Our Last Chance to Preserve Life On Earth Is Slipping Away

This excerpt was reprinted from the book Last Chance: Preserving Life on Earth by Larry J. Schweiger with permission from Fulcrum Publishing.

In the Absence of Light

A few years ago, we invited a group of low-income children from urban Pittsburgh to visit a distant natural area in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, for an owl watch. As night fell, the children became startled as they got their first glimpse of the myriad bright stars set in a clear, black sky. These kids had never seen a night sky in the absence of ambient light. Urban haze and light pollution had completely blocked their view of the heavens and dimmed their sense of the magnitude of creation.

Shallow news coverage causes most Americans to underestimate the urgency of the threat of global warming. Television’s failure to adequately cover the climate threat, along with the deliberate opacity created by massive oil and coal advertising, masks the vivid realities of the situation, much like the haze and light pollution blocked out the reality of the night sky for those urban kids.

The television has been described as a weapon of mass distraction. On hearing about the methane leaking from the Siberian Sea, one Canadian blogger mockingly wrote, “Runaway climate change? Massive methane release off Siberia? Nah, let’s talk about Wall Street instead!” Meanwhile, on “the upper decks of our ‘Titanic,’ everyone is worried stiff about a crisis on Wall Street.”

Denial is a too-common human tendency, especially around global warming. On June 23, 2008, twenty years since he first warned Congress that human activity was causing the earth to warm, James Hansen warned that a “wide gap has developed between what is understood about global warming by the relevant scientific communities and what is known by policymakers and the public.”

I have often wondered why so many media outlets have developed an excessive and endless fascination with fallen stars, kidnappings, rapes, and other violent crimes to the exclusion of news that we can actually use. Perhaps it is because Americans en masse watch that mindless stuff over and over again, thus supporting it and demanding more of it. Besides, that type of “news” is simple and cheap to produce and does not take a rocket scientist to present. Tabloid journalism, replayed continuously for days, weeks, and months on end is apparently profitable. “Infotainment” is not journalism. Networks and cable channels focus on making news shows more entertaining to pump up ratings that link to greater advertising revenues. Former vice president Al Gore described this in his book The Assault on Reason as “a new pattern of serial obsessions that periodically take over the airwaves for weeks at a time.”

Apart from the direct influence of coal and oil advertisers, I fail to understand why the news media ducks or ignores these terribly important stories. In September 2006, Katey Walter, leading a US-Russian team of scientists, published an important paper in Nature warning that melting permafrost in Siberia, covering more than 10 million square kilometers of Russia, is releasing five times the amount of methane previously estimated by scientists. Walter compared the melting Siberian permafrost and the massive amounts of frozen methane that could be discharged as “a (ticking) time bomb waiting to go off,” threaten the world’s climate.

You would think Walter’s shocking findings would be newsworthy. Well, you would be wrong. While Radio Free Europe, the BBC, and NPR found it newsworthy, the mainstream US media was completely distracted by mindless pursuits. At this same time, network and cable channels were in a frenzy, with satellite trucks gathered in front of the Boulder, Colorado, district attorney’s office to report titillating details of JonBenét Ramsey’s warped admirer and supposed killer, John Mark Karr.

Another instance in a long line of US media failures occurred on December 12, 2007, when Wieslaw Maslowski, a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, told a large gathering at the American Geophysical Union meeting that the Arctic will be ice-free sometime during the summer of 2013. Disappearing Arctic ice threatens to amplify global warming, yet Maslowski’s troubling findings were not covered by any of the networks, not even CNN. Instead, US viewers were preoccupied with the strange behavior of Drew Peterson in the disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy.

In an article titled “Dung on All Their Houses,” Danny Schechter summarized the media this way: “Like the word processors found on every desk, there is an idea processor at work, narrowing down what future generations will come to know as the first draft of history. More and more, those stories revolve around some high profile “giga-event”—the O.J. Case, the Death of a Princess, Sex Scandal in the White House, a natural disaster, and so on. Like blackbirds in flight, packs of reporters darken the sky, moving in swarms at the same speed and in predictable trajectory. When one lands, they all land. When one leaves, they all leave.”

Advertising and News Content—Connected?

In these recessionary times, the networks seem desperate for advertising, so it’s not surprising that they will run just about any coal or oil ad no matter how outrageous it may be, because the fossil fuel industry spends so much on pure propaganda. To hide the truth about the industry, huge advertising budgets are used not for selling products but to mislead Americans. Today, coal and oil interests are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to saturate airwaves, television, and websites with advertisements designed to manipulate. Throughout the 2008 elections, the television media ran— almost nonstop—tons of opinion-distorting and flat-out-false advertisements from oil and coal companies and their fossil-fuel power generators.

