Climate Collapse – The Grim Silence of Our Leaders
MEDIA, 18 Sep 2023
14 Sep 2023 – None of us has previously witnessed a barrage of extreme weather events of the kind that has been devastating lives across the globe this summer. Canadian wildfires the size of Austria, a Hawaiian town incinerated by a hurricane-fuelled firestorm, a Greek island devastated by three years of rainfall in a single day, a Libyan town washed into the sea after 40cm of rain fell in twenty-four hours leaving 20,000 dead, killer hurricanes fuelled by oceans overheated by climate change. And then there were the extraordinary heatwaves in Italy, Spain, France, Japan, China; the floods in Madrid, Barcelona, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Beijing, Manila, on and on, with temperature, wind and rainfall records shattered the world over.
Almost as astonishing has been the indifference of our leaders. The silence has been deafening. Where are they? Why is no-one joining the dots and demanding some kind of serious response?
Jeremy Corbyn, a rare exception, commented of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) this week:
‘Not one mention of the catastrophic flooding in Libya at PMQs. Where is the concern for the victims of fires in Europe or the droughts across Africa? Where is the outrage at fossil fuel giants destroying our planet? Where is the hope for future generations? Wake up!’
Broadcaster and author Stephen Fry said on the BBC:
‘Extraordinary that you can have a conversation with an economics minister in Labour who didn’t even mention the climate catastrophe coming, that there’s a tsunami coming towards us… yet everyone is talking about just doing the same thing only better. It’s catastrophic.’
When asked about the Maui fire death toll in Hawaii, US President Joe Biden replied:
Compare this silence with the prediction made this morning on Twitter/X by Professor Bill McGuire, Emeritus Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London:
‘I hope I am wrong and others may see things differently, but I am expecting effective societal collapse by mid-century, and planning – for my partner and I and our kids – accordingly.’
Or compare with NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus, previously arrested for defending the Earth:
‘Dear journalists of the world: We are at risk of losing basically everything. This – what we’re experiencing now – is how that process unfolds. The more fossil fuels we burn, the further in that process we go.
‘You MUST begin to tell 5 critical truths. Civilization depends on it.’
The Limits of Propaganda
Despite the overwhelming evidence that climate catastrophe is not just a looming threat, it is here; despite the desperate pleading for help from climate scientists; and despite the surreal silence and indifference of Western political leaders, a stubborn rump of opinion continues to insist that the climate crisis is a cynical scam promoted by vested interests.
We know from our own interactions with all kinds of people in all walks of life that many still hold this view. Indeed, it is a grim irony that our work has been used to bolster these claims. Because we have spent two decades emphasising how state-corporate media distort and omit the truth, critics regularly write to us along these lines:
‘The BBC and the Guardian are a propaganda system serving elite power. They are focusing so intensively on climate change because doing so serves an elite agenda of increased taxation and control. How can you, of all people, not see this?’
But we have never argued that everything that appears in state-corporate media is an elite-serving lie. These media are indeed part of a propaganda system, and they do work hard to further the interests of power. But they are communicating to an audience of thinking people in a world where reality has a habit of interfering with even the most fanatical propagandist’s best-laid plans.
If no weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq, if the powers that be are either unable or disinclined to fake the evidence, then the media has to tell at least some of the truth. Why? Because they have to report undeniable, propaganda-unfriendly facts to avoid being exposed as completely brazen propagandists – a revelation that would undermine their ability to manipulate public opinion.
Does anyone think that, last week, UK ‘mainstream’ outlets – media that have propagandised so hard on Ukraine – were eager to report news that the first ‘game-changing’, British Challenger 2 tank had been destroyed by Russian forces in Ukraine? The video evidence was overwhelming and readily available on social media; it couldn’t be suppressed. So, this propaganda-unfriendly news had to be reported. Does this mean UK journalists and editors are secretly supporting Russia, are funded by Russia, are pursuing ends serving Russian elites? No, it means that even highly sophisticated propaganda systems have their limits.
Of course, ‘mainstream’ media tried to soften the blow – the tank was ‘hit’, rather than destroyed; the crew had ‘probably’ survived. And the tank – a burned out shell, with the turret blown off its turret ring by the force of the internal explosion – ‘can probably be repaired’.
When corporate media report on Canadian wildfires and a Libyan town washed into the sea with thousands dead, this does not prove journalists are enthusiastically covering climate change in pursuit of some malign agenda.
