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Extreme Weather Is Exploding Around the World. Why Isn’t the Media Talking About Climate Change?

StoryAugust 02, 2018
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Major corporate broadcast networks reported on July’s 2-week global heat wave at least 127 times, but mentioned climate change only once. That’s according to a report by Media Matters, which tracked coverage of the extreme weather by ABC, CBS and NBC. We host a panel discussion on the media’s role in the climate change crisis, the fossil fuel industry and global warming-fueled extreme weather across the globe. We speak with Nathaniel Rich, writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine. His piece “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” was published August 1 in a special edition of The New York Times Magazine dedicated to climate change. We also speak with Rob Nixon, author of “Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor,” and Brenda Ekwurzel, senior climate scientist and director of climate science for the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we talk about this mass crisis in the world today, the crisis of climate change. Fire tornadoes in California. The monsoon season so strong right now in India, just in the last week some well over 500 people killed. We are making a link between the issue that meteorologists talk about all over, this extreme weather, but to climate change, which they rarely mention in the U.S. corporate media. Studies have repeatedly, like Media Matters, been done to show no matter how many times they reference the firestorms in California, only once on NBC, ABC and CBS in the last few weeks did CBS mention the link to climate change.

Brenda Ekwurzel, you’re senior climate scientist, director of climate science for Climate and Energy Program at Union of Concerned Scientists. Rob Nixon with us, author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. And Nathaniel Rich, who’s got the whole New York Times Magazine under his name this week with his piece “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.”

Brenda, if you could respond to The New York Times piece? And also talk about what we were just talking about with Nathaniel. Talk about the issue of the power of the corporations, specifically 90 corporations having been responsible for two-thirds of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions, an issue that Nathaniel highlights in his piece.

BRENDA EKWURZEL: Yes, it’s really important, the early history, because the bipartisan nature of people listening to the science, trying to design policy to solve it and try to get the economic and policy considerations all in a line and start rolling up our sleeves and working on this issue is really important. What happened? Why did it change to the world we have today, where people even are denying the science and are sticking their heads in the sand and not rolling up their sleeves at a national level in the United States?

And what you mentioned was the coverage of these extreme events, that the science is clear are—have very strong ties to climate change, such as, when you have too much water or too little water, we’ve changed the hydrologic cycle. So, that feeds into how severe these extreme events are. In fact, we’re seeing, in the new normal world we have today with 1-degree-Celsius warming, that our infrastructure around the world is not able to handle the flooding that happens after a wildfire, for example, such as what happened in California in the town of—the region a Montecito, that had these devastating debris flows after a wildfire had scorched the hillsides, and then the subsequent very high rainfall, which we know is another situation that’s changing with climate change, falls on that parched soil, and it unleashes very dangerous to debris flows, and destroying homes, and, unfortunately, people are losing their lives. And you mentioned other events around the world, such as in Pakistan, where there’s been extreme flooding, extreme heat in India and in Japan. And I could go on.

So what’s different today is that the predictions that the scientists knew in the '50s ’60s and ’70s, and the scientists working within the fossil fuel industry knew, unfortunately, we're seeing them play out today. So I think we have a different chance today to set this straight and to roll up our sleeves and make a difference. And states such as California, states such as Texas, states such as the Northeastern states and other states, cities all around the nation, in the U.S., are trying to stick with the Paris climate agreement. And many countries all around the world have some skin in the game. They’re all trying to help solve this problem. And the best part is, nations who are on the front lines are holding the world accountable. And that’s why the Paris climate agreement has even more aggressive targets than what would be if it was just a developing nation agreement.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Rob Nixon, you said earlier that on the question of climate change, both in its perception and the way that the successive U.S. governments have talked about it—well, in particular, the Trump administration now—that the U.S. is an outlier. Could you talk specifically about the way in which, as you say, anti-science has been propagated in the U.S., and the role of the media in bringing climate change to attention when they cover climate-related disasters, as we’ve seen in the last few months?

