How Do You Cover An Existential Threat?
June 1, 2019 10:39 AM   Subscribe

“To limit the worst effects of the climate crisis, we have under eleven years to decarbonize our economy, mobilizing, as Bill McKibben and others have urged, on the speed and scale of WWII. One might expect to see that mobilization effort in the US media more often; climate change, after all, frames every beat. A threat of such breadth, teen climate activist Greta Thunberg once said, should preclude us from talking, writing, or reporting about anything else. Yet my news feed tells a different story.“ War all the time? Climate reporters weigh coverage quantity against quality (CJR)
posted by The Whelk (33 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
"If we really need that type of mobilization now, I suspect we’ll need messaging that draws on fear at least as readily.”

Should the tenor of our climate coverage always recall the Battle of Midway? “The climate desk isn’t urging readers to panic,” Fairfield says. Instead, for readers, “our focus is to bring revelation and surprise.”

What am I missing, because revelation and surprise seem fairly useless to me. I'm surprised by details of climate change all the time, because I'm not an expert in the field, but almost never by the general concept.

Another article comes out telling us a about a new area we weren't worried about yet, a revelation that X is directly at risk as well, but no-one reacts with surprise, just weary despair, because it isn't surprising to know that a vast and complicated issue is exactly that, it's just miserable that so few people are really afraid enough to act.
posted by AnhydrousLove at 11:05 AM on June 1 [1 favorite]

WWII news coverage was as focused and as continuous as it was because every word of it was controlled by the Office of War Information. Here we have John Steinbeck writing about the effects of that control:
The rules for correspondents [were both] ... imposed and self-imposed ...

There were no cowards in the American Army, and of all the brave men the private in the infantry was the bravest and noblest. The reason for this in terms of the War Effort was obvious. The infantry private had the dirtiest, weariest, least rewarding job in the whole war. In addition to being dangerous, a great many of the things he had to do were stupid. He must therefore be reassured that these things he knew to be stupid were actually necessary and wise, and that he was a hero for doing them ... A second convention held that we had no cruel or ambitious or ignorant commanders ...

We were all a part of the War Effort. We went along with it, and not only that, we abetted it. Gradually it became a part of all of us that the truth about anything was automatically secret and that to trifle with it was to interfere with the War Effort. By this I don’t mean that the correspondents were liars ... [but] it is in the things not mentioned that the untruth lies.

We felt responsible to what was called the home front. There was a general feeling that unless the home front was carefully protected from the whole account of what war was like, it might panic. Also, we felt we had to protect the armed services from criticism, or they might retire to their tents to sulk like Achilles.
posted by ckridge at 11:52 AM on June 1 [18 favorites]

Yeah, it doesn't make me proud to admit it, but at this particular moment all I have the energy to do is be glad that I'll be dead before the worst of it.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:07 PM on June 1 [9 favorites]

(I mean, besides common-sense things like trying not to waste water, reducing the use of plastics and disposables, not buying factory-farmed meat, etc.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:09 PM on June 1

It seems to me that climate reporters have a complex rhetorical problem to solve. How to keep readers aware without numbing them or driving them to despair? How to come at the story continually from different angles, so as to keep it always new and so always news? How to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth in ways that make the truth plausible and the right course of action attractive? How to do this in a way that people will pay to hear?
posted by ckridge at 12:13 PM on June 1 [5 favorites]

A few thoughts.

1) The WWII comparison is interesting, but a better one is coverage of the threat of nuclear war or at least the Cold War. That involves a media environment closer to the 21st century's, and also addressed a longer time-span. It also included heaps of science (a major problem in covering climate change).
2) One reason it's harder now is because American cable (national) news is so awful, far worse than it was a generation ago: less international news, more tabloid-y.
posted by doctornemo at 12:23 PM on June 1 [3 favorites]

I think an interesting difference between the climate emergency and something like WW2 is the role of the "home front". In WW2 the media (including the propaganda arm of the government) had a lot of stories and stuff for the home front; here's things you can do -- practice the blackout, save your peach pits, knit socks, eat less meat, carpool, plant a garden, and so on.

And that was good stuff, and helpful, but Hitler wasn't beat because somebody got a new pair of hand-knit socks one day. What won the wars was major government action; changing production lines, conscription, incredible deployments of lives and resources, and a bunch of massive research projects that weren't made public, like radar and Enigma and the Manhattan project. But it wasn't a bad thing for the home front to do their part and chip in, and probably it made a marginal difference.

