Pressing Issues

News Outlets Have Helped Enable the Climate Crisis


The mainstream media mocks the Green New Deal and patronizes young climate activists while taking money from Big Oil and special interests. Is it any wonder the U.S. leads the world in climate denialism?



Shortly after New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the general election in November, The Atlantic gave a platform to Democratic staffers to criticize their new colleague anonymously. The story described people “worried” about “the unity of the Democratic caucus” and the new Congresswoman’s “approach.” The Atlantic went on to explain that the “bickering” is rooted in Democrats’ “strategy” on climate change. A more accurate way to put this would be to say that Democrats have not had a successful strategy on climate change whatsoever; Ocasio Cortez’ proposed climate plan, the Green New Deal, co-authored by Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, threatens the entire system that’s made them rich and powerful.

Many thinking, feeling individuals understand that transformative change to infrastructure and renewable energy usage is necessary to set the planet on track. Worldwide, activists are marching in the streets in climate strikes. But in the United States, climate denial is persistent. A recent survey found that 17 percent of respondents in the U.S. said they think climate change is a hoax, compared to less than 8 percent nearly everywhere else in the world. Is the corporate news media in the U.S. partly to blame?

News organizations treat the environmental crisis like a matter of political ideology that’s up for healthy debate rather than treating it like a matter of scientific fact. While many people, particularly poor people, are seeing the effects of the earth’s rising temperature play out before their eyes in the form of fires, floods, and hurricanes, disease, and famine, major publications look the other way. They help brand the environmental movement as too young, too naive, too affluent, or out of touch. Or worse, they do the oil and gas industry’s dirty work. In addition to the  New York Times, the oil industry buys sponsored content in Politico, Axios, The Washington Post, and, of course, The Atlantic. Libertarian billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who have spent millions on climate denial propaganda, have given money to NPR, Axios, and journalist trainings at the Poynter Institute.

This isn’t strictly a Trump-era phenomenon. In 2015, a Politico Playbook newsletter sponsored by BP linked to a “Washington Post infographic” also sponsored by BP. In 2014, Politico ran a post called “No, BP Didn’t Ruin the Gulf.” It was written by a BP executive.

Margaret Klein Salamon, founder of Climate Mobilization, explained: “The Koch brothers and the fossil fuel industry have put billions of dollars into lying to the American public, even sending literature to science teachers in schools,” Salamon said. “They are so well organized and have managed to turn climate change into a controversial subject that gets shut down. It’s clearly working.”

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old activist who inspired global climate strikes this year, has been met with scrutiny in the press. Adults determined to prove that they don’t get it, such as Financial Times columnist Nick Butler, undermine her efforts. Butler suggested that Thunberg create a fund to carry out scientific research, an indirect solution that requires plenty of time. Lots of scientific research on climate already exists, it just doesn’t get taken seriously. It just so happens that Butler spent 29 years working at oil and gas giant BP.

CNN accused Thunberg of “scolding” E.U. leaders over climate change. The New York Times editorial board expressed clear discomfort over her age and demeanor (Thunberg’s Twitter bio reads “16 year old climate activist with Asperger,” a condition on the autism spectrum ). The board wrote: “The girl in long braids and lavender pants was in striking contrast to the rich and powerful adults gathered in Davos in January for the World Economic Forum, and her brief address lacked the usual niceties.”

“Hers was not a tone grown-ups welcome from a 16-year-old,” the board continued, obviously distressed at the idea of a teen with any kind of influence. Although the piece expresses support for Thunberg’s message, it maintains a cool attitude toward the notion of a teenager in politics.

“Out of the mouth of babes …” the board concluded, as though there were not a direct correlation between being young and being particularly concerned with the long road of climate crisis ahead. Why should adults ask children what they want to be when they grow up and then be surprised when they want a chance for a viable future? Older generations clearly cannot grasp the way in which they have been complicit in an inherited burden for young people.

