Media alert: notes from a dying planet
The media's aversion to addressing the juggernaut of economic 'growth'
Last year we reported that Michael McCarthy, environment editor of the Independent, was "taken aback" at dramatic scientific warnings of "major new threats" in the Earth's climate system. For instance, the West Antarctic ice sheet, previously considered stable, could collapse leading to a 5-metre rise in global sea level. As McCarthy noted: "Goodbye London; goodbye Bangladesh". (Media Alert, 'Is The Earth Really Finished?', March 1, 2005; )
Returning home by train from the climate conference where the warnings had been delivered, McCarthy mulled it all over with Paul Brown, then environment correspondent of the Guardian:
"By the time we reached London we knew what the conclusion was. I said: 'The earth is finished.' "(McCarthy, 'Slouching towards disaster,' The Tablet, 12 February, 2005; available at www.gci.org.uk/articles/Tablet.pdf)
McCarthy's bleak conclusion was later amplified by substantial coverage devoted in The Independent to scientist James Lovelock's latest book, The Revenge of Gaia. Lovelock argues that it is already too late to avert climate chaos:
"The worst will happen and survivors will have to adapt to a hell of a climate." (Lovelock, 'The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years,' Independent, January 16, 2006)
A news headline proclaimed, 'Attempts to counter global warming are already doomed to failure, says Lovelock.' (McCarthy, The Independent, January 16, 2006)
The best we can do here, according to Lovelock, is to build a kind of fortress Britain, conserving our own resources, and rapidly expanding the nuclear sector in a bid to cut carbon dioxide emissions. No questions were raised in Lovelock's comment piece, or in the accompanying news stories and editorial, about the supreme driver of climate catastrophe: the corporate-driven obsession with economic 'growth' on a finite planet.
But now Michael McCarthy finally appears to have seen the light. A recent front-page Independent article by the environment editor highlighted:
"a different way forward in the struggle to combat global warming. [...] It will mean turning established principles of British economic life upside down.")
McCarthy was reporting the conclusions of the Commons all-party parliamentary climate change group, led by Colin Challen MP. The Commons group put "the case for abandoning the 'business as usual' pursuit of economic growth, which has been the basis of Western economic policy for two hundred years."
Note, however, that 'growth' should be placed in inverted commas because standard measures of economic activity externalise - in plain terms, ignore - the often enormous attendant environmental and social costs. As Colin Challen warned:
"No amount of economic growth is going to pay for the cost of the damage caused by a new and unstable climate."
"the pursuit of growth, which essentially has not changed since Victorian times, is misleading, and the terms need to be redefined. Instead, we need a different policy which looks at how much carbon we can afford to emit."
(McCarthy, 'Global warming: Your chance to change the climate,' front-page story, The Independent, March 28, 2006)
In an accompanying comment piece, Challen presented this "different policy" called 'contraction and convergence', devised by the London-based Global Commons Institute (www.gci.org.uk) which is led by Aubrey Meyer:
"We know that we need to reduce our carbon emissions so that we arrive at a safe concentration in the atmosphere - perhaps 450 parts per million. We also know that without developing countries being part of a global agreement, it won't work. The answer is convergence - we should aim to contract our emissions while converging to a per-capita basis of shared emissions rights."
Challen's warning was expressed in unusually stark terms for a mainstream press article:
"We are imprisoned by our political Hippocratic oath: we will deliver unto the electorate more goodies than anybody else. Such an oath was only ever achievable by increasing our despoliation of the world's resources. Our economic model is not so different in the cold light of day to that of the Third Reich - which knew it could only expand by grabbing what it needed from its neighbours.
"Genocide followed. Now there is a case to answer that genocide is once again an apt description of how we are pursuing business as usual, wilfully ignoring the consequences for the poorest people in the world."
(Challen, 'We must think the unthinkable, and take voters with us,' The Independent, March 28, 2006)
This is a crucial message from Challen. But how would the mainstream media respond?
An Environment Editor Wakes Up To His Responsibilities
Michael McCarthy, for one, now seemed to have fire in his belly. A recent government policy review admitted that Blair will fail to meet his promise to cut carbon dioxide emissions to 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010. The Independent environment editor was scathing:
"Britain's credibility as a leader in the fight against climate change has suffered a massive blow."
