The Climate Cliff and the Press


Run a google search of “World Bank” and “climate change” and you’ll discover that this month the World Bank released a major study predicting a global “cataclysm” if world-wide temperatures increase by a predicted four degrees celsius (that’s roughly 8 degrees fahrenheit).

But the articles reporting that information, at least here in the US, will be almost entirely business magazines like Bloomberg/Businessweek, orForbes.  Check the New York Times, and you won’t find the story, at least so far, and it’s already at least four days old. The Washington Post had the story on Monday, but it was tucked away in its business section, which is how it was treated by most publications that bothered to report on it.

The one exception to this covereage pattern is USA Today, which on Nov. 19 ran a short piece on the World Bank report in its news pages.

Is the news that the World Bank is predicting catastrophe for billions of people and for life on this entire planet a business story?

Certainly not!

Any idiot could tell you, speaking objectively, that the so-called “Fiscal Cliff,” an entirely political crisis in which Republicans in Congress have decided to threaten to crash the US economy by cutting $600 billion from the federal budget while raising taxes on everyone  unless Democrats agree to cut Social Security and Medicare spending and to extend a decade of extraordinary tax cuts for the wealthy, is a minor story compared to a report that the earth is headed towards climate disaster this century unless dramatic action is taken to reduce the pace of global warming caused by the rapacious burning of fossil fuels. Yet it’s the “Fiscal Cliff” crisis that is getting page one play, and not just on one day, but every day.

The truth is, when I talk to business leaders, economists and stock market analysts in my “other” role as a business reporter, they tell me that they aren’t really worried about the country going over that “cliff.”  The common refrain — and the reason you don’t see the stock market already plunging to half its value in anticipation — is that this is a political game in Washington, all for public consumption by the masses, and that in the end, there is no real cliff, and no will in either party to push the country over one. As Dave Roda, southeast regional chief investment officer at Wells Fargo Private Bank told me when I interviewed him for an article I was writing for a magazine called Bank Investment Consultant, while he does not expect the two parties to reach a deal by the December 31 “cliff” deadline, he also is confident they won’t let the country fall over the cliff. “They’ll pass something to kick the can down the road past the president’s second inauguration and let the new Congress deal with it,” he predicts. At that point, he says he expects “some kind of a deal that will involve higher taxes on dividends, capital gains and the top income bracket.”

That is in line with what everyone else I interviewed for that article said.

But climate change? Unless you’re talking with some no-nothing Republican politician who also believes that the earth was created by God six thousand years ago, and that men have one less rib than women because God took one rib from Adam to create Eve, or with some scientist who has sold his or her soul to Exxon Mobil or the Koch Brothers for a grant or a bribe, everyone who looks a the situation agrees that global warming is getting increasingly worse, that its pace is speeding up faster than early predictions, and that it will be catastrophic in a matter of decades.

So where is the crisis reporting to match the gravity of the news?

The World Bank report certainly doesn’t mince words. Created for the organization by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, it is titled “Turn Down the Heat — Why a  4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided.”

The opening executive summary makes clear both the ominous future if no action is taken, and the possibility, if serious action is taken soon, to dodge the bullet:   “A 4°C world would be one of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on ecosystems and associated services. But with action, a 4°C world can be avoided and we can likely hold warming below 2°C.”

The summary also makes it clear that the situation is dire:”Without further commitments and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world is likely to warm by more than 3°C above the preindustrial climate. Even with the current mitigation commitments and pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20 percent likelihood of exceeding 4°C by 2100. If they are not met, a warming of 4°C could occur as early as the 2060s. Such a warming level and associated sea-level rise of 0.5 to 1 meter, or more, by 2100 would not be the end point: a further warming to levels over 6°C, with several meters of sea-level rise, would likely occur over the following centuries.”

Most US news organizations, or organizations purporting to be in the “news” business, continue to include climate deniers and bows to the “other side” of the global warming story on the few occasions when they even bother to report on it. The USA Today article cited above on the World Bank report is a classic of the genre: after saying a few things about what is in the report, it quote both an “expert” at the libertarian Cato Institute, and an “expert” at the right-wing Heritage Foundation — both organizations well lubricated with Oil Industry funding, who pooh-pooh the report. (Neither of these quoted sources is legitimate. Patrick Michaels, director of Cato’s Center for the Study of  Science, while a climatologist, between 1998 and 2001 was “science advisor” to the coal industry-funded Greening Earth Society and has also a big recipient of oil industry support. As for the Heritage Foundation’s David Kreutzer, he is not a climatologist at all, but rather is an “energy economist.)  Meanwhile, the World Bank report is unequivocal in its assessment of the crisis. It states that :

* The concentration of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), has continued to increase from its preindustrial concentration of approximately 278 parts per million (ppm) to over 391 ppm in September 2012, with the rate of rise now at 1.8 ppm per year.

* The present CO2 concentration is higher than paleoclimatic and geologic evidence indicates has occurred at any time in the last 15 million years.

* Emissions of CO2 are, at present, about 35,000 million metric tons per year (including land-use change) and, absent further policies, are projected to rise to 41,000 million metric tons of CO2 per year in 2020.

* Global mean temperature has continued to increase and is now about 0.8°C above preindustrial levels.

In cautious language, the report explains the evidence that in a world where average temperatures globally rise by 4°C — and remember, if no action is taken to slow the process down by significantly reducing the humankind’s production of CO2, we’re talking about getting there in less than 50 years! — the ocean surface will become too acidic to support plankton, the critical base of the oceanic food chain, droughts will spread and worsen over most of the world’s temperate and sub-tropical grain-producing regions, critical river systems will dry up or be substantially reduced in volume, sea levels will rise dangerously, storms and floods will worsen dramatically in severity and frequency, plague-type diseases will spread, and mass starvation will become more commonplace.

As the report concludes:”…there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible. A 4°C world is likely to be one in which communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage, and dislocation, with many of these risks spread unequally. It is likely that the poor will suffer most and the global community could become more fractured, and unequal than today. The projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur—the heat must be turned down. Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen.”

Clearly no such action is going to happen if the media are covering up the crisis. Politicians like President Obama and the wretched crew of self-serving trough-feeders populating the halls of Congress have not got the courage, or perhaps even the personal interest to tackle climate change, which inevitably would entail curtailment of capitalist excess, and end to the concept of “growth is good,” reduction in living standards, higher taxes for subsidizing mass transit, R&D and other necessary investments, and a new era of global cooperation. Only massive public pressure demanding action could move Washington to take action, and only a campaign of massive public information about the scale of the looming disaster could move people to demand such action, given that action will inevitably mean sacrifice.

To get the American public to understand that it must give up large gas-guzzling automobiles, downsize housing, learn to wear appropriate clothing so that homes and offices can be kept cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer, subsidize public transit and give up on making long trips by car, stop buying useless junk, and accept the need to help other less fortunate and less wealthy countries of the world also adapt, will require a responsible media to tell people the unvarnished truth.

The US corporate media, unfortunately, are not good at telling the unvarnished truth.

One hope may be that if the World Bank, an agency that acts on behalf of the interests of the global corporatocracy, is publishing a document this alarming in its analysis of the climate change crisis, perhaps the corporate elite is starting to get the picture. In that case, maybe the corporate media here in the US will before long start reporting more honestly about it too, and on the front page instead of in the business section.

I’m not holding my breath, though.

DAVE LINDORFF is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper. 

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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