Climate and Very Serious Media

The RoostAn exchange with David Roberts of Grist

A central part of our mission at Thoreau Farm is to look squarely at the present and face, to use Thoreau’s language, “the essential facts.” To that end, if you’re not already reading David Roberts, longtime staff writer at Grist in Seattle, please start now.

Roberts is not only one of the smartest writers you’ll find on climate politics and policy, he’s got my vote for the most readable (any other nominees?). Which is no small achievement. The challenge of writing about climate change in an informed, urgent and accessible way — as anyone who’s ever tried surely knows — is daunting.

David Roberts (courtesy of Grist)

Part of the reason it’s so daunting, of course, is that the facts themselves are so daunting. In a must-read series of posts back in early December, around the time of the UN climate conference in Durban, Roberts deftly and fearlessly laid out what he called the “brutal logic” of climate change (here, here, and here). As he says, you might want to pour yourself a stiff drink before you read it. (Actually, I don’t recommend that personally.) His opening paragraphs:

The consensus in American politics today is that there’s nothing to be gained from talking about climate change. It’s divisive, the electorate has more pressing concerns, and very little can be accomplished anyway. In response to this evolving consensus, lots of folks in the climate hawk coalition (broadly speaking) have counseled a new approach that backgrounds climate change and refocuses the discussion on innovation, energy security, and economic competitiveness.

This cannot work. At least it cannot work if we hope to avoid terrible consequences. Why not? It’s simple: If there is to be any hope of avoiding civilization-threatening climate disruption, the U.S. and other nations must act immediately and aggressively on an unprecedented scale. That means moving to emergency footing. War footing. “Hitler is on the march and our survival is at stake” footing. That simply won’t be possible unless a critical mass of people are on board. It’s not the kind of thing you can sneak in incrementally.

It is unpleasant to talk like this. People don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to believe it. They bring to bear an enormous range of psychological and behavioral defense mechanisms to avoid it. It sounds “extreme” and our instinctive heuristics conflate “extreme” with “wrong.” People display the same kind of avoidance when they find out that they or a loved one are seriously ill. But no doctor would counsel withholding a diagnosis from a patient because it might upset them. If we’re in this much trouble, surely we must begin by telling the truth about it.

So let’s have some real talk on climate change.

But one of the chief obstacles, in Roberts’ view, to any sort of “real talk” about climate change is the “Very Serious” mainstream media’s unwillingnes to go there.

I recently exchanged tweets with Roberts on this point, but because Twitter is (ahem) a fairly constricted platform for substantive discussion, I reached out and invited him to engage in an email exchange.  He generously accepted, and I’m posting it here (ever so lightly edited), in three parts. The exchange was conducted from last Friday, March 9, to Tuesday, March 13. Please join the discussion in the comments.

Wen Stephenson

.     .     .

From: Wen Stephenson
To: David Roberts

Thanks for taking the time for this. I know you’re a Very Busy guy.

I’ve been a regular reader of yours for about two solid years now — in fact, from around the time I left what you call the “Very Serious mainstream media” [most recently I was the senior producer of NPR’s On Point, and before that the editor of the Sunday Boston Globe‘s Ideas section] and got serious — like, seriously serious — about climate.

To begin this exchange for The Roost, I want to pick up where we left off on Twitter the other day, and your series of tweets about climate and the media.

From Twitter, 29 Feb:

The casual fossil-fuel boosterism ubiquitous in mainstream media is possible ONLY as long as everyone politely ignores climate change.

That’s why lack of climate awareness is driven, not by skeptics, but by Very Serious mainstream. Neglect/indifference as bad as denialism.

@drgrist You got it. But not just neglect/indifference. Also fear of appearing as alarmist or an advocate. Believe me. I’ve been there.

@wenstephenson When truth bumps up against peer pressure & social norms, the latter win every time. Sad but true.

@drgrist maybe not *every* time.

If mainstream reporters & columnists really had to take climate seriously, it would explode many of their most cherished assumptions.

For my part, I wish greens wd spend less time obsessing over denialists & more time persuading mainstream to take climate seriously.

Accepting, on an intellectual level, that climate change is “real” is only the 1st step on a long journey…but most stop there.

I’m glad I was watching my twitter feed when this came through, because I was struck by how much our perspectives — though we’re coming from pretty different places in the mediasphere — overlap. I’ve been continually frustrated at the media’s lack of “seriousness” on the climate issue. But at the same time, I understand what they’re up against. This is not an easy nut to crack, and especially in our prevailing media-biz climate.

So, here are a couple questions to get this going:

– First, let’s define our terms. What do you mean by “Very Serious mainstream” media?

– What would it look like, in David Roberts’ ideal world, for the mainstream media “to take climate seriously”?


From: David Roberts
To: Wen Stephenson

> First, let’s define our terms. What do you mean by “Very Serious mainstream” media?

I’m leery of defining Very Serious People (in the use of the term coined by blogger Atrios and popularized by Paul Krugman) too precisely, since it’s as much an attitude or disposition as it is a particular position. It’s a bit like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

It’s helpful to think about the framework, popularized by press critic Jay Rosen, of concentric spheres: the sphere of consensus, the sphere of legitimate debate, and the sphere of deviance. Consensus is what “everyone knows,” which needs no defense or citation. Legitimate debate is issues where there are two sides, both of which must be equally represented. And deviance is what we just don’t talk about, positions that don’t even earn a mention in mainstream coverage, e.g., climate change means economic growth is no longer viable. (Everyone should really read Rosen’s post.)

Two things are notable about this framework. First, what gets placed in various spheres is not governed by the facts, at least not primarily. It’s a process governed by sociocultural norms and economic power, enforced by peer pressure (or “social proof”) and motivated reasoning. It is no accident that the interests and predilections of the wealthy dominate conventional wisdom. Secondly, it is always safer for a journalist, pundit, or talking head to echo conventional wisdom, even when it is terribly wrong (see: Iraq; 2008 financial meltdown; climate). Career advancement comes to those who stay within the herd.

To be a Very Serious Person is to echo conventional wisdom, safe in the knowledge that even if you’re wrong, so is everyone else — at least everyone else who’s serious! One good indicator of a VSP is that he/she claims to be unbiased and non-partisan, occasionally “centrist.” To VSPs, being on “a side” is a sure path to illegitimacy; one must always be above all that, moderate and reasonable. Again, this has nothing to do with accuracy or facts, only with where the herd is located at the moment.

> What would it look like, in David Roberts’ ideal world, for the mainstream media “to take climate seriously”?

The science of climate change is pretty clear at this point: our current path leads to catastrophe. There’s plenty of uncertainty on the details, particularly in how fast and how much carbon reductions could affect the outcome. But that basic fact — status quo means disaster — is not in serious dispute.

What if it were an asteroid heading toward earth? What if it were a foreign power mustering an army to march on our shores? How would the media treat it then? Answer that question and you’ve answered how it would look to take climate seriously.

Just to take a small example: the failure on both the international level and the U.S. level to muster any serious climate policy is inevitably described by mainstream reporters as “a blow to environmentalists,” as though it’s some boutique policy meant to benefit a “special interest group.” If reporters took climate change seriously, they would say, “the failure to secure serious climate policy makes widespread suffering and destabilization in the latter half of this century far more likely.”

I call this the “and thus we’re f*cked” principle. I keep meaning to write a post on it …


(Read parts two and three of this exchange.)

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