Climate Change Denial, Democratic-style

Photo by Ian D. Keating | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Ian D. Keating | CC BY 2.0


I turned on the cable news at 3:00 p.m. last Friday. With a massive permafrost melt threatening the release of catastrophic levels of carbon and methane, with sections of the Antarctic ice sheet calving at an alarming rate, with a pandemic of sand mining threatening sea life and waterways throughout the planet, with shocking concentrations of pollutants threatening the delicate web of sea life even in the remotest depths of the world’s oceans, the lead story on both MSNBC and CNN was this: “Arnold Schwarzenegger will not be returning to The Apprentice.”

It’s no different on the nightly network newscasts, where the Big Three (ABC, CBS, NBC) arbiters of public groupthink—along with their print confreres at The New York Times and Washington Post—have been frantically stoking a Hearst-like yellow journalism plague of lurid tales about the Russian Menace, Jeff Sessions’s two meetings with the Russian ambassador, Trump’s fresh round of Twitter storms about phone tapping, real or imagined, and so on, unto terminal stupor, as the world burns.

There’s nothing to see, though, behind the gaudy newsroom sets, designed to evoke godlike authority by emulating the sci-fi kitsch of the Starship Enterprise: no neoliberal assaults on the public sector, unions, the climate and the environment; no primary-election cheating; no swimming with the Wall Street sharks—just a Russian under every bed, everyone hacking and wiretapping everyone else, and streets aswarm with fugitive alien drug pushers and rapists, coming straight for your daughter. (And now this word from Cialis or Humira or reverse mortgages or powered stair lifts). Just another day in the sausage factory of the American “news” business.

Someone once wrote that he cannot stand to tune in the TV news because he always gets the feeling that someone is lying to him. But there are lies of commission and lies of omission—and the latter have even graver implications for the future of our country and planet. Faux progressives love to work up a good rhetorical lather about Trump’s mental condition, but the sedulous burial of any mention of the environmental/climate crises besieging the planet, much less their imminence and gravity—surely the most important story in the history of humanity—in favor of the standard diversionary drivel bespeaks a sociopathy among the liberal political/media elites every bit as frightening as any impairment imputed to Trump. These elite fauxgressive opinion leaders (and their millions of followers) relish their occasional robust lap or two of sweaty sanctimony about Republican climate deniers but seem curiously oblivious to the “soft” but no less deadly denialism in force among corporate liberal Democrats: sporadic campaign speechifying and the occasional meaningless, non-binding international declaration salve the conscience of those with no more real seriousness or sense of urgency about this world-historical crisis than Steve Bannon or Rush Limbaugh, whose dismissal of the issue is at least blatant and honest; the denialism of the liberal class is submerged beneath a surface of unctuous pieties and empty token gestures that pass for “concern,” even “action,” among the sharpies of the Democratic Party elites and their brain-fogged captives in the citizenry.

Let’s review the evidence for this de facto climate denialism from both the political and media liberal fronts for the past couple of years. Mostly because of perceived pressure from the Sanders campaign, 2016’s neoliberal standard-bearer, Hillary Clinton, flecked her standard stump speech of “stronger-together” identity-politics goo with a few cursory mentions of global warming, but she never relented in her support of methane-spewing fracking and never endorsed a carbon tax; she certainly never pushed anything close to the massive World War II-style mobilization most serious scientists and activists have urged as the only hope for averting near-term disaster (the official, worthless nonbinding Democratic Convention platform made passing mention of a global mobilization under pressure from the Sanders forces but then squelched every significant measure that might actually lead in that direction). In the sobering words of Bill McKibben,

In fact, one of the lowest points in my years of fighting climate change came in late June, when I sat on the commission appointed to draft the Democratic Party platform. (I was a Sanders appointee, alongside Cornel West and other luminaries.) At 11 p.m. on a Friday night, in a mostly deserted hotel ballroom in St. Louis, I was given an hour to offer nine amendments to the platform to address climate change. More bike paths passed by unanimous consent, but all the semi-hard things that might begin to make a real difference—a fracking ban, a carbon tax, a prohibition against drilling or mining fossil fuels on public lands, a climate litmus test for new developments, an end to World Bank financing of fossil fuel plants—were defeated by 7–6 tallies, with the Clinton appointees voting as a bloc. They were quite concerned about climate change, they insisted, but a “phased-down” approach would be best. There was the faintest whiff of Munich about it.

