Manufacturing Consent

The dangerous campaign behind climate emergency declarations

This essay is the first in a series exploring climate emergency politics — MN

In his opening video-cast address to the December 2020 United Nations “Climate Ambition Summit,” Secretary-General António Guterres confronted head on the paradoxical nature of the moment: an escalating global pandemic had engulfed the world in a more immediate crisis than climate change.

It was 2020 that was supposed to be the pivotal moment when the world shifted towards rapidly cutting heat trapping carbon emissions. But the pandemic had forced the postponement of the UN summit scheduled for Glasgow, Scotland in which countries would ramp up their 2015 UN Paris treaty pledges.

“Five years after Paris, we are still not going in the right direction,” Guterres noted in the opening to his Climate Ambition speech. “If we don’t change course, we may be headed for a catastrophic temperature rise of more than 3 degrees this century.”

Guterres was referring to the goal of cutting emissions 45-50 percent by 2030 — a target that according to IPCC scientists had a chance of keeping the world economy on track to reach “net zero” emissions by 2050.

But then, in a reckless effort to build a sense of urgency, Guterres issued a stunning permission slip to the world’s most ruthless, authoritarian leaders: “Can anybody still deny that we are facing a dramatic emergency? That is why today, I call on all leaders worldwide to declare a State of Climate Emergency in their countries until carbon neutrality is reached.”

Think about it: The UN Secretary-General invited national leaders across the world to declare an indefinite state of emergency for at least the next three decades.

Rapidly achieving net zero emissions requires transforming almost all aspects of society — making everything about life political. Therefore, in declaring a state of climate emergency, an authoritarian leader would have virtually unlimited license to argue that their “scientifically-legitimated” decisions were urgently necessary.

If you think the worry is far fetched consider Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist prime minister of India. His party’s long standing goal has been to turn the secular, liberal democracy of India into a Hindu nationalist nation, forcing 200 million Muslims to either leave, or convert to Hinduism.

Rapidly achieving net zero emissions requires transforming almost all aspects of society — making everything about life political.

Since his 2014 election, Modi’s economic platform to create jobs has been a complete failure, and his handling of the pandemic has been disastrous. Only as a tyrant has he excelled. Modi’s regime has jailed countless political enemies, as the writer Arundhati Roy notes, and turned India into one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

Meanwhile, Hindu vigilante mobs publicly flog Muslims and “untouchable” Dalits, uploading lynching videos to YouTube, as Modi’s government looks the other way. These actions should have been expected. Within months of Modi’s appointment in 2002 to his former position as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, a pogrom against Muslims took place that killed two thousand people in broad daylight.

Because of his suspected complicity, Modi became the first public official ever banned from entering the U.S. until former President Trump lifted the ban. Appearing at a rally together in Houston, Trump called it a “profoundly historic event.”

But in a startling example of climate emergency blindness, the UN in 2018 named Modi the “Champion of the Earth,” citing his far-fetched, grandiose dream to turn the India-led International Solar Alliance into a rival of the OPEC oil cartel.

“Today, we recognize a statesman who embodies the true meaning of leadership,” declared Guterres in presenting Modi with the award. He “recognizes that climate change poses a direct existential threat to us all,” and “knows what we need to do to avert catastrophe” [emphasis added].

Yet in 2020 — six years after Modi’s election — India still ranked 168th out of 180 countries relative to environmental quality according to a Yale University analysis. Specific to S. Asia — the most polluted region after Africa — India ranked last out of its eight neighbors. India also ranked last among 27 emerging markets.

Before the 2015 UN Paris meeting, Modi’s government had pledged to achieve 175 GW of renewable power by 2022, including 100 GW of solar. But as of 2021, the country was far behind those goals, having only achieved 95 GW of installed renewable power and 40.5 GW of solar. Even absent the devastating pandemic, Modi was never going to live up to his pledge.

Climate emergency thinking has become a collective delirium, eliminating essential habits of mind related to self-doubt, skepticism, self-questioning, and accountability.

Meanwhile, in 2020 the UN’s “Champion of the Earth” approved a plan to develop 40 new coal fields, destroying one of world’s most ecologically sensitive forests. “Why cannot India be the world’s largest exporter of coal?” asked Modi when he announced the decision.

Climate emergency thinking has become a collective delirium, eliminating essential habits of mind related to self-doubt, skepticism, self-questioning, and accountability. The metaphor is that of a ticking carbon bomb that we only have a decade to defuse.

This fast moving, panicked train of thought allows no time to consider alternative options or dissent, forge compromise, or carefully assess the consequence of decisions. Instead we must go on a “war footing,” with everyone on the planet uniting behind a World War II scale mass mobilization to avoid an existential threat.

The resulting blindness legitimates “states of exception,” associated most closely with insurrection, war, or terrorism, as Cambridge University’s Mike Hulme writes.

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, a similar form of delirium led to the passage of the 2001 USA Patriot Act that enabled almost unlimited electronic eavesdropping, in order to provide “total information awareness.”

