Silence of the climate watchdogs

An absent dog does not bark, says an African proverb. The US press has hardly been absent during the coronavirus outbreak; many outlets have run stories about little else. But the focus on the virus has distracted the press from its watchdog function on other matters of public importance, including the climate crisis. Just as some merchants have exploited the pandemic to price gouge, some government and corporate officials appear to have chosen this moment of anxiety and distraction to engineer financial give-aways and regulatory rollbacks that under normal circumstances would be bitterly contested.

Perhaps the most egregious example is the effort by governments, corporations, and banks in the US and Canada to revive the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Runner-ups include the Trump administration’s weakening of vehicle fuel efficiency standards and its halting of Environmental Protection Agency enforcement of some anti-pollution and public health protections, not to mention the White House meeting that president Trump held with the CEOs of seven of the world’s leading fossil fuel companies even as the Keystone rescue effort was unfolding. Meanwhile, three US states—Kentucky, West Virginia, and South Dakota—have passed laws that criminalize protesting against the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure such as pipelines. 

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In Brazil, Zezico Guajajara, an indigenous leader who for years worked to prevent illegal logging of the rainforest and thus protect the climate, was shot dead on March 31. Reuters (a Covering Climate Now partner) and the Associated Press reported the news the next day, noting that it marked the fifth murder of an Amazon forest defender in the last six months. But among US broadcast outlets, only Democracy Now! (also a CCNow partner) covered the story.

In the case of Keystone, the dog that barked was The Guardian, which ran an impassioned and meticulous column by author Bill McKibben, who has helped lead the grassroots opposition to KXL. Because tar sands are so carbon intensive and Alberta’s supply of them so vast, James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climate scientists, has calculated that building the pipeline would mean “game over” for a livable climate. Trump has nevertheless pledged to revive the project, McKibben wrote. Calling out Jason Kenney, the premier of Alberta, who recently approved $1.1 billion in public subsidies to help construct KXL; TC Energy, the pipeline’s builder, which has begun moving workers to the pipeline’s proposed route despite the risks of introducing the coronavirus to local residents; and JP Morgan Chase, which led a $1.25 billion bond issue for the project, McKibben charged that these actors are “using the cover of the pandemic … to do things they could not get away with at any other time.”

Most conspicuous in their silence about such assaults on the public purse and health have been the major US television networks, according to an analysis by Media Matters, a research group. Even when a respected outlet such as Reuters, The Guardian, or the Associated Press runs a story revealing apparent skullduggery, the networks almost never follow up. One partial exception: when the Trump administration weakened fuel efficiency standards, two MSNBC newscasts briefly mentioned the move and a third did an entire segment about it, while the PBS NewsHour (a CCNow partner) did two substantive stories about it. In other words, network TV can rise to the occasion when it chooses.

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The solution is not for newsrooms to stop covering the coronavirus story. It is to expand their definition of what qualifies as a coronavirus story to include profiteering from the pandemic, whether financially or politically. That’s exactly the kind of impropriety the press’s watchdog function is supposed to expose and inhibit, and there are plenty of dogs capable of fulfilling that function. It’s high time more of them start barking.

 

NOW, HERE’S YOUR WEEKLY SAMPLING of the latest in climate news, from across the Covering Climate Now collaboration.

  • Drilled News has compiled a list of all the climate and environmental rules that are being rolled back by governments—at the federal, state, and local levels—and special favors being doled out to the fossil fuel industry, as the US strains to keep pace with the coronavirus outbreak. “These changes are especially worrying right now, because they’re happening even as climate scientists say that for all nations to have a chance of averting catastrophic climate change, industrial nations must slash their carbon pollution within roughly a decade,” Drilled writes. 
  • InsideClimate News has a stellar look at the farmworkers on the frontline of the US food supply. They already bear a disproportionate burden from climate change impacts—”toiling under conditions of record-breaking heat waves, wildfires, drought, and floods”—and are now especially vulnerable to the coronavirus outbreak. Already prone to respiratory illness due to the nature of their work, they are also excluded from federal virus relief because they are undocumented. The workers are terrified, InsideClimate News reports, but show up to the fields anyway because they and their families need the money. (Also from InsideClimate News, a fascinating look at how an iron mine in the already fragile Canadian Arctic is ruining the local environment, driving away wildlife and staining the snow red.)
  • Japan, the world’s fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has determined it will not raise its emissions reductions goals by 2030, despite urging from the UN to do so, the Asahi Shimbun reports. Japan, the world’s fifth largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases, relies on coal for nearly 80 percent of its electricity, which has already brought criticism from climate advocates. Now, the head of the Japan Climate Initiative warns that failure to improve will hurt Japan’s global business prospects by giving it a reputation for “a backward looking stance toward a carbon-free society.”
  • The first three months of 2020 were scorchers, relative to the same period in past years, with each month breaking or nearly breaking monthly record temperatures, according to Mashable. “The continued onslaught of record and near-record global temperatures is a reminder that, while we’re understandably preoccupied with another crisis (the Coronavirus pandemic), a more formidable one in the grand schemes of things looms in the background,” the climate scientist Michael Mann tells Mashable.
  • The Columbia Journalism Review unveiled its Spring Issue this week, with stories focused entirely on the media’s (often bungled) handling of the climate crisis. “I am convinced that journalism’s failure to properly report the climate story will be recorded as one of its great humiliations,” writes Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, in the magazine’s opener. The press struggles with stories that demand subtlety and evolve over time—racism, systemic poverty, and the climate. “We owe it to our audience, and our conscience, to be more thoughtful,” Pope says. “Climate change is the story of our time. Journalism will be judged by how it chronicles the devastating reality.”
  • Finally, a reminder to CCNow partners that from April 19 to 26 we will host a second “week of coverage” focused on Climate Solutions! If you plan to participate but haven’t gotten in touch, please let us know with an email to [email protected]. Not a partner? We hope you’ll consider joining our collaboration.

READ CJR’S NEW CLIMATE ISSUE HERE

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Mark Hertsgaard is the executive director of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative committed to more and better coverage of the climate story. He is also the environment correspondent for The Nation and author of books including HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.