|Number 571||February 3, 2015|
No room for an editor's note this week. Write to me if you have any thoughts
In the Minneapolis Star Tribune of January 15th, the headline read, "Sea Level Rise is Overstated." In the Washington Post the same day, the headline read, "The Rate of Sea-level Rise Is 'Far Worse than Previously Thought,' Study Says."
Well, which is it? The Post got it right, as we can see as we read the following three sentences from the authors of the study (published in the journal Nature):
"What this paper shows is that the sea-level acceleration over the past century has been greater than had been estimated by others. It's a larger problem than we initially thought."
"Quote" of the Week The Second: "Climate Change Is Perhaps the Major Challenge of Our Generation."
I salute the New York Times for putting on their front page of January 17th—complete with a brightly-colored map of the world—a major story headlined "2014 Breaks Heat Record, Challenging Global Warming Skeptics." Here's the lead: "Last year was the hottest on earth since record-keeping began in 1880, scientists reported on Friday, underscoring warnings about the risks of runaway greenhouse gas emissions and undermining claims by climate change contrarians that global warming had somehow stopped." The Times pointed out that "The 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1997." The only sad thing is that the Times still felt that they had to even mention "climate change contrarians" in the first place. One doesn't see many mentions of "round earth contrarians," after all.
Still, kudos to the Times for running the story so prominently, and for making their first quotation these words, spoken by Michael H. Freilich, director of earth sciences at NASA, one of the agencies that track global temperatures:
"Climate change is perhaps the major challenge of our generation."
In the grand narrative of Climate Change/Humans and the Environment, the Top Story of 2014 is... Wait! I can't decide! Hmm... What to do? I'll declare it a tie between two stories.
Top Story #1: THE SEPTEMBER 21 CLIMATE MARCH IN New York City.
The story of this historic march was reported like this on the Pacifica News show Democracy Now!:
"As many as 400,000 people turned out in New York City on Sunday [September 21st] for the People's Climate March, the largest environmental protest in history. The turnout far exceeded expectations, a massive crowd filling the streets to demand action on global warming. Other marches and rallies were held in 166 countries."
The reason this is my Top Story is that it was concrete evidence of the size, depth, and varied composition of a global movement that has a number of features that we haven't seen before and that bode well for the future. First of all, the movement has strong leadership from indigenous peoples. This is important, first of all, because indigenous peoples made up the original resistance to the capitalist, extractive economic model, which is important because it honors history and helps us to be conscious of the fact that modern societies do not necessarily have to be organized as they are.
Indigenous leadership is also important because contemporary indigenous communities have carried recent resistance forward in profound ways. From Canada's Idle No More to the various indigenous groups that have played a crucial role in placing the Rights of Nature into national constitutions in Bolivia and Ecuador, indigenous leadership consistently articulates a radical, sustainable "cosmovisión," or integrated understanding of, and relationship with, reality. Such leadership has a low risk of being co-opted by liberal reformers with money.
Secondly, the movement represented in New York on September 21st (and in Lima, Peru in December, and various other places) shows the potential to be both radical and broad-based. In fact, it's not really an "environmental" movement anymore, at least not entirely. Here's how Katherine Bagley put it in an article on InsideClimate News:
"No longer is global warming an issue solely for environmentalists. People from more than 1,000 organizations walked in the People's Climate March in New York, from trade unions, schools, and faith-based, social justice, student and public health groups, among others." She didn't mention the indigenous leadership, but her point is well taken. And similar diversity is showing up all over the world as resistance to environmental suicide gathers steam.
Because the movement behind the march on September 21st is not only for environmentalists, it is going deeper than the familiar calls to "stop polluting," and is calling for a dramatic shift—on a systems level—away from the global extractive economy that is based on burning fossil fuels. (This is in large part due to the above-mentioned indigenous leadership.) Calling into question the basic premises of a capitalist economy, this movement has the potential to really shake things up in ways never before seen.