Emergency thinking also produced the conditions under which the Bush administration was able to manipulate intelligence evidence and the news media to build bipartisan support for the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

The climate emergency for many has become a form of millenarian politics, equating the goal of history as achieving “net zero” emissions, turning politics into a Manichean battle between the forces of “good and light” and “evil and darkness.”

It is a moral crusade to re-make the world, thereby achieving salvation.

For ultra-billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, a climate emergency is the perfect opportunity to assert even greater influence over world affairs, as they shower civil society with billions in philanthropy, insulating their business dealings and investments from critical scrutiny.

For others like Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, climate emergency thinking enables each of them to spend more than $1 billion on Super PACs and presidential races, cloaking their brazen political ambitions behind their claims to be saving the planet.

For authoritarian leaders like Modi, emergency declarations are the perfect context for absolutism, carrying out “what needs to be done,” to go on a “war footing” to achieve long planned totalitarian ends, justifying their ruthlessness by claiming that science is on their side.

Normally, we should be able to rely on opinion-leading news organizations, experienced journalists, and intellectuals to scrutinize flawed logic and abuses of power, hold all sides accountable in their twisting of scientific authority, and provide deeper, more nuanced context to the arguments posed.

But several of our most influential journalistic organizations and many academics representing prestigious institutions have instead become moral crusaders on behalf of the cause, spreading a dangerous blindness that confuses rather than enlightens, empowering the already powerful.

Pump up the volume

In January 2021, the UN released what was billed as the “biggest climate survey ever,” conducted by University of Oxford sociologists. The survey had targeted people 14 and older across 50 countries playing some 4,000 gaming apps with 30.7 million advertising invitations, analyzing survey responses from 1.22 million people.

According to the sociologists, 64 percent of respondents said that climate change was an emergency, “presenting a clear and convincing call for decision-makers to step up on ambition.” Among these emergency enthusiasts, 59 percent agreed with the statement that the “world should do everything necessary and urgently in response.”

Yet the claims made by the Oxford sociologists would flunk an introductory college survey method class. By any professional standard, it is simply not possible to claim that a single question about a topic as abstract and complex as “climate emergency,” administered across 50 countries and 17 languages could render “a clear and convincing call for decision-makers to step up on ambition.”

The idea for the “biggest climate poll ever” came to UN climate advisor Cassie Flynn as she was riding the subway, watching everyone around her glued to their phones. Soon she learned that the gaming industry purportedly had access to 2.7 billion people worldwide, more than the movie and music industries combined.

Yet the claims made by the Oxford sociologists would flunk an introductory college survey method class.

The project was promoted by the UN as a way to “connect millions of people with their governments,” but the release of the survey served a different purpose — producing highly questionable survey data perfectly timed to legitimate the UN’s climate emergency declaration. 

Despite the obvious questions to ask about the validity of the UN/Oxford poll, journalists at opinion-leading news organizations filed their stories without any comment from other experts, a process made easy by the availability of multiple UN news releases.

  • “Climate change: Biggest global poll supports 'global emergency,” the BBC declared.

  • “People’s Climate Vote: Majority sees climate change as emergency— A cutting-edge survey used mobile gaming apps in 17 languages to ask 1.2 million people about their views on climate change,” Al Jazeera told readers.

  • “UN global climate poll: ‘The people’s voice is clear – they want action’ — Biggest ever survey finds two-thirds of people think climate change is a global emergency,” The Guardian celebrated.

This last headline was particularly Orwellian since The Guardian had been the leading force behind a two-year campaign to convince the world that climate change was indeed an emergency.

Selling crisis

In April 2019, the Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation, and The Guardian launched Covering Climate Now, a foundation-funded campaign to create a “new playbook for journalism that’s compatible with the 1.5-degree future that scientists say must be achieved.” 

So urgent is the challenge of decarbonizing the world’s economy, almost nothing else matters in comparison, argued co-organizers Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope in cover stories published jointly at CJR and The Nation. Journalists “need to remember their Paul Revere responsibilities—to awaken, inform, and rouse the people to action.” 

The leading model for print legacy media to emulate was The Guardian, they wrote. Moving ahead, according to a Guardian memo released following the event, climate change would be referred to exclusively as the “climate emergency, crisis, or breakdown.” Similarly, global warming would be referred to as “global heating,” and “climate sceptic” would be replaced by “climate science denier.”

At the meeting, the former PBS broadcaster Bill Moyers announced that the Schumann Media Center, a philanthropy that he led at the time, would provide $1 million to the Columbia School of Journalism to finance the first year of the project.

Moyers urged the journalists assembled to cover the climate crisis in the manner of Edward R. Murrow, who at the start of World War II defied his CBS News bosses by reporting on the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, breaking US media silence about the existential threat of fascism. 