Indeed, it was not until the eleventh hour of the campaign—October 11, 2016, about two weeks before election day—that Clinton finally delivered a speech on the topic, and this only after reporters began to notice that she had dropped any mention of climate change from her campaign rallies for more than two months after securing Sanders’s endorsement in July. For her belated, one-off climate PR stunt, Clinton conscripted a visibly hangdog Al Gore, a grudging endorser, to serve as a Rushmore-like backdrop and dutiful cheerleader. To her audience that day in Miami, Florida—where the streets are already routinely flooding at high tide because of rising sea levels—she delivered robotically rehearsed swells of oratory, touching on buzzwords like “clean energy,” the weak-tea unenforceable Paris accords, and the piece de resistance: curbside gardens (!). This thin gruel of low-cal rhetoric and penny-ante nonsolutions—an eyedropper applied to a raging inferno—is routinely served up by corporate Democrats seeking to rouse and gull the “base”: a cynical, soothing circumventing of the staggering investments and radical readjustments needed to provide even a sliver of hope against the steadily advancing juggernaut of climate feedback loops. Bill McKibben and James Hansen have dismissed this kind of tepid, callous “liberal” climate program as “silly.” But the unvarnished truth would be bad for business—the big corporate business that funds Clinton and other mainstream Democrats.

The Clinton/DNC collaborators in the big “liberal” corporate media are, unsurprisingly, no less guilty of criminally soft-pedaling this world-historical crisis. In 2015, the hottest year on record up to that time, mass media coverage of climate change declined from previous years, with each  major news network devoting less than an hour to this subject for the entire year—ABC a miniscule 13 minutes. Hence the mass stupefaction of the American public on policy in general and climate change in particular: less than half of Americans—48 percent—believe the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is real and caused by human activity, and only roughly 40 percent believe that it will result in any of the most commonly predicted consequences, even though most are already well underway: harm to wildlife and their habitats, increasingly severe storms, more droughts and water shortages, damage to forests and plant life, and rising sea levels. This is the public that is prized by the establishment politicians of both parties and their corporate sponsors: complacent, ignorant, and pliant, easily diverted from these all-too-real threats to their well-being by lurid nightly tales of diabolical Russians and rampaging immigrants.

In the critical election year of 2016, again only faint blips of climate change registered on the mass-media radar. Here’s a summary, by the Union of Concerned Scientists, of a USC study of climate reporting for the presidential election year:

A review of coverage during the first nine months of this year finds that the four commercial broadcast networks that provided moderators for the debates—ABC, Fox, CBS and NBC—collectively aired only 32 segments and 24 briefs on climate change. That’s out of a total of some 1,700 evening and morning news programs aired between January 1 and October 31. Most of the few evening news segments that did run were less than two and a half minutes in length, while each brief was only about three or four sentences long.

And not one reporter from any major new outlet asked a single question about climate change in all six hours of presidential and vice-presidential debates in 2016—not a single question about a gathering planetary crisis so severe that children born today might be facing a desolate adulthood of flooded coastal cities, food and water shortages, and resource wars. Not one question.

In fact, this looming global calamity didn’t even make it into the top twenty topics covered by the top three news networks’ nightly newscasts in 2016. Of the top environmental topics that did get covered, climate change ranked eighth, with a total of eleven minutes for the year—for all three networks combined. Astonishingly, in a pivotal presidential election, the three nightly network newscasts devoted only 32 minutes—combined—of coverage to substantive policy issues of any kind for the entire year, dwelling instead on campaign hoopla, the candidates’ character issues, feature stories, and so on. And this debased, frivolous corporate TV “journalism” is where most Americans receive their picture of the world—it’s the main source of news for 57 percent of the population. Small wonder, then, that the U.S. populace ranks second-most uninformed in the ignorance index of fourteen industrialized nations. For any advanced country this is a disgrace—for an ecocidal superpower that devotes more than half of its discretionary budget to the military, it is an invitation to global disaster.

