By: Genevieve Guenther
March 01, 2019
The summer of 2018 was very hot. Record-breaking temperatures baked the planet, inspiring nearly 130 reports about the heat on US network television. It would seem that every one of those reports should have discussed the heat's link to climate change, considering the scientific fact that climate change made the heatwave five times more likely. But only one segment even mentioned the words "climate change."
Such silence on the relationship between extreme weather and climate change is currently the media standard. Reporters and anchors consistently fail to mention climate change in the stories about its effects they're already reporting. EndClimateSilence.org is working to change that standard and inspire new media practices commensurate with the increasingly urgent reality of climate change.
EndClimateSilence.org was conceived one enlightening day when I heard three different NPR stories about the effects of climate change, including a report about the Japanese mudslides that forced three million people from their homes, in which announcers never spoke the words "climate change" or "global warming." A Twitter thread I wrote about this surreal and disturbing experience quickly went viral, even inspiring a think piece in The New Republic which was then addressed, defensively, by the science editor at NPR. That day, I realized the moment for a real conversation about media climate silence had arrived.
In consultation with the climate advocacy community, and having convened a board of change-makers, scientists, and NGO strategists, I founded EndClimateSilence.org. We are a digital-activist group: we primarily mobilize on Twitter, the platform that enables us to have direct access to the very reporters, anchors, editors, and producers making the decisions about how to cover climate. We do not ask media outlets to do more stand-alone stories about climate change; rather we ask them to make the links to climate change explicit in the stories they're already reporting. To do this, we understand, is both easy and hard. It is easy to add one or two sentences to a story already being written; it is hard for every media figure who reports on science, extreme weather, migration, finance, real estate, energy, or global politics to recognize the ways their stories are connected to climate change and to make that connection explicit. But it is the news media's professional and moral responsibility to do this.
Media silence on climate change distorts our politics. According to Yale University1, only a bare majority of Americans in 2018 know that human begins are causing the climate change that threatens us. Only 22% hear about climate change in the media once a week. 77% of Americans hear about it once a month or less. It is impossible for citizens in a democracy to make fair decisions at the ballot about climate change when they are so woefully misinformed.
Media climate silence distorts our politics also in another more subtle but no less important way: it upholds the fossil fuel economy and the cultural assumptions that this economy produces. It is true that fossil fuels currently play central role in all our material practices and in our imaginations of the good life, but it is also true that fossil fuels are also dangerous pollutants whose effects can be expected to kill millions of people in the next decades and possibly billions in the next century, unless we stop using them. It is very hard to hold those two ideas in one's head at the same time, and all too easy to resolve one's cognitive dissonance by simply forgetting about the dangers of fossil fuels (which are really far off anyway, right? well, no). When the media suppresses the truth about the full scope of the climate crisis and the fact that climate change has already begun to destroy our world and endanger or even kill people, it enables and normalizes this commonplace climate denial. If our world is to survive in a habitable form, that normalization of climate denial must end.
We at EndClimateSilence.org will continue to push print and television media outlets to refuse fossil fuel sponsorship, end their conflicts of interest, and tell the truth about the climate crisis. We plan also to expand our focus from national news to local and regional markets, engaging volunteers to monitor those crucial platforms for climate silence. And finally, we plan to campaign vociferously and tenaciously to make climate change the most prominent issue in the 2020 election cycle. Our dream is to be able to disband our operations in the next five years, as the implementation of the Green New Deal is getting underway.
We know that this is the time for action — our only time for action. But we also know that another world is possible. Let's #EndClimateSilence and make that happen!
- Some of Yale's surveys produce slightly different data about these issues. For instance, their December 2018 report released with George Mason University says that 62% of Americans understand that global warming is anthropogenic, 34% say they hear about global warming in the media at least once a week, and 56% say they hear about it at least once a month. ↩
Genevieve Guenther is affiliate faculty at the Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School and the Founder and Director of EndClimateSilence.org.