and voilà, the greatest crisis humanity ever faced morphs into the greatest non-story of the century. That may be how the media work, but nature itself continues to be stubbornly cooperative with the grimmer prognostications of those wearisome scientific eggheads.

“Climate change is one of those stories that deserves more attention, that we all talk about”, Jeff Zucker, president of news network CNN said last year. “But we haven’t figured out how to engage the audience in that story in a meaningful way. When we do do those stories, there tends to be a tremendous lack of interest on the audience’s part”, was Zucker’s candid appraisal.

Paul Weller opened The Jam’s 1980 single ‘Going Underground’ with the line, “the public gets what the public wants”, but as the song unfolds, this inverts to become: “the public wants what the public gets”.

The Irish public today knows far more about the disturbed sexual fantasies of one south Dublin architect than it does about the existential noose that draws ever tighter around our collective neck. Since these salacious stories, along with exhaustive ‘economic’ analysis predicated solely on growth and consumption, are what the public gets, day after day, ergo this must be what the public wants. Small wonder then that our politicians and public servants shrug off environmental angst as being not on the public agenda, and therefore nothing for them to bother with.

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To put a number on our collective failure, consider the following: the world’s political leaders have known since 1990 that CO2 emissions were putting humanity in jeopardy. Countless conferences, protocols, treaties and solemn declarations later, and, rather than reducing, global emissions have instead spiralled by 61% since Jack Charlton led the Irish team to the World Cup quarter finals in Rome. In the same period, species extinctions have intensified and global biodiversity has gone into free-fall.

The neo-liberal assault on the foundations of life on Earth is fast approaching its triumphant, albeit suicidal, apotheosis. Anyone who pays more than fleeting attention to the output of the world’s leading climate journals and scientific academies will realise this is not mere journalistic hype. It is instead an unremarkable observation on a species that has run amok and has been blind-sided to the fact that its own fate is inextricably linked with the very fabric of the natural world it is carelessly unravelling.

In recent weeks, the Guardian newspaper, under outgoing editor, Alan Rusbridger, has sought to break this communications impasse. And it has done so in the most spectacular style, beginning its campaign with full wraparounds on several editions of the newspaper carrying in-depth articles from Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben, among others.

Both the newspaper and its editor are out on a limb, and success is far from assured. Explaining his thinking, Rusbridger described journalism as a rear-view mirror. “We prefer to deal with what has happened, not what lies ahead. We favour what is exceptional and in full view, over what is ordinary and hidden”.

Vast, complex stories with no apparent beginning, middle or end, in which there is no clearly identifiable bad guy and in which we in the rich world and almost everything we do are to blame are an exceptionally poor fit for the news paradigm.

“Changes to the Earth’s climate rarely make it to the top of the news list. The changes may be happening too fast for human comfort, but they happen too slowly for the news-makers – and, to be fair, for most readers”, he expanded. “These events that have yet to materialise may dwarf anything journalists have had to cover over the past troubled century. There may be untold catastrophes, famines, floods, droughts, wars, migrations and sufferings just around the corner. But that is futurology, not news, so it is not going to force itself on any front page any time soon”.

Unless, that is, an editor, backed by his newspaper, refuses to accept the failed and increasingly dangerous model of journalism that has us all stumbling blindly off a cliff, too distracted by trivia and bedazzled by celebrity to even notice our world rapidly vanishing behind us.

“To my mind, the science of climate change is without doubt. The threat to the species is so severe that this is one of those rare subjects where you can move from reporting to campaigning”, Rusbridger explained.

The Guardian has taken this campaign up a notch, by launching its ‘Keep it in the ground’ campaign to encourage and shame institutions and organisations, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the Wellcome Trust, to dump their investments in fossil fuel companies. The Guardian Media Group has itself divested from any such interests.

The numbers here are surprisingly simple. For there to be any reasonable prospect of preventing global warming from breaching the +2C ‘red line’, at least 80% of the world’s proven fossil fuel reserves can never be burned. Since these reserves are worth trillions of euros on the balance sheets of the major energy companies, nothing short of a revolutionary shift in public attitude can have even the slightest prospect of preventing their being burned, and humanity being destroyed in the process.

From where we are now standing, the prospects for success seem slim. The energy industry is the richest business the world has ever known, and its wealth buys political and media obsequiousness. But since the alternative to fighting is to sit helplessly and wait for everything we know and value to be destroyed, that’s reason enough to battle on, no matter how unpromising the odds.

History reminds us that there are invisible social tipping points, moments where the unimaginable becomes, almost overnight, inevitable. The ending of the global slave trade, the women’s suffragette movement and even the spread of democracy itself are examples of ideas that initially appeared to have few powerful advocates and little chance of success. South Africa’s Apartheid system and the Soviet Union also once seemed unassailable – just as neo-liberal capitalism and globalised consumerism appear today.

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking”, remarked Albert Einstein. “It cannot be changed without changing our thinking”. •

John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and tweets @thinkorswim