Finally, the global nature of the movement offers a hopeful vision of a different kind of "globalization," one that sees the planet and its natural systems as something to share, and for which we all share responsibility. This movement even recognizes the rights of nature itself. No time to go into it here, but have a look at the website of the "Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature" for more.
Nutshell: Indigenous Leadership + Radical + Global = Top Story.
Here's the headline from a September 10th press release from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO): "Ozone Layer on Track to Recovery: Success Story Should Encourage Action on Climate."
I reported on this back in October, in NN #562. Here's the opening paragraph of the release: "The Earth's protective ozone layer is well on track to recovery in the next few decades thanks to concerted international action against ozone depleting substances, according to a new assessment by 300 scientists."
I won't repeat everything I said then, but the reason it's a Top Story is that it is concrete evidence of the success of a global effort based on a negotiated agreement. Much of our environmental news is bad news, so much so that it sometimes works to disempower people. This news is hopeful, and real. Therefore, a Top Story.
Our understanding of the effects of human behavior on the environment is enhanced almost daily, limited only by the failure of the mass media to bring it to the attention of a mass audience. 2014 was filled with noteworthy news in this regard—some reported, some not. Here are a few big stories from 2014 that came in just behind the two "Top Stories" just mentioned.
Back in April Nygaard Notes reported on a study from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, called "What We Know: The Reality, Risks, and Response to Climate Change." Go read NN #551 for the details, but the main point made by the scientists was offered in three parts: 1. Climate scientists agree that climate change is happening here and now; 2. We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts, and; 3. The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do." Again, big news, hopeful news. Should be on the front pages.
I covered in NN #562 a report called "The New Climate Economy." That report is important because it demolishes the false "Jobs vs The Environment" debate that does so much to impede action on global warming. The report documents how much money "going green" will save in health care costs, lost work time, fuel costs, etc. A more technical (and less readable) report from the International Monetary Fund came out about the same time and made a similar point. Again, these are major reports—hopeful reports—that illuminate some of the paths that humans can take to make real change that will benefit everybody. Front-page news, no?
At the end of October the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its "Synthesis Report," which the New York Times called "Its Starkest Warning Yet on Global Warming." An excerpt from that report was my "Quote" of the Week in NN #565, and I wish I had had more time to highlight this important warning. It wasn't just a warning, either, as the report really was a call to action. The LA Times headline read, "Scientists Sound Alarm; in One of Their Most Blunt Reports to Date, They Cite the Need for Climate Change Action." The NY Times summed it up well, saying, "Failure to reduce emissions, the group of scientists and other experts found, could threaten society with food shortages, refugee crises, the flooding of major cities and entire island nations, mass extinction of plants and animals, and a climate so drastically altered it might become dangerous for people to work or play outside during the hottest times of the year." For another point of view, we can look at an editorial in the business newspaper Investor's Business Daily, headlined: "U.N.'s Latest Global Warming Report Tries To Repeal Industrial Revolution."
Lots and Lots of Little Stories, Illuminating Very Big Pictures
There were, of course, several trillion stories that Nygaard Notes did not cover in 2014. Here are a few of the more noteworthy ones:
On December 17th New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, citing health concerns, announced a statewide ban on the petroleum extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This was the very same day that President Obama announced his dramatic opening to Cuba, so the news was largely overlooked. But two days later the Atlantic Magazine published an analysis of the research behind the ban (which was done by the New York State Department of Health), highlighting these seven points: RESPIRATORY HEALTH: Fracking has been linked to asthma and other breathing issues. DRINKING WATER: Contamination from ethane, methane, and brine were cited. SEISMIC ACTIVITY: Fracking can trigger, and has triggered, earthquakes, from Oklahoma to the United Kingdom. CLIMATE CHANGE: Methane and other fracking-related chemicals contribute to global warming. SOIL CONTAMINATION: Radioactive waste has been found in soil around natural gas sites. THE COMMUNITY: Problems such as noise and odor pollution were cited. HEALTH COMPLAINTS: Residents near active fracking sites reported having symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pain, nosebleeds, and headaches. Possible links to congenital heart and nervous-system problems were also found.