Where we are today, though, is completely different. The media loves to cover home front stuff; buy a hybrid car, buy a reusable tote bag, eat less meat, carpool, plant a garden. And that's still good stuff to do, but it won't get us there. What will is large-scale government action; much tighter regulations, massive rezoning and deautofication of cities, substantial carbon taxes and the end of tax havens. And none of it is being done, or done quickly enough.

What's more, the media is no longer on the side of the public good or the accepted facts; they are on the side of appearing impartial. If FDR gave a radio announcement that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, then NPR would make sure to have the same amount of time available for Tojo's response as to why Pearl Harbor had it coming. (Fox would preempt FDR.)

So the home front stuff won't get us there any more than in the world wars, but it's a lot easier to present people with five things they can do to help stop climate change than to present five things their leadership isn't doing, especially when most of the media would want to then also present five things the leadership claims to be doing well, just to keep their access or avoid an awkward elevator ride or whatever.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 12:48 PM on June 1 [22 favorites]

This is all absurd. Nothing is actually going to be done in this time frame. I'm really not sure why, other than transparently knowingly deceiving oneself that anyone thinks it's possible for our economy to decarbonize in the time frame required. Sure, it's what "has to happen" but we all see the same fucked up state of the world. It's like saying we need to colonize the sea floor. Yea, we generally can agree to the conditions required for such action but IT'S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN.

Where does that leave us? Let me be clear this isn't me being an accelerationist at all. I'm just being fucking real and I would expect others to do the same, especially in leadership positions, including journalism.
posted by odinsdream at 12:59 PM on June 1 [5 favorites]

I mean even the IPCC's method of preventing the worst scenarios involve the deployment of massive amounts of carbon-capture systems that ACTUALLY DON'T EXIST and likely Can't be produced in the time required.
posted by odinsdream at 1:04 PM on June 1

So, uh... what if we fail?

I mean, we're talking about projects on a scale that human beings haven't ever approached before. Enormous machines to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. Giving over a huge percentage of the world to reforestation. De-acidifying the oceans. Dealing with all the extinctions somehow. Converting the whole world over to renewable resources without emitting enough carbon to make the effort moot. And so on.

We don't actually know how to do any of those things. And to get them done we'll need global cooperation; if one superpower decides not to participate, and keeps burning fossil fuels, well then they've got a huge military and economic advantage. It's a collective action problem larger than anything we've ever faced.

I'm glad there are people who are desperately trying to save the biosphere. I hope more than anything that they succeed.

But I don't think it's likely. The solutions being offered today are the same solutions that were in play in the 1970s, but much more drastic and more expensive. I've seen no significant movement towards any of the solutions that would ameliorate this. Instead, things have gotten enormously worse, with authoritarian politicians taking the world stage to deny that there's a crisis at all, and accuse scientists of evil conspiracies.

It's pretty clear that this isn't a matter of raising awareness; the people in power are completely aware that this is going on, and they're lying about it. They're paying public relations firms billions of dollars to lie about it. Either they're convinced that even with all their power there's nothing they can do, or they're genocidal lunatics, but it's pretty clear there's no help coming from that quarter no matter how much we protest. And throwing the bums out usually involves wars, which involve carbon releases on a grand scale.

So my question is, is anyone taking a realistic look at what the conditions on Earth are going to be like in 200 years if we fail, and asking what it's going to take for any of our descendants to survive that? Can we create technology that will allow our species to survive the alien planet we're creating in place of our home?

Because we probably could use a backup plan at this point.

It's survival of the species time.
posted by MrVisible at 1:08 PM on June 1 [6 favorites]

I always wind up saying this. If 90% of the human race dies, that puts the population back at what it was in the 18th century. The human species was in no danger of extinction in the 18th century. Had we fought WWIII, we would have targeted everything that made each other's civilizations possible, and quite possibly wound up with too little infrastructure and too few skilled people left to start things up again. Mass famines, droughts, floods, and weather catastrophes following upon global warming won't be targeted. The very rich will be able to retreat in an orderly fashion to temperate, safe locations, with enough soldiers, technicians, scientists, and servants to maintain them in the comfort to which they are accustomed. The species will be fine. All our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be part of the dead 90%, but the species will be fine.