ROB NIXON: Yes, I think one of the successes of the right’s dissemination of anti-science has been that climate change and global warming are perceived in the U.S., to a far greater extent than they are in most of the world, as politicized terms. And as a result, the corporate media, in particular, often steers clear of them. And that has something to do the ownership of the media. It has something to do with the advertising base and so forth. But, you know, I think one cannot overestimate the degree to which the funding of anti-science in the U.S. has been far, far greater—you know, more than a hundred times greater—than in any other country in the world. And this has permeated public perceptions and created a kind of a skittishness around using that language, which is now perceived as polarizing, in a way, say, that scientific language about gravity is not. And that is the result of a very concerted campaign.

What I do see shifting is a generational perception of what the political priorities are. And if I look at my students, which I’ve taught in Wisconsin, New Jersey, elsewhere, if I look at the, say, millennial generation, the issue of debt—climate debt, student debt—is right at the forefront of their political priorities. We’re also in a better position technologically than we’ve ever been to actually act upon shifting the source of our energy to renewables, removing subsidies to fossil fuel, also increasing the storage power in batteries, which has been a long-standing obstacle. So, technologically, we’re in a very good position. It’s a question of aligning those technological possibilities with international governance.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to just say—

ROB NIXON: And so, as a—yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: We just got this breaking news, reading from The Washington Post, “The Trump administration on Thursday announced plans to freeze fuel-efficiency requirements for the nation’s cars and trucks through 2026—a massive regulatory rollback likely to spur a legal battle with California and other states, as well as create potential upheaval in the nation’s automotive market”—the proposal representing an abrupt reversal of the findings that the government reached under President Obama, when regulators argued requiring more-fuel-efficient vehicles would improve public health, combat climate change and save consumers money without compromising safety. Your response to this, Nathaniel Rich? This is in the midst of the fire tornadoes of California.

NATHANIEL RICH: Yeah, I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that what the Republican Party is doing now and what industry has propagated for the last couple decades will be considered in the future, and probably the very near future, as crimes against humanity.

And I think that, you know, the conversation that we’re having today, one of the things that was most striking to me about reading some of these conversations that were being held in the '80s, it's identical. There’s nothing we’re saying today that wasn’t said in 1980, including the North-South issues and developing country issues. And it makes me wonder if we have come about this in the right way. I mean, my sense in having these conversations is that we’ve failed, as a society, to articulate an adequate moral vision of this problem—and which is not to—putting aside the moral vision of industry, which is obviously sociopathic.

But I don’t think we understand exactly what’s coming. And we don’t—we certainly don’t feel it on the level of the society. And I think the only—my feeling is that the only way to begin to get there is to understand how we got here. And that’s part of the reason I wanted to write this article. But—

AMY GOODMAN: What most surprised you in your research?

NATHANIEL RICH: I think just that you—reading transcripts of a meeting in 1980 with, you know, assembled—there’s a meeting in the piece, two dozen of the top experts, including Henry Shaw from Exxon, policy people from Congress and so on, meet together at the directive of Congress to develop climate policy. And they have a 3-day meeting in which they talk about everything we could possibly talk about today. And they all agree. Even, you know, Shaw is not disputing anything. And at the end of the meeting, they can’t even formulate a single statement that they agree on, a single sentence, let alone policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Brenda Ekwurzel, what gives you most hope right now?

BRENDA EKWURZEL: What gives me the most hope is that we are what we call—a friend of mine, and colleague and a scientist, says we’re on the luxury end of the exponential curve. So, those conversations back there aren’t too different from today because we’re just feeling the full brunt of climate change that we’ve already delivered today; however, it has a legacy of centuries that we will be unleashing sea level rise, because heat-trapping gases—15 to 45 percent of carbon dioxide we release in the atmosphere today will be trapping heat, day in, day out, over a thousand years. So, that idea is important.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Rob Nixon, let me ask you, on the issue of hope.

ROB NIXON: Yeah, well, I would come back to the technological changes and the generational changes. I think the priorities, in terms of mitigation, adaptation, resilience, that we see from—

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

ROB NIXON: Yeah—younger people today give us hope. But there has to be a massive surge of concerted action.

AMY GOODMAN: Rob Nixon, author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor; Brenda Ekwurzel of the Union Concerned Scientists; and Nathaniel Rich, we’ll link to your piece in The New York Times, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.”

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