The Mainstream Media and the Slowly Boiling Frog

When it comes to global warming, we’re cooked.

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Smoke is seen over the coal burning power plant in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (AP/Martin Meissner)
Smoke is seen over the coal burning power plant in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (AP/Martin Meissner)

Late August is when Americans tend to take their relatively meager vacations—workers in other social democracies tend to enjoy six paid weeks of vacation rather than just two weeks, a tendency that American news rarely recognizes. Since the vacation-bound mainstream media is preoccupied with Egypt, Syria, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Obamacare, and a possible government shutdown, the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report was leaked to Reuters and The New York Times will almost certainly fall through the cracks.

This international panel of scientists has found “with near certainty” that, in the words of New York Times reporter Justin Gillis, that “human activity is the cause of most of the temperature increases of recent decades, and warns that sea levels could conceivably rise by more than three feet by the end of the century if emissions continue at a runaway pace.”

As Gillis notes, the panel’s 2007 report presented “unequivocal” evidence of warming; the new report’s draft strengthens its assessment of our likely responsibility, saying with 95 percent certainty that changes are the result of human activity.

As we have heard so many times before, the likely effects will be “widespread melting of land ice, extreme heat waves, difficulty growing food and massive changes in plant and animal life, probably including a wave of extinctions.” It’s important to note that the panel’s draft reports tend toward a more conservative, less alarmist explanation of the current scientific consensus. Gillis quotes Michael E. Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, who says that the report “once again erred on the side of understating the degree of the likely changes.” Christopher B. Field, a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science and a member of the panel, adds that “the I.P.C.C. has a tradition of being very conservative.”

The threat that humanity faces as a result of these developments is unprecedented in human history. Gillis notes that it will likely endanger “many of the world’s great cities—among them New York; London; Shanghai; Venice; Sydney, Australia; Miami; and New Orleans.” In Florida alone, more than 2.4 million people live less than four feet above the high-tide line. And you can bet that no matter what you read in the mainstream media, the insurance industry is paying attention to what scientists have to say. As Maggie Koerth-Baker explains in this Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine, “Denying climate change isn’t just foolish—it’s bad for business.”

Of course, no one can predict a future with so many uncertainties, but according to a report prepared by The Guardian’s Alok Jha for the 2009 Copenhagen climate-change summit—and as I noted in my 2011 book, Kabuki Democracy—if current trends continue, we can expect:

The Amazon to turn into desert and grasslands, while increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere make the world’s oceans too acidic for remaining coral reefs and thousands of other marine life forms. More than 60 million people, mainly in Africa, would be exposed to higher rates of malaria. Agricultural yields around the world will drop and half a billion people will be at greater risk of starvation.

That’s in the near term. As the world’s sea levels rise by 23 feet during the next few hundred years, one can expect glaciers to recede and reduce the world’s freshwater supply. As many as one-third of the world’s species will likely become extinct as a rise in temperature of 2 degrees Celsius changes their habitats too quickly for them to adapt. With another degree of warming, Jha warned:

global warming may run out of control and efforts to mitigate it may be in vain. Millions of square kilometers of Amazon rainforest could burn down, releasing carbon from the wood, leaves and soil and thus making the warming even worse, perhaps by another 1.5 degrees Celsius. In southern Africa, Australia, and the western U.S., deserts take over. Billions of people are forced to move from their traditional agricultural lands, in search of scarcer food and water. Around 30–50 percent less water is available in Africa and around the Mediterranean. In the UK, winter floods follow summers of droughts. Sea levels rise to engulf small islands and low-lying areas such as Florida, New York, and London. The Gulf Stream, which warms the UK all year round, will decline and changes in weather patterns will lead to higher sea levels at the Atlantic coasts.

Finally, should we stay on the path we’re on, we can expect a 4-degree rise in the earth’s average temperature. Jha explains:

At this stage, the Arctic permafrost enters the danger zone. The methane and carbon dioxide currently locked in the soils will be released into the atmosphere. At the Arctic itself, the ice cover would disappear permanently, meaning extinction for polar bears and other native species that rely on the presence of ice. Further melting of Antarctic ice sheets would mean a further 5m rise in the sea level, submerging many island nations. Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey become deserts and mid-Europe reaches desert temperatures of almost 50 degrees Celsius in summer. Southern England’s summer climate could resemble that of modern southern Morocco.

Given all of the above, why does our political system appear incapable not only of taking any significant action to meet this threat, but also appears to be in denial about the facts of the threat itself? There are many possible reasons, but I would posit the following as three of the most important.

1. Those who profit from the current system—who make billions of dollars by exploiting the fossil fuels that create these ruinous greenhouse gases—are also in the business of purposely keeping the public ignorant about the scientific facts and their implications. Led by the Koch Brothers, The Guardian notes that, “Conservative billionaires used a secretive funding route to channel nearly $120m (£77m) to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change.” They also give quite a bit of money to the campaigns of conservative senators and congressmen.

2. The mainstream media irresponsibly treats uncredentialed climate deniers—often funded through mechanisms such as the ones mentioned above—with the same degree of respect as climate scientists who are qualified to make these judgments. Moreover, many U.S. meteorologists who have no particular expertise in climatology play the role of climate deniers to the general public because, according to meteorologist and writer Bob Henson, “There is a little bit of elitist-versus-populist tensions.” He explains that, “There are meteorologists who feel, ‘Just because I have a bachelor’s degree doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on.’”

3. Finally, there is the age-old problem of the slow-boiling frog that is placed in a gradually heated pot of cold water and doesn’t realize he’s about to be cooked until it’s too late. As Paul Krugman notes, actual frogs are too smart for this; humans, not so much. A news-generating crisis can, for better or worse, generate a political reaction in our country. But given the tiny attention span of the Internet- and cable-news-driven political cycle and the money-driven nature of our electoral system, action will not happen until catastrophe is already upon us.

What is to be done?

I have no idea.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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