Mass human die-offs aren't a problem for the very rich. They don't need us anymore. Industrialization and automation have made us redundant. They aren't acting like genocidal lunatics. They are acting like genocidal rational persons.
posted by ckridge at 1:25 PM on June 1 [10 favorites]

[Folks we've had a bunch of climate crisis threads lately and have had the very general "we're doomed, what are we gonna do"/"do nothing, it's good if most people die" back-and-forth a number of times. Rather than just restating these same general points, let's keep this focused on the specifics of the link which is about journalists making decisions about covering this stuff now.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 1:29 PM on June 1 [3 favorites]

Fwiw i am talking about the journalists covering this. I consider it irresponsible to cover this as if we actually can decarbonize in 11 years. Just as much as saying we're gonna solve it by extracting helium-3 from the moon cause they saw it in a movie once. It's not enough to just keep telling people there's gonna be a magic solution. We need people to be either calling for massive socialisation and economic overhaul or talk about living post-2C warming. There aren't other "middle" paths. That bullshit that Biden keeps trying to make happen, or the constant articles about literally any consumer-level action are deeply irresponsible. That doesn't mean we only need doomsayers, it means we need people who aren't operating from literal fantasy when they're trying to do work on this. Work *should continue* and people *need* information. But both the work and the info it's based on need to be grounded in reality.
posted by odinsdream at 1:35 PM on June 1 [7 favorites]

We need to talk about the men who are the enemy. We need to talk about the men whose money will be lost if we take action, those are the people who are responsible for most of the emissions, those are the men who are retarding action.

If we are at war, why aren't we talking about the enemy?
posted by eustatic at 1:47 PM on June 1 [12 favorites]

Do not give up. How does it make you feel, to know that there are people who are banking on the destruction of humanity?
posted by eustatic at 1:50 PM on June 1

GW and WW2 are vastly different issues, in terms of complexity and interconnectedness and time scales. Even sub-topics of GW can be massively complex in themselves. And also in WW2, the enemy was Hitler, whereas in GW, it is capitalism. Which is not to say that GW should not be covered. Of course it should. Many of the solutions floated here - making personal narratives and connections - make sense within current communication paradigms.

I'd like to see journalists taking curricula more seriously, providing material for teachers. I've surveyed local universities where I live for GW curricula, and it's pretty awful (despite some prestigious universities here). Courses are siloed and have disciplinary pre-reqs. There are no campus-wide programs. Universities may have sustainability 'departments' - but with no faculty, three staff, and three student interns. At the same time students are most concerned about this.

Anyway what I think I'm trying to say (as an old) is that I've had it with talking to other olds. I'd much rather support the education of young people, who actually seem to want to do something about this. Journalists can help here with creating suitably pitched resources that are not paywalled into expensive textbooks and curricula (for example).
posted by carter at 1:52 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]

[One deleted. Meta-discussion about moderation should go to Metatalk. All I'm saying here is: comments in a thead should respond to the actual linked article. Climate crisis is a big topic, we can and do have threads on many aspects of it. This thead is about how journalists should cover this; don't make it about eg what scientists should do -- just find a good link about that and make a separate thread.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 2:01 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]

War is a tempting but often misguided metaphor for difficult public issues. As with the "War on Drugs," there is no external enemy to demonize here, unlike Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Addressing (I almost said "fighting") climate change requires incredible effort directed at ourselves, the way we think, and the way we behave.
posted by PhineasGage at 2:04 PM on June 1 [3 favorites]

War is a tempting but often misguided metaphor for difficult public issues
Yeah that's a good point. And the only people firmly in war mode about this at this point are the energy companies. Problem is they are on the other side.
posted by carter at 3:17 PM on June 1

2) One reason it's harder now is because American cable (national) news is so awful, far worse than it was a generation ago: less international news, more tabloid-y.

This is a thing I hear often and, being young enough that most of my memory includes cable news, sometimes doubt. Like, are we sure this isn't just nostalgia for like 2 or 3 very specific and isolated instances of amazing journalism (Woodward and Bernstein?) and most news was actually trash?

But then we watched a news segment on Chernobyl from 1986. It was broadcast basically as the disaster was becoming apparent to the world, when very little information was available and confirmed.

And I could not believe the difference. Just, it took my breath away. There was so little idle speculation (what speculation there was seemed very grounded in what scientists did know about the radiation levels and wind patterns, etc.); absolutely NO fear-mongering. So measured. I commented that if Chernobyl were happening today, the news would be playing fast-edited clips from 700 phone cameras and running graphics on WHAT MUTATIONS WILL YOUR BABIES HAVE NOW and just generally behaving like assholes.