People who think it does often have enough commitment to read a few articles on the internet, but not enough to seriously research the topic, or reach out to credible sources with serious questions. When fierce media critics like us disagree, we are dismissed as ‘shills’, as ‘bourgeois’ compromisers who have shown our ‘true colours’, or ‘dropped the ball’. As former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook commented on the response to his warnings on climate collapse:
‘The BBC thinks there is a climate crisis. Ergo, I am no better than a state-corporate stenographer, if not actually working for MI5.’
It is crucial to look deeper because the reality becomes clear when we ask even the simplest of rational questions:
How does the coverage afforded to climate collapse compare to coverage afforded to other comparable threats?
How much of this coverage recognises the true severity of the threat, its true corporate causes and the business-unfriendly revolution in priorities required if it is to be addressed?
On the first question, imagine the level of coverage if massive terrorist attacks killing large numbers of people had recently devastated Canada, Hawaii, Greece, Italy, Spain, Brazil, China, Hong Kong, Libya, and so on.
We all remember the global media response when terrorists killed 2,977 people on 11 September 2001. What would the reaction be if terrorists killed more than 100,000 people every year, with the toll rising to literally millions of dead over decades? Based on analysis of hundreds of scientific studies, Damian Carrington writes in the Guardian:
‘In the worst-affected cities, hundreds of people a year on average are already dying from this extra heat, including in São Paulo (239 deaths), Athens (189), Madrid (177), Tokyo (156), Bangkok (146) and New York (141) … It is tricky to extrapolate these findings to a global figure, but a rough estimate given by the scientists is more than 100,000 deaths a year. Over decades, that implies a toll of millions of lives.’
Readers might respond: ‘Rubbish. I think I would have heard about millions of deaths from higher temperatures, if those figures were real.’
But that is exactly our point – you would have heard it, if terrorists had been responsible, because ‘mainstream’ politics and media love to discuss the terror threat and the supposed need for multi-billion-dollar military responses to it. You haven’t heard about these climate deaths for the same reason you haven’t heard the truth about the Iraqi civilian death toll after the 2003 invasion: terror threats serve state-corporate interests; Iraqi civilian deaths and climate deaths do not.
One hundred thousand deaths per year from terror attacks would not merely generate occasional reports on the latest disaster; journalists and politicians would be screaming ‘WORLD WAR THREE!’ from every screen, newspaper and magazine, 24/7, without a pause. It would be massive news on the scale of 9/11 and WW2. This is obvious and indisputable.
Is this what we’re getting on climate change? Absolutely not. As recently as April 2019, even after the start of the mass climate protests a year earlier, Columbia Journalism Review reported:
‘Yet at a time when civilization is accelerating toward disaster, climate silence continues to reign across the bulk of the US news media. Especially on television, where most Americans still get their news… Many newspapers, too, are failing the climate test. Last October, the scientists of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark report, warning that humanity had a mere 12 years to radically slash greenhouse-gas emissions or face a calamitous future in which hundreds of millions of people worldwide would go hungry or homeless or worse. Only 22 of the 50 biggest newspapers in the United States covered that report.’
As we have documented for a quarter of century, this is very much the long-term trend. Last year, for example, Media Matters published a report titled: ‘National TV news networks barely mention climate change as record-breaking heat dome cooks the west.’
In April 2022, Carbon Brief did report that the number of editorials calling for more action to tackle climate change had quadrupled in the space of three years. But this rise reflected greater interest following major global protests and an increase in climate-related disasters.
Corporate media are not making this the World War Three-style crisis it clearly is. Indeed, the deepest causes and solutions of the crisis are rarely even mentioned. The irony is that climate deniers are convinced the ‘mainstream’ is giving climate collapse heavy coverage precisely because the ‘mainstream’ has obscured the true scale of a crisis that actually merits vastly more coverage.
Journalists reporting on the latest disasters tend to merely include an anodyne mention of climate change at the end of the article, as in this recent example from the BBC:
‘Climate change has increased the intensity and frequency of tropical storms, leading to an increase in flash flooding and greater damage.’
A single sentence, added to a piece after Hong Kong had been hit by the biggest rainstorm since records began 140 years ago, 158.1 millimetres per hour; and after weeks of similar climate-related disasters striking countries all around the world. Again, we need only imagine the response if these had been a series of global terror attacks – the deeper cause, ‘the global terror threat’, would not be mentioned in passing; it would be front and centre.
If global elites were bent on using environmental breakdown as an excuse for manipulating public opinion, they would be loudly warning about other environmental crises like the dangerous loss of insects and of species diversity as a way of pressing for change. In reality, these issues are barely mentioned.
