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What Do You Mean “We” Aren’t Safe?

How our identity is not just individual when it comes to climate change.

Key points

  • Americans and the rest of the world is increasingly concerned about climate change.
  • Frustration over climate change is leading to the formation of a social identity around the issue.
  • The media is in a pivotal position to decide what to report on and how, when it comes to climate change.

We are all affected by the climate crisis. And while we are not all united in our response to this fact, Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about global warming, even if most do not understand its causes. Perhaps this is inevitable as we experience extreme weather systems, destructive “natural” events, and ecosystem losses associated with climate change.

Consider recent climate-related catastrophes, which included the hundreds of people killed this summer in heat waves and floods throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. In Florida, hundreds more were crushed to death under a collapsed building whose foundation seems to have disintegrated because of rising sea water, while thousands more have been forced from their homelands in Central America by monstrous storms and underlying and unrelenting droughts.

All of the current and ongoing climate disasters are linked in some way to human-induced climate change and habitat destruction, with shifting patterns in jet-stream behavior indicating that the upsurge in extreme events will only accelerate. Weather systems that have provided relatively mild temperatures to North Atlantic countries face further disruption as the major Atlantic ocean current, which includes the Gulf Stream, is losing stability.

A new social identity is forming around ecological awareness, based partly on a collective anxiety about risks posed by these phenomena. Climate communication can play an influential role in cultivating such an identity, but it is marginalized within mainstream media, which tends to distort and deflect causes and responsibility for the crisis. One key reason the media isn't more attuned to this emerging identity is that it shares a common commercial business obligation to push a consumerist worldview through happy programming and aspirational advertising. This became especially problematic during the pandemic when TV left us without a calm moment of reflection in a rush of advertising telling us to get out and go shop, eat, exercise, and booze it up. The recent surge of Covid infections raises the question of whether media managers understand that they are promoting behaviors that make things worse for the planet and public health systems.

To be fair, prominent media outlets have tried to make amends, most notably in 2018, when the New York Times Magazine published a 30,000-word essay on climate change and climate science. Our analysis of that feature acknowledged many of its positive aspects, but we also pointed to a major flaw of the piece, common to mainstream media: to claim that responsibility for the climate crisis lies with "all of humanity." We all share equally in global warming, they argued, and so we must modify our behavior. This was disingenuous, at best.

It was clear to us that this was a misdirection to take the focus off of a small group of powerful countries, their past and present leaders, and big corporations that are responsible for continued inaction on climate change. In a past column, we cited a report by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) that shows that between 1990 and 2015, 49 percent of "absolute emissions was due to the richest 10%” of the global population, within which “the richest 5% alone contributed over a third (37%).” The study also reports that almost all remaining emissions were caused by the “middle 40% of the global income distribution,” concluding that the “impact of the poorest half of the world’s population was practically negligible.”

We are all affected by the climate crisis, but the vast majority of people, many being the most vulnerable to risks of climate change, have little to nothing to do with its causes. But this class contradiction gives the have-nots another good reason to embrace their ecological identity: it sets them apart from the "haves" of the world. The Oxfam-SEI report mentioned above shows how the wealthiest citizens across all regions live in a hyper-consumerist world of highly polluting air travel, high emission vehicle travel, outsized housing (including heating and cooling), and purchases of manufactured products, food, services, and clothing. As one of the authors of a report told The Guardian, “The global carbon budget has been squandered to expand the consumption of the already rich, rather than to improve humanity.”

Which brings us to the cover of a recent issue of The Economist that warned readers that there’s “No Safe Place” on the planet as the atmosphere continues to heat up. The lead editorial framed this problem as the loss of our freedom to observe ecological catastrophe at a safe distance, leaving us tragically without a place from which to reflect and philosophize about it. The editorial is clearly addressed to a readership the newspaper identifies as sophisticated and “progressive,” located almost entirely in the Global North, and mostly comprised of college-educated, older men. In contrast, the more detailed reporting in The Economist’s main article on the topic focused on the long-term global entanglements of humans and climate change, showing instead that no one on the planet has really ever been protected from the effects of global warming, and governments urgently need to do something about that or we're headed to an overheated planet.

It's a tough balancing act for The Economist, but we have to credit their effort to connect global warming to fires, drought, floods, and death because it helps to dispel the myth that these are discrete, if tragic, events.

Still, most of the elite media are happy to maintain the illusion of a safe place from which to observe death and destruction happening “out there.” This would explain the fascination with Jeff Bezos’ 60-mile ride on an autopiloted rocket to nowhere, which earned him more minutes of coverage in one day than the climate crisis received over the past year. Part of the press uncritically embraced Bezos’ claim that he was further inspired to fight climate change after his three-minute jaunt.

Not to single out Bezos, the media fawn over all of the super-rich tech giants—Amazon, Alphabet, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft, which present themselves to a largely sycophantic press as keen defenders of the planet in the face of climate change, a green credential that usually goes unchallenged. But facts betray this green hype. All of them have risked only a negligible amount of their tremendous economic and political power in the effort to advance the aims of the Paris Agreement for a 1.5°C future. Instead, they have doubled down on unbridled growth and the atmospheric warming this entails, as evidenced, in part, by their lobbying efforts in Washington D.C., a decidedly inactivist intervention on the climate front.

Putting it mildly, Bezos and other billionaires are probably not trustworthy partners in a collective effort to deal with the climate crisis. For them, a world of unbridled growth and endless consumption is a natural reality, rather than one that is based on the preservation of billionaire wealth. But the media still promote them as models for green living, against all facts to the contrary. It would be a boost to the eco-identity of the have-nots if the dominant media narrative shifted to these class contradictions to further unify the majority of Americans who want climate action now.

Some journalists on the left argue that the media should start to frame the climate crisis as a crime story. After 40 years of lying to the public and policy-makers, they say Exxon should be prosecuted. But instead, they have secured a place at the table on US climate policy discussions. In a meeting with an undercover reporter, the director of Exxon’s government relations added that the corporation’s “public support for a carbon tax as its principal climate policy is an ‘advocacy tool’ and ‘great talking point’ that will never actually happen.” It's not just a crime story; it's a class warfare story.

We urgently need democratic reforms to stop the anti-democratic movement against climate justice. We don’t need any more policy failures that have given billionaires the reins over politics, economies, and the future of our planet. We must remember that “they” long ago began to pillage the planet and carve out a class politics that accelerated climate change, privileged their place in the world, and left the have-nots with nowhere to run.