Consider how jarring is the disjunction between the complacency and indifference of the global media/political elites on the one hand and what McKibben calls global warming’s “terrifying math” on the other. According to a 2016 report from Oil Change International, keeping global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels (the point beyond which humanity enters the danger zone) means no new digging and drilling at all—zero—and a steady decline in output from existing facilities. Staying below the 2-degree benchmark means limiting subsequent CO2 emissions to 800 gigatons. But the oil and gas wells and coal mines already operating throughout the globe contain 942 gigatons. So even merely using up the fuel in those facilities pushes the planet past the threshold of safety for future generations.

And exactly where do you see any binding U.S. or international mandates to forbid new exploration or ban tapping out existing facilities? Nowhere now, and nowhere on the horizon—certainly not on the horizon of the establishment Democrats who posture as champions of the climate. As Kate Aronoff has written about the Clinton/Democratic Party pablum of symbolic climate nonsolutions, “Outside of a handful of new methane regulations, a commitment to cut subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and a pledge to stand by the Clean Power Plan, nearly every proposal is on the consumption end of the carbon budget—things like restricting energy waste in American homes and improving energy efficiency in cars and buildings. Production goes largely unquestioned”—much to the gratification of the DNC’s big corporate and big energy donors.

But even in the increasingly unlikely event that the production end is tamped down, what about the consumer end? According to Glen Peters, a senior researcher at Norway’s Center for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO), keeping the world under a 2-degree C rise would require even far more draconian measures. “You would have to shut down every coal and gas plant in the U.S. in the next 10 years. You couldn’t have a single petrol car in the U.S., and the same for India, for China and for every country in the world. While you remove those, you have to build up new infrastructure, wind turbines, solar panels . . . a completely new car fleet, and so on.” Peters concludes, understandably, given the remote likelihood of any of these emissions-reductions benchmarks coming to pass (“We’re coming for your car, and you’re going to like it!”), that achieving zero emissions in a single country in ten years would require a resort to extensive carbon capture and storage schemes. And good luck finding the political will and financing for that as well.

It’s true that of the two major establishment parties in the United States, only the Democrats have proposed any counter-measures at all. But they are so feeble, so obviously tailored to the needs of their corporate patrons rather than the needs of the planet, that they amount to another form of climate denial. And for all the rhetorical embroidery, these radically insufficient Democratic words and deeds are, in their way, as resolutely indifferent to the findings of the latest climate science as the cruder know-nothingism of the Republicans. Jeffrey Sachs, the director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, reminds us that Obama set a goal of cutting greenhouse emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Sachs notes, “The goal has been around since the beginning of the Obama administration. But as far as I know you can’t find out even one document that sketches out how this would be accomplished.” In other words, more Democratic Party hot air in a climate where we can ill afford it.

This unparalleled planetary crisis grows more dire by the day, with humanity seemingly careening to the edge of a cliff with no real braking mechanisms of self-restraint or self-knowledge. It is happening not in some hazy future, but now. Michel Jarraud, the secretary general of the World Meteorological Association, puts it bluntly: “[W]e are moving into unchartered territory at frightening speed.” The inept, halting, business-friendly climate proposals put forth by the Democrats, when judged by the latest authoritative research, amount to business as usual. And according to Johan Rockstrom, chair of Earth League (an international group of 17 economists and scientists), “If we follow the current trajectory of ‘business as usual,’ it would have a one-in-ten probability of leading to 6C [global temperature increase] by the end of this century, and 6C, I think even the climate skeptics would agree, is a place the world does not want to be in.

If the Democrats, with their fatuous oratory and “silly” proposals, claim to know the science, then they are willfully ignoring it; if they don’t really know it, then their paltry, insufficient knowledge will help us no more than the GOP’s abject ignorance. And judging by the near-blackout on this subject imposed by the corporate media, mass ignorance seems to be the preferred business model of a corporate elite more concerned about today’s profits than tomorrow’s life on earth.

The bottom line is this: following the path of either major party leaves us and the planet more or less dead, sooner or later. Both parties—along with the rest of the world’s political and media elites—are in catastrophic denial of both the depth of this gravest of all crises and the radicality of the solutions required now, when it may already be too late—not ten or twenty or fifty years from now. This is more than a dereliction or malfeasance of the conventional sort. It is an unprecedented crime against humanity.

William Kaufman is a writer and editor who lives in New York City. He can be reached at