What will it take for society to make the deep-rooted changes required to prevent the terrifying and awesome threat of climate breakdown? This summer’s extreme weather events are simply a prelude to a rising tide of chaos that will be punctuated by cataclysmic individual events – floods, heatwaves, superstorms – of increasing severity and frequency. How long before people demand radical action from governments? Or, and this is what is really needed, how long until citizens remove corporate-captured governments from power and introduce genuine democracy?
Consider just some examples of this summer’s extreme weather. In Japan, ferocious heat killed more than 80 people and flooding killed more than 200. In Greece, 80 people died in terrible wildfires. In Canada, a heatwave killed more than 70. In many places around the world, including northern Europe, central America, Russia and parts of the US, extreme drought has put harvests at risk. Across the globe, 118 all-time records were broken or tied. In the United Arab Emirates, a record temperature in excess of 51C was recorded, Montreal broke 36C, the Baltic Sea reached 25C and the Swedish polar circle saw temperatures in excess of 32C. The Russian Arctic experienced ‘anomalously high temperatures’ more than 20C warmer than usual. And on and on.
To his credit, BBC News North America correspondent James Cook gave a sense of the scale of the climate disasters that were unfolding, with the reported death toll in Greece still rising:
‘Climate change. It’s here. It’s catastrophic.
This month alone:
— “50 dead” in Greece wildfires
— Arctic Circle ablaze
— Japan heatwave, flooding and landslides kill hundreds
— Record temperatures in Algeria, Morocco, Oman
— Drought squeezes US lemons’
Under the heading, ‘The world on fire’, Assaad Razzouk, a commentator on climate and clean energy, also tweeted a disturbing set of numbers:
‘New July 2018 temperature records
Africa + Algeria: 51.3°C
Yerevan : 42.4°C
Swedish polar circle: 32.5°C
Baltic Sea: 25°C’
Scientists report that the ‘signal of climate change is unambiguous’ in these extreme phenomena. In Europe, climate change driven by humans has made such events more than twice as likely to occur, and possibly as much as five times more likely.
By the 2040s, heatwaves even worse than this summer’s will likely occur every other year, if not more often. This will lead to a tripling of annual heat-related deaths in the UK to 7,000. MPs say that the country is ‘woefully unprepared’ for such deadly heatwaves, with ‘the government ignoring warnings from its official climate change adviser.’
Andrew King and Ben Henley noted in an article on The Conversation website:
The world has so far had around 1℃ of global warming above pre-industrial levels, but at the global warming limits proposed in the Paris climate agreement, hot summers like that of 2003 in central Europe would be a common occurrence.
At 2℃ of global warming, the higher of the two Paris targets, 2003-like hot summers would very likely happen in most years.
Similarly, we know that heat exposure and heat-induced deaths in Europe will increase with global warming, even if we can limit this warming to the levels agreed in Paris.
Climate scientists have ample evidence that human-driven global warming is already ‘making heat waves longer, hotter and more frequent’. Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, describes the evidence as ‘really compelling’.
Michael Mann, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, says that:
The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle. We are seeing them play out in real time and what is happening this summer is a perfect example of that.
We are seeing our predictions come true. As a scientist that is reassuring, but as a citizen of planet Earth, it is very distressing to see that as it means we have not taken the necessary action.
‘The Climate Change Monkeys are in Full Voice’
How have the media been responding to the ‘very distressing’ reality that humanity has not taken the ‘necessary action’ to avoid climate breakdown? Some of the usual fringe voices lurking beyond the realms of rationality, yet still enjoying high-profile media platforms, issued standard denunciations of reality.
For instance, in a Mail piece about ‘hysterical doom merchants’, Quentin Letts gave the UK Met Office a piece of his mind:
The Met Office, once a level-headed analyst of barographs and incoming weather fronts, issued bubonic plague-style warnings that we should not step outside in this heat and should not open our windows.
The commentator sighed:
Whatever happened to Keep Calm and Carry On?
