Our climate is changing. The impacts on our weather, food and water supplies, oceans, forests, public health, national security and economy are already being felt. Bees and other species are disappearing. These trends do not bode well for humans.
Those facts are not news, or at least not new, but President Obama has made news by making August a Green Letter month taking his newly urgent warnings about our climate crisis on the road. Last stop, Ground Zero, Arctic Alaska where icebergs are melting at a new glacial speed. He will be the first sitting President to bear witness to “the challenge of our time.” Hats off to him and it just might be warm enough.
Perhaps after this record breaking hot summer we will set a new normal for climate change coverage as well. To date, we have not seen a majority of serious environmental developments covered regularly and with sufficient context and depth on the evening news or on any recurring talk shows. It’s time for the news networks to step up their game.
For too long we have had what I call a “Glaring Green Gap.” Our eco-systems are in decline — nearly across the board — and our addiction to fossil fuels is our culture’s dirty not-so-little secret. Outside green circles it has not been part of our national conversation nor a regular part of the media mix. Too few Americans are aware that we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, the first caused by humans, and that our seas are under siege due to warming waters, overfishing, “dead zones” and plastic pollution.
While newspapers are doing a better job of going deeper into these issues people are often surprised to learn there are precisely zero talk shows on commercial broadcast stations dedicated to covering our changing environment and discussing what we can do about it. I cannot think of a better use of mass media outlets during this time of crisis especially with timing so critical.
After creating, producing and hosting three popular Green programs: “Trash Talk” on KCBS Radio in San Francisco, “Eco Talk” on Air America — a daily talk show with 50,000 listeners per night back in 2006 — and “Green Front” airing on the internet, I learned there’s a growing audience hungry for this new program genre. Nearly a decade later the multitude of challenges and solutions have expanded exponentially and yet mainstream media has not yet filled the green gap with dedicated content.
A big part of the problem is network gatekeepers, both at the programming and executive levels. They are trained to go with the tried and true which often means playing to the lowest common denominator. Just look at the plethora of so-called reality shows while we ignore eco-realities and our future hangs in the balance!
Additionally, program managers I’ve communicated with over the years assume such content would be “too controversial or too political.” However, with fossil-fuel interests leading, and funding, “the deny-o-sphere,” isn’t it time to stop emphasizing the special interest fear-based aspects and wake up to the practical realities of these shared threats?
In addition to the green programming gap on a national channel, there is no formal education or consistent outreach being offered to citizens and communities. How are average Americans supposed to know what they can do to better understand our changing ecological systems, have a more positive impact and lighter footprint on our life support systems, both for nature’s sake and our own?
If not in mainstream media, what about academia? Sustainable solutions are being discussed on campuses across America in ecology clubs, Environmental Studies programs, and a few new Green MBA programs, but does that mean we should wait until the next generation comes of age armed with enough understanding to start digging out? If we do too little today their task will be that much larger tomorrow. There isn’t enough time to turn over the shovel to Gen X, Y, or my daughter’s Millennial generation, forcing them to clean up an even bigger mess later.
By ignoring the need to educate and engage Americans who have long since left the classroom, we are missing an opportunity — and obligation — to have all able-bodied citizens do their part.
So who is talking about what we can do on channels that reach the masses?
Evidently, at least up until now, mainstream newspaper publishers and broadcast news editors have not seen it as their role or responsibility to offer eco-solutions.
When Paul Rogers, an executive at the San Jose Mercury News, was questioned at a 2013 San Francisco Commonwealth Club panel about why his newspaper didn’t offer more coverage on climate change solutions, he replied that it was the job of Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and other environmental NGOs, not the news media to inform on what steps people can take.
While grass roots groups representing various green causes do their best to get media attention to cover these matters the news media powers-that-be assume it’s up to the grassroots to get word out, if not to do the actual environmental clean-up needed.
Therein lies the Catch-22 of just who is responsible for educating the public on climate and conservation tips?
Meantime, with a handful of notable exceptions, corporate America doesn’t see it as their obligation to accelerate eco-innovation or talk about valuing sustainability in their marketing.
What about the federal government? I’ve often wondered why the EPA doesn’t do substantive public outreach. How can we, as citizens, protect our environment if no one is telling us what to do or why it matters? The information is out there yes, but it has to be easily accessible and omnipresent in order to penetrate the zeitgeist.
It is essential to establish mechanisms and media channels to bring average citizens into the conversation about conservation, and with all the breadth and depth needed to make rapid societal shifts.
Failure to connect the dots between extreme weather events and climate disruption is a failure of leadership on the part of government, corporate America and my professional arena, major news media.
It will be interesting to see how the news networks cover President Obama’s trip to the Arctic this week. I suspect they will get on board this big media opportunity. However, just in case, perhaps Kim Kardashian should go along to ensure maximum exposure. Or maybe someone should send the omnipresent Donald Trump? Then again, no — all his hot air may hasten the melting of Alaska’s glaciers.