Bret Stephens, one of the more controversial, conservative op-ed columnists for the New York Times, has cast doubt on the science of climate changes, getting attention with  his first column for the newspaper, in 2017, for writing that “ordinary citizens also have a right to be skeptical of an overweening scientism.” A correction issued days later clarified that what Stephens called a “modest” 0.85 degrees Celsius warming described the entire planet, not only the Northern Hemisphere. In 2015 at the Wall Street Journal, Stephens called climate change an “imaginary enemy,” like hunger, rape on college campuses, and institutionalized racism, according to his argument.

Naturally, in addition to legitimizing climate denial, the New York Times also profits from fossil fuel companies. The Times’ marketing unit, T Brand Studio, has been producing sponsored content to help oil and gas companies’ last-ditch attempts to rehabilitate their image. At the top of a sponsored page, the name of the corporation who bought the advertisement is apparent but not obvious.

To deepen the marketing gaslighting, the Times also tries to sell more newspapers by branding itself as environmentally friendly. Trendy normcore clothing brand Everlane released sweatshirts and t-shirts with the Times about their joint commitment to fighting climate change. Sales from the clothes go to a program giving public school students subscriptions to the Times, where they can read the oil and gas industry’s spin for themselves. Capitalism offers ways to buy yourself out of a problem that don’t get you anywhere.

A Times post sponsored by ExxonMobil explains that the company is working on developing methods to extract oil from algae. An animated video sponsored by ExxonMobil explains they are turning farm waste into fuel.

Ed Collins, a researcher at research group InfluenceMap, explained that the messaging is far from a genuine shift toward green energy, as long as ExxonMobil is reliant on oil and gas. “If you’ve got these feel-good, upbeat adverts about tech innovations such as algae, then you have the impression that the climate issue is being dealt with without having to resort to regulation,” he said.

A post bought by Chevron emphasizes that the corporation doesn’t intend on abandoning fossil fuels anytime soon: “The resurgence of natural gas is one piece of a larger transformation of the U.S. energy outlook. Complemented by improving efficiency, the related rise of oil output and growth in renewable sources, our overall energy supply is increasingly diversified and balanced.”

Natural gas leaks methane from wells and pipelines. High levels of methane, according to recent research, threaten climate goals—the fossil fuel traps more methane than carbon dioxide.

Shell sponsored a New York Times post posturing as sympathetic to climate change. Alongside a cheery animation, the piece describes the company’s vision for net zero emissions by 2070.

“To be sure, achieving this goal is far from guaranteed,” the piece notes. Shell spends 95 percent of its budget on fossil fuels and 5 percent on renewable energy, according to environmental groups suing Shell over its use of fossil fuels. The corporation makes small symbolic changes and gets free PR in the headlines. In April, for example, Shell left industry group American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers over its stance on the Paris Agreement. Even environmental website Grist wrote that “this political realignment matters.”

Speaking to insiders at a conference in October literally called “Oil and Money,” Shell’s CEO Ben van Beurden emphasized the company’s dependence on fossil fuels: “But even headlines that are true can be misleading. They might even make people think we have gone soft on the future of oil and gas. If they did think that, they would be wrong.”

Van Beurden said: “That means Shell’s core business is, and will be for the foreseeable future, very much in oil and gas, and particularly in natural gas. Oil is going to be needed by this world for a long time to come, and gas even more so.”

He continued: “I do not expect this stance to make big news. No newspaper will run a story with this headline: ‘Oil and gas CEO has confidence in future of gas.’ That is not news. But, nevertheless, it is true.”

According to InfluenceMap, oil companies ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, and Total have spent more than $1 billion on “misleading climate-related branding and lobbying” in three years. These corporations spent $110 billion on new fossil fuel projects.

When youth climate activists begged Dianne Feinstein to take action on the Green New Deal, Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan defended the senator’s dismissive behavior.

When the activists met with Ocasio-Cortez, she told them: “I just want to let you all know how proud I am of each and every single one of you for putting yourselves and your bodies and everything on the line.”

