Why the Mainstream Media Ignores Climate Change


The reversal of Enbridge Line 9 was approved by the National Energy Board on Thursday. The 40 year-old pipeline is the first to deliver diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands en masse to Ontario and Quebec. Line 9 has been the focus of climate activism in Toronto for the past two years. Image courtesy of Environmental Defence.


There is much to be desired in the mainstream media’s coverage of energy politics and climate change, but perhaps the single most important fact that gets consistently overlooked—that is scarcely apprehended by the general public and yet comes to mind for me every time a new pipeline or oil field gets approved—is that greenhouse-driven warming operates on an extremely delayed timescale. As with several aspects of climate science, that timescale is impossible to deduce with perfect accuracy, but NASA climatologist James Hansen estimates that only 60 percent of the final climatic response to a rise in greenhouse gas (GHG) occurs over the course of a century.

This leaves us with the daunting reality that the increasing intensity of heat waves, storms, and ecological disruption that have been associated with rising temperatures can be attributed simply to the elevated levels of greenhouse gases emitted by the mid-20th century, or perhaps even earlier. Even if GHG emissions—which, mind you, have tripled since the mid-sixties—were to halt today, the climate will nonetheless continue to warm for hundreds and by some estimates thousands of years into the future. We have only quite recently reached a CO2 concentration of 400 ppm, (that’s up from under 320 ppm in 1960,) but we do not yet know what a 400 ppm atmosphere really looks like. Whereas we often assume that we are experiencing climate change in real time, we are in fact experiencing a climate augmented by previous generations, while we augment it even further for the next ones. There is, in other words, no automatic system of justice or accountability built into the Earth’s climate.

This reality was encapsulated in the findings of a 2011 report from the Toronto-based environmental research firm Specialists in Energy, Nuclear, and Environmental Sciences (SENES). As the authors wrote, “No plausible future scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions produce a cooling of the earth. These results mean we can be confident that the Earth’s climate will continue to warm throughout the 21st century. What we can control is by how much the climate warms.” That report, entitled “Toronto’s Future Weather & Climate Driver Study,” is by far the most comprehensive assessment of the future impact of climate change on Toronto, and indeed is among the most detailed local assessments ever. Working from an exhaustive climate model known as the HADCM3, (which has been cited extensively by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,) SENES built a regional model to estimate the climatic patterns Toronto can expect to face in the 2040s—a time when me and most of my friends will only be in our fifties. To summarize the findings:

  • The average temperature will increase by 4.4 °C, (5.7 °C in the winter, 3.8 °C in the summer).
  • Overall precipitation will increase, with the month of July seeing an 80 percent increase in rainfall compared to the decade from 2000 to 2009.
  • Extreme weather events will decrease in their frequency but increase in their intensity. Whereas the maximum amount of rain in one day has been 66mm, it is anticipated to jump to 166mm.
  • The number of days with a Humidex greater than 40 °C will jump from 9 to 39, while the maximum Humidex will rise to 57 °C. (Yes, you read that right. 57 degrees Celsius.)
  • The number of days in which the temperature remains above 24 °C will increase sixfold, to 180 days of the year, and heat waves will be about five times more frequent.

In other words, the city will experience a more tropical climate: “more ‘comfort’ in the winter but less in the summer,” as the authors put it.

Trading frigid winters for sweltering summers may not sound like such a raw deal, but it will be costly for Toronto, which is precisely why the report was commissioned to begin with. Our drainage system is already failing in heavy rainfalls, and the increased energy needed to cool buildings down in extreme heat is likely to strain our electrical grid.

The real problem is what this will mean for the rest of the planet. At best, the SENES report will only be used to help guide a few local infrastructural changes—not by any means to advise the governments of Toronto or Ontario on they can do to help avert changes in the climate that by the middle of the century will certainly be worsening access to food and water in many of the world’s most populous regions on an unprecedented scale. And, given the shifts in energy production that are ongoing in Canada today, it is clear that we have a lot to contribute—or, at least, a lot to prevent.

But not one word about the climate was mentioned at the National Energy Board’s (NEB) hearings on Enbridge Line 9 last fall. The Board would only hear testimony from “persons who, in the Board’s opinion, are directly affected by the project,” thus limiting any critics to the important but limited subject of possible pipeline ruptures. In doing so, they seem to have favoured ignorance and exclusion over holistic inquiry. It is important enough for those of us in the general public to educate ourselves about the science of climate change, and yet we are confronting a system in which even the decision-makers themselves have been institutionally separated from the very information that might help them understand the consequences of their actions.