On June 2, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposed rule that would make the first-ever significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants nationwide, a story which got quite a bit of coverage in the corporate media, in part due to stiff Republican resistance (the media likes a good fight). The New York Times focused its front page on the politics of the issue—"Democrats in Coal Country Run From E.P.A."—but the real front-page story on this appeared on page 16, where the Times noted that the plan is projected to "quickly improve public health, preventing up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks in the first year the rules take effect." EPA itself says that "the annual health benefits by 2030 would include up to 6,600 fewer early deaths and 150,000 fewer asthma attacks among children nationwide." (Chicago Tribune)
On September 30th the World Wildlife Fund issued its annual "Living Planet Report," which was a call to the global conscience, as well as a warning of the future that we humans are creating. The ominous headline in the Washington Post read, "Humans Have Killed off Half the World's Animals." Not an exaggeration: The opening line of the press release accompanying the report tell us that "Between 1970 and 2010 populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish around the globe dropped 52 percent," a trend which "correlates with the increasing resource use of high-income countries." But the report is not only about animals, as the second paragraph makes clear: "The amount of carbon in our atmosphere has risen to levels not seen in more than a million years, triggering climate change that is already destabilizing ecosystems. High concentrations of reactive nitrogen are degrading lands, rivers and oceans. Stress on already scarce water supplies is increasing. And more than 60 percent of the essential 'services' provided by nature, from our forests to our seas, are in decline."
The ongoing drought in California is one of those stories that is hard for media to latch onto, as it isn't a single "event," but rather a drawn-out process, the signs of which are not always obvious. But just Google "California drought" and you'll get the idea. The lawyers' group Earthjustice reported that, on January 17, 2014, "California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency, announcing the lowest total rainfall in the state's 163-year history and asking residents to voluntarily reduce their water use." When water doesn't fall from the sky, humans take it from the ground, which can cause dangerous drops in groundwater levels. National Geographic reports that "Aquifers provide us freshwater that makes up for surface water lost from drought-depleted lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. We are drawing down these hidden, mostly nonrenewable groundwater supplies at unsustainable rates in the western United States and in several dry regions globally, threatening our future." The article was headlined, "If You Think the Water Crisis Can't Get Worse, Wait Until the Aquifers Are Drained."
In a related note, the Brazilian newspaper Folha reported this month on "a final attempt to prevent the total collapse of the Cantareira system, a reservoir which supplies [water to] 6.2 million people in the São Paulo metropolitan area... São Paulo is currently suffering from the worst water crisis in its history, and there are fears that the Cantareira could dry up completely in March." It's currently at just 5.1% of its capacity.
Finally, here is my Wish List of stories that are just waiting to be reported, but rarely are:
• Much-needed reports on health and social effects of the domestic oil/gas industry revival (which seems to be faltering at the moment due to low gas prices.)
I don't know if what we are seeing in this period is the birth of a new and very powerful movement toward a post-capitalist world, or not. But I do know that the odds of that happening would be much greater if the general population—the majority who get most of their ideas about the world from the daily media—were regularly exposed to the stories of resistance, creativity, and hope that are all around us. There are lots and lots of Top Stories here, waiting to be told.
Related to having a say in how things are done is the extent to which equal rights are guaranteed to all, without regard to rank or privilege. In 2014/2015 we have the unprecedented amount of media attention being paid to the killing of black people by police. USA Today reported in the week after black teenager Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO, that "Nearly two times a week in the United States, a white police officer killed a black person during a seven-year period ending in 2012, according to the most recent accounts of justifiable homicide reported to the FBI." ("Local police involved in 400 killings per year," August 15, 2014)
And that outrageous number very likely understates the problem, as the article explains:
"While the racial analysis is striking, the database it's based on has been long considered flawed and largely incomplete. The killings are self-reported by law enforcement and not all police departments participate so the database undercounts the actual number of deaths. Plus, the numbers are not audited after they are submitted to the FBI and the statistics on 'justifiable' homicides have conflicted with independent measures of fatalities at the hands of police."