In the Sun, Rod Liddle scoffed that ‘the authorities’ have declared that ‘nice summers are a crisis’, adding:
those tiresome drongos at the Met Office put out an amber alert when the temperature rose this week.
“Don’t go out! Stay in your homes! Or you will die — DIE, I tell you.”
Oh, with the greatest respect — f*** off!
Liddle bemoaned that:
the climate change monkeys are in full voice.
The Met Office can stick advice where sun doesn’t shine — let us enjoy the heat while it lasts.
In slightly less intemperate language, but still rejecting the huge weight of scientific evidence, longtime climate ‘sceptic’ Christopher Booker declared:
Yes it’s scorching, but claims that the heatwave is down to climate change are just hot air: June was even hotter when Victoria was on the throne.
He went on:
‘this kind of summer heat is far from unprecedented. In fact, as people have begun to observe, the nearest parallel to what has been happening this year was the celebrated “drought summer” of 1976.’
In fact, the comparison to 1976 is deeply misleading, as a viral tweet from Simon Lee, a meteorology PhD student at the University of Reading, brilliantly made clear:
The big difference between the heatwaves of 1976 and 2018. June 1976: the UK was one of the warmest places relative to normal across the globe, with most areas cooler than average. June 2018: the UK was just another warm blob in a mostly warmer than normal world. #GlobalHeatwave.
So much for Booker’s science-denying diatribe and the other media extremists still trying to dodge climate reality and promote climate fiction. As Carbon Brief editor Leo Rickman pointed out:
As temperatures in the UK near record levels, MPs warn today that heatwave deaths could triple by 2050. So what do the editors of the Daily Mail and the Sun do? Order their writers to aggressively attack climate scientists…
Staring in “Open Mouthed Disbelief” at the News
But what was the media response in more ‘respectable’ quarters, particularly the BBC? Media Lens does not have the huge resources required to monitor all BBC News coverage across television, radio and the internet. But observations suggested strongly that, although the link with climate wasn’t entirely ignored, the bulk of the broadcaster’s coverage of global weather extremes gave it short shrift.
Citing Simon Lee’s comparison of the 1976 and 2018 heatwaves, Emma Pinchbeck, an executive in the renewable energy industry, tweeted the BBC:
More reasons that climate change should be getting a mention in your drought coverage .@BBCr4today @BBCBreakfast (sorry if this repeated exasperation is getting… exasperating… but honestly I start every day in open-mouthed disbelief at the news)
For some time during the day on July 24, BBC News website actually had three of its top six stories about weather extremes, but with no substantive discussion of the link to human-driven climate instability.
Even mild exceptions to the rule stood out, such as when BBC science correspondent David Shukman spoke briefly about the role of global warming:
We can never say that a particular weather event like this heatwave is just because of global warming. What you can say, that the science allows you to say, is that the world is warming, that makes certain things more likely.
While welcome, this was the most conservative expression of scientific caution – typical of the BBC. Compare with the kind of urgent and impassioned comment seen above from Michael Mann: that ‘it is very distressing to see’ this summer’s weather extremes ‘as it means we have not taken the necessary action’.
Also in a low-key, cautious vein there was a pre-filmed Newsnight segment, ‘Heatwave 2018 explained’, on July 24 featuring climate scientist Joanna Haigh of Imperial College, London. She told BBC reporter David Grossman:
The sort of temperatures that are occurring now would’ve been a 1 in 1,000 occurrence in the 1950s & now they’re about a 1 in 10 occurrence.
This was a rather dry statistic; but perhaps it served as a preamble to the requisite urgency that was still to be addressed? The opportunity came in a follow-up, live studio interview conducted by Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis with two more climate experts: Stephen Belcher, the chief scientist at the Met Office, and Chris Hope, a climate change policy researcher at Cambridge University. But, once again, they made rather careful statements that did not stray far into territory in which urgent and radical action would be made crystal-clear.
