Scientists have for decades recognized climate change as an existential crisis facing mankind, but the US media, hamstrung by a self-inflicted obsession with presenting “both sides” of every story even when there is only one, have only begun recognizing its gravity. And a huge barrier still prevents climate change from being honestly reported.
That barrier is a mainstream journalistic inability to address the central role global capitalism plays in propelling climate change, and to expose the determined, collaborative and usually carefully hidden, role it plays in stymying the profound government actions needed to prevent or at least fend off catastrophe.
We see plenty of heartening news reports in the mass media about companies becoming “greener,” investing in “sustainable” production technologies like solar panels on rooftops or geothermal heating systems, for example. We learn that some tycoons like Bill Gates plan to pour billions of dollars into research on carbon-free energy alternatives. But wholly missing are stories about how economic growth and marketing-driven consumer demand guarantee increased carbon emissions and enhanced global warming that will swamp any such baby steps.
Consider Newsweek’s annual list of America’s Greenest Companies. It includes many financial corporations which produce nothing but paper, and whose greenhouse gas contribution is limited to their office buildings. Look closer, though, and it’s clear that sustainable or not, such companies don’t belong on any “green” list. Case in point: Topping the list’s financial companies are two insurance firms — Metlife and Aflac Inc. — followed by that arch-villian of the 2008 Fiscal Crisis, Goldman Sachs. All three financial giants, while perhaps running green offices, invest heavily in industries that contribute massively to climate change. Metlife, for example, is one of the country’s largest institutional investors, with almost half a trillion dollars invested worldwide. The company touts its goal of becoming carbon neutral in its global operations, but says nothing about running a carbon-neutral investment portfolio, and that’s because it does not run one. The same is true of Aflac.
Investment policies aren’t even considered by the compilers of the Newsweek list.
Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, was the 11th-largest global coal-fired power plant investor in 2011, according to a Banktrack report. This top-ranked Newsweek “green” bank isn’t alone; all the biggest US banks are big on coal. A few have started to back away in the past year, but that’s mainly because coal company stocks are falling, largely due to the temporarily increased availability of relatively cheap natural gas and oil, not because of any climate change concerns.
Meanwhile, two top industrial companies on the “green” list are General Motors and Coca-Cola! The former aggressively builds and markets grossly over-weight gas-sucking SUVs in China and pushes high-mark-up, gas-swilling large vehicles in the US, and the latter, a massive global water waster, exists to make a product — flavored sugar water — that serves no useful purpose whatsoever.
Both companies score high on the Newsweek list for “reducing their carbon footprint.” Great as far as it goes, but corporate journalism fails by not pointing out that sustainability efforts are irrelevant if the larger goal is producing more and bigger cars, or selling ever more bottles of carbonated sugar water, or in the case of financial companies, if they are funding businesses that pump out ever more atmospheric carbon.
Cartoonist Gary Trudeau nailed it in a recent syndicated Sunday strip. In it, public radio host Mark Slackmeyer, interviewing an oil exec who boasts about his industry’s expansion, asks if his guest worries about the world he’s leaving his grandchildren. “Not an issue,” the exec replies smugly. “I told my kids not to have children.”
Trudeau’s fictional journalist has done something mainstream journalists simply won’t, which is to ask corporate executives, including those featured in glowing articles about their “sustainability” programs: “How do you sleep at night when you know your company is helping to trash the climate, even for your own progeny?” We need to hear answers to that question, but we won’t if the question isn’t even posed to them.
Earth’s climate is approaching dangerous tipping points of no return. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has yet to factor into its climate models the near certainty of catastrophic methane releases from the Arctic seabed and the permafrost underlying the Siberian and North American tundra — releases that threaten to push global temperatures to levels never experienced in mankind’s history.
Some scientists warn this could happen any time — indeed huge craters recently discovered in the remote tundra of Siberia caused by methane eruptions, and Arctic lakes and sea surface regions now “boiling” with released methane suggest it’s already happening. Meanwhile, Greenland’s ice sheet melt is accelerating, rendering obsolete ice-loss predictions almost as they’re being made.