But, at the moment, this is the best we can do since, as Mother Jones Magazine noted in an August 14th article ("Exactly How Often Do Police Shoot Unarmed Black Men?"): "No agency appears to track the number of police shootings or killings of unarmed victims in a systematic, comprehensive way." University of South Carolina criminologist Geoff Alpert underlines that point, saying "There is no national database for this type of information, and that is so crazy. We've been trying for years, but nobody wanted to fund it and the (police) departments didn't want it."
Such willful ignorance is one of the things that protesters are pointing to when they chant "Black Lives Matter" at rallies around the country.
So, if the killing of unarmed, largely black, men by police has been going on for so long, why is it suddenly "news"? It's because of enormous organizing efforts and the creative use of civil disobedience, social media, and ongoing public displays of rage and hope. That's why large numbers of previously ignorant members of the public have at least heard about the killings by police of Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in New York, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Akai Gurley in New York, John Crawford in Ohio, Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, Marcus Golden in St. Paul, Jerame Reid in New Jersey, Levar Jones in South Carolina... I can't list them all.
Such killings are a part of a larger story about the relationship between people of color and the "justice" system in the U.S.
My local newspaper reported on the large protests on Martin Luther King Day in St. Paul, noting that the Black Lives Matter protests are not only demanding "an immediate end to the unjust police murders of unarmed black people. Other demands included legislation to outlaw racial profiling by police, creation of an independent community board to review police actions, repeal of ordinances against conduct such as loitering that might be used to harass minorities, and statewide adoption of body cameras by police." These calls aren't new, but now we read about it in the local daily newspaper. That's progress. And more generally, although the killing of black people by police continues, the increased willingness to talk about it is a good sign for the democratic promise of equal rights under the law.
This is a great example of the power of "framing" in the media. Much of the media coverage of the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so many others, gets framed as a story of victimization and suffering. Which it is, in part. But when it is framed as a part of the story of U.S. democracy, suddenly we can see the stories of creative resistance and hope, as well. The answer to the question "How hopeful are we?" tells us a lot about the state of U.S. democracy. Which leads to my final factor to consider in assessing the State of U.S. Democracy
Democracy as a Process, Not a Commodity
The question in a democracy is not who's winning and who's losing. The question is: What is the current status of the public's capacity to affect public life? To those for whom the State of U.S. Democracy is "the story," such a question will find its answer in many smaller stories. Here we'll find stories about union membership and union activities. Stories about membership in politically-minded groups. Stories about public issue advocacy. Stories about the size, strength and composition of political groups (and not only the two major parties). Stories about the capacity of non-governmental organizations to effect change and/or affect consciousness. Stories of the growth and vitality of our common spaces, our coming-together and our drifting apart. Stories about our capacity to work together, and stories about how and why we succeed or fail.
Consider the Black Lives Matter reporting. Moving beyond the suffering and injustice, we could look to see the nature of the conditions within which the numerous rallies and protests came to happen. Why now? What is the nature of the leadership? Of the membership? What is the role of social media and other technologies? Are new groups leading the organizing, or is there a new energy in existing groups? What are the strategic and tactical innovations that are being made, and how effective are they in responding to 2014, and 2015, realities?
Another example of the process of democracy might be the endlessly- and tediously-reported elections. Media is obsessed with the horse race. ("Can anyone beat Hilary in 2016???") But media could instead choose to focus on the rise and fall of coalitions and social forces that form the context within which politicians have to work. Like I always say, the fact that Mitch McConnel or Rand Paul got elected is less important than the fact that somebody like them got elected.
Next Week: Climate Change/Humans and Our Environment