PLANNING WATCH - The new report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) could not have been starker.
If the levels of Green House Gas (GHG ) emissions continue to rise at their present rate, many regions of the planet will be uninhabitable by mid-century. By the end of this century ecocide will have engulfed much of the world. We are already witnessing mass extinctions, and it is only a matter of time until they include mankind – unless there is a dramatic reduction in GHG emissions.
Despite these doomsday scenarios, most pundits and politicians are blasé about the climate crisis and the public generally mirrors their views. Unless remaining newspaper readers look for small articles in the daily press or follow courageous climate writers, like Robert Hunziker, most people only know that the seasons are changing and the number of dangerous storms, heat waves, wildfires, and droughts is increasing.
There is a glimmer of hope, however, because the war in the Ukraine demonstrates that the mainstream media knows how to shape public opinion, stampede politicians, and ensure that an enormous amount of government aid is quickly allocated to a rapidly unfolding crisis. What they have done to make Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine an epic historical event could and should be rolled out for the climate crisis.
These are the media’s tactics in covering the Ukraine War that could be applied to climate change:
Media Tactic 1 - Personalize the perpetrators by labeling them criminals, like Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who the media wants tried at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The UK’s Guardian Newspaper even demonstrated how this could be done for the climate crisis. The paper identified the private and state-owned companies -- shown on the chart below – that caused the climate crisis. These major energy companies are well known, such as Chevron/Texaco, Exxon/Mobil, British Petroleum, and Royal Dutch Shell. Their executives and directors are easily identified, so there is no doubt who bears responsibility for the Green House Gas emissions and temperature increases responsible for the growing numbers of climate casualties.
Major companies responsible for the climate crisis.
A University of Washington study determined that between 1980 to 2016, 1,690,000 deaths were directly attributable to the climate crisis. Their figures are conservative estimates, and the study forecast that such casualties will steadily increase. Forbes Magazine projects that by 2100 climate-related deaths will reach 89,000,000 people per year, more than the number of people who will succumb to infectious diseases.
If we know the names of the executives and directors whose companies, like Chevron, caused these climate-related deaths, the next question is what ecological crimes are these corporate leaders guilty of and how can they be prosecuted? Are we talking about ecocide, a criminal category first identified in 1970? Furthermore, there are now detailed proposals for adding ecocide to the Rome Genocide Statute, the foundational document for the International Criminal Court.
As these amendments to the Rome Genocide Statute proceed toward adoption, there are other avenues for prosecution of environmental crimes. For example, the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute identifies extermination as a crime against humanity, defining it as, “the intentional infliction of conditions of life, inter alia the deprivation of access to food and medicine, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population.”
In addition, several California counties and cities have taken legal action against Chevron for business operations directly responsible for climate change. If these lawsuits succeed, there will be additional legal options for prosecuting ecocide as a crime. This is possible because the large energy companies’ internal research identified the causal relationship between fossil fuels and climate change in the 1970s. They understood the deadly consequences of their businesses, which is why they then began funding climate change denial and skepticism.
Media Tactic 2 - Personalize the victims. Every day the mainstream print and electronic media should post major human interest stories about the victims of corporate-linked climate change. Like the Ukraine, the press needs to use above-the-fold color photos and riveting firsthand portraits of these fatalities and their survivors.
Has someone been burned out of their house by wildfires suddenly engulfing an entire town, like Paradise, California? Put them on the front page, with a moving human interest story about their plight and its connections to the climate crisis.
Has someone’s farm been put out of business because a record mega-drought halted water for irrigation? Put these victims’ stories on the front page, making sure they are shown as victims of corporate-induced climate change.
Has someone’s entire neighborhood been devastated by unprecedented floods, like those in Durban, South Africa? They, too, need to be front page news, especially if children and pets can be worked into the stories.
Media Tactic 3 - Personalize the heroes. In each natural or manmade disaster there are local heroes who rescue neighbors and then lead them in opposition against those responsible for the calamities that destroyed their communities. These grassroots campaigns should focus on the corporate executives and directors who reviewed and approved their companies’ business models. Let these corporate wheelers and dealers take responsibility for their deadly product’s extraction, refining, and use.
These local heroes also need to have their stories prominently told, with repeated color photos, interviews, and background pieces that make their personal stories and its links to the climate crisis everyday knowledge.
Media Tactic 4 - Each new climate calamity should become a rationale for greater government spending and intervention. The U.S. government’s escalating response to the Russian invasion of the Ukraine shows how each unfolding event can be used as a justification for more government intervention. This is the model for public sector action on climate change, such as finally adopting and funding the Green New Deal.
Each climate catastrophe, such as Durban, South Africa’s deadly floods, California’s mega-drought and wildfires, the Pacific Northwest’s heat waves, and the Atlantic’s expanded hurricane season, can become a rationale for new budget appropriations, Congressional legislation, and White House executive orders. Just like costs are never a barrier for more military spending, elected officials can treat the far more threatening climate crisis the same way. Even if it requires more deficit spending, the financial spigots need to be run at maximum for climate change research, mitigation, and adaptation programs.
If this can be done for the Ukraine, then the same media tactics can be deployed to address the life-threatening climate crisis.
(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatchLA. He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA) and co-chairs the Greater Fairfax Residents Association. Previous Planning Watch columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives. Please send questions and corrections to [email protected].)