The ubiquitous and misleading oil ads never disclose who the sponsors are— they just say “sponsored by API.” Imagine the answers Jay Leno would get by asking people on the street to tell him who API is; few, if any, could guess that it is the American Petroleum Institute. These commercial spots convincingly suggest that we have forty-five years of oil and gas left, yet the same ads say that Big Oil is investing in alternative energy research, development, and deployment. They’re betting that most people will buy that contradiction, and so far they’ve bet right. These oil advertisers also spawned the “Drill Baby Drill” campaign that dominated Republican rallies in 2008.

Some media executives have forgotten that the airwaves are commonwealth property belonging to all the people. In granting private use of the public estate, the Federal Communications Commission once required holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was honest, equitable, and balanced. For decades, a policy known as the Fairness Doctrine was a backstop protecting the airwaves from being captured by propagandists who bought airtime. During the Reagan administration, a systematic effort led primarily by conservatives was made to erode and eventually eliminate the long-held doctrine. With the Fairness Doctrine now gone, networks have no legal obligation to provide any meaningful rebuttal to propaganda, including mass-advertising campaigns.

The elimination of the Fairness Doctrine was one of the most devastating attacks on truth. Do not underestimate the powerful alignment of media owners and talk radio voices committed to keeping it from returning. If you do not believe we need to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, read the very words that ABC executives thought were too controversial to run on national television during the election season in 2008:

The solution to our climate crisis seems simple. Repower America with wind and solar. End our dependence on foreign oil. A stronger economy. So why are we still stuck with dirty and expensive energy? Because big oil spends hundreds of millions of dollars to block clean energy. Lobbyists, ads, even scandals. All to increase their profits, while America suffers. Breaking big oil’s lock on our government, now that’s change. We’re the American people and we approve this message.

These are obviously outrageous, even dangerous words because they mention the millions of dollars flowing to the networks from false energy ads. In the spirit of full disclosure, the above-mentioned inflammatory ads came from the Alliance for Climate Protection (ACP), a tripartisan organization founded by a nonprofit, nonpartisan effort composed of Nobel laureate and former vice president Al Gore, four well-known Republicans, three prominent Democrats, and one lowly independent (me). The ACP submitted the above ad to ABC to have it aired on September 26, during 20/20. We paid $85,000 for the airtime, but the morning the ad was to run, the network rejected it.

After the ad was refused, the then Alliance CEO, Cathy Zoi, complained in an e-mail to supporters and donors that ABC, CBS, and CNN aired numerous TV spots for the oil and coal industry during the October 7 presidential debate, but ABC was refusing to air the alliance ad. In an e-mail on October 8, Cathy alerted supporters, “Did you notice the ads after last night’s presidential debate? ABC had Chevron. CBS had Exxon. CNN had the coal lobby. But you know what happened last week? ABC refused to run our Repower America ad—the ad that takes on this same oil and coal lobby.”

The 2008 debates, news, and convention coverage were universally sponsored by the energy industry. ExxonMobil, for example, sponsored the convention coverage of CNN and CBS. It is safe to say that Big Coal and Big Oil owned the advertising space around the 2008 elections coverage. Far too few climate and energy questions were asked during both the primary and general election debates. Those few that were asked by the moderator were not followed up on for needed details on position differences. Since energy was the driving issue at the time of both conventions, you would think news outlets would avoid both the appearance and actual conflict of interests. Imagine how Civil War–era history might have been altered if a wealthy class of slave-trading merchants had funded the newspaper coverage during the Republican National Convention at which Abraham Lincoln was chosen.

Polls show that climate concerns actually diminished during the advertising blitz, when gasoline prices soared. Advertising has created the false impression that the energy industry is doing a good job taking care of the threat of global warming at the same time published science is making it increasingly clear that the actual threats are dire. Clean coal exists only on television and in political promises. Beyond the ads, there is no such thing. Leading up to the 2008 elections, the coal industry spent many millions promoting mythical “clean coal” in television ads and at the political conventions. At the same time, it has fought the very climate security laws that would advance the technological development of clean coal. The industry has long known that mercury pollution, tiny respiratable sulfate particles, and global warming are very serious health and environmental problems; yet the industry has done everything possible to thwart pollution controls while whitewashing coal.

An international poll, conducted just before the December 2008 United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference and funded by the financial institution HSBC, the Earthwatch Institute, and other groups, surveyed people in eleven countries (Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Malaysia, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and found that only 47 percent “were prepared to make personal lifestyle changes to reduce carbon emissions, down from 58 per cent last year…And only one in five respondents…said they’d spend extra money to reduce climate change, [which is] down from 28 per cent in 2007.”

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