We Can't Be Silent on Climate Change or The Unsustainability of Capitalist System
September 7, 2017 George Monbiot, Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh / Democracy Now!
It is not only Donald Trump who censors the discussion of climate change; it is the entire body of polite opinion. This is why, though the links are obvious, most reports on Hurricane Harvey made no mention of the human contribution to it. In 2016, the hottest year on record, the US was hammered by climate-related disasters yet the total combined coverage for the entire year on the evening news on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News amounted to 50 minutes. The issue of our lives has been blotted from the public's mind.
We Can't Be Silent on Climate Change or
The Unsustainability of Capitalist System George Monbiot / Democracy Now!
(August 31, 2017) -- While Houston continues to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we look at the media silence on the human contribution to the record-breaking storm. British journalist and author George Monbiot wrote that despite 2016 being the hottest year on record, the combined coverage during the evening and Sunday news programs on the main television networks amounted to a total of 50 minutes in all of last year.
"Our greatest predicament, the issue that will define our lives, has been blotted from the public’s mind," he wrote. The silence has been even more resounding on climate-related disasters in areas of the world where populations are more vulnerable -- most recently, on the devastating floods across the globe, from Niger to South Asia. Over the past month, more than 1,200 people have died amid flooding in Bangladesh, Nepal and India.
This year’s monsoon season has brought torrential downpours that have submerged wide swaths of South Asia, destroying tens of thousands of homes, schools and hospitals. Meanwhile, in Niger, West Africa, thousands of people have been ordered to leave their homes in the capital Niamey after several days of heavy downpours. We speak with Monbiot, columnist at The Guardian. His book, "Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis," will be out this week.
Transcript This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: While Houston continues to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we look at the media silence on the human contribution to it. Our next guest writes that despite 2016 being the hottest year on record, with several climate-related disasters in the US alone, the combined coverage during the evening and Sunday news programs on the main television networks amounted to a total of 50 minutes in all of last year.
British journalist and author George Monbiot writes, quote, "Our greatest predicament, the issue that will define our lives, has been blotted from the public’s mind."
The silence has been even more resounding on climate-related disasters in areas of the world where populations are more vulnerable, most recently on the devastating floods across the globe, from Niger to South Asia. Following days of torrential rain, at least seven people are dead and as many as 40 feared trapped, after a building collapsed in Mumbai, India’s financial capital.
The storm reached Pakistan Thursday, where a state of emergency has been declared in Karachi, the country’s largest city, as heavy rains inundated several low-lying areas.
AMY GOODMAN: Over the past month, more than 1,200 people have died in flooding in Bangladesh, Nepal and India. This year’s monsoon season has brought torrential downpours that have submerged wide swaths of South Asia, destroying tens of thousands of homes, schools and hospitals, affecting up to 40 million people.
Meanwhile, in Niger, West Africa, thousands of people have been ordered to leave their homes in the capital after several days of heavy downpours. More than 40 people have died since the rainy season began in June.
We go now to Oxford in Britain to speak to George Monbiot. He’s a columnist with The Guardian. His book, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, is out this week. His latest article for The Guardian is headlined "Why are the crucial questions about Hurricane Harvey not being asked?" [You can read Monbiot's complete article following the Democracy Now! report – EAW]
George Monbiot, welcome back to Democracy Now! Well, answer your question.
GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, because to ask those questions is to challenge everything. It’s to challenge not just Donald Trump, not just current environmental policy. It’s to challenge the entire political and economic system. And it is to recognize that the system which we tell ourselves is the best system you could possibly have, of neoliberal capitalism, which will deliver the optimum outcomes and the best of all possible worlds, actually is destined to push us towards catastrophe, and unless we replace that system with a better one, with something really quite different, then it will destroy us. Instead of making us more prosperous, more comfortable, it will rip apart everything that makes our lives worth living, and result in the deaths of very large numbers of people.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, quite apart from the fact, George, that the issue of climate change is not mentioned in the media, as you write in your article, you also think that the term "climate change" is misleading, and the term that should be used is "climate breakdown." Could you explain why that is?
GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, "climate change" is a curiously bland term to describe our greatest crisis, our huge human predicament, that will inevitably lead to catastrophe if we don’t take drastic action to prevent it. It’s a bit like calling a foreign invasion "unexpected guests." It’s that crazily bland, for something which is going to have such an enormous impact on our lives, and, as we’ve just been hearing, has already had such an enormous impact on many people’s lives around the world.
And unless you use the right language to describe what you’re talking about, you mislead people as to what the likely implications of that are. And by talking about climate change as if it -- "You know, it could be a good thing, could be a bad thing, who knows? It might be a neutral thing. You know, we like a bit of climate change, don’t we? We like it when the winter gives way to summer" -- we suggest that this huge catastrophe might not be a catastrophe at all. I don’t think "climate breakdown" is the perfect term. I can’t quite put my finger on the right term, but I think it comes a lot closer to what we need to be saying than "climate change" does.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you say to those who say you cannot link this one hurricane or storm to climate change or climate chaos, climate breakdown, as you describe it?