Speaking of then U.S. President Donald Trump, Moyers instructed journalists not only to document the truth of the climate crisis but also “report on the madness … of a US government that scorns reality as fake news, denies the truths of nature, and embraces a theocratic ideology that welcomes catastrophe as a sign of the returning Messiah.”

A main driver of the new climate emergency pre-occupation, as an Oxford editor told the New York Times, had been The Guardian’s decision to use the term or “climate crisis” instead of “climate change” in all its stories and reporting.

As a first step, the organizers of the Covering Climate Now initiative called on news organizations to dedicate a full week of coverage to climate change leading up to a fall 2019 United Nations summit in New York City. They also planned future meetings, launched deep verticals devoted to climate journalism at CJR and The Nation websites, and developed “how-to” guides and rapid response teams to aid newsrooms in covering extreme weather events and similar topics.

By November 2019, Oxford Dictionaries named “climate emergency” the word of the year. The new climate emergency label, Oxford’s analysis showed, had evolved from “relative obscurity” into “one of the most prominent – and prominently debated – terms,” becoming a preoccupation of the English-speaking world.

In this case, climate emergency paralleled the rapid rise of similarly novel terms like “fake news” and “post-truth” which had earned word-of-the-year distinctions in 2017 from various dictionaries.

A main driver of the new climate emergency pre-occupation, as an Oxford editor told the New York Times, had been The Guardian’s decision to use the term or “climate crisis” instead of “climate change” in all its stories and reporting.

“Oxford Dictionaries declares 'climate emergency' the word of 2019 — Usage of the term increased 100-fold in the space of 12 months, dictionary says,” was The Guardian headline.

But in late 2019 as The Guardian, CJR, and The Nation celebrated their success, history was taking a transformative turn as the COVID-19 virus spread in Wuhan, China. 

Hertsgaard and Pope in their 2018 CJR/Nation cover story had argued that the challenge of decarbonizing the world’s economy was so urgent, almost nothing else mattered in comparison. They were wrong.

The beat goes on

Following the outbreak of the pandemic, few in the climate advocacy community expressed a need to update their beliefs, priorities, or policy strategies in light of history altering events. Instead most — including the Covering Climate Now team — argued that climate change remained the most important emergency to address.

In April 2021, as part of CJR’s special “The Existential Issue,” the magazine joined with The Nation, The Guardian and Scientific American to declare: “It’s time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here. This is a statement of science, not politics.”

But the statement itself is an exercise in political power — drawing on the authority of science to reframe a political choice as unbiased, objective, and necessary. It is the equivalent to President Joe Biden claiming that he will always “follow the science” and “listen to the science.” Such statements are examples of scientization: making political choices seem like they are scientific ones.

There is no way to falsify whether we are existing in a state of climate emergency. Nor is there a way to scientifically define the threshold at which a “state of emergency” occurs [despite some scientists claiming otherwise].

To argue that declaring an emergency is a scientific statement violates the classic is/ought difference. Declaring any type of emergency is a values based judgment in which science is one among many inputs, and that various experts will disagree about.

There is no way to falsify whether we are existing in a state of climate emergency.

For example, almost all the co-authors of the “Planetary Boundaries” branded series of commentaries are from wealthy Global North countries. Not surprisingly, given the implications for economic development, their relatively arbitrary setting of “dangerous” thresholds for “maintaining a safe operating space for humanity” have been contested by a wide variety of relevant experts, including those from the Global South

Even when scientists directly call for an emergency declaration, they are still making a political statement, trading on their authority to argue for what should be done. This is the principal reason that such statements only appear as “Commentary” or “Perspective” articles in peer-reviewed journals. 

In fact, journal commentaries are what the Covering Climate Now team relied on as their main sources of evidence in claiming that they were making a scientific rather than a political statement (including citing a Planetary Boundaries article).

Most prominently, however, they highlighted a Scientific American opinion article co-authored by five scientists, which was a shorter version of a commentary they wrote for Bioscience.

The commentary presented graphs showing “vital signs of very troubling climate change trends with little progress by humanity,” as the co-authors described them. Based on their “moral obligation to ‘clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat’ and to ‘tell it like it is,’’ the co-authors took it upon themselves to declare a state of climate emergency. To combat the emergency, they proposed a relatively narrow set of policy actions they believed were needed.

The scientist co-authors also created a website hosted by their university, and engaged in the time honored political activity of launching a petition campaign. To date some 13,000 people have signed up to what the co-authors call the “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency.”

The signatories include professors, researchers, and graduate students representing a wide range of disciplines such as biology, sociology, medical science, epidemiology, rural development, psychology, cardiology, economics, neuroscience, and dozens more.

Even if all of the signatories to the petition were highly credentialed climate scientists — the petition would still be a political statement on behalf of declaring a climate emergency, not a scientific one.

Climate change is an important and complex story, and news organizations need help in producing sustained, quality coverage. But the main challenge for a new generation of climate change journalists is not to hype the threat level on behalf of climate change, but to identify for their audience the flaws in conventional narratives about climate change, holding all sides accountable for their claims and actions.

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