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Climate Crisis: The Collapse In Corporate Media Coverage

Dissident Voice Article

By Media Lens

The latest round of UN climate talks has just begun in Durban, South Africa, but the world’s richest nations are already planning to prevent any new treaty from taking effect before 2020. Achim Steiner, head of the UN environment programme, has condemned the action as a “political choice”, rather than one based on science, calling it “very high risk”.

With the Kyoto Treaty due to expire in 2012, the so-called ‘international community’ has failed abysmally to fulfil its commitments to protect the planet. This should surprise no-one. As senior NASA climate scientist James Hansen pointed out after the previous climate summit in Mexico in 2010, UN talks are “doomed to failure” since they do not address the fundamental physical constraints of the Earth’s climate system and how to live within them.

Public concern about climate change continues to rise. According to the latest Eurobarometer opinion poll (October 2011), 68% of Europeans polled consider climate change a very serious problem (up from 64% in 2009). Altogether 89% see it as a serious problem (either “very serious” or “fairly serious”). On a scale of 1 (least) to 10 (most), the seriousness of climate change is ranked at 7.4, against 7.1 in 2009.

Meanwhile, media interest in the subject has crashed. Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University describes a “collapse of any significant coverage of climate change in the [US] media. We know that 2010 was a record low year, and 2011 will probably look much the same. If the media doesn’t draw attention to the issue, public opinion will decline”.

In his authoritative Climate Progress blog, Joe Romm notes, for example, that the New York Times “cut coverage sharply since its peak in 2006 and 2007”.

Equally disturbing is the variation in media performance across the globe. A wide-ranging Reuters study on the prevalence of climate scepticism in the world’s media – Poles Apart – The international reporting of climate scepticism – focused on newspapers in Brazil, China, France, India, the UK and the USA. The periods studied were February to April 2007 and mid-November 2009 to mid-February 2010 (a period that included the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen and “Climategate”). Remarkably, the study concluded that climate scepticism is “predominantly an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon”, found most frequently in US and British newspapers:

In general the UK and the US print media quoted or mentioned significantly more sceptical voices than the other four countries. Together they represented more than 80% of the times such voices were quoted across all six countries.

The study concluded:

In general, the data suggests a strong correspondence between the perspective of a newspaper and the prevalence of sceptical voices within it, particularly in the opinion pages. By most measures (but not all), the more right-leaning tend to have more such voices, the left-leaning less.

But in all ten UK newspapers studied, there was an increase “both in the absolute numbers of articles with sceptical voices in them and the percentage of articles with sceptical voices in them”.

And so we find that Britain and the US – the two countries responding most aggressively to alleged “threats” to human security in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – are also the two countries least interested in responding to the very real threat of climate change.

“Capitalism Is Trampling On Journalism”

As the Reuters study suggests, media reporting is heavily influenced by editorial stance which, in turn, is heavily influenced by commercial interests. In October, the former Daily Star journalist Richard Peppiatt told the Leveson inquiry into the culture and ethics of the British press the truth about the UK’s newsroom culture:

In approximately 900 newspaper bylines I can probably count on fingers and toes the times I felt I was genuinely telling the truth, yet only a similar number could be classed as outright lies. This is because as much as the skill of a journalist today is about finding facts, it is also, particularly at the tabloid end of the market, about knowing what facts to ignore. The job is about making the facts fit the story, because the story is almost pre-defined.

Laid out before you is a canon of ideologically and commercially driven narratives that must be adhered to. The newspaper appoints itself moral arbiter, and it is your job to stamp their worldview on all the journalism you do… The ideological imperative comes before the journalistic one – drugs are always bad, British justice is always soft.

Peppiatt noted:

Tabloid newsrooms are often bullying and aggressive environments, in which dissent is simply not tolerated. It is difficult to stand up and walk out the door with a mortgage to pay, knowing another opportunity is unlikely to be waiting beyond.

The issue that is not being discussed by Leveson is the extent to which these observations generalise to the “quality” corporate media, and why. By contrast, in soft-pedalling the level of interference from owners and advertisers, the Guardian’s Nick Davies wrote:

“Journalists with whom I have discussed this agree that if you could quantify it, you could attribute only 5% or 10% of the problem to the total impact of these two forms of interference.”1

Compare this with corporate escapee Peppiatt’s unfettered conclusion:

Capitalism is trampling on journalism.

A prime example of this trampling was supplied by the high-profile BBC series Frozen Planet, narrated by David Attenborough, focusing on life and the environment in the Arctic and Antarctic. British viewers will see a total of seven episodes, the last of which, “On Thin Ice”, deals with the threat of climate change.

However, viewers in some other countries will only watch six episodes. This is because the BBC packaged the series in such a way that the climate change episode was an “optional extra” that foreign networks could choose to reject. And reject it they did – of 30 networks across the world that have bought the series, 10 have opted not to buy the episode on climate change. Most notable among them is the United States, the world’s leading contributor both to climate crisis and disinformation about the problem.

A spokesman for Greenpeace said:

It’s a bit like pressing the stop button on Titanic just as the iceberg appears.

Climate change is the most important part of the polar story, the warming in the Arctic can’t be denied, it’s changing the environment there in ways that are making experts fearful for the future.

The BBC’s helpful packaging of “Frozen Planet” generated little interest in the media, although some praise. Lord Leach of Fairford, the Tory peer and former director of the British Library, commented:

I don’t think what Attenborough has to say about climate change is worth listening to. He’s very endearing but I don’t think there’s any truth to what he says – he has no idea about it. The fact is you can be jolly nice to monkeys but it isn’t the same as knowing what you’re talking about on climate change.