GEORGE MONBIOT: I would say you cannot not link it. We have, so far, 1 degree centigrade of global warming, and that now affects every single weather event on Earth, just like the 4 degrees centigrade of global warming that followed the Ice Age -- it was 4 degrees between the last Ice Age and the 19th century -- affects every single weather event on Earth. And we wouldn’t have warm summers without that 4 degree of warming. With that extra 1 degree of warming, that creates further implications for every single weather event on Earth.
And for hurricanes, the link is crystal clear. There are three ways in which the impact of hurricanes is affected by that 1 degree of warming. First of all, sea levels are higher. So coastal cities, like Houston, like Port Arthur, get -- are more likely to be hit by storm surges as a result of those higher sea levels, as we were hearing from your wonderful guest Hilton Kelley in the last segment.
Number two, the sea is warmer. The temperature of the sea is higher, and that can enhance the intensity of the storm, because it puts more energy into the storm. The storm is picking up energy from those warmer waters.
And number three, the air itself is warmer. And warmer air holds more moisture than cooler air. And that means that you can have much more intense rainfall events. So, what we see here is that it’s impossible for the hurricane not to have been affected by climate breakdown.
Now, of course, what we can’t say is there would have been no hurricane if it weren’t for climate breakdown; if it weren’t for the human contribution, for the fossil fuels we’ve been burning, there wouldn’t have been a hurricane. Of course there were hurricanes in the past. What we can say is that this hurricane, whether or not it was caused by the human contribution, was affected by the human contribution. That is unequivocal.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, nevertheless, George, you’ve been accused, as, no doubt, have others, of politicizing Hurricane Harvey and events like it, extreme weather events like it, by linking it to climate change.
GEORGE MONBIOT: Yes. And now, in fact, the Environmental Protection Agency itself has accused climate scientists in the U.S. of politicizing it by mentioning climate change or climate breakdown. It’s an extraordinary thing. It’s clear to me that by not mentioning it, you are politicizing this issue.
The linkage is so clear, it is so obvious, that when you don’t talk about it, you’re taking a decision, you are taking a position. And the position is, we’re not going to talk about climate change, we’re not going to talk about climate breakdown.
That is a political decision. And it’s a highly charged political decision, which reflects powerful interests. It reflects the kind of interests we’ve just been hearing about, the oil refineries and the oil rigs, which themselves have been hit by Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath -- an extraordinary irony, something which pulls up into stark relief the issue that we’re dealing with, but just is not being discussed at all.
And those people, the people who run those companies, they are responsible for shutting down all discussion of climate breakdown so that we don’t go there, we don’t talk about it. And journalists and editors, with the glowing exception of yourselves, they have a powerful instinct not to go there. It’s not that they wake up in the morning and say, "Don’t talk about climate change. I mustn’t talk about climate change. Whatever I do, don’t mention climate change."
They don’t need to say that. It’s already in their guts. They have a visceral sense that if you go there, then you open up everything. You open Pandora’s box, and you open up a discussion of whether capitalism is working. You open up a discussion of whether the political system is working. You open up a discussion of what the world’s most powerful actors, including the fossil fuel companies, are doing to the rest of the world’s people.
And to go there, you put everything at risk. You put your career at risk. You put your piece of mind at risk. You put the good opinion of your colleagues at risk. To challenge everything is to become an outcast.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to George Monbiot, the British journalist and author. President Trump just went to Texas, and he’s going back. When he landed, he didn’t address the victims at all. He didn’t talk about the victims. But he did say, about the people around him, "What a crowd! What a turnout!"
Now, President Trump is a proud climate change denier, as is the governor of Texas, Governor Abbott. You point out that Trump denying human-driven global warming is interesting given that he built a wall around his golf resort in Ireland to protect it from the rising seas. Talk more about this.
GEORGE MONBIOT: He’s trying. He hasn’t yet succeeded, but he’s applying for permission. His company is trying to build a sea wall around his golf resort, because it knows that the seas are rising and his golf resort is now at risk. And similarly, in the Gulf of Mexico, the oil companies keep raising the height of their oil platforms.
In the 1960s, they were 40 feet above sea level. Then, in the 1990s, they were 70 feet. Today, they are 91 feet above sea level. And they have raised those platforms because they know the sea level is rising and storms are intensifying. And they have done so to get the oil platforms out of the way of those impacts caused by climate breakdown, caused by the oil companies themselves.