This was a long winded way, I suppose, to say that one place for journalists to start is to move outside the standard venues of journalism, because those venues are now trash. I like the idea of working with curricula; kids seem better at thinking big-picture than their terrified adult compatriots.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 3:19 PM on June 1 [12 favorites]

What are the events not being reported? “People are producing and combusting hydrocarbons” is the very essence of “dog bites man” - not a story. If Joe Biden announced that as President he would close in wells and mines nationwide and impose a 100% surtax on hydrocarbons the press would report it to the high heavens.
posted by MattD at 4:05 PM on June 1

What are the events not being reported? 

Ask how they are being reported.

e.g. When the Trans-mountain pipeline is discussed in Canadian news, we hear about the 5-year-horizon economic impact, the possibility of oil spills, and the actions taken by protesters. I have yet to hear much reporting on the following:
- Canada has the world's highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions. By what percentage will increased oil production increase our contribution?
- The entire city of Richmond BC is less than 4 meters above sea level, mostly less than 2 meters. How much will increased oil production advance the date at which the city will need to be evacuated?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:38 PM on June 1 [7 favorites]

Media coverage must be constant and balanced on *actions* ... what's been done and what must be done.

As for 'what can I do', here's what Bill Gates said a few months ago:

Gist: "We need politicians to write good policy, and we need researchers to help people understand what is really going on and what we need to do to solve the problem. We need scientists and entrepreneurs to invent new technologies. We need energy companies and utilities to help develop and deploy those technologies. And we need everyone to stay informed and keep the pressure on decision makers. [Emphasis mine]"
posted by Twang at 6:38 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]

So, uh... what if we fail?

It’s on to the next milestone then. The sun comes up and the world still spins. We could be sitting around in 2035 debating the newest UN goal to get under 2.5 degrees by 2050 and avoid the catastrophe of 3.5 degrees.
Our responsibility will never end, there is no end state. No binary win/lose condition, aside from the most extreme far end of the possibility spectrum where it’s lights out. The middle of the spectrum is where life is shitty and painful and humid but still regular(ish) life. There’s just continuous, unending work and responsibility.

Even if we win every seat of power and execute the plan perfectly from now until 2030 and avoid going over 2 degrees, we still wake up the next morning and have to keep working for the next ten years and the next ten years to not backslide and fuck up.

Compare to nuclear war: people did a shitload of activism, the most extreme scenario of nuclear winter hasn’t happened, but we still perennially worry about nuclear weapons and engage in a push and pull of non-proliferation related diplomacy.

Best case scenario for climate is that the issue is sort of roughly “solved” but never goes away because the genie is out of the bottle and we have to be responsible stewards of the ecosystem for the next forever.

As for how to cover it... I feel like these ruminating questions like “how to communicate the facts, how to persuade, how to cause hope, should it be facts based or narrative based“ are navel gazing, because we can’t answer these meta questions confidently. Just cover it MORE. Most people don’t read the news regularly. If it was front page 7 days a week and 10 minutes of primetime 5 days a week it would make a huge difference from now, where it’s still a niche issue covered by speciality journalists, activists, and researchers.

Just make the coverage constant regardless of content or approach and the downstream effect is it could move out of the realm of professional science communicators and into everyday conversation. Local crime is covered ubiquitously and local crime is therefore a watercooler topic. What if climate was a 10 minute conversation at every union meeting, 10 minutes of every Sunday sermon in America, and a 10 minute YouTube fireside chat from Obama every week?

Let’s just throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.
posted by cricketcello at 8:23 PM on June 1 [11 favorites]

Where does that leave us? Let me be clear this isn't me being an accelerationist at all. I'm just being fucking real and I would expect others to do the same, especially in leadership positions, including journalism.

My suggestion for just regular folks? Plant a garden at home if you can and hook up with your local anarchist collective or something like that. When your city floods (or is ripped up by a tornado or whatever), the government won’t be coming to help but if you’re plugged in and prepared then your community can engage in mutual aid to help one another in an emergency and then band together to resist the vultures who will want to swoop in, privatize everything, and generally profit off the disaster.
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred at 8:48 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]

I would like it to be treated like a war. I would like for there to be a running banner of stats on the homepage of all newspapers every day. I want every television show to show that as well. I want every news program every day to start with a one minute update on global warming. I want newsreels before my movies. I want posters.

