Imagine this chilling news: A collision in space has changed the orbit of an asteroid the Hubble telescope has measured at about eighty kilometers in diameter. NASA astronomers analyzing the new orbital trajectory of the asteroid calculate a ninety percent probability that it will collide with Earth in about five years. The mass of the comet is about the same as the Chicxulub asteroid that hit Earth 66 million years ago and ended the Cretaceous Period with one of the five great mass extinctions in the planet’s history.
Thankfully, there was no such discovery. But if there had been, how do you think the media would handle it? An article or five-minute news segment a week? Somehow, I don’t think so. I suspect there would be non-stop coverage, twenty-four-seven. We’d hear the opinion of every scientist in the world, not only the astronomers but physicists, chemists, biologists, paleontologists, geologists, and economists. We’d be treated to the opinions of engineers, politicians, and every man and woman on the street. We’d suffer through descriptions of the history of such collisions, their effect on plants and animals, the evidence for survival and extinction, the origin of asteroids and comets, their gravitational and orbital dynamics. Plans for deflecting the projectile would be proposed, debated, and discussed endlessly in the press. The rumor mill on the Web would fire up, and Snopes would be overwhelmed, trying to separate fact from fiction. The asteroid would consume every second of our attention. And when the last possible interview had ended, the last animated video aired, the last crazy Facebook prognostication laid to rest, the networks and social media would start at the beginning and do it all again. For five years.
There’s no asteroid coming. What is coming is much closer to home, much more subtle, insidious, but every bit as dangerous. Climate change. Pretty much everything we really depend on— supplies of food and fresh water, an ambient temperature somewhere between fifty below and 140 above, a sensible amount of rain, an absence of drought, productive land, productive ocean— is shifting, and not in a good way. It’s happening. Right now.
In the summer of 2003, officials estimated that the heat wave in Europe killed nearly 15,000 people in France, and another 20,000 across the continent. More than 55,000 people died in the 2010 heat wave in Russia.
In 2017, forest fires across the country burned 9.8 million acres. A little more than $16 billion dollars in damage. The fires in California that year: another $13 billion in losses, fifty dead. The drought in the Dakotas and Montana: $2.5 billion. That hailstorm in May of 2017 that nobody outside the southern Great Plains even heard about: $2.5 billion.
In 2017, major bouts of severe weather in the United States alone cost us $306 billion in 2017 and nearly 5,000 lives. That’s a lot of adapting. And, while it can be argued that there is no incontrovertible proof that these weather events were caused or made worse by the climate change we’ve created, nearly any expert will tell you that they are exactly what he expects as the planet gets warmer.
The Bureau of Reclamation describes the drought that continues to plague much of the Colorado River basin in the western United States as “one of the driest 20-year periods in the last 1,200 years.” The drought in the Middle East that began in 1998 and continued through 2012 was the worst in the last 900 years, according to NASA scientists, and many observers believe it’s one of the root causes of ongoing violence in the region, as well as the massive wave of emigrants that have fled to Europe.
After seven years of crushing drought, torrential rains descended on the rangeland around Queensland, Australia, last week. The resulting floods have killed more than 300,000 cattle ... so far. In the U.S., something like 1.9 million acres burned in California last fall, at a cost of around $13 billion and 96 dead.
NASA recently announced that, worldwide, 2018 was the fourth hottest year on record, even with La Nina exerting its massive cooling effect in the Pacific basin. So, the last five years have been the hottest five years on the planet since record-keeping began.
And it’s likely to get worse. Carbon concentrations in the world’s atmosphere continue to rise. Last year, the U.S. increased its carbon dioxide emissions by 3.4 percent. If that’s the best we can do in the way of controlling our emissions, things are likely to get a whole lot worse.
This is the asteroid that’s headed our way. While I don’t believe that the deterioration in climate will lead to the extinction of the human species, I don’t think it’s far-fetched to see it as an existential threat to human civilization and to a large proportion of the 9 billion people we’ll soon have on the planet. Among all my other worries about the shift in climate and its effects, I wonder why our media don’t give climate more coverage.
With all deference to the spectrum of issues that face Americans and the world, I have to say that none of the rest even approaches the importance of climate change. Not war or racism, not equal rights for women or protection from sexual harassment and abuse, not terrorism, or immigration, or gun control, or the 2020 Presidential election, or the possibility of impeachment, or Russian interference in western elections. Let alone the Grammys.
Climate change is a complex issue. There are many, many research efforts churning out data on everything from ice sheets in Antarctica and glaciers in Greenland to insect populations in Costa Rica and flowers in Jackson Hole. There are reconstructions of the past, massive descriptions of emerging problems in the present, and increasingly sophisticated projections of the future. There are technical treatises and a nearly inexhaustible supply of human-interest stories. There is no shortage of material.
Yet, the media choose to treat climate change as a third-rate topic. I’ve been in the business of communication for forty years— I get the need to build audience— but I also know there is a responsibility to give the really big stories the attention they deserve, whether the public has an interest or not. If that means there’s less coverage of the Super Bowl or the Oscars or this year’s fashion trends from Paris, if it means that this morning’s Trump tweets end up next to the comics, then that’s what it means. Sure, we all need a respite from the day-to-day frustrations and disappointments of life. We could all use a break.
But there’s an asteroid coming ...