So, though those same oil companies, particularly ExxonMobil, have poured millions of dollars into paying professional liars to deny climate change across the media and across social media, they themselves know that it’s happening, and they’re taking precautions to protect themselves against it.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, George, I’d like to turn to another issue that you raise in the piece. You talk specifically about the fact that the U.S. media have failed to cover climate breakdown-related disasters in the U.S. itself, but there’s even greater silence on climate disasters in the rest of the world. I mean, we’ve just heard, in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, over 1,200 people have died.
There are floods in Niger. Now, in Karachi, a state of emergency has been declared. So, can you talk about that, the media silence on that? And what’s actually happening in these places where people are so much more vulnerable than here?
GEORGE MONBIOT: It’s an extraordinary thing to contemplate, isn’t it? That the part of the world worst hit by current flooding is not actually Texas.
Disastrous, catastrophic as it is in Texas, it is now even worse particularly in India and Bangladesh and Nepal, where we’re seeing huge, horrendous levels of flooding, 40 million people affected by it, 1,200 people dead, basically the complete shutdown of the economy, of public life, of private life across a great swathe of those countries. And yet, there’s almost media silence throughout the rich world.
This week in the U.K., we’ve been hearing a lot about Bangladesh. Bangladesh has been in the headlines for the last two days, and there’s been loads of commentary written about it. Why is that? Because Bangladesh won the cricket against Australia. I’m quite serious. This is a country in which 6.9 million people are now displaced by flooding, in which a third of the country is underwater, in which hundreds have died.
We don’t yet know how many, because it will be a long time before that count is ever made, if it is made at all. Loads of children can no longer go to school. It’s a total disruption, devastation of that country. And finally, it features in the news, because of the cricket.
And again, it is this politically driven silence, because if we were to consider what is going on in the rest of the world, and if we were to consider our contribution to what is going on in the rest of the world -- and there’s this terrible irony about climate change that the main perpetrators of it, with the exception of those refineries and rigs in the Gulf, in the Gulf of Mexico and in Texas -- generally, the main perpetrators are those who are hit least and last, whereas people who have made very little contribution to climate breakdown are hit first and worst, like the people of Bangladesh, who have a tiny carbon footprint.
Were we to really bring this to the front of our consciousness, as we should, it would necessitate a major change in the way we run our societies, a major change in the way we run our economies and a major change in the way we live. So that is why we do not talk about it. Or if we talk about it, we do so tangentially, or we relate it as a natural disaster, another act of God, a terrible thing which has happened to those people: "Poor people. Send them some money. We feel so sorry for them, but we wash our hands of it. There’s nothing we can do."
AMY GOODMAN: George Monbiot, I’m embarrassed to say --
GEORGE MONBIOT: As it happens --
AMY GOODMAN: We just have a minute, but can you give us a hint of what that change would look like?
GEORGE MONBIOT: Right. We need a radical change, driven by the need to prevent this catastrophe, to both politics and economics. And an economic system which depends on perpetual growth on a finite planet is destined to deliver disaster.
We need a new economy built around the commons, built around community ownership of local resources, inalienable ownership of those resources, which are not expected to deliver more and more and more money, but are expected to deliver continued and steady prosperity to the people of those communities and the people of this planet.
The system we have at the moment, which is about accumulation, the accumulation of capital, the continuation of growth, in a planet which does not itself grow, that system is destined to push us over the cliff.
AMY GOODMAN: George Monbiot, we want to thank you so much for being with us, British journalist, author, columnist with The Guardian. His book, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, will be out this week. His latest piece for The Guardian, we’ll link to, "Why are the crucial questions about Hurricane Harvey not being asked?" And we’ll have you back on to talk more fully about your ideas and your latest book, George. Thanks so much for joining us from Oxford, England.
Coming up, another suspect in the brutal beating of a young African-American man, Deandre Harris, during the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville has been arrested. Why has it taken so long, when the beating was caught on tape? Stay with us.
The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
(August 31, 2017) -- It is not only Donald Trump’s government that censors the discussion of climate change; it is the entire body of polite opinion. This is why, though the links are clear and obvious, most reports on Hurricane Harvey have made no mention of the human contribution to it.
In 2016 the US elected a president who believes that human-driven global warming is a hoax. It was the hottest year on record, in which the US was hammered by a series of climate-related disasters.
Yet the total combined coverage for the entire year on the evening and Sunday news programmes on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News amounted to 50 minutes. Our greatest predicament, the issue that will define our lives, has been blotted from the public’s mind.
This is not an accident. But nor (with the exception of Fox News) is it likely to be a matter of policy. It reflects a deeply ingrained and scarcely conscious self-censorship. Reporters and editors ignore the subject because they have an instinct for avoiding trouble.
To talk about climate breakdown (which in my view is a better term than the curiously bland labels we attach to this crisis) is to question not only Trump, not only current environmental policy, not only current economic policy -- but the entire political and economic system.