If this were an asteroid headed for earth every solution not taken by the government would be a massive story. Start papering the AZ desert with solar cells. Invest hugely in the machines that suck carbon from the atmosphere. Build super nuclear reactors. Start a Manhattan project. Put a moratorium on all non-essential gas fueled travel. Give other nations a deadline to do the same. Pull together.

The news organizations need to sit down and figure out what they'd be doing if an asteroid was coming and do that.
posted by xammerboy at 9:56 PM on June 2 [2 favorites]

I'd like to see more 'follow the money' journalism. For example, Black Rock and its Aladdin predictive software. I believe they are even bigger than Goldman and are a top-3 owner of all but one of the major oil cos. and "[C]hief executive Larry Fink said that his overriding duty is to make customers money, whatever the environmental consequences. "

i'd love to know what Aladdin is telling Fink about the future that gives him such courage to take this obviously destructive stand. But then again Randian acolyte Greenspan was shocked, shocked! to see bankers burning down their own banks to secure their bonuses. As Shatner [never] said, "Hoobris will sabotaaaage one every time, and it sickens me."
posted by zaixfeep at 11:08 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]

- The entire city of Richmond BC is less than 4 meters above sea level, mostly less than 2 meters. How much will increased oil production advance the date at which the city will need to be evacuated?

Let's say Trans-Mountain increases our oil production by 20%. The sector currently emits 180 MT CO2. An increase of 20% would be 36 extra MT against the world's 45,000 annually. So Richmond would reach that date in only 99.92% of the time it would have taken otherwise.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 11:32 PM on June 2

Let's say Trans-Mountain increases our oil production by 20%. The sector currently emits 180 MT CO2. An increase of 20% would be 36 extra MT against the world's 45,000 annually. So Richmond would reach that date in only 99.92% of the time it would have taken otherwise.

I guess the point would have to be that you can't only take the action that will protect or affect your particular interests - ignoring all the rest. Climate change is a global problem that affects everyone and requires everyone to act. In a climate crisis world, if you're a middle nation like Canada, you're not going to get a seat at the table where decisions are made if you've done nothing to try to solve the problem.
posted by kaymac at 3:11 AM on June 3

I'd like to see more 'follow the money' journalism. For example, Black Rock and its Aladdin predictive software.

So, here's a perfect answer to the "what's not being covered?" question. Black Rock was on NPR's morning edition this morning. You know what for? Because they're currently making the largest real estate purchase in the history of the known universe, buying warehouses all over the country.

You know how this was covered? As a kind of quirky funny story. Like "wow this is bigger than the Alaska and Louisiana purchases combined, neat" .. they talked a little about why a company would like to own a bunch of warehouses (1-day shipping, ecommerce!) and THAT WAS THE WHOLE STORY.

Nothing about *who* Black Rock is, which Actual Humans own it and what their interests and alignments are... nothing.
posted by odinsdream at 6:31 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]

Existential climate-related security risk: A scenario approach, May 2019
A 2050 Scenario

2020–2030: Policy-makers fail to act on evidence that the current​ Paris Agreement path — in which global human-caused greenhouse emissions do not peak until 2030 — will lock in at least 3°C of warming. The case for a global, climate-emergency mobilisation of labour and resources to build a zero-emission economy and carbon drawdown in order to have a realistic chance of keeping warming well below 2°C is politely ignored. As projected by Xu and Ramanathan, by 2030 carbon dioxide levels have reached 437 parts per million — which is unprecedented in the last 20 million years — and warming reaches 1.6°C.
posted by odinsdream at 11:03 AM on June 4

Just a reminder that 2020 is in... *checks notes*... 7 months.

posted by odinsdream at 11:11 AM on June 4

All our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be part of the dead 90%, but the species will be fine.

There have been 5 extinction level events in the course of earth's history. One of them was an asteroid and four were global warming scenarios. They wiped out all life such that the fossil record is a blank slate.

Many of the models spiral. Heat burns the trees, which raises the temperature, which kills more vegetation, which kills the tress, and so on. Venus once had a climate like earth's with water amenable to life. Some scientists think it got caught up in a similar climate spiral.

Or, we could just change things enough so that being "human" really means something different. One result of global warming is that there will be less oxygen in the air. Humans live, but with significantly lower cognitive function.

There's a very good chance that global warming causes an extinction level event of some kind.
posted by xammerboy at 9:18 AM on June 5

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