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The NY Times Gets Some of it Right

Last Sunday the New York Times published “Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change.” The article posed 16 questions and answered each in two or three short paragraphs.

The article is valuable because it provides readable, useful information while indicating that we are approaching a crisis. However, the answers lack systemic analysis of the root causes of this crisis and sugar-coat the problem.

For example, in response to Question 3, “Is there anything I can do?” they write:

“You can reduce your own carbon footprint in lots of simple ways, and most of them will save you money. You can plug leaks in your home insulation to save power, install a smart thermostat, switch to more efficient light bulbs, turn off the lights in any room where you are not using them, drive fewer miles by consolidating trips or taking public transit, waste less food, and eat less meat. Perhaps the biggest single thing individuals can do on their own is to take fewer airplane trips; just one or two fewer plane rides per year can save as much in emissions as all the other actions combined. If you want to be at the cutting edge, you can look at buying an electric or hybrid car, putting solar panels on your roof, or both.”

“In the end, though, experts do not believe the needed transformation in the energy system can happen without strong state and national policies. So speaking up, and exercising your right as a citizen matters as much as anything else you can do.”

The emphasis is entirely on personal acts. Even attempting to influence public policy is focused on individual acts and is included as an afterthought. We can’t expect the New York Times to encourage mass action to transform our energy system, but that is what’s needed. There is also no acknowledgement that unprecedented production and resource consumption under globalized neo-liberal capitalism is the source of the problem.

Then there’s the sugar coating of the problem. Question 6 asks, “What’s the worst-case scenario?” They answer:

“That is actually hard to say…. Perhaps the greatest fear is a collapse of food production … and mass starvation. Even with runaway emissions growth, it is unclear how likely this would be, as farmers are able to adjust their crops and farming techniques to a degree…. Another possibility would be a disintegration of the polar ice sheets, leading to fast-rising seas that would force people to abandon many of the worlds great cities…. [it concludes with the failure of the monsoon rains]”

This is not the worst case. The worst is not any one of these problems, but all of them and more at once. The possibility that farmers could adapt “to a degree,” is not the worst. The worst is that they can’t adapt. The answer ignores one recent model that projects temperatures in the Middle East could reach 170 degrees, rendering swathes of our planet uninhabitable, or that methane gas releases might turn our atmosphere toxic.

Hopefully, none of these nightmares will be realized, but ignoring them does not help educate the public. And it borders on disinformation, since another answer states “all of this could take hundreds or even thousands of years to play out,” when we could see these kind of changes begin in as little as 50 years if we continue with business as usual.

More generally, the problem with the NYT piece can be summed up by the language I quoted in a recent blog: “The worst climate change deniers are not the ones who say it is not happening, but the ones who recognize the problem but refuse to confront its most basic sources and causes.”

Given the New York Times’ cozy relationship with corporate capitalism, this is hardly surprising.  Read More 
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