It is to expose a programme that relies on robbing the future to fuel the present, that demands perpetual growth on a finite planet. It is to challenge the very basis of capitalism; to inform us that our lives are dominated by a system that cannot be sustained -- a system that is destined, if it is not replaced, to destroy everything.
To claim there is no link between climate breakdown and the severity of Hurricane Harvey is like claiming there is no link between the warm summer we have experienced and the end of the last ice age.
Every aspect of our weather is affected by the fact that global temperatures rose by about 4C between the ice age and the 19th century. And every aspect of our weather is affected by the 1C of global warming caused by human activities. While no weather event can be blamed solely on human-driven warming, none is unaffected by it.
We know that the severity and impact of hurricanes on coastal cities is exacerbated by at least two factors: higher sea levels, caused primarily by the thermal expansion of seawater; and greater storm intensity, caused by higher sea temperatures and the ability of warm air to hold more water than cold air.
Before it reached the Gulf of Mexico, Harvey had been demoted from a tropical storm to a tropical wave. But as it reached the Gulf, where temperatures this month have been far above average, it was upgraded first to a tropical depression, then to a category one hurricane.
It might have been expected to weaken as it approached the coast, as hurricanes churn the sea, bringing cooler waters to the surface. But the water it brought up from 100 metres and more was also unusually warm. By the time it reached land, Harvey had intensified to a category four hurricane.
We were warned about this. In June, for instance, Robert Kopp, a professor of Earth sciences, predicted: "In the absence of major efforts to reduce emissions and strengthen resilience, the Gulf Coast will take a massive hit. Its exposure to sea-level rise -- made worse by potentially stronger hurricanes -- poses a major risk to its communities."
To raise this issue, I’ve been told on social media, is to politicise Hurricane Harvey. It is an insult to the victims and a distraction from their urgent need. The proper time to discuss it is when people have rebuilt their homes, and scientists have been able to conduct an analysis of just how great the contribution from climate breakdown might have been.
In other words, talk about it only when it’s out of the news. When researchers determined, nine years on, that human activity had made a significant contribution to Hurricane Katrina, the information scarcely registered.
I believe it is the silence that’s political. To report the storm as if it were an entirely natural phenomenon, like last week’s eclipse of the sun, is to take a position. By failing to make the obvious link and talk about climate breakdown, media organisations ensure our greatest challenge goes unanswered. They help push the world towards catastrophe.
Hurricane Harvey offers a glimpse of a likely global future; a future whose average temperatures are as different from ours as ours are from those of the last ice age. It is a future in which emergency becomes the norm, and no state has the capacity to respond.
It is a future in which, as a paper in the journal Environmental Research Letters notes, disasters like Houston’s occur in some cities several times a year. It is a future that, for people in countries such as Bangladesh, has already arrived, almost unremarked on by the rich world’s media. It is the act of not talking that makes this nightmare likely to materialise.
In Texas, the connection could scarcely be more apparent. The storm ripped through the oil fields, forcing rigs and refineries to shut down, including those owned by some of the 25 companies that have produced more than half the greenhouse gas emissions humans have released since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Hurricane Harvey has devastated a place in which climate breakdown is generated, and in which the policies that prevent it from being addressed are formulated.
Like Trump, who denies human-driven global warming but who wants to build a wall around his golf resort in Ireland to protect it from the rising seas, these companies, some of which have spent millions sponsoring climate deniers, have progressively raised the height of their platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, in response to warnings about higher seas and stronger storms. They have grown from 40ft above sea level in 1940, to 70ft in the 1990s, to 91ft today.
This is not, however, a story of mortal justice. In Houston, as everywhere else, it is generally the poorer communities, least responsible for the problem, who are hit first and hit worst. But the connection between cause and effect should appeal to even the slowest minds.
The problem is not confined to the US. Across the world, the issue that hangs over every aspect of our lives is marginalised, except on the rare occasions where world leaders gather to discuss it in sombre tones (then sombrely agree to do almost nothing), whereupon the instinct to follow the machinations of power overrides the instinct to avoid a troubling subject. When they do cover the issue, they tend to mangle it.
In the UK, the BBC this month again invited the climate-change denier Nigel Lawson on to the Today programme, in the mistaken belief that impartiality requires a balance between correct facts and false ones. The broadcaster seldom makes such a mess of other topics, because it takes them more seriously.
When Trump’s enforcers instruct officials and scientists to purge any mention of climate change from their publications, we are scandalised. But when the media does it, without the need for a memo, we let it pass.
This censorship is invisible even to the perpetrators, woven into the fabric of organisations that are constitutionally destined to leave the major questions of our times unasked. To acknowledge this issue is to challenge everything. To challenge everything is to become an outcast.
George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist
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