Global warming was recognised as a hugely serious problem as far back as 1988 when the United Nations set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Since then the science has become more solid, more detailed, in fact irrefutable: the risk of dangerous climate change has risen alarmingly, and the corporate media has continued to bury serious debate on what to do about it. According to NASA researchers at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York, global surface temperatures in 2010 tied with 2005 as the warmest on record.
‘If the warming trend continues, as is expected, if greenhouse gases continue to increase, the 2010 record will not stand for long,’ says James Hansen, the director of GISS.
‘Global temperature is rising as fast in the past decade as in the prior two decades, despite year-to-year fluctuations associated with the El Niño-La Niña cycle of tropical ocean temperature,’ Hansen and colleagues report. (NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, ‘NASA Research Finds 2010 Tied for Warmest Year on Record’, press release, January 12, 2011)
The very stability of the Earth’s climate system is on the brink. Even an overall global warming of two degrees Celsius (2C) would be ‘a guaranteed disaster’, warns Hansen: ‘It is equivalent to the early Pliocene epoch [between about 5.3 and 2.6 million years ago] when the sea level was 25 m higher. What we don't know is how long it takes ice sheets to disintegrate, but we know we'd be starting a process which then is going to be out of control.’ (Phil England, ‘Tax on carbon: The only wave to save our planet?’, Independent, January 4, 2011)
Anything beyond a 2C rise may well be catastrophic for humanity. Runaway global warming could be triggered if methane deposits under melting Arctic permafrost were to be released into the atmosphere.
Kevin Anderson, the director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, is another senior climate scientist who is deeply worried:
‘There is currently nothing substantive to suggest we are heading for anything other than a 4C rise in temperature, possibly as early as the 2060s. ‘Yet over a pint of ale or sharing a coffee it is hard to find any scientist seriously engaged in climate change who considers a 4C rise within this century as anything other than catastrophic for both human society and ecosystems.’ (Kevin Anderson, BBC News, ‘Viewpoint: Small steps offer no respite from climate effects’, December 15, 2010, Last updated at 18:15)
Meanwhile, powerful states and corporations are accelerating the rate of planetary consumption. There are occasional nice-sounding ‘green’ promises and aspirations. But in the age of WikiLeaks and the Palestine Papers, we know that powerful and ugly interest groups are really in charge, wheeling and dealing for short-term power and profit behind the benevolent rhetoric.
Climategate As An Excuse For Media Disinterest?
Remember those leaked emails involving climate scientists at the University of East Anglia and colleagues around the world? The lazily dubbed ‘Climategate’ affair generated a huge media storm in a teacup with even the Guardian, the supposed flagship newspaper of environment reporting, culpable. In November 2010, one year after the storm broke, senior NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt noted on the excellent RealClimate blog:
‘as we predicted, no inquiries found anyone guilty of misconduct, no science was changed and no papers retracted. In the meantime we’ve had one of the hottest years on record, scientists continue to do science, and politicians.... well, they continue to do what politicians do.’ (Gavin Schmidt, ‘One year later’, RealClimate, November 20, 2010)
As Schmidt observes, before the hacking of climate emails the media had responsibly begun to avoid the wackier ‘global warming is a hoax’ advocates. Yes, sceptics were occasionally interviewed. But they were becoming slightly more reasonable, at least accepting that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, for example. Now, however, warns Schmidt:
‘since the emails were released, and despite the fact that there is no evidence within them to support any of these claims of fraud and fabrication, the UK media has opened itself so wide to the spectrum of thought on climate that the GW hoaxers have now suddenly find themselves well within the mainstream. Nothing has changed the self-evidently ridiculousness of their arguments, but their presence at the media table has meant that the more reasonable critics seem far more centrist than they did a few months ago.’
