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Climate collapse — how the Fourth Estate has failed society

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Leonie Joubert is an independent science writer and contributor to Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet climate desk. She was named as one of Rhodes University Journalism & Media Studies’ 50 distinguished alumni as it celebrated half a century of journalism training.

The media — the Fourth Estate — has failed in its role: It has not raised the alarm of climate collapse in time, or critiqued the system that allows a few to profit at the expense of all.

The year 1972 was an important one. It was important because that’s the year society was warned that we can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. Half a century ago, the seminal Limits to Growth report came out, a piece of thinking that helped seed today’s environmental movement.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s number crunching, done for the global think tank the Club of Rome, was clear: if we continued with our industrial-scale pollution and consumption, we’d smash through planetary boundaries by the end of the century.

And here we are: 1.2°C hotter on average than we were 300 years ago.

That doesn’t sound like much, when the daily weather gives us 13°C in the morning, and a high of 25°C at noon. 

But from a climate perspective, that’s the equivalent of a human body having a dangerous fever.

This isn’t ideology — whether we’re convinced by socialism, or wedded to low-regulation capitalism. It’s not a belief system. This is the laws of physics. We don’t have to believe in gravity; gravity still has a hold on us.

Journalism is called the Fourth Estate, and for good reason. It’s a load-bearing wall in any healthy democracy. Our job is to inform and educate the public, to stoke active citizenry that goes beyond simply turning up at voting stations every five years. Our job is to keep a watchful eye on the powerful in our society, and this extends beyond government.

We have to hold the powerful to account; that means any entities that have the power to shape our world.

In the climate context, this extends to the private interests that often have more political influence than the voting public.

We have to scrutinise the relationship between governments and private interests that have undue influence to write the rules of the economic game.

This is where journalism has failed. 

We haven’t warned society of the gravest existential threat in our 200,000 years as modern humans. We have failed to shape the public discourse in a way that is protective of everyone.

We have largely turned a blind eye to the powerful polluters who have shaped our policies and economies to profit from the free use of our atmospheric space — a shared, global commons — while leaving the rest of us, and the environment, to pick up the bill.

To put a political-economy view on this: we have largely been cheerleading those who play by rules of the limitless-growth game, rather than criticising the game itself.

The climate story is still largely relegated to the environment pages in a newspaper. It gets the charity spend — whatever’s left over after newsroom resources have been spent on “apex” beats like politics, business, even sport.

The satirical disaster movie, Don’t Look Up, uses simple, clear imagery, comparing the climate crisis to an asteroid about to collide with Earth. It’s a useful metaphor. But it’s also a bit misleading: it suggests we’re headed for a single-impact event some time in the future.

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A better analogy is this: Earth is spinning into the path of a giant field of space debris. The deeper we get into it, the more we will have space rocks showering down on our heads.

Every space rock burning through the atmosphere is its own meteor strike. But it’s hard to predict precisely where each one will hit, and it’s hard to know what the blast radius will be.

The terrifying reality is that it has already begun.

Day Zero in Cape Town was a meteor strike. The recent flooding in Durban was another. So was Cyclone Idai that nearly wiped the Mozambican city of Beira off the map. The three-year drought that left the southern African interior strewn with the carcasses of starved livestock. The record-smashing wildfires, heatwaves, droughts and floods in Europe, the US, the Arctic, Australia.

When I started writing about climate 20 years ago, these kinds of extreme events were only supposed to happen decades from now, when I expected to be well into my twilight years. But they’re happening now, way ahead of schedule, and they’re only going to get worse. 

This change isn’t neat and linear. This isn’t some kind of “new normal”. This change is explosive, and ignition has only just begun.

1972 was an important year. The pollution that’s causing the warming we’re seeing today started 300 years ago, but it was only a trickle at first. Over half of all the carbon that’s been dumped into the atmospheric waste dump, which has us on a collision course with ecosystem collapse, has been pumped into the atmosphere in the past 50 years.

That’s only half a lifetime of the average person.

What have we been doing as newsrooms to warn about this?

There is no politics, no business, no sport, without a stable climate.

The latest science tells us that we have about 10 years to slow the pollution that’s driving this catastrophe. We can’t stop it, but we can slow the speed as we brace for impact.

We have one decade to disrupt the political and economic system that has allowed this to happen and build something new — something that works inside our planetary boundaries.

Information moving through society, through the veins of newsrooms, is what oxygenates the political discourse and brings about change.

