It is outrageous that the mainstream media only spent a single news cycle addressing the major report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last month, which sounded an alarm for humanity, warning that, “unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.”
Despite the urgency of the message — that we’ve arrived at the “now or never moment” — mainstream media’s attention to the report, which is titled “The Physical Science Basis,” barely lasted 24 hours.
For that brief span, when the “Code Red” message was broadcast in front page stories across the U.S., some analysts, organizers and climate journalists were already detecting a deeper silence in both the report and its media coverage, one that nearly guarantees that efforts to confront the crisis in time to reverse course will be undermined. Journalists taking their cues from the Society of Environmental Journalists webinar held in advance of the report’s release, or its advice piece on how best to cover the reports, or the IPCC’s own press release and suggested headlines and takeaways may be unaware of the silences structured into these materials.
Benjamin Franta, a consulting expert on the fossil fuel industry, is writing a dissertation at Stanford University on the history of what the companies knew about the science of climate change, when they knew it (as early as 1959), what they’ve told the public, and their ongoing persistent efforts to slow and delay necessary action. Franta, who also has a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from Harvard and a J.D. from Stanford, switched directions when he realized that climate change mitigation is not a problem of technology or science, but of politics. He has long been frustrated with the previous IPCC reports as well as the way they’re typically covered, because the reports are largely reiterations of the scientific facts that have been long known, and they consistently omit the social causes of the problem, i.e., the political obstruction, misleading information and distorted framing of the problem. Because these are absent in the reports themselves, the press, adhering to those same strictures, also fails to supply readers with the broader context, or explain “what’s blocking action, what’s slowing things down.”
“Right now, the real challenge with climate change is a challenge of speed,” Franta told Truthout. “We have to replace fossil fuels as quickly as possible, ASAP. If we can do it faster, that’s good; we can’t do it too fast, there’s no such thing as doing it too fast at this point.”
As he describes in a 12-minute TEDx talk, in 2017, he found in the Dupont Research Archives in Delaware a transcript of a conference held in 1959 by the national trade association, the American Petroleum Institute (API). Included was a speech by Edward Teller in which the renowned physicist directly warned the oil and gas industry that if they continued to burn fossil fuels, all of the coastal cities would be submerged by rising seas.
Teller also calculated, almost exactly, how much carbon dioxide would be in Earth’s atmosphere by the year 2000. These findings were confirmed in 1968 by a brigade of climate scientists privately hired by the industry who told the executives to find safer fuels. But instead, the industry persisted in drilling for fossil fuels and quashed alternative technologies such as the electric car. A third chance was squandered in 1980 when executives were informed by a Stanford University researcher of the likely consequences at another API confab.
The documentary evidence shows that oil and gas executives also knew that 80 percent of the world’s fossil fuels needed to be left in the ground. But rather than lead the transition, they engaged in a campaign to delay and distract the public while pushing for an expansion of fossil fuel production. In 2020, the U.S. was the largest producer of oil in the world, producing 20 percent of the world’s oil, 9 percent more than Saudi Arabia; it was also the hottest recorded year in the world’s history.
This is the terrain of Franta’s forthcoming dissertation, but some of this history is already known and could have been incorporated into an introduction to the IPCC’s assessment, or failing that, the press accounts of the reports. Instead, the leading media outlets all wrote some variation of: “Warming as Human Activity” without specifying which humans are responsible for the emissions heating our atmosphere to unprecedented levels, and which instigated and are perpetuating a massive deception.
In Franta’s analysis, the IPCC and the mainstream media are stuck in an outmoded paradigm, “a depoliticized frame about climate change where the problem is inherently really hard and everyone’s fault and there’s no good identifiable cause to it in human terms, and no solution.”
He says that the fact that industry knew it was harming Earth’s ecosystem to the point of catastrophe needs to be widely disseminated by every major media outlet because “there has to be massive pressure on the system.” It’s a matter of deep frustration and regret that when the world’s attention is focused on the IPCC reports on their release dates, the opportunity to powerfully convey that basic truth is missed again and again.
“The history of deception is always interesting,” says Franta. “It has to do with being tricked, which is just sort of mind-blowing; and it offers a solution, because it identifies the problem, and we can go after that, and it will help a great deal.”
Richard Wolff, emeritus professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and media critic of capitalism at Democracy at Work is another observer who found the report and its media coverage more interesting for the news that never surfaced.
“Since the days of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, two things have been growing together,” Wolff told Truthout. “The growth and spread of capitalism and the growth and spread of environmental disaster.”
He says these reports should name names because in capitalism, very few people are at the helm. “Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the people in the United States make all the major decisions with respect to what gets produced, what technologies are used to produce it, where the production occurs geographically, what is done with the output, if it’s sold domestically or abroad. It’s the same with purchasing,” Wolff explains.
Nonetheless, he says, when the report fails to name who is most responsible for the emissions, and corporate media reports only on the report without supplementing it with the history of industry dereliction, “the whole matter can then disappear from the U.S. news cycle with little ado, accountability or action.” He thinks the corporations and countries that aid and abet emissions by failing to regulate, curtail or shut down the offenders, even when they flagrantly violate laws, begs “the most obvious question.”
“Maybe,” Wolff asks, “an alternative economic system would relate to the natural environment in a different way? We’ve never had a conversation in the United States about the pros and cons of capitalism apropos anything, whether it’s the environment or racism or any of the other issues.” The result, he says, has been a level of ideological narrowness that is in the end extremely dangerous.
Climate journalist Justin Nobel, agrees that the IPCC reports have been pulling punches since 1988, when they first started issuing them.
“The tricky thing,” Nobel told Truthout, “is that initially something might start out punky, energetic and worthy, and then it becomes an industry, even like a really corrupt industry that we spend a lot of time reporting on.” Calling it “the nature of the system,” he says that while he doesn’t regard the IPCC, which has really fantastic scientists, to be as evil as the oil and gas industry, “it’s still existing, and having to exist within the same system that produced those other industries, and that’s problematic.”
A key failing of the report and its coverage is the lack of discussion of the “externalized costs” of the oil and gas industry, a basic precept of capitalist economics. When he hears the daily announcements of marketplace numbers on NPR, for instance, Nobel says they never account for corporate damage to the Earth and to the corporation’s own human employees. The positive numbers can be especially misleading. “We all know when General Motors closes a factory and lays off a thousand workers their stock will go up, and their numbers will look better.”
Part of the problem is that while there is now a well-funded industry of journalists conveying climate news, Nobel says, they are reduced and relegated to functioning as “relayers of climate information” that do not alter the system.
“There’s an entire workforce fighting this all now, but really, if you look at it on paper, they’re all failing — emissions continue to rise.” In his view, the failure is one of boldness. “There are villains, and they need to be branded across the realm of the world in which we live.”
Journalist and documentary filmmaker Melissa Troutman points to a silence undergirding all the other attempted silences, that enables the deception, obfuscation and failure to consider alternatives to be normalized and accepted as sufficient to the moment — the silencing of the natural world.
“If a river were to comment about the IPCC report, it might say that the most fundamental part of our climate problem is still forgotten,” Troutman told Truthout. “The nonhuman is as sacred as the human, and that divinity is not included in governmental panels and scientific reports. Without acknowledging and protecting the sanctity of life, our ‘solutions’ continue to be unwhole and unjust, and they are more likely to create unintended consequences that create even further problems, particularly for the most vulnerable in our web of life.”