Leach added: “It’s quite right to cut the episode.”

Journalist John Gibbons covered the issue of climate change for the Irish Times for two years. He wrote his last, damning column in February 2010:

Ireland’s most senior climate expert, Prof John Sweeney of NUI [National University of Ireland] Maynooth, acknowledged last week that climate-change deniers were “winning the propaganda war”. Chief among them, he added, were deniers from the ranks of journalism and lobbying.

Hang on a minute, you might ask, aren’t journalists supposed to be the good guys, the ones who investigate, not propagate, scams? Well, yes and no. “A media and telecommunications industry fuelled by advertising and profit maximisation is part of the problem,” [Justin] Lewis and [Tammy] Boyce [of the Cardiff School of Journalism] point out.

Gibbons stated the obvious:

Millionaire “journalists” have a profound yet undeclared personal vested interest in the consumption-driven economic status quo upon which their wealth is predicated. As, of course, do billionaire media proprietors. They in turn seek out affirmation of their own biases, and ridicule dissenters.

While The Media Fiddles, 2010′s Monster Increase Burns

While public concern grows and media coverage collapses, the climate change problem is going through the roof. According to a recent study by the US Department of Energy, the global output of heat-trapping carbon dioxide jumped by the biggest amount on record in 2010. The world pumped about 564 million more tons of carbon into the air in 2010 than it did in 2009, an increase of 6 per cent. The latest figures mean that levels of greenhouse gases “are higher than the worst case scenario outlined by climate experts just four years ago”, USA Today reports.

Gregg Marland, a professor of geology at Appalachian State University, who has helped calculate Department of Energy figures in the past, said:

It is a “monster” increase that is unheard of.

Granger Morgan, head of the engineering and public policy department at Carnegie Mellon University, said of the new figures:

Really dismaying. We are building up a horrible legacy for our children and grandchildren.

So why is nothing being done about the problem? In a new study, Who’s Holding Us Back?, Greenpeace reports:

The corporations most responsible for contributing to climate change emissions and profiting from those activities are campaigning to increase their access to international negotiations and, at the same time, working to defeat progressive legislation on climate change and energy around the world.

While making public statements that “appear to show their concern for climate change”, these corporations are fighting fiercely to prevent action. This helps explain, Greenpeace notes, “why decisive action on the climate is being increasingly ousted from the political agenda.

They add:

These polluting corporations often exert their influence behind the scenes, employing a variety of techniques, including using trade associations and think tanks as front groups; confusing the public through climate denial or advertising campaigns; making corporate political donations; as well as making use of the “revolving door” between public servants and carbon-intensive corporations.

In the US alone, approximately $3.5 bn is invested annually in lobbying activities at the federal level. In recent years, Royal Dutch Shell, the US Chamber of Commerce, Edison Electric Institute, PG&E, Southern Company, ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and ConocoPhillips all made the top 20 list of lobbyists. The climate campaign organisation estimates that 94 per cent of US Chamber of Commerce contributions went to climate denier candidates.

Groups like the American Petroleum Institute, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Australian Coal Association, often campaign directly “against measures that would cut greenhouse gas emissions, or run campaigns in support of unfettered fossil fuel energy”.

Attempts by the EU to increase its emissions reductions target for 2020 from 20 per cent to 30 per cent has been undermined by the heavy lobbying of carbon-intensive interests, including BASF, ArcelorMittal and Business Europe.

Tzeporah Berman, Co-director of the Climate and Energy Program at Greenpeace International, says that this latest study “shows beyond a doubt that there are a handful of powerful polluting corporations who are exerting undue influence on the political process to protect their vested interests”.

Two years ago, we challenged James Hansen to sum up governments’ responses to the threat of climate change in a single word. He chose “misleading”. Why misleading? Because “it’s mostly greenwash”, he told us. (Email, June 18, 2009)

We then asked him to give a rough figure to indicate how far he felt governments had moved towards tackling climate change. Would he say that governments were 1%, 20%, 50%, 70%,… of the way there? We knew this was imprecise, but we wanted to get an idea of his gut feeling. He responded:

0%, because they are starting down a wrong track, requiring 1-2 decades to reset. “Goals” for emission reduction, cap-and-trade with offsets, while continuing to build more coal-fired power plants and developing unconventional fossil fuels is a disastrous path. It is meant to fool people, even themselves. A strategic approach would instead recognize the geophysical boundary conditions, specifically that coal emissions must be rapidly phased out.

He added some disturbing analysis:

“The fundamental economic requirement concerns the price of (cheap, subsidized) fossil fuels relative to alternatives (energy efficiency, renewables, and other carbon-free energies) — there must be a rising price on carbon emissions (a fee, at the coal/oil/gas source or port of entry). As that price rises and the competition ensues we would reach a point where alternatives suddenly take off and we move beyond the dirty fossil fuel era. The fear that this will in fact occur is what drives the fossil interests who have totally taken control of our governments’ actions.

Even the cautious and conservative International Energy Authority has now warned that under currently planned policies “rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change.”

Be in no doubt, the corporate takeover of government policy really has taken humanity to the very edge of the climate abyss.  Naturally enough, the corporate media is keen to avoid honestly addressing an issue that so violently conflicts with its profit-maximising agenda, its need for endless economic growth, its heavy dependence on corporate advertising.

We need to Occupy Wall Street, of course – we need to win back our governments from corporate control. But we also need to occupy the media space that for so long has been monopolised by Wall Street’s propaganda arm. We need to occupy the corporate media system that is fiddling the same idiotic tune even as our world – this precious, threatened planet on which we depend for our very survival – burns.

  1. Davies, Flat Earth News, Vintage 2008, p.22

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