There were, in fact, several reasons to question the process from the outset, and even on its own terms it should be seen as a failure and a farce. To begin with, six of the seven members of the NEB themselves come from high-level corporate positions in the energy sector. For these particular hearings, new bureaucratic regulations were implemented to make it extremely difficult for almost anyone to testify. The Board also demonstrated no interest in gaining the consent of First Nations who would be directly impacted by a spill. On top of all this, the federal government, the government of Ontario, and the government of Quebec all support the project. And so, throughout the past year there has indeed been a feeling that the game was rigged. Our marches through the streets, the signs on our front lawns, and even the six-day occupation of Enbridge’s facility in Hamilton were hardly acknowledged, because it was all too easy for our government at every level to point to the NEB and remind us that these unelected, highly intelligent experts probably have a better grasp of the public interest than the public itself.


But discussions of the climate have not merely been absent from federal stationary; they have also been sorely lacking in the mainstream media. Part, but not all, of this has to do with the growing financial vulnerability of the media to oil interests in Canada. Given the relatively small domestic market for Canadian media and the swelling size of the energy sector, it has seemed lately as though our own national discourse is especially susceptible to the sinister spell of corporate patronage.

This tends to happen in ways that are opaque and often very subtle, but are currently extending well beyond the conventional—though already compromising—relationship between publishers and advertisers. As Jonathan Sas at The Tyee has pointed out, the Globe and Mail has published a disturbing number of boosteristic special “information sections” about the tar sands in the past few years—whole sections of advertorial disguised as content, but paid for in full by corporate sponsors. Another, even more odious example of this trend was revealed last month when the Vancouver Observer published a leaked presentation about a new agreement between the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and Postmedia—the consortium that owns the National Post, the Calgary Herald, the Montreal Gazette, the Ottawa Citizen, and the Vancouver Sun. The agreement completely eliminates the line between content and advertisement: control of the Financial Post’s extensive energy section has now been forfeited entirely to CAPP, and Postmedia’s newspapers are mandated to print “special Joint Venture sections” in which topics are to be “directed by CAPP and written by Postmedia.”

There is however, a second reason that climate change has been totally ignored in the media, and that has to do with the completely irreverent attitude that has been expressed by the federal government at every stage of the tar sands debate. “We are exploiting the tar sands whether you like it or not,” they say. “If we can’t use pipelines we’ll use trains and even trucks to bring the oil to market.” It is as though they’re holding us hostage without even demanding a ransom. Even Barack Obama, ostensibly the most powerful person on earth, has, in the more despondent moments of his interminable musings about Keystone XL, said that Canada will probably move forward with tar sands extraction “regardless of what we do.”

But that particular comment from the president back in 2012 did elicit one important response in the media—an op-ed by James Hansen in the New York Times, which has probably coloured my view of the issue more than anything else. “If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate,” he wrote.

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil combustion in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

Hansen later elaborates on the science at work here:

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million to 393 ppm over the last 150 years. The tar sands contain enough carbon—240 gigatons—to add 120 ppm. Tar shale, a close cousin of tar sands found mainly in the United States, contains at least an additional 300 gigatons of carbon. If we turn to these dirtiest of fuels, instead of finding ways to phase out our addiction to fossil fuels, there is no hope of keeping carbon concentrations below 500 ppm—a level that would, as earth’s history shows, leave our children a climate system that is out of their control.

Even when they emerge from one of the most respected climatologists in the world, these predictions can still smack of apocalyptic crackpottery, and perhaps a third reason that commercial media usually avoid this kind of subject matter is that it is too unbelievable and even disturbing for the average reader. Perhaps we do not have the attention span for climate science, or perhaps we don’t want to feel like sinners for driving a car or buying an avocado, or perhaps now that the facts are out there, they doesn’t exactly bear recapitulation. How much doom and gloom can one even stand to hear?

But I seriously doubt this is really the issue, that human beings are congenitally incapable of confronting big problems. For one thing, a 500 ppm climate is certainly something we can avoid at this point, which means that we (probably) still have the opportunity to avoid the totally out-of-control scenario Hansen describes. To that effect, I suspect that climate change is seldom addressed in public not because we hate thinking about the future, but because it has been systematically shut out of the permissible discourse on issues such as Line 9. This has occurred to such an extent that even the most ecologically-minded among us are bound to feel powerless and frustrated. When those in power have stopped listening, we will only talk for so long.

Naomi Klein recently wrote an essay for the New Statesman called “How science is telling us all to revolt,” in which she suggests that it is becoming increasingly incumbent upon the capitalist establishment to destroy the natural sciences. “There are many people who are well aware of the revolutionary nature of climate science,” she writes. “It’s why some of the governments that decided to chuck their climate commitments in favour of digging up more carbon have had to find ever more thuggish ways to silence and intimidate their nations’ scientists.” And certainly, as she suggests, the Harper government has been very effective at dismantling public-interest environmental sciences.

But this dynamic works in the opposite direction as well; it can sometimes be difficult for the media, both mainstream and independent, to demand that we alter our course when the government has demonstrated such sociopathic intransigence. Overcoming that dynamic—continuing the struggle in spite of their intransigence—is, for now, the crucible of the left.

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