50.50: Opinion

US liberals and political media need to show urgency on the climate crisis

Despite floods and fires, both left and right in the US act like environmental disaster isn’t happening

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
19 July 2023, 1.28pm

Thousands of people have been forced out of their homes in La Palma in the Canary Islands because of a wildfire


Andres Gutierrez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

There’s a lot of hot air from the American right around education at the moment, with hate groups inciting moral panics that have resulted in the banning of books related to race, sex and gender. But there seems to be surprisingly little emphasis on another right-wing bugbear: environmentalism.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that US conservatives don’t consider bashing Greta Thunberg on the internet a national pastime. It’s just that Greta and the cause she represents don’t seem to come up when right-wing activists go to school-board meetings to scream about ‘transgenderism’ or ‘critical race theory’.

On one level, it is, of course, good that they’re not calling for literature addressing our environmental crises to be banned in schools. Growing up, I learned a lot from Ranger Rick magazine, a product of the National Wildlife Federation that teaches children about nature and supports conservation. But on another level, the lack of interest on this issue from the right may actually signal a problem for the US and therefore – because my country is such an outsized contributor to global climate change – the entire planet.

Authoritarians are bullies who paint themselves as victims. If you want to see what I mean, just type ‘Donald Trump’ and the phrase ‘treated very unfairly’ into Google. They whine and scream the loudest when they feel their privilege and power to be most immediately threatened. And if Republicans do not feel especially threatened on behalf of their precious fossil fuels industry, that’s probably because the US is highly unlikely to pass any serious environmental regulations any time soon.

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In other words, the current lack of urgency on this issue from our right-wing purveyors of moral panic is a reflection of a dangerous lack of urgency from the Democratic Party’s leadership.

Indeed, earlier this year, Joe Biden’s administration approved controversial new oil drilling in Alaska – a move that was very unpopular with his Democratic base. ConocoPhillips’s Willow project will reportedly generate about 278 million metric tonnes of carbon over its 30-year lifespan. Leading environmentalists have dubbed it a “carbon bomb” that will produce annual emissions roughly equivalent to those of two million gas-powered cars.

This is despite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimating last year that humanity could only collectively emit 500 more gigatonnes of carbon dioxide – about a decade’s worth at our current rate – to have any chance of limiting the earth’s warming to the 1.5°C climatologists believe would prevent the most catastrophic possibilities. In fairness, the Biden administration has made some progress incentivising clean energy alternatives across the country, but the pace is dangerously slow given the stakes.

Meanwhile, this summer is heating up in the Global North – 4 July (I’m trying not to read too much symbolism into the date) hit a new record for global average temperature since record-keeping began, and probably far longer. Using ice cores, scientists estimate it was the hottest day in roughly the last 125,000 years.

Climate disasters, including both massive floods and massive fires, are affecting many parts of the globe, from South Korea to the Canary Islands. Many Canadians and Americans are choking on wildfire smoke. These extreme weather events reportedly go well beyond what could be expected in terms of normal annual variation and the El Niño system in the Pacific. We humans, especially those with privilege and power, are doing this to ourselves, and things are only likely to get worse.

Role of the media

But it’s not just the moderate liberals who dominate the Democratic Party’s leadership displaying a lack of urgency on the climate crisis. The legacy media outlets aren’t helping either.

You’d be hard-pressed to learn about the above-mentioned climate change events by following American political news, where the right-left divide is portrayed primarily with respect to “woke” and “anti-woke” positions on diversity and LGBTIQ inclusion.

Yes, the papers are covering climate change, but according to press critic Dan Froomkin, “political reporters who cover the executive and legislative branches don’t seem the least bit concerned about climate change.” And that is a serious problem. It is the responsibility of political reporters to stress the urgency of our climate crisis as opposed to ‘bothsidesing’ the issue in a way that protects the status quo.

Froomkin says Democrats aren’t pushing to reduce fossil fuels at the moment because of the energy crisis, caused in part by Russia’s war in Ukraine. That may be the case, but as well as being hit by historically high petrol prices, historically high inflation, high interest rates and the financial pressures of ever-rising housing costs, people are feeling disempowered.

If political journalists started taking their calling as stewards of our civil society more seriously, it would go a long way towards inspiring people to organise, protest, strike and otherwise work towards the structural changes we so desperately need in the US. Politicians should be asked about climate change at every opportunity, as Froomkin argues. Facts should be reported as facts and right-wing disinformation should not be seen as as worthy of the same consideration.

The truth is, the bullies are going to cry that they’re being “treated very unfairly” no matter how you treat them. And with a warming world threatening us all, we can no longer afford to coddle Republicans’ persecution complex.

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