Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Friday, May 02, 2008

GEO-4 and the dualism of journalistic balance, October 30, 2007.

On the World Report blog, texts identified as "Features" have formed the basis for the World Report broadcast. That will change now that the broadcast has moved to a 30-minute format.

It had already begun to change last October when I opened the pre-recorded format up to voices in addition to my own in the form of interviews, webcasts and recordings of press conferences. (World Report evolved from a live format in which I had appeared as a regular contributor and was interviewed in real-time by the host of Nelson Before Nine. But that's another story.)

This text didn't make it onto the blog because I wasn't sure whether to transcribe the other voices or just leave them out.

At issue was a question about the relation between the text and the broadcast which I have since resolved. So this text is out of sequence, but it presents several issues of continuing concern.

The text introduces a non-dualistic view of journalistic balance. The recordings from the GEO-4 press conference remind us that, important as climate change is, it is far from the only important environmental issue facing the planet.


Let's begin with a quotation.

“...the world’s population has reached a stage where the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available...humanity’s footprint is 21.9 hectares/person, while the Earth’s biological capacity is, on average, only 15.7 ha/person...”

That's from a report just published by the UN Environmental Program called Global Environmental Outlook, or GEO. Actually, it's the fourth in a series, so it's called GEO-4.

Maybe it will seem strange that this report got me to thinking about our membership drive here at Kootenay Coop Radio. It's coming up in just a few weeks. We kicked off our membership drive last spring with a panel of KCR spoken word programmers talking about independent media.

I remember expressing myself then on the media's treatment of the climate change issue.
jlt: We live in an environment where the obfuscation--just as one example of media failure--where the obfuscation of industrial groups on climate change has led to roughly, almost a 30 year delay in action on climate change. And that's a massive failure. And it's a failure that we can't afford. We can't afford to have another one.

I had to wonder—was it really 30 years ago? What did people really think about climate change back then? Could I be exaggerating?

So I did a little research. GEO-4 traces its lineage back through three earlier GEO reports in 1997, 1999 and 2002, a Rio+10 conference in Johannesburg and the milestone Rio conference itself in 1992.

Most significantly, the launch GEO-4 report in 2007 was timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the launch of Our Common Future, the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, aka the Brundtland Report. GEO-4 uses the Brundtland Report as a reference point to assess progress in addressing key environment and development issues.

Twenty years ago, in 1987, Brundtland commented on climate change at length and concluded that quote “the risks of global warming make heavy future reliance upon fossil fuels problematic.” endquote

This was not an extreme position or marginal issue even then.

[Brundtland: The burning of fossil fuels, and to a lesser extent the loss of vegetative cover, particularly forests, through urban industrial growth, increase the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. The pre-industrial concentration was about 280 parts of carbon dioxide per million parts of air by volume. This concentration reached 340 in 1980 and is expected to double to 560 between the middle and the end of the next century. Other gases also play an important role in this greenhouse effect, whereby solar radiation is trapped near the ground warming the globe and changing the climate. After the reviewing the latest evidence on the greenhouse effect in October 1985 at a meeting in Villach, Austria, organized by the WMO, UNEP, and ICSU, scientists from 29 industrialized countries of the global south, concluded that climate change must be considered a plausible and serious probability. They further concluded that many important important economic and social decisions are being made today on major water resource management activities such as irrigation and hydro power, drought relief, agricultural land use, structural designs and coastal engineering projects and energy planning, all based on the assumption that past climatic data without modification are a reliable guide to the future. This is no longer a good assumption. The key question is how much certainty should governments require before agreeing to take action. If they wait until significant climate change is demonstrated, it may be too late for any countermeasures to be effective against the inertia stored by then in this massive global system. The very long time lags invliveed in negotiating international agreements on very complex issues involving all nations have led some experts to conclude that it's already late. No nation has the political mandate or the economic power to combat climatic change alone."

Going even farther back, the October 1976 issue of Foreign Affairs, the very moderate quarterly publication of the US Council on Foreign Relations, published a famous article on the “soft energy path” by physicist Amory Lovins under the title, “Energy Strategy: The road not taken?” Lovins states clearly that only the exact date of “irreversible changes in global climate” is in question.” That's more than 30 years ago.

