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“You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train”

Why Your Voice is so Important on Climate Change

by Lan Richart, Co-Director, Eco-Justice Collaborative

Article prepared for Centerings, an alternative magazine published by the 8th Day Center for Justice. Centerings explores the social issues of the day by connecting with individuals and coalitions that are the most impacted in the struggle. Centerings provides a creative space for the analysis that is needed to help imagine a more just world. 

Howard Zinn said it best in the title of his 2004 memoir, to be passive in the face of a great moral crisis is to collaborate with the source of the problem, you can’t be neutral on a moving train.

On March 1st the northern hemisphere marked a major milestone in climate history. For the first time since the dawning of human civilization, average northern hemispheric temperatures spiked 2 degrees Celsius above the average from pre-industrial times. At the same time, the National Oceanic and Space Administration confirmed that this winter has been the warmest on record for the continental United States. Then independent climate scientists reported that based on instrumental measurements, the recorded temperature of the earth has not been hotter than it was in February. Each week, new information surfaces indicating that climate change is happening faster than earlier predicted. The engine of climate change is speeding ahead and the voices of the people are needed now more than ever.

Is Congress Speaking for You?

In December, 195 countries adopted a milestone agreement in Paris that committed nations to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, the success or failure of meeting these commitments, especially in the U.S., will depend on whose voices prevail. Despite the fact that recent polls show that over 70 percent of Americans see climate change as a serious threat, the U.S. Congress does not reflect the position of its constituents. Within the current congress, 144 U.S. representatives and 38 senators have publicly raised doubts about climate change. This means that 63% of the U.S. population is represented by a legislator who questions or denies the scientific consensus that climate change exists and that human action has been a primary contributor to the problem. Is it a coincidence that these very same legislators have been “informed” by over 73 million dollars in political contributions from the fossil fuel industry?

The Bias of “Balanced” Reporting

Within the U.S. media, the unfolding story of climate change has been marginalized by more sellable topics. According to Media Matters, in 2015, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox collectively aired approximately 146 minutes of climate change coverage on their evening and Sunday news shows. That’s less than three minutes per week, or according to the Tyndall Report, approximately the same amount of time that ABC,CBS and NBC allocated to the deflated football scandal of the New England Patriots.

When the issue of climate change actually is addressed, objective science-based journalism often falls victim to a reporting style purporting to be “fair and balanced”. Last year, CBS’ Face the Nation, CBS Evening News,NBC’s Meet the Press, Fox News Sunday and PBS NewsHour aired nine segments on climate change, each featuring a climate change denier. During the June 18 edition of CBS Evening News reporting on Pope Francis’ call for action on climate change, correspondent Dean Reynolds interviewed Catholic University business and economics professor Jay Richards, who said that climate change “is not drastic,” and added that he thought “the evidence suggests that what the models are predicting is actually not taking place”.

Funding Doubt

The voice of the fossil fuel industry also plays out daily as we hear ads from companies who are not selling us something that we can buy, but rather concepts that we should believe in, such as clean coal or energy independence through oil and gas fracking. Through a carefully crafted strategy, the public’s understanding of climate change has been undermined by misinformation and a message of doubt. As early as 1998, a memo originating from the American Petroleum Institute entitled “Global Climate Science Communications Plan” articulated a roadmap for confusing and misinforming the public. According to the memo, victory would be achieved when “Average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom’”.

Polarization is an effective strategy for creating controversy and delaying policy progress, especially around environmental issues. The fossil fuel industry and allied special interests have used their well funded voices to impede public policies aimed at addressing climate change. According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, between 1998 and 2005 ExxonMobil funneled nearly $16 million to a network of 43 advocacy organizations that sought to confuse the public on global warming science. And the Center for Media and Democracy reported that between 1998 and 2014, Exxon Mobil contributed at least $1,730,200 in funding to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in order to promote legislation, resolutions, presentations, and publications seeking to stop efforts to address climate change. As corporations such as Exxon Mobil have been called out for these practices, anti-climate funding has moved out of sight. A 2013 Drexel University study finds that a large slice of donations to organizations that deny global warming are now funneled through third-party pass-through foundations that conceal the original funders.

Finding Your Voice

For most of us the concept of a rapidly changing climate and its ramifications on the future of our planet are enough to paralyze us. We might think that a challenge of this magnitude can only be addressed by those with powers and voices greater than our own. Yet it is clear that these voices are often driven by political and institutional agendas.
The recent Paris summit with its global consensus on climate action, new measures for limiting carbon emissions recently forwarded by the USEPA and the real potential for renewable energies such as wind and solar to outpace new fossil fuel are all reasons for hope. In the words of Pope Francis “A healthy politics is sorely needed, capable of reforming and coordinating institutions, promoting best practices and overcoming undue pressure and bureaucratic inertia.” It is time for those of us who care (and we are a growing number) to speak up with more courage, volume and authority.

  • Become well informed – Don’t rely on traditional media. There are many objective and science-based sources such as NASA (climate.nasa.gov) or RealClimate (http://www.realclimate.org/) that can provide the information you need from real climate scientists. It doesn’t take much to be better informed than those who represent you.
  • Adopt a culture of climate awareness – At its core, climate change is largely a problem of unbridled production and consumption driven by fossil fuels. Know that each day you vote with your actions. How you eat, what you buy, how you travel and how you define your daily needs not only impacts your carbon footprint, but also raises the consciousness of those around you.
  • Speak up – In your daily encounters and conversations, make it clear that climate change is an issue of profound importance to you. Climate change intersects issues of social and economic importance and is now playing out in many areas of the world affecting food production, immigration, racial justice, and international conflict. Climate change is a topic relevant to everyone, crossing all social, economic, generational and political lines.
  • Act up – Go on record with your local, state and federal representatives. Make certain that they know that you are serious about climate change. Take every opportunity to make your voice heard on policy and legislative measures, demand to know where they stand and that they take action. Finally, join and actively support organized groups who are fighting for measures that will reduce carbon emissions. We all must be climate activists in our own way and from our own perspectives.

The engine of climate change is speeding ahead and voices of the people can not afford to be silent. There is too much at stake. Now is not a time to be neutral.

Lan Richart is an ecologist and activist residing in Champaign, Ill. He and his wife Pam are co-founders of the Eco-Justice Collaborative, a non-profit dedicated to creating a just and environmentally sustainable world. Additional climate resources and information on their work can be found at www.ecojusticecollaborative.org.

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