Scientific rigour is, of course, necessary. But, given the stakes of what is involved, academics now need to speak out forcibly and repeatedly against ‘business-as-usual’ and for sane alternatives. Kevin Anderson, a Manchester-based professor of energy and climate change, is a much-needed outspoken example. He tweeted recently:
How far will we go to justify our lies – Heathrow expansion, shale gas & more roads are all good for the climate. Fortunately the uproar from our vibrant & ethically robust academic community will soon draw attention to such aberrant nonsense – or will it be a compliant whimper?
All too often it is indeed just a compliant whimper. Consider, by contrast, the warning from leading climate scientist James Hansen:
There’s a misconception that we’ve begun to address the climate problem. The misapprehension is based on the Paris climate summit where all the government leaders clapped each other on the back as if some great progress has been made, but you look at the science and it doesn’t compute. We are not doing what is needed.’
In an interview, Hansen was even more blunt, describing the Paris climate summit as ‘a fraud’:
It’s just bullshit for them [government leaders] to say: “We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.” It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.
More climate scientists need to speak out in this way. The time for remote detachment from the urgent need for societal and political action, out of a misplaced fear of being perceived as a biased activist academic, is long gone. Being fully human, and expressing valid criticism of government policy and priorities, does not negate one’s capacity to be a rigorous researcher.
At least this particular edition of Newsnight showed that one thing had improved in BBC climate discussion, however. Ten years ago, as Leo Hickman observed, one of the two interviewees would likely have been an extremist climate ‘sceptic’ like Nigel Lawson to maintain the BBC’s notion of ‘balance’.
However, Newsnight shot itself in the foot when it later gave a misleading account via Twitter of what the Met Office’s Stephen Belcher had actually said in the discussion. Newsnight tweeted the first part of his essential message:
The heatwave that we’ve got is probably part of natural cycles in the weather.
This made it sound as though human-driven global warming probably plays no part in current weather extremes. But his full remark was actually:
The heatwave that we’ve got is probably part of natural cycles in the weather but it’s superimposed on this background of global warming, and that’s what’s elevating our temperatures.
In other words, anthropogenic climate change is behind the heatwave. Newsnight later corrected its ludicrous error.
What about press coverage? Using the ProQuest newspaper database, we found the following search results on July 31 for UK newspaper articles since June 22 (i.e. around the date the heatwave began):
‘heatwave’: a total of 3101 results
‘heatwave’ + ‘climate change’: 255 results. 8% of the total
‘heatwave’ + ‘global warming’: 95 results. 3%
‘heatwave’ + ’emissions’: 89 results. <3%
While this set of results is not intended to be an exhaustive study of UK media coverage, it strongly suggests that the link between summer extremes and global warming has been hugely underplayed.
James Murray, editor of the BusinessGreen website, summed it up well:
Maybe it’s the shirt-soaking, mind-melting, temper-fraying heat, but I’ve had it. I’ve had it with articles and radio discussions about heat waves and hosepipe bans that don’t mention climate change. I’ve had it with features explaining record-breaking heat across the hemisphere, which mention climate change but then major on how ‘it’s not just down to climate change’. And I’ve had it with the near complete silence from our political leaders and mainstream media opinion formers on links between extreme heat and climate that a six year old could understand.
There were hints that, after a month-long heatwave, parts of the corporate media were grappling towards some semblance of climate truth. A Mirror editorial proclaimed:
We must prepare for the consequences of climate change. Or, better still, tackle it.
The question of how to tackle it was left unexplored.
A Financial Times editorial said:
Unprecedented heat cannot be ignored. […] the need for action by policymakers, businesses and private individuals becomes more urgent.
What kind of action?
[Action] must combine “adaptation” to make society more resilient to the inevitable future impact of climate change with “mitigation” measures that cut carbon emissions…One of the most important issues is how and where we build homes…
That was about as far as it went. As you would expect from the house journal of capitalism, there was no demand for a radical restructuring of the economy; no call for an equitable redistribution of power and wealth.