Yet as bad as that sounds, things may well be worse, because it’s not just journalists who are ducking the issues. Scientists are facing similar pressures to soft-pedal their research findings on climate change. Universities increasingly are requiring professors, particularly in the sciences, to obtain research grants as part of their income — nearly all of which are funded by corporations. And those corporations or corporate-backed foundations, even if they don’t say they expect a certain research outcome, impose constraints right at the application process on what they want looked into. As Kevin Anderson, a professor of energy and climate change at Manchester University in the UK explains, “There is a very clear understanding amongst virtually all of the academics I engage with, whether directly on projects or simply through discussions following seminars etc., that ‘growth’ is sacrosanct. Economics trumps physics – and ultimately , from a funding and career perspective, given that it is unwise to suggest that our scientific conclusions beg questions of the economic framework of society, we find ways of reconciling the two. Not by fiddling data but typically by adopting expedient assumptions -– from the ubiquitous use of BECCS (bio-energy with carbon capture and storage) and very early global peaks in emissions through using increasingly low probabilities of meeting 2°C.” (An outlier to this sorry situation is James Hansen, the former top climate scientist at NASA, who is warning that the just signed COP21 Climate Agreement reached in Paris is a “fraud” that will see global temperatures soaring over the coming decades, and seas rising by up to 15 feet or more.)
Such skewed academic research and media happy talk about climate-friendly businesses both obfuscate a grim reality: Only by reducing the amount of stuff produced and by dampening, not encouraging society’s acquisitiveness obsession, only by abandoning an economic model where growth is good and companies must grow or die, can there be any hope of avoiding the disaster of runaway climate change.
It’s hard to be optimistic that journalists themselves can do this. If academic researchers, most of whom have tenure and thus don’t have to fear being fired, are caving in to funding pressures to soft-pedal their findings or avoid addressing certain issues, like the role of consumer-driven capitalism and free-market economics in propelling increased greenhouse gas emissions, how much more vulnerable are journalists, who have no such job security? Fighting to tell the truth when the bosses don’t want the truth told calls for a courage that is, sadly, in short supply these days in a profession where jobs are scarce and getting scarcer every year.
News organizations are businesses, and like Goldman Sachs and GMC, their sole objective is trying to grow revenues and profits. They want their sponsors or advertisers to prosper too, so they’ll buy more ads. Given that imperative, how can reporters, without jeopardizing their careers, suggest that businesses need to start reducing production? How can they challenge corporate executives who try to boost revenues by selling consumers more junk and unneeded stuff? Ask embarrassing questions like that and you’re likely to find yourself either fired or taken off the environmental beat and put on the restaurant reviewing staff or on obits (as happened to my friend and colleague, the late, great John Hess, when he got too edgy and on point in his reporting at the New York Times as a foreign correspondent in Paris).
US GDP is comprised 72% of consumer spending. If that spending drops, the economy swoons. If companies sell less, their stock plummets, CEOs are dumped and workers are sacked. Yet if rampaging climate change is to be avoided, production of non-essential goods clearly must be slashed. Houses and cars must become fewer, smaller and more efficient, clothing more utilitarian, mass transit more available, agriculture closer to where produce is consumed. Eventally, population growth must be halted and even reversed. And since the vast majority of the world’s population that lives in poverty need to raise their standard of living, it means that the wealthy countries, and the rich in those countries, need to drastically reduce their consumption of goods and their carbon footprints. All that means that the whole global socio-economic system has to be radically changed. with far more of a focus on sharing, on equity and on community, and with a turn away internationally from the current focus on war and conflict.
American mainstream journalism isn’t saying these things. And it certainly isn’t asking the big question: Can capitalism and mankind co-exist? The reason journalists aren’t asking is that they know the uncomfortable answer is: No they cannot.
Yet if mankind is to reach the next century, we journalists need to ask that question. We need to ask a follow-up question too: If modern global capitalism is driving catastrophic climate change and is also preventing action to stop it, what needs to be done?
Note: A shorter version of this essay was originally written as a submission to a contest funded by the Women’s Economic Round Table and the Columbia University Knight-Bagehot Program. The topic was to write about “an aspect of climate change that you feel has been overlooked or where the press has missed the mark.” I did not expect my entry to win for obvious reasons, and in fact, this year’s winner was someone who wrote about how “quants” — those investment managers who use mathematical algorithms to devise investment strategies — are helping to make so-called “green” investments pay off financially. But of course, as I wrote above, the point is, what are they calling “green”? If for example, a quant develops a strategy to profit by investing in firms on Newsweek’s “green” companies list, that would be Goldman Sachs, GM, Metlife and Coke.