I had a moment of déjà vu recently while overhearing Maritime Noon on CBC. The radio stopped being lunchtime background sound when an unusually assertive caller to the show’s phone-in portion had the audacity to challenge the public broadcaster’s news judgment. Specifically, she was unhappy with the station’s failure to cover the previous day’s climate demonstration by the local manifestation of newly formed international movement known as Extinction Rebellion. Program host Bob Murphy deflected the caller’s criticism by saying the CBC does lots of coverage of climate change, then moved smoothly back to the topic at hand – something to do with safe areas for kids to roughhouse.

The brief incident – occurring as young people and others involved with Extinction Rebellion are becoming desperate at the disgraceful failure of governments to deal with climate change – took me back 30 years, to my own time at the CBC. Climate change – then usually referred to as global warming – was making headlines due to a series of events in 1988, including:

  • Record-high temperatures in North America;
  • Severe drought nearly drying up the Mississippi River;
  • Forest fires in Yellowstone Park lasting for weeks;
  • Hurricane Gilbert causing $1 billion damage in the Caribbean;
  • A huge chunk of ice breaking off from the Antarctic

Topping it off was the now-legendary testimony by NASA scientist James Hansen who told a Congressional committee in Washington it was 99 per cent certain that global warming was underway.

Although discussed quietly in scientific and oil industry circles years earlier, the confluence of events in the summer of 1988 brought the environment in general and global warming in particular into the media spotlight. Time magazine replaced its annual Man of the Year cover, instead naming Endangered Earth as its Planet of the Year for 1988. Both the Globe and Mail and the (now defunct) Southam news chain produced special reports, and Maclean’s issued a 17-page supplement.

For me, just starting work on the (long defunct) CBC radio network program, Media File, the penny dropped in the summer of 1989 when the network aired David Suzuki and Anita Gordon’s ’s multi-part series It’s a Matter of Survival. Although there have been millions of words written or spoken about climate change in the 30 years since, the essential message and prophecy from that series stands: drastically cut carbon emissions or face the consequences – overland flooding, droughts, forest fires, extreme weather, rising sea levels and climate refugees.

In other words, global warming was being described as an existential threat to the world as we know it. And some voices, including U.S. Senator Tim Wirth (who remains a climate crusader as he nears 80), were saying that with time running out for building public consensus on the need for swift action, the media needed to “get people up to speed and over the want-to-line.” As a show exploring the media, our program of Oct. 21, 1989 convened a panel of news editors and reporters to discuss whether – in response to a call to arms against impending environmental and human disaster – the media should improve coverage or even practice advocacy journalism to get the public onside.

The other side

While there was general agreement the media did a poor job of covering environmental issues – sensationalizing some while ignoring others of greater significance – there was no buy-in for crusading. Indeed, the most memorable outcome of the show was a letter from noted historian Michael Bliss, slapping our wrists for the journalistic sin of leaving out “the other side”, those who maintained that it was wrong for governments to slash fossil fuel consumption on the basis of a scientific theory.

Bliss may have missed the point, or maybe we didn’t state it clearly enough. The program was not a debate about global warming. Rather, we were trying to grapple with the question of how the media should cover an issue that most scientists and some politicians considered crucial to humanity’s survival, a concern not then widely shared by the public.

As it turns out, while we spent half an hour on the subject on our boutique radio show, the captains of industry had been asking the question from a different perspective for a lot longer and with many more resources. Their basic message would be similar to that of Michael Bliss – there are two sides to the story. And their resources to proselytize the other side were immense.

In his 2018 book, The Big Stall: How Big Oil and Think Tanks are blocking action on climate change in Canada, Donald Gutstein traces U.S. government concern about global warming to 1965 and industry awareness to the 1970s. Exxon even set up a research project in 1978 on the impact of fossil fuels on climate, but abandoned it in the late 1980s, re-directing its resources to denial through outfits like the Global Climate Coalition. That industry-funded cabal was only too happy to meet the media’s need for both controversy and “the other side,” thus creating a debate on whether there really was a problem, rather than talking about how to deal with the near certainty of global warming.

