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There's a (terrible) reason the world isn't stopping climate change

MSNBC logo MSNBC 8/10/2021 Hayes Brown
Photo illustration: Images on a half burnt piece of paper show a deer amidst heavy smoke, part of a burnt residence, a burnt car and a charred tree. © MSNBC Photo illustration: Images on a half burnt piece of paper show a deer amidst heavy smoke, part of a burnt residence, a burnt car and a charred tree.

If you have news alerts active on your phone, odds are you woke up Monday to grim tidings: The International Panel on Climate Change's latest report says the warming of our planet is "irreversible for centuries to millennia." The more than 200 scientists involved in drafting the report were more certain than ever that human influence had warmed the planet by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 19th century.

But among the horrified screenshots and quote tweets juxtaposing the new report and the wildfires in Greece, I noted something else as I scrolled through Twitter. Climate reporters, people like HuffPost's Alexander Kaufman, who spend day after day explaining the effects of climate change, were a bit more, well, disgruntled than I expected.

"I'm sorry, but no one's more lazy or, frankly, pathetic than influential Beltway people who tune in for climate only when the IPCC puts out a report, then exclaim how f----- we all are," he tweeted. "Grow up, exercise some discipline, take responsibility. The nihilism is so childish and lame."

It's a good point. There's no point in defeatism — especially when the IPCC's report stresses that there is still time to prevent the very worst effects of climate change from taking hold.

There's no point in defeatism — especially when the IPCC's report stresses that there is still time to prevent the very worst effects of climate change from taking hold.

"Scientists have narrowed the estimated range for how temperatures respond to greenhouse-gas emissions," Bloomberg News' Akshat Rathi explained on Twitter. "That's good news and bad news. The worst-case scenario from warming is unlikely, but so is the best-case scenario. Better news is that temperatures will stabilize very soon after end the addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The faster we reach that milestone, the fewer the climate impacts the world will face."

But that still leaves a question that I've been struggling to answer: How do you get people to care about a dying planet?

At one point, it seemed almost easy. The '90s were filled with pleas to individuals to act now to save the Earth. There was almost no limit to what average Americans could do, we were told: reduce, reuse, recycle; don't waste water; turn off your lights when you're not in the room; donate to save a panda; watch "Ferngully: The Last Rainforest."

Thirty years later, the scale of the problem has grown beyond the ability of most of us to feel like we can have an individual impact on the crisis — especially when even the fixes pitched to us, like recycling, have fallen short. The difficulty in getting people to buy into "bold climate action," as advocates love to refer to it, has also grown. Then, the requests were relatively minor inconveniences. What the IPCC is calling for is a total societal shift as every country on the planet ends use of fossil fuels entirely by 2050.

It's a big ask for millions of Americans who are convinced that any changes automatically mean a decrease in their standard of living. That has resulted in two main ways of trying to tell climate stories. The first, as seen Monday in the framing of the IPCC report, is what I'll call the "Be Very Afraid" method.

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But folks can grow numb to those kinds of warnings as they continue with their daily lives. Yes, the IPCC report says, scientists can now link individual natural disasters with climate change in a way that they hadn't been able to before. But even as those disasters spike, as we've seen in the earlier, longer and more violent hurricane seasons on one coast and the wildfire seasons on the other this past decade, those are still told as discrete stories. Even when you point out the cause, some people still refuse to link another state's droughts with their own sweltering summers or unexpected deep freezes.

The second tactic is the "Who's Profiting From This?" model. In a fantastic appearance on CNN's "Reliable Sources," Emily Atkin, an MSNBC columnist and author of the Heated climate newsletter, explained that "climate change is not something that's happening to us. It's something that's being done to us." The fact that there are corporations in the fossil fuel industry that are profiting while their products harm some of the most vulnerable populations means "it's a corruption story."

It's a rock-solid argument from Atkin. But The New Republic's Kate Aronoff recently homed in on a major problem of telling that version of the climate change story. Namely, those fossil fuel companies have the money and access that many newsrooms lack at this point. Which means there's a dearth of people in the reporting game who can go through the Senate's pending bipartisan infrastructure bill, for example, and get at the heart of what's missing as far as climate spending is concerned — and why. And that's just how the lobbyists want it:

This bill is simultaneously “the largest investment in climate resilience in American history,” per the Times, and a complete abdication of responsibility. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible for reporters to emphasize that dual reality when trying to summarize the details of these types of gargantuan bills, which remain the only way our teetering antebellum political democracy invests in itself. Searching even for top-line numbers in such massive bills is a tall task. White House Fact Sheets are the best available shorthand. But White House Fact Sheets are also propaganda documents. Newsrooms aren’t equipped with Congressional Research Service veterans ready to decode what the oh-so-careful legalese in a brick of legislation actually means. Neither do most journalists have the time, expanded word limits, or expertise to figure out where money is being allocated directly to perform a certain task as opposed to bundled out to private companies in the hopes they do it.

Journalists, for all our industry's talk of objectivity, have always seen themselves as being able to act as a lever, encouraging society to act. It's a power that's been used for good and for ill but one that even the most straight-down-the-line old-school reporter believes in. What's the point of printing just the facts if those facts don't stir people — ordinary citizens and the powerful alike — to act against the evils of the world? Even in the face of massive societal problems, journalists have performed the Sisyphean task of trying to shift public opinion.

Climate change and its effects outstrip any of those past efforts. And yet there are still parties who prioritize short-term profit — be it monetary, political or both — over preventing a long-term collapse. I wrote in June about how skewed America's climate change debate really is in light of the draft version of the IPCC's report, a conclusion that has only deepened with the final text's release.

That divide between rhetoric and reality is largely thanks to folks like the environmental short sellers who brag about the support of senators in killing off the chances of climate action. They and their funders are the equivalent of an oil slick under our feet as we try to push this particular boulder up the hill, threatening to crush us all.

I wish I could say I had an answer to this problem. I don't know how to change the fact that Google Trends ranks recent months as a low point in interest in climate change compared to the last five years. I don't know how we make finally it to the top, exhausted but finally ready to prevent the worst-case scenario — our society's total collapse.

I just know that I'd really love to still be able to live at least semi-comfortably on this planet by the time I'm 65. I also know that I can't make that happen by myself, no matter how many aluminum cans I recycle.

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