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The Elephant in the Room: Climate Change

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Craig Brown

The most under-reported news story of 2012?

The elephant in the room. Global climate change — and the failure of our leaders and media to act.

The science is clear and unambiguous: climate change is real; it’s caused by humans burning fossil fuels; and it’s at or near an irreversible catastrophic tipping point.

But you wouldn’t know any of this if you’re getting your news from the corporate media.

2012 has been a year of alarming extremes — record smashing heat, historic droughts and wildfires, Hurricane Sandy, record-breaking melting of Arctic sea ice. We just passed the 333rd consecutive month of global temperatures above the 20th-century average. Climate scientists now say it’s growing worse faster than any of them predicted even a few years ago.

And yet, U.S. corporate media coverage of climate change is actually down from its peak in 2007.

A Media Matters study of the corporate media’s coverage of this summer’s record heat found that only 14 percent of heat wave stories mentioned climate change and only 8 percent of the coverage pointed out that human activities are driving climate change.

And even when there is climate change coverage, it’s often framed with a false balance — both sides of the argument have equal opportunity to be heard — so even widely debunked climate deniers get equal time.

We all know that media coverage — or lack of — has significant effects on public opinion. Is it any wonder then that climate change was nearly absent from the recent presidential campaign? The moderators of the four corporate-sponsored presidential debates didn’t even ask a climate change question — the first time that has happened since 1988.

Last month, newly reelected President Obama continued to punt on climate change, saying in a press conference, “I think the American people right now have been so focused, and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth, that if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody is going to go for that. I won’t go for that.”

Why the near silence at a time of such urgency?

We all grew up being taught that a free press is essential to our democratic system. Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

On a recent episode of Moyers & Company, Bill Moyers said, ”In 1983, 50 corporations controlled a majority of media in America. In 1990 the number had dropped to 23. In 1997, 10. And today, six. There you have it. The fistful of multinational conglomerates that own the majority of media in America.”

We’re left with a monolithic media industry driven to maximize the next quarter’s profits and fueled by oil and gas industry advertising.

As long as meaningful action on climate change will hurt the short-term profits of the fossil fuel industries, the media conglomerates and Wall Street, we can’t expect the media blackout to end. “It’s called capitalism,” as Google’s Eric Schmidt said last week trying to explain the Internet giant’s evasions of billions of dollars in taxes.

It’s going to be up to those of us in the non-profit, independent media to make sure the public is well-informed that the costs of climate change inaction will be far more expensive. And that those catastrophic costs will be borne by the 99 percent.


Craig Brown is the founder and director of the progressive news service Common Dreams (www.commondreams.org).

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