Unfortunately, some leftists are as prone to this desire-driven rational collapse as less politically-engaged mortals. For centuries, leftists have had an argument, not with the illusory wealth created by industrial fake ‘progress’, but with the unjust distribution of the spoils. For the left, utopia is industrial production managed by workers’ councils and syndicates; it’s a government run by authentic socialists representing the interests of the working class. The point is, despite the evidence increasingly staring them in the face, they do still believe in industrial ‘progress’.
In August, former MP George Galloway – someone we have defended in media alerts and who has retweeted us many times and repeatedly invited us on his TV shows – blocked us on Twitter for daring to challenge his support for further fossil fuel extraction. Galloway had tweeted:
‘In contrast to the #NetZero parties we [Workers Party GB] support the re-energising of Britain. Full exploitation of Britain’s oil and gas fields…’
Not Just Journalists – Ambition Distorts Perception
Why is climate denial and indifference still so widespread?
The media bias we continually expose is ultimately rooted in a fundamental flaw in human cognition: ambition distorts perception. Journalists are not alone – the truth is that we all have a tendency to believe what suits our perceived self-interest. Nietzsche offered one tragicomic example:
‘Memory says, “I did that.” Pride replies, “I could not have done that.” Eventually, memory yields.’
Upton Sinclair supplied another:
‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’ (Upton Sinclair, Oakland Tribune, 11 December 1934)
In other words, evidence says, ‘This is true.’ Ambition replies, ‘It cannot be true.’ Eventually, evidence yields.
Thus, while it is, of course, true that our world is currently awash with corporate propaganda downplaying the reality of climate collapse, the disturbing truth is that these deceptions often find a receptive audience. Why? Because many people don’t want to consume less or less cheaply; they don’t want to drive or fly less or less cheaply; they don’t want to be denied ever-expanding consumption.
Freedom in modern society is already drastically limited – we have to submit to wage and salary slavery to pay taxes, rent, mortgage, bills, to stay off the street and out of jail. We’re already fundamentally unfree; any further restriction on our freedom to spend feels like a further attack on our basic level of happiness.
And so, even the most baseless claims about climate change are being lapped up by millions of people who know little about the science but who know a lot about soul-crushing work and consumption-as-consolation. They reflexively applaud anyone who tells them there’s no problem – we can go on earning, spending, consuming, because everything we’re being told about climate change is an ugly scam perpetrated by precisely the same people who are benefiting so richly from our lack of freedom in the first place. In fact, they are laughing at us!
Thus, ‘they’ changed the colours on the temperature maps to make them look scarier. ‘They’ took the temperature readings from dodgy sensors, or from the ground rather than the cooler air, and so on. The climate crisis is therefore, ‘Fake! Fake! Fake!’ based on counter-evidence that, in fact, is ‘Fake! Fake! Fake!’ The underlying, preposterous implication is that countless thousands of independent scientists all over the world are somehow falsifying measurements as part of an elite conspiracy.
The great claim of deniers is that the ‘mainstream’ focus on climate change is a strategy for limiting personal freedom. Jonathan Cook writes:
‘Many on the left similarly don’t like a climate crisis because it poses major challenges to current Western ideas of individualism.’
The concern is reasonable enough – serious action to limit climate change clearly must involve a reduction in some freedoms. But Cook makes a key point in response:
‘We are about to set the evolutionary clock back by many tens of millions of years. If you understand Earth as a complex, living entity where humans have emerged as the pinnacle of consciousness after billions of years of evolution – the only place in the universe where we know for sure that has happened – continuing to trash the planet because doing something to stop it might infringe on our “personal liberty” seems short-sighted, to put it mildly.’
And, of course, current inaction annually infringes on the personal liberty of 100,000 people to continue breathing – the ultimate loss of freedom. If we don’t change, we will all be prevented from driving, flying, from consuming at all, because our social and economic systems will collapse. This would be obvious to everyone, if so many of us weren’t determined to believe what suits our (misperceived) self-interest.
When industrial capitalism tries to impose infinite economic growth on a finite planet, loss of freedom is the inevitable ultimate result. At this point, we have a painful choice between losing some personal freedoms and losing literally everything.
Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. In 2007, Media Lens was awarded the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Prize. We have written three co-authored books: Guardians of Power-The Myth of the Liberal Media (Pluto Press, 2006), Newspeak-In the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009), and Propaganda Blitz (Pluto Press, 2018). Contacts: David Edwards: firstname.lastname@example.org – David Cromwell: email@example.com
Tags: Climate Change, Ecology, Environment, Floods, Forest fires, Global warming, Heatwave, Weather, Wild fires
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