[Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons photo by Mat McDermott]

Bill McKibben: Climate change = Story of our time

Author and environmental activist Bill McKibben lecturing at the University of Denver last week. [Photo by Christof Demont-Heinrich]
Journalists tend to be obsessed with novelty. Unfortunately, climate change has long since ceased to be a novel problem. But, novel or not, according to long-time environmental journalist and activist Bill McKibben, no story is more significant to global humanity.

This was the primary message McKibben put forward during a recent speech at the University of Denver before about 150 journalists and aspiring journalists from around the United States.

McKibben was at the University of Denver, where I teach journalism and communication courses, giving a keynote speech at a journalism conference called “Journalism is Dead; Long Live Journalism!”.

McKibben was also awarded the Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media Anvil of Freedom Award by DU Media, Film & Journalism Studies Associate Professor Lynn Schofield Clark.

The conference, at which I spoke about SolarChargedDriving.Com as an example of environmental advocacy journalism, was focused on inspiring innovative and thought-provoking discussion about the state of journalism and its future, in particular, here in the United States.

The End of Nature
McKibben, who’s perhaps most well known for two things: His seminal book on climate change, The End of Nature, and for founding the global activist group 350.org. 350.org has been fighting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would pump so-called “tar sands” oil from Alberta, Canada to refineries in the Gulf Coast of the U.S. (and, contrary to popular belief, ship most of that oil not to the American market, but abroad!).

350.org also has a fossil fuel companies divestment campaign underway at colleges and universities around the U.S. that is quickly growing (unfortunately, University of Denver is not yet part of this campaign).

McKibben focused his talk on journalism, and, in particular, the ways in which, in his view, mainstream journalism in the United States has failed to convey American understanding of perhaps the biggest story ever — climate change.

bill-mckibben-DU2Of course, “lucky” for us, meaning those of us who view climate change as a serious threat to the future of global humanity, while the American mainstream media have largely failed to cover climate change – between them, ABC, NBC and CBS news devoted just 12 stories to climate change in 2012 – Americans are starting to get “the news” on the significance of climate change thanks to the weather itself, said McKibben.

“People looked out the door and began to understand what is going on [this year],” he explained.

Terrifying new math
Among the other topics McKibben – who, two years ago, did a Q&A with SolarChargedDriving.Com in which he answered questions about electric vehicles, solar energy, and the synergy between the two – touched on:

  • The increasing significance of social media, both in terms of the ways in which it’s helped stoke global activism and in terms of social media’s ability to help amplify online news stories such as McKibben’s now well known story in Rolling Stone, ‘Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math’, in which the long-time environmental activist crunches hard numbers on how much carbon there is left to burn on earth and how much we can afford to burn (hint: there is way more carbon to burn than we can afford to burn without, well, burning humanity’s future).
  • The “failure” of mainstream American journalism, generally speaking (McKibben did note there have been exceptions), to do what it ought to do, meaning act as a check on power and misinformation, in this case misinformation being pushed by what McKibben described as a group “that has more money than any other group in the history of humanity”, meaning the fossil fuel industry;
  • The general gravity of the climate change for which “unless we change the script, the outcome is now obvious”.
  • Room for hope –> While the forces allayed against those seeking to get the world to kick its addiction to fossil fuels are strong, McKibben, in response to a question after his talk about whether it’s possible to avoid self-defeating pessimism, said, “We, all of us, do what we can. We can’t do more than that, and we can’t ask for more than that.”

While McKibben’s 40-minute talk was full of memorable lines, here are a dozen of the most noteworthy from a man who, after already having invested decades in environmental journalism and activism, is literally devoting the rest of his life to combatting what he calls the “most important story of our times”, climate change:

  • Humans have forced the earth out of its temperate climate, e.g. the Holocene Period. “The biggest thing by far that’s happened in the lifetime of anyone alive today is that we’ve left the Holocene Period — this 10,000 year period of benign climactic stability that underwrote the rise of human civilization. That’s by far the biggest story of our times and yet, in real terms, people don’t know it.”
  • Journalism’s obsession with the short-term. “In scientific terms, we’re moving at absolutely unprecedented speed, but it doesn’t change much between the news at noon and the news at six.”
  • The ‘other side’ has vast amounts of $$$. “Literally, Exxon-Mobil made more money last year than any company in the history of money.”
  • People are worried, thanks to Hurricane Sandy, Colorado Springs fire, etc. This creates opportunity for journalism to do what it ‘should’ do. “The good news for journalists is that this opens up room for the kind of journalism we probably should have been doing all along on these things. Now that people are worried, there’s some room to go and explain what they’re worried about, and, more importantly, what it is that we’re going to do about it.”
  • bill-mckibben-DU-head-shotOn why he switched from being a journalist to an activist –> Writing about climate change wasn’t going to be enough. “I was a good journalist and nothing more for a long time. But at a certain point it became clear to me that reason was not going to prevail [by itself] on this issue. If all it was going to take was scientists going up to Capitol Hill and explaining that the worst thing in the world was in fact happening and here’s what we need to do about it and the economists coming right after them and saying, ‘Yes, the solution’s pretty simple: Put a price on carbon’ – if that was going to be enough, it would have happened a long time ago.”
  • On the rise of advocacy and activist journalism. “One of the things that’s really interesting about the moment we’re moving into, with the rise of citizen journalism, with all the new forms things are taking, is it’s becoming more possible and more respectable to say that I actually care about the outcome of [the climate change debate].”
  • We must move quickly on climate change. “As we start to wake up to the reality of climate change, as the weather forces us to grapple with it, as it becomes visible and in our faces, we’re going to need move very quickly to have any chance of doing anything about it.”
  • Paradox of global warming as mechanism that enables more oil drilling. “We’ve melted the Arctic, and our response to that is, ‘Oh, good! Now we can go drill for more oil. That’s craziness! But no one really noted it as craziness at the time. It was not really treated by our press as the enormous irony that it is. That happened only in the niches and corners of our journalistic world.”
  • On the significance of guerilla journalism. “But the good thing about that kind of journalism – the kind that views Arctic Oil drilling as the enormous irony that it is, that kind of guerilla journalism, that kind of homemade, do-it-yourself journalism, is that it’s extraordinarily cheap to do. Lots of us in lots of different places have been able to figure out how to do this kind of journalism. There are powerful web sites, great bloggers now, and places that are kind of beginning to strike a balance between the old and the new journalism.”
  • Standing up to Big Money = Good journalism. “Finding ways to, without much money, be able to stand up to large amounts of money is, in a certain sense, what the best journalism has been about almost from the beginning. It’s figuring out how to take power and the status quo and put reality in its face and knock it down.”
  • On traditional journalism and social movements. “The natural outcome of good journalism is to make people care, to go do something about something. Especially when the stakes are as clear cut and obvious as they are with climate change.”
  • Basic moral issues are at core of climate change. “It gets down to very basic moral questions. And those questions about whether we care enough about the future to sell our fossil fuel stock, whether we care enough about the future to put a price on carbon – those are questions that need to be posed in pointed form over and over and over again.
  • Journalism’s obsession with novelty a problem. “After a certain point, there is not a great deal of novelty with climate change. And novelty is what, unfortunately, especially in recent times, journalists have tended to fly on. In this case, significance is going to have to supplant novelty.”

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