Schmidt cites a few examples of the corporate media driving the ‘balance’ of climate debate towards the cliff edge – and beyond:
‘[Lord] Monckton being quoted as a ‘prominent climate sceptic’ on the front page of the New York Times [...]; The Guardian digging up baseless fraud accusations against a scientist at SUNY [the State University of New York] that had already been investigated and dismissed; The Sunday Times ignoring experts telling them the IPCC was right in favor of the anti-IPCC meme of the day; The Daily Mail making up quotes that fit their GW hoaxer narrative; The Daily Express breathlessly proclaiming the whole thing a ‘climate con’; The Sunday Times (again) dredging up unfounded accusations of corruption in the surface temperature data sets. All of these stories are based on the worst kind of oft-rebunked nonsense and they serve to make the more subtle kind of scepticism pushed by [Bjorn ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’] Lomborg et al seem almost erudite.’ (Gavin Schmidt, ‘Whatevergate’, RealClimate, February 16, 2010; see embedded links in Schmidt's article for the original sources)
Ben Stewart, media director of Greenpeace UK, is clear that the media, and not climate scientists, are to blame for any extra public confusion or scepticism:
‘The public haven't read a thousand emails from scientists they have never heard of. The emails didn't change the way that carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere, but the media created a situation that presented a false symmetry between the various sides of the debate.’ (David Adam, environment correspondent, ‘How has “Climategate” affected the battle against climate change?’, Guardian, July 8, 2010)
Despite the massive media attention devoted to the leaked emails and to the absurd claims of extreme climate sceptics, public concern about climate instability rightly remains high. Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, accepts that there may have been some fallout from the media’s irresponsible reporting - a confused public easing off the pressure on politicians to reduce emissions. But on the seriousness of the climate threat itself, Ward says: ‘I haven't seen any evidence there has been any big change in public opinion.’ (Adam, op. cit. ). No thanks to the corporate media.
One Observer editorial last year noted correctly that the leaked emails had had ‘a disproportionate effect in stifling public urgency over climate change.’ (‘We must restart the fight against global warming’, Observer, August 1, 2010). Wringing their hands, the paper’s editors complained that it was ‘baffling’ why ‘it should be so hard to turn a matter of near certain scientific urgency into political action.’
Tragically, like their corporate colleagues elsewhere, the Observer’s editors appear oblivious to the corporate-driven greed of global capitalism that threatens billions of people. No wonder it is ‘profoundly depressing that the chances of concerted global action to protect the environment seem to be receding.’ It is a platitude and a slippery diversion to say, as the Observer does, ‘We must restart the fight against global warming’.
Where is the Observer editorial call to ‘restart the fight against corporate domination of society’? Where is their urging of mass action to oppose government and business policies and practices that are steering us towards the edge of the climate abyss? When the paper writes of David Cameron and Nick Clegg, ‘Their claimed ambitions to take a lead on climate change really are a worthy object of scepticism’, we may greet such an obvious statement with muted applause. But we should express the same scepticism of the Observer and the rest of the corporate media when it comes to the need for urgent, radical and far-reaching analysis and action on the climate crisis.
The Empty Room
Last month’s UN climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, were never going to save the planet. Indeed, they seem to have been regarded as a minor side-show by much of the world’s political leaders and news media. Amy Goodman of the US-based Democracy Now! was a rare exception with daily in-depth reports and interviews. Here is how she presented one item with a wry note of irony:
‘Well, I’m Amy Goodman, here in Cancun. We’re covering the UN global warming summit. You know, last year this time, we were covering the Copenhagen summit. The press room was packed. There were thousands of journalists. It’s empty now. I mean, it’s nice to have printers and computers galore, but with no one in the room but folks who are cleaning up and keeping it tidy and IT people galore, well, I don’t think this was just meant for me. But I think there’s a bigger story here about the lack of interest in the Cancun meeting as the world is getting warmer.’ (Amy Goodman, ‘Pressing the Silence: At the UN Climate Change Conference, the Media Center is Oddly Quiet’, Democracy Now!, December 6, 2010)
‘Am I being unfair? Across the hallway is the writing press room. Oh, it has seats for hundreds and hundreds of journalists. And there are now, what, maybe three? All this, as the earth gets hotter and hotter.’
Democracy Now! reviewed the transcripts of the previous week’s evening news broadcasts on ABC, CBS and NBC. The Cancun talks were not mentioned a single time by any of the networks.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to: Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
John Mullholland, Observer editor