Although it hangs on, zombie-like, in some pockets of the media, top ranks of industry and government early on replaced outright denial with lip service and delay. As Gutstein explained, industry grabbed control of the climate change agenda, ensuring that the simplest and most effective approach – mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions – would be avoided and replaced by voluntary action and a variety of “market solutions,” including emissions trading and most recently, carbon taxes.

Meanwhile, average atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased from 355 parts per million (ppm) in 1990 to 405 ppm in 2017, a level higher than any point in the last 800,000 years. Canada has contributed to the debacle, increasing annual emissions from 602 million tonnes in 1990 to 714mt in 2017. And, as reported earlier this month, this country is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world.

Business as usual

Despite all of this, the media’s approach has changed little. There is now more coverage, thanks to plentiful visuals of floods, forest fires, droughts and ice free Arctic waters. And an avalanche of reports supporting the science of warming has further marginalized climate change deniers in what remains of the mainstream media. But climate change deniers have become climate change confusers, maintaining their access to the media .

This bunch, which has taken over the Conservative Party of Canada, acknowledges the problem, but says fixing it would destroy our economy. Besides, they point out, it’s other countries who are increasing their emissions the most. The media report the oft-repeated justification for inaction – that we don’t need to act because we produce just two per cent of global emissions, well behind China, India and the U.S. Rarely do we learn that on a per capita basis, Canada is well within the top ten carbon polluters in the world. By one account we are sixth worst – at 18.6 tonnes per person, ahead of  the U.S. (15.5), and way ahead of  China (7.5) and India (a mere 1.9 ). Norway comes in at 8.3 tonnes per person, putting the lie to another canard, that as a cold northern, oil-producing country, we have no choice but to let our emissions grow.

As we edge into a six-month federal election campaign there are examples, large and small, of the media’s unwillingness to change its approach. Consider how the national media are covering the carbon tax debate. There are two main sides to the story, dutifully reported by the mainstream media. One side (the Liberals) favours a token carbon tax while increasing pollution from the oil sands and flouting watered-down international emission reduction commitments. The other side (the Conservatives) promises to kill the token carbon tax (in favour of some other undefined plan) while further increasing pollution from the oil sands and flouting watered-down international emission reduction targets. And they both support a pipeline, differing only on whether one’s enough.

This Hobson’s choice is being presented in the media as the likely and legitimate ballot question in the fall election even as the latest warnings from the international climate change watchdog say drastic cuts are needed between now and 2030 to have any chance of preventing global temperatures from increasing to even more dangerous levels.

There was another example of media near-denial in the Globe and Mail this week. The newspaper did a poll to test Canadians’ views on immigration and found nothing new on the topic – most Liberal and NDP supporters support current levels of immigration while half of Conservative supporters think they’re too high. The real news in the poll is the 40 per cent increase (from 10 to 14 per cent) over the last six months in those who believe that environment/climate change is “the most important issue facing Canada today.” It ranked second behind the usual economic grab bag – interest rates, inflation, deficit. It was deemed way more important than immigration/refugees, which came in at three per cent.But there was no mention – let alone a headline – to report that Canadians’ concern about climate change is on the rise.

On the home front

Meanwhile in Halifax, the local media’s coverage of the April 15  Extinction Rebellion demonstration showed more or less the same news approach that has existed for the last 30 years.

CBC’s non-coverage is perverse, given that the demo included something new – a movement launched in Britain just a few months ago that has already managed to mobilize people from around the province. And the event provided the traditional news fodder: visuals of people marching with placards and banners, allegedly confronting police and damaging property. And there were four arrests, two men and two women, aged between 41 and 65 – hardly your usual suspects.

Other mainstream media at least covered the demo, but kept their journalistic distance. The Chronicle-Herald put its account on the front page, but the headline Humanity’s ‘biggest threat’ lets readers know that was someone else’s opinion, not the newspaper’s. CTV and Global provided brief film coverage of the demonstration. Global’s on-line report put quotation marks around the phrase “global climate crisis,” while CTV’s news reader referred to “so-called green jobs” as an alternative to an economy reliant on burning more fossil fuels. Thirty years of mounting evidence seems to have had little impact. Not only is there an absence of  media advocacy on behalf of a livable planet, climate campaigners are still the outsiders, denied the benefit of the diminishing doubt.