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Let's Stop Talking About Climate Change Like It's Breaking News

Even though climate change is relatively new historically, journalists shouldn't be treating it like Justin Bieber's arrest.

| Mon Feb. 3, 2014 3:36 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Here's the scoop: When it comes to climate change, there is no "story," not in the normal news sense anyway.

The fact that 97% of scientists who have weighed in on the issue believe that climate change is a human-caused phenomenon is not a story. That only one of 9,137 peer-reviewed papers on climate change published between November 2012 and December 2013 rejected human causation is not a story either, nor is the fact that only 24 out of 13,950 such articles did so over 21 years. That the anything-but-extreme Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offers an at least 95% guarantee of human causation for global warming is not a story, nor is the recent revelation that IPCC experts believe we only have 15 years left to rein in carbon emissions or we'll need new technologies not yet in existence which may never be effective. Nor is the recent poll showing that only 47% of Americans believe climate change is human-caused (a drop of 7% since 2012) or that the percentage who believe climate change is occurring for any reason has also declined since 2012 from 70% to 63%. Nor is the fact that, as the effects of climate change came ever closer to home, media coverage of the subject dropped between 2010 and 2012 and, though rising in 2013, was still well below coverage levels for 2007 to 2009. Nor is it a story that European nations, already light years ahead of the United States on phasing out fossil fuels, recently began considering cutbacks on some of their climate change goals, nor that US carbon emissions actually rose in 2013, nor that the southern part of the much disputed Keystone XL pipeline, which is to bring particularly carbon-dirty tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to the US Gulf Coast, is now in operation, nor that 2013 will have been either the fourth or seventh hottest year on record, depending on how you do the numbers.

Don't misunderstand me. Each of the above was reported somewhere and climate change itself is an enormous story, if what you mean is Story with a capital S. It could even be considered the story of all stories. It's just that climate change and its component parts are unlike every other story from the Syrian slaughter and the problems of Obamacare to Bridgegate and Justin Bieber's arrest. The future of all other stories, of the news and storytelling itself, rests on just how climate change manifests itself over the coming decades or even century. What happens in the 2014 midterms or the 2016 presidential elections, in our wars, politics, and culture, who is celebrated and who ignored—none of it will matter if climate change devastates the planet.

Climate change isn't the news and it isn't a set of news stories. It's the prospective end of all news. Think of it as the anti-news.

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All the rest is part of the annals of human history: the rise and fall of empires, of movements, of dictatorships and democracies, of just about anything you want to mention. The most crucial stories, like the most faddish ones, are—every one of them—passing phenomena, which is of course what makes them the news.

Climate change isn't. New as that human-caused phenomenon may be— having its origins in the industrial revolution—it's nonetheless on a different scale from everything else, which is why journalists and environmentalists often have so much trouble figuring out how to write about it in a way that leaves it continually in the news. While no one who, for instance, lived through "Frankenstorm" Sandy on the East Coast in 2012 could call the experience "boring"—winds roaring through urban canyons like freight trains, lights going out across lower Manhattan, subway tunnels flooding, a great financial capital brought to its proverbial knees—in news terms, much of global warming is boring and repetitive. I mean, drip, drip, drip. How many times can you write about the melting Arctic sea ice or shrinking glaciers and call it news? How often are you likely to put that in your headlines?

We're so used to the phrase "the news" that we often forget its essence: what's "new" multiplied by that "s." It's true that the "new" can be repetitively so. How many times have you seen essentially the same story about Republicans and Democrats fighting on Capitol Hill? But the momentousness of climate change, which isn't hard to discern, is difficult to regularly turn into meaningful "new" headlines ("Humanity Doomed If…"), to repeatedly and successfully translate into a form oriented to the present and the passing moment, to what happened yesterday, today, and possibly tomorrow.

If the carbon emissions from fossil fuels are allowed to continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, the science of what will happen sooner or later is relatively clear, even if its exact timetable remains in question: this world will be destabilized as will humanity (along with countless other species). We could, at the worst, essentially burn ourselves off Planet Earth. This would prove a passing event for the planet itself, but not for us, nor for any fragment of humanity that managed to survive in some degraded form, nor for the civilizations we've developed over thousands of years.

In other words, unlike "the news," climate change and its potential devastations exist on a time scale not congenial either to media time or to the individual lifetimes of our short-lived species. Great devastations and die-offs have happened before. Give the planet a few million years and life of many sorts will regenerate and undoubtedly thrive. But possibly not us.

Nuclear Dress Rehearsal

Here's the strange thing: we went through a dress rehearsal for this in the twentieth century when dealing (or not dealing) with nuclear weapons, aka the Bomb—often capitalized in my youth as a sign of how nuclear disaster was felt to be looming over life itself. With the dropping of that "victory weapon" on two Japanese cities in 1945, a new era opened. For the first time, we humans—initially in Washington, then in Moscow, then in other national capitals—took the power to end all life on this planet out of God's hands. You could think of it as the single greatest, if also grimmest, act of secularization in history. From 1945 on, at least prospectively, we could do what only God had previously been imagined capable of: create an End Time on this planet.

In itself, that was a remarkable development. And there was nothing figurative about it. The US military was involved in what, in retrospect, can only be considered operational planning for world's end. In its first "Single Integrated Operational Plan," or SIOP, in 1960, for instance, it prepared to deliver more than 3,200 nuclear weapons to 1,060 targets in the Communist world, including at least 130 cities which would then, if all went well, cease to exist. Official estimates of casualties ran to 285 million dead and 40 million injured. (Those figures undoubtedly underestimated radiation and other effects, and today we also know that the exploding of so many nuclear weapons would have ended life as we know it on this planet.) In those years, in the most secret councils of government, American officials also began to prepare for the possibility that 100 Russian missiles might someday land on US targets, killing or injuring 22 million Americans. Not so many years later, the weaponry of either of the superpowers had the capability of destroying the planet many times over.

The US and the USSR were by then locked in a struggle that gained a remarkably appropriate acronym: MAD (for "mutually assured destruction"). During the Cold War, the US built an estimated 70,000 nuclear warheads and bombs of every size and shape, the Soviet Union 55,000, and with them went a complex semi-secret nuclear geography of missile silos, plutonium plants, and the like that shadowed the everyday landscape we knew.

In 1980, scientists discovered a layer of particularly iridium-rich clay in sediments 65 million years old, evidence that a vast asteroid impact had put such a cloud of particulates into the atmosphere as to deprive the planet of sunshine, turning it into a wintry vista, and in the process contributing to the demise of the dinosaurs. In the years that followed, it became ever clearer that nuclear weapons, dispatched in the quantities both the US and USSR had been planning for, would have a similar effect. This prospective phenomenon was dubbed "nuclear winter."

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