This is what responsible journalism did when the apartheid state was in power. This is what we have to do now.

We have one decade. That’s 10 birthdays — 130 full moons.

What are we going to do with that time? OBP/DM

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  • Alastair Stalker says:

    I think it is too late. The ignorance about climate change and biodiversity loss is mind boggling. Politics and economics will continue to dominate- everyone is still talking about growth !!!!!!!!!!
    I’d like to be here in 20 years time when there are hundreds of millions of climate refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh, when the starving population of Africa is numbered in tens of millions and ecosystems all over the world have collapsed and can no longer supply humans food. The planet will still be here and we have to remember that it has been much warmer(and colder) in the past but the speed of change and the exponential growth of one species at the expense of all other life is going to lead to catastrophe.

  • Thanks, Leoni, for a succint article on this looming disaster. Jeremy Hazell

  • Hugh Corder says:

    Such a wonderfully clear and sober/sobering assessment. This message needs to go out repeatedly; we cannot allow ourselves to believe that it’s too late.
    Thank you, Leonie, for this stark reminder, so well written.

  • mike muller says:

    The media has actually blown its credibility by failing to explain the long term nature of the threats and greatly exaggerating the short term events.

    By way of example, it is utter nonsense to say, as Leonie’s article does, that “Cyclone Idai that nearly wiped the Mozambican city of Beira off the map.” (I’d be happy to provide the evidence for that).

    Similarly, both the Durban storm and Cape Town’s three year drought were similar to events that had occurred before. Certainly the storm that caused the Durban flooding was not exceptional – what was exceptional were its impacts, because of the extensive poorly planned and managed development that has occurred in the region in the past few decades.

    That kind of exaggeration just serves to undermine the credibility of the reporting and reporters.

    We need less drama and excitable (and inaccurate) journalism and more thoughtful analysis of the issues and how we can respond to them in a structured way that will make a difference. That’s difficult and not something that the media – or its consumers – encourage. So perhaps the first challenge is to think hard about why current efforts aren’t working – it’s certainly not for want of noise.

    • steve woodhall says:

      I think you’ve missed Leonie’s point. Yes, those scary weather events have happened before, but they used to be isolated occurrences. As in the ‘100 year flood’ lines that inform spatial planning. Nowadays that timeline could be reduced to ’10 year flood’. The frequency of occurrence is far greater than it was, and growing all the time. The atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere are complex webs of interactions that respond slowly and chaotically (in the sense of randomness) to external stimuli like the actions of our species. Those stimuli have been in action since the Industrial Revolution, and their effects are cumulative as well as trending upwards. It should come as no surprise that the frequency of ‘random’ disasters is growing rapidly.

  • steve woodhall says:

    Good article Leonie. You’re probably right about the media getting their priorities wrong, but is it so surprising? Large chunks of the so-called ‘mainstream media’ channels are owned by the same selfish and myopic oligarchs that are responsible, via their inaction or malfeasance, for the unsustainable practices that have put us all in such jeopardy. I am aware of positive actions by many companies and governments, and many things are quietly happening. But there is little reported on these good news stories in the media, and there are no coordinated efforts. My fear is that what good is happening is too slow and too late to prevent a global collapse. But don’t let this prevent you from keeping up the pressure!

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    Currrently, here in SA, we unfortunately have what journalists of Daily Maverick & amaBhungane calls the “coal lobby” that is delaying the change of our economy to a green economy. I see the journalists have evidence that it is connected to patronage, cadre deployment and corruption. So that needs to be addressed. But besides that, SA is in a very good space to industrialize ourselves by providing windmills, solar panels, inverters, sun mirrors, electrical cables, fuel cells, batteries, hydrogen, hydrogen-driven cars, and so many other things that are tailormade for Africa and its conditions, and also to start to train the continent to employ their citizens in a clean energy way. And we can assist other countries with building hydro-electrical pump stations to store excess energy . . . There are so many opportunities waiting for us, if we just want to stop thinking with all these socialist patterns such as that the economy is always a zero-sum game i.e. for someone else to get employed we have to lose our jobs, which is just simply not true. We have to get politicians into office that want to educate South Africans to start to build their own lives and that of the communities around them. In other words to apply ubuntu ethics while allowing the political freedom that liberal democracy provides; and then to direct the energy that will definitely be unleashed to focus on COMPLETELY clean our environment up. We can do it, we must just get to start.

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