"The size of the failure stunned observers, as well as embarrassing ministers and eliciting contemptuous criticism from environmental groups and opposition parties.
"There can be no more flagrant example in all of Labour's years in office of the gross miscarriage of a key policy."
McCarthy noted for the first time (as far as we are aware) "that the pursuit of economic growth makes controlling CO2 an impossibility, and that a different path must be sought."
"The lesson that can be drawn from the spectacular failure to deliver the target is to realise how hard it is to cut carbon emissions by tinkering at the edges of a capitalist economy in full growth mode. It is now clear that the pursuit of economic business-as-usual is simply not an option."
(McCarthy, 'Blow for Britain's fight against climate change as emissions target is missed,' The Independent, March 29, 2006)
Thus, having been resigned to the end of the world last year, Independent environment editor Michael McCarthy is now showing some degree of robust challenge in his climate reporting. If only his counterparts on the other 'serious' newspapers would follow suit.
Media Business As Usual
Sadly, the environment editors and correspondents at the Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, The Guardian and The Times all had nothing to say about the parliamentary climate change group's challenge to the supremacy of economic 'growth'. The Times did, however, publish a commentary by its anti-green columnist Mick Hume rubbishing the group's argument as "irrational". (Hume, 'Today's militants - a cream-puff army out for a jolly ideological picnic,' The Times, March 31, 2006)
The Guardian, supposedly a platform for 'green' issues in the eyes of much of the environment movement, ignored the parliamentary group's challenge to the primacy of economic 'growth' as the driver of policy. Instead, the newspaper perpetuated the myths that "Britain has at least acted more responsibly than most" on climate, and that Tony Blair and (then) environment secretary Margaret Beckett "are certainly sincere on the issue". The Guardian's editors have yet to ditch the tired bromides of years gone by:
"Small measures will help, but big ones are needed too. Some of them will hurt and voters will squeal." But whatever the measures, it "does not mean abandoning economic growth."
(Leader, 'Climate change: Hot air but no action,' The Guardian, March 29, 2006)
Other than The Independent, the only British newspaper to report the parliamentary group's challenge was the London-based Evening Standard. But it was given the briefest of mentions - just 56 words at the end of a short article reporting the Archbishop of Canterbury's charge that George Bush is failing in his Christian duty to tackle global warming. (Evening Standard, 'Archbishop blasts "unChristian" Bush,' March 28, 2006)
In a pro-nuclear energy editorial, The Scotsman called economic growth, "not a luxury but necessary to look after an aging population." (Leader, 'Iron logic points way to nuclear power,' The Scotsman, April 22, 2006)
A Times editorial stated that:
"It is true that economic growth can degrade the environment: the noxious fumes in many Chinese cities are a case in point. It is also possible that climate change may hit the poorest countries hardest. But it is not yet clear how to trade off that as yet unknowable scale of risk against the proven benefits to those countries of economic growth."
The Times then warned darkly of irrational "forces" operating in society:
"The debate about climate change is not always rational: there are other forces at work. Too often, this issue is hijacked by leftist ideologues to serve an anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation and anti-American agenda. All would be well, they argue, if we put an end to consumption and trade. That is not fair, nor is it a productive way forward.
(Leader, 'The moral climate,' The Times, March 29, 2006)
End of discussion, then, in the eyes of this establishment newspaper.
The Fantasy World Where Green Is Tory Blue Or Go6rdon Brown
Mainstream politicians have been vying with each other in a desperate bid to appear greener than thou. Thus, Tory leader David Cameron flew to a Norwegian glacier in a ludicrous photo-op to view evidence of global warming. This coincided with a speech by Chancellor Gordon Brown to the United Nations in New York in which, reported the Daily Telegraph, "he promised further action to combat climate change."
The Telegraph continued, playing the usual media role as stenographer to power:
"Mr Brown said failure to act on the environment would threaten economic growth. Environmental sustainability was not an option, but a necessity.
"The two would-be Prime Ministers have effectively gone head-to-head on the environment, with the Chancellor calling into question Mr Cameron's green credentials, claiming they were based on spin rather than substance."
