Chilling the Climate Change Debate

 /  Nov. 18, 2018, 4:39 p.m.



Climate change might be the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, but not all of us think so. Since Donald Trump has taken office, Americans’ belief in the severity of anthropogenic climate change has declined. Moreover, even though the majority of global citizens believe that climate change is a serious problem, serious action has not been taken. The Paris Agreement on climate change has had dismal success thus far and the United States, under President Trump, has pulled out of the accord. Despite overwhelming consensus among the scientific community that climate change is real and caused by humans, we cannot seem to unite to confront a potentially apocalyptic scenario.

Corporations and governments around the world have an unspoken agreement to work together to control and censor information pertaining to the climate change crisis. Their tactics are working. Much like popular uprisings were needed to incite change in history, another one may be needed now. But first, we must better understand the ways in which governments and the media frame and alter public discourse to distort our knowledge about climate change. The particular forms of censorship that suppress environmental activism and awareness have to be properly understood before they can be effectively countered.

Information control regarding climate change and environmentalism can be downright frightening and dangerous. In Brazil, the government has sat idly by while hundreds of environmentalists have been murdered by ranchers in the Amazon seeking to exploit the resources that the region has to offer. Between 2001 and 2011, over seven hundred environmentalists were killed, the majority of these cases taking place in Brazil. Due to government inaction and incompetent prosecutors, all but twelve of 914 gunmen involved in these crimes over the last thirty years have walked free. Brazil’s government has been overly friendly to agribusiness lobbying efforts that seek to deter environmental regulations.

Activists are concerned that the Brazilian government is creating a ‘culture of impunity’ that will prevent environmentalists from protecting the Amazon. While the government may not be explicitly sanctioning these murders, their complacency and willingness to be co-opted by agribusiness interests have sent a clear message to ranchers that they can get away with using these strongarm tactics. The lack of justice does not make people abandon their commitment to the environment, but it certainly forces environmental activists to think twice and even censor themselves before they go out to protect what they love. The creation of a ‘chilling effect’ that discourages the exercise of free speech is a devastating form of censorship surrounding climate change.

History is riddled with examples of the chilling effect originating from public intimidation. When the Roman Inquisition made a public display of burning the Talmud in 1553, Hebrew printing in Rome stopped until 1810.  But those who were found with the Talmud were not killed, nor was the government actually able to get all the copies off the streets. Censorship does not always involve government officials redacting documents or punishing dissenters; people can also censor themselves for fear of the consequences that follow opposing orthodoxy. In Brazil, the public threat of personal harm has been sufficient to enable censorship. Prominent environmentalist Bill McKibben concludes that a society with prevalent death threats reduces free speech, which lessens prospects for change. Our society needs to protect those who stand up for what they believe in, particularly when the future of the planet is on the line.

Those who have the power to make a difference do not seem to agree. While climate activists are not being assassinated in the United States, the Trump administration has found other ways to silence environmentalists, such as through his Orwellian treatment of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials. In George Orwell’s 1984, the protagonist’s friend Syme is tasked with rewriting the dictionary to “Newspeak,” which in effect means the destruction of old words. The rationale is simple: “in the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” In a real life parallel of sorts, the EPA’s website has been purged of phrases like “climate change,” “fossil fuels,” “greenhouse gases” and even the word “science.” Of the nearly twelve thousand search results that used to surface after searching for “climate change,” only now five thousand appear. The Trump administration is purging these words and phrases from government information sources and thus taking years of developed knowledge about the environment out of the public sphere.

The situation is increasingly dire for scientists involved with the EPA. At the beginning of Scott Pruitt’s term as head of the EPA (he has since resigned), the administration hired a public relations firm called Definers Public Affairs—closely tied to Republican opposition groups—that used tracking cameras to keep tabs on environmentalists like McKibben. Though the group said that the cameras were simply there to make sure everyone was working, the scientists at the EPA got the message loud and clear. Definers Public Affairs immediately filed twenty Freedom of Information Act Requests that targeted prominent environmentalists who had been critical of Pruitt or Trump. The company eventually withdrew its contract, but the message of censorship was heard by scientists: the threat was “[stoking] fear for speaking out against any wrongdoing within the EPA.” EPA scientists now have to worry about censoring themselves so as to not lose their jobs and livelihoods if they publish their scientific findings—in essence, if they do their job well.