Flanagan wrote in response: “Putting their bodies on the line? The kids were sitting on the floor of the Longworth Building, one of the most heavily fortified structures on the planet. What was she worried about—that Mitch McConnell was going to show up and kickbox them? But questions about inflated diction were irrelevant. In the fierce urgency of now, there is no difference between a fact, an exaggeration, hyperbole, and an outright fantasy.”

A writer as a publication as prestigious as the Atlantic apparently cannot be bothered to conduct a quick Google search or ask an intern to do one for her. In December, Capitol police arrested 138 activists who were pushing for Green New Deal legislation. One day after Flanagan’s piece came out, 42 youth activists were arrested outside McConnell’s office for “unlawfully demonstrating.”

Flanagan continued to describe the encounter: “In a pink-and-red sweater and her hair in a ponytail, [a youth activist] exuded the self-confidence of a child about to ace her speech for fifth-grade class president. But standing in front of Feinstein (blue pantsuit, hands clasped behind her back, patience of Job) she was quickly cowed.”

She ultimately came to the conclusion that: “Old women have finally—finally—given up on the notion that they are expected to be agreeable to rude people.” Breaking: activism is canceled for being rude.

A sponsored post “crafted” by The Atlantic’s marketing team describes the importance of the oil and gas industry. Gretchen Watkins, president of Shell, says: “We are a part of creating the solution to one of the world’s biggest challenges: climate change.” The post’s sponsor? The American Petroleum Institute (API), a lobbying group representing the industry that’s spent $663 million on public relations as they spread doubt about climate change.

API’s informational materials on climate change describe “the many benefits that oil and natural gas provide our nation.”

The Washington Post’s marketing branch, WP BrandStudio, published a piece sponsored by API on “Why natural gas will thrive in the age of renewables.”

That’s not to say that great climate journalists don’t exist, like Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and Sharon Lerner. But the story of the climate crisis is so clear and so damning that every news organization should be chasing down the CEOs, politicians, and lobbyists.

Journalists Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope explained: “climate change is so far-reaching that connections should be made when reporting on nearly every topic.”

They continued: “Don’t be afraid to point fingers. As always, journalists should shun cheerleading, but neither should we be neutral. Defusing the climate crisis is in everyone’s interest, but some entities are resolutely opposed to doing what the science says is needed, starting with the president of the United States.”

Rather than take that sweet fossil fuel cash and pass the hot potato of environmental disaster off to someone else, news organizations can take an adversarial stance toward the people directly responsible for destroying the planet. Not only are there ample failings that journalists need to document, but there are also possible solutions they need to inform the public on, like the Green New Deal, mass climate strikes, or charging fossil fuel executives with crimes Nuremberg style.

Abdul El-Sayed, a public health doctor who ran for governor in Michigan last year, articulated the direct harms of climate change in a way that most journalists cannot: “The Green New Deal,” he wrote, “recognizes that the challenges of stopping climate change and providing low-income kids what they need to thrive are not mutually exclusive—rather they are mutually inclusive.

“Poor kids suffer asthma in communities like Detroit because they are poor,” he wrote. “These kids live in the air sheds of major polluters because their families cannot afford housing elsewhere. And those polluters set up shop in poor communities because they know the families in those communities are too busy surviving to stand up. Those same corporations also spend billions to lobby government for policies that erode worker rights, drive poverty—and promote climate change.”

Many Americans are in deep denial about climate change, fed the same stories about climate change for decades. Emissaries of corporate power, U.S. media has facilitated mass deception about the role of big oil and gas. They treat climate change like a question up for debate. Or worse, they give their platform to lobbyists’ deliberate distortions. News outlets with an interest in any kind of future for human civilization ought to remember that they have an obligation to represent the interests of the public. Their role is to be champions of the children getting sick from pollution, not the fossil fuel executives. Journalists who can’t see this distinction should find a different line of work on their own or be blacklisted.

It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.

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