This is the abysmal level to which climate discussion in contemporary culture has sunk. But there was more:
"Mr Cameron said the Conservatives had to lead a 'new green revolution and recapture climate change from the pessimists'."
(George Jones and Charles Clover, 'Cameron turns blue to prove green credentials,' Daily Telegraph, April 21, 2006)
This is Cameron's analogue of New Labour's utterly discredited "ethical dimension" to foreign policy: a blatantly transparent attempt to woo progressive voters. The idea that the Tories, one of the major wings of the profit-led Business Party that has crushed real sustainability and social justice, could lead a "new green revolution" lies beyond the realms of science fantasy.
Over in the Telegraph's business section, a casual observer might have thought that an outbreak of sanity had occurred:
"While we might like to luxuriate in the benefits of globalisation, the nasty fact is that increased trade and wealth have a dark side, which is leading to profound and unsettling climate changes. The world's agricultural system is beginning to warp and this might one day wreck the global trading mechanism. We are close to the limit in terms of increasing crop yields."
(Keith Woolcock, a director of WestHall Capital, an independent research stockbroker, 'Perhaps we should not be quite so hungry for globalisation,' Daily Telegraph, April 20, 2006)
But fear not because: "The one place on earth where cultivation could be increased dramatically is Brazil."
This, we are told with a straight face, is good news for business investors:
"But first discuss timing with your financial adviser, Brazil is on a bit of a tear at the moment, you might be better off waiting for a setback."
At this point, the sane observer does not know whether to laugh or weep.
The Independent Backs Away From Dangerous Truths
The awakening of environment editor Michael McCarthy to the cataclysm of the economic 'growth' folly is to be welcomed - though a consistent follow-through in his critical reporting, and in The Independent's as a whole, has yet to emerge. More crucially, the newspaper's own editorial line has yet to match the parliamentary climate change group's challenge to the basis of Western economic policy for the last two hundred years. The paper's critique of current policy still lacks any critical substance and depth. It is too easy to issue editorial platitudes that "this Government is failing over climate change, and without an urgent rethink on how our political system deals with this threat, the problem will only get worse." But what does The Independent propose?
"A unilateral tax on airline fuel would be seized upon by Gordon Brown's rivals to argue he is cutting Britain's economic throat."
Instead, the paper can only lament:
"At every turn, we run into the line of argument that says tough measures to curb Britain's carbon emissions are bad for Britain's economy. It is true that economic pain is inevitable in the short term. But that will be as nothing compared with the cost of failing to take sufficient action."
It is hardly original to tell readers:
"Governments are too afraid of short-term electoral punishment to do what is right for the future of Britain and the world." And it is vacuous for the paper to call for "a genuine political consensus on ways to deal with climate change [which] would give ministers the political space to develop the sort of policies we urgently require."
Unsurprisingly, after all that clichéd hand-wringing, the paper's editorial leanings emerge in the weak conclusion:
"The Liberal Democrats are committed to doing what is necessary to deal with climate change."
(Leader, 'A political system failing to rise to the challenge,' The Independent, 28 March 2006)
The appalling truth is that none of the major political parties are prepared to propose the systemic changes that are necessary to address impending climate catastrophe.
And, crucially, the media is failing in its vaunted, but illusory, role of holding power to account - even as humanity's fate lies in the balance. The media's delusions could literally prove fatal. Consider The Independent's self-congratulatory tone on its 'Your World, Your Say' write-in campaign:
"This is uncharted territory - both for politics and our planet. But it is a debate that cannot be delayed. Thank goodness it is finally taking place."
(Leader, 'A revolution in attitudes,' The Independent, March 29, 2006)
But the 'debate' is avoiding the key issues that so urgently require attention and action. One contributor to The Independent's letters page summed it up well: )
"your published responses show an unwillingness to acknowledge that economic growth is the problem. The capitalist system and the world's ecological system are incompatible - there cannot be unending economic growth in a world of finite resources, even including renewables."
(Letter, John Keeley, 'Economic growth is problem for climate,' The Independent, April 8, 2006))
Granting a tiny space on a newspaper letters page for such a dose of reality is but a sop. Tragically, addressing the salient issues in media reporting and analysis remains a long way off at present.
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