Along similar lines, a Guardian editorial called for ‘decarbonisation of the electricity supply, heating and transport’. Such a move has cross-party support ‘but commitment by politicians is inconsistent’. The assertion that political ‘commitment’ has been ‘inconsistent’ flies in the face of reality: the massive state subsidies and structural support for fossil fuel industries, the endless drive for economic ‘growth’, and a ‘democracy’ run for the benefit of corporate and financial elites.
For the Murdoch-owned Times, the emphasis of any concern on climate was highlighted by its laughable assertion that:
corporate America […] has embraced environmentalism because it is, after all, simply a call to use resources more efficiently. The best hope for green growth in the emerging world is therefore more globalisation rather than less.
Yet more globalisation which has, in fact, led to systemic and worsening global inequality, social injustice and environmental collapse?
The editorial continued:
Technological ingenuity rather than arbitrarily reduced consumption or changes in behaviour are [sic] the best hope.
Arguing against reduced consumption or changes in behaviour, even as wildfires rage, ice sheets melt, and rising seas threaten to engulf coastal cities? Could anything be more insane? Simply put, the masters must remain in charge of the world, while the rest of us bear the costs.
A ‘Doubly Terrifying Phenomenon’
In a recent talk, Noam Chomsky emphasised that the worst case projections of global warming seem increasingly likely. Last December, a scientific paper published in Nature, found that global temperatures could rise by nearly 5C by 2100. To put this in stark perspective, Professor John Schellnhuber, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, observes that ‘the difference between two degrees and four degrees’ of warming ‘is human civilisation.’ In other words, we are talking about the end of human life as we know it; perhaps even human extinction.
As Chomsky said:
The prospects [of climate breakdown] are extremely serious. In fact, they’re really awesome…
He pointed to the sheer madness of the US government, ‘the most powerful institution in human history’, relentlessly pursuing a fossil-fuel economy:
our federal government, for which we [i.e. US citizens] are responsible, is dramatically leading a race to destruction while we sit and watch. That’s pretty astounding. That ought to be the screaming headline in every day’s newspaper. It ought to be the main topic you study in every class. [There’s] never been anything like it.
And it is astounding, as is the lack of attention: another doubly terrifying phenomenon. We should be asking, among other things, what this tells us about our society and about our culture, what we are immersed in. And remember, all of this is imminent. We’re approaching this rapidly – this century.
An urgent debate about the fundamental steps that need to be taken to stand a chance of averting climate breakdown, as well as promoting justice and equality, is almost entirely missing from corporate media coverage. Typically, you will search in vain for in-depth, critical and sustained ‘mainstream’ news coverage of:
• The massive corporate lobbying of governments and the huge fossil-fuel subsidies made to climate-breaking industry
• The role played by the fossil-fuel economy in driving expansionist, imperialistic Western foreign policy in the Middle East and around the globe
• The huge efforts of corporate advertisers to promote unsustainable levels of consumption on a finite planet
• The resultant vast destruction of ecosystems and species, leading to the sixth mass extinction in geological history
BBC News, in particular, has failed to hold to account the governments, corporations and institutions that are burning the planet. Like the rest of the corporate media, the BBC, paid for by the public and supposedly run in the public interest, is complicit in bringing human civilisation to the brink of disaster. As we note in our forthcoming new book, ‘Propaganda Blitz‘, published next month:
In not giving climate change the very prominent coverage it deserves, the BBC is obstructing the public debate that is vital to prevent climate catastrophe. In effect, the BBC is firmly on the side of the state and corporate forces that have been fighting a decades-long, heavily-funded campaign to prevent the radical measures needed to avoid climate chaos.
However, climate scientist Michael Mann says it is not too late to make the carbon cuts required:
It is not going off a cliff, it is like walking out into a minefield. So the argument it is too late to do something would be like saying: “I’m just going to keep walking”. That would be absurd – you reverse course and get off that minefield as quick as you can. It is really a question of how bad it is going to get.