Censorship at the EPA is not dissimilar from what Brazilian environmentalists are experiencing, though it lacks the overt violence. A chilling effect is at play in both scenarios, working to prevent factually accurate discussions of climate change from emerging. But the Trump administration’s approach to censorship regarding climate change can be very subtle as well. Eighteenth-century France provides a model of how censorship can work through praise—the king would only allow certain books to be published with a stamp that communicated the “approbation of the king” (as discussed in American historian Robert Darnton’s book Censors at Work), which gave French royalty profound sway over media produced in the country. This historical example of a central government figure dictating media is eerily similar to Trump’s ‘approbation’ of Fox News.

Fox News’s influence and viewership has skyrocketed since the election: Fox has been the top cable news network since 2016. Trump’s coziness with Fox News indicates that Fox has the partisan and extremist ‘approbation’ of the president. The symbiosis between Trump and Fox News has had a devastating impact on the climate change debate: the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 72 percent of Fox News coverage regarding climate change is misleading. The decimation of the EPA’s website, terrible as it is, does not have the same influence that a massive cable news show can have on public opinion. Trump’s association with Fox News creates a feedback loop of power: Fox News directs the public to an inaccurate news source that subsequently directs them back to Trump. The disinformation loop between Fox and Trump contributes to the success of chilling effects, which should be worrisome to those seeking to save the environment and promote honest debate about climate change.

Fox News is not the only organization at fault. Some modern journalistic practices have negatively impacted coverage of global warming. News publications, like any other company, need to give people the kind of information they want in order to turn a profit. Much like Facebook keeps you glued to the screen through targeted advertising and stories that you already agree with, mainstream media sources publish stories that they think readers want to read. Hence, journalists have certain story elements that they prioritize, such as personalization, dramatization, and novelty. Climate change—a long-term global issue that affects people incrementally—fits none of these standards, so newsrooms do not stress the issue as much as they should.

There is also the norm of reporting balance—where journalists try to adequately present both sides of a story—that can present difficulties for climate change reporting. The same study that looked at Fox coverage of climate change also found that CNN coverage would be 16 percentage points more accurate if the network did not feature both believers and non-believers. Journalistic norms are giving equal weight to the false opinion that climate change is not anthropogenic by hosting debates about whether or not climate change is anthropogenic, even though the scientific community is nowhere near being in agreement. For example, on January 22, 2014, Piers Morgan Tonight invited a panel to discuss the “very contentious issue” of global warming in which Grover Norquist discussed his skepticism of scientific findings. While this does not necessarily classify as ‘censorship’ in a traditional sense, too much power has been given to news tycoons who control the information that Americans and people around the globe receive—and they are impairing the climate change debate.

But why is climate change the issue that those in power have sought to censor until the earth burns to a crisp? One plausible explanation is that climate change actually helps them. Several analyses have shown that the rich might stand to profit from climate change and the havoc that it will wreak; however, it will disproportionately affect the poorest, who will not be able to afford clean water or housing (in areas that do not begin to frequently experience intense hurricanes or droughts). But elites should also be wary of  the massive potential for global social movements sparked by the difficulties of climate change. In eighteenth-century France, only popular uprisings, largely inspired by the Enlightenment, created change and actualized calls for freedom of the press and of information access. The global population will be affected in some way or other by climate change—and it will probably take a global movement to save our planet.

Recently, when Indian author S. Hareesh was violently threatened for writing his serializing novel Meesa (Moustache), Indian writers joined together to condemn the “right-wing groups” responsible for the threat, affirming that “no writer should be hounded into putting down his or her pen. No democracy, indeed no culture, can live if its writers are silent. This is why we have to fight against this hounding of writers into self-censorship with every word we have.” Scientists are following a similar model and continue to try to make the public aware of the consequences of climate change, despite efforts to silence them. They are not submitting to the Trump administration in America; Brazilian environmentalists are not rolling over against ranchers and their agribusiness agendas. If these embattled groups can keep their hopes for our planet alive, then we can at least work as global citizens to be more conscientious about the information that we consume.

Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily reflective of The Gate.

The image featured in this article is from Pixels and is used noncommercially. The original can be found here.

Eitan Ezra


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