Achim Steiner, the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, introduced the report to a press conference last week.

Steiner: At the same time as all these changes are occurring and we are faced with a phenomenon such as global warming and accelerating loss of biodiversity unprecedented extinction crises as some scientists refer to it, land degradation on unprecedented levels, the prospect of 1.8 billion people by 2025 being in severely water-constrained parts of the world. As all this is unfolding, we are actually undermining the very systems that we need in order to cope with that change. And the report points in many instances to examples of how ecosystems and their capacity to sustain and also their ability to absorb these changes and these shocks are in fact being undermined by the very trends and activities that we have attributed to individual examples of environmental degradation.

The loss of biodiversity is now at a point where 30% of all non-amphibians are threatened with extinction. Somewhere around 25% I think or 20% of mammals and 12% of birds--I would have to look at the exact statistics now. These are numbers that should make us pause for a moment. We are talking here about one-tenth, one-quarter of a group of species being threatened with extinction. We also have--and this is why I was particularly interested in inviting Professor Jeffrey Sachs to join us here--an increasing demonstration of how environmental degradation and change is forcing people into responses that ultimately put them also into conflict with each other.

We released a few months ago, a post-conflict assessment report on the Sudan which tried to draw the linkages between a long-term change in weather patterns--particularly in terms of rainfall, a significant movement south over the last 50 years of desert boundaries and arid, semi-arid land boundaries, essentially forcing communities to move under a situation of growing populations and vastly expanding livestock numbers into a situation where in Darfur today at least one of the drivers of conflict has been that environmental change.

Steiner was joined at the press conference by Jeffrey Sachs, Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Sachs: Actually this is the main, true geopolitics of our age, not the geopolitics we sometimes hear. But sustainable development is at the very center of the true geopolitics of the world, whether we're going to have peace, whether we're going to have viable economies, whether we're going to be able to get on top of critical problems like climate change. And no one should ever believe that this is about the poor. This is about every place. And we know in the United States for example we're now suffering a very severe drought all through the South--both the Southwest, which has been in drought for many years, and the Southeast which is in a particularly severe drought now. We know in Australia that there's a mega-drought the likes of which have not been seen in modern times. And it's fundamentally changing the economics and the politics of that country. It's also the case though that when these shocks hit the poorest places in the world, people die in much larger numbers and much more rapidly. And it's in the poorest places in the world where adverse climate shocks can trigger violence and war. And it's not just one thing; it's not just climate change. It's deforestation. It's great stresses on the biodiversity through overfishing, overhunting, over-harvesting. It's pollution--both indoor and outdoor pollution. It's multiple stressors. What's happened is that the world's economy and population have grown so fast that our institutions lag way behind the ability to address the impact of the society on the physical environment. Smf the message from this is that implementation is essential and life-saving and critical for global security, nothing less.

How did the media get played on the climate change issue?

I see no evidence of a conspiracy, or of government arm-twisting. But there is clearly at work a dualistic concept of journalistic balance.

The CBC is better than most at presenting what is sometimes called “the other side” or “both sides of the story.”

The operative image is of blind justice holding the scales--a balance with two pans for weighing evidence—innocent or guilty, right or wrong, good or evil, with us or against us.

But many situations in the real world require more than a single dimension.

I think of the guy in the gym who spends nearly 5 minutes just standing on top of a big exercise ball.

Or a skier carving turns down a black-diamond slope.

When we talk about balance in our diets, some try to classify foods in a dualistic way as either yin or yang—or alternately as acid or alkaline. But most of us go beyond dualism to balance the right mix of protein, fat and carbohydrate, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

When we talk about a balanced diet—or the balance of nature, or a balance of power—we are talking about balances that includes many more than two.

These more complex models of balance provide closer approximations of the natural scatter one finds in real situations, including people's positions on real issues of the day. The dualism of right and left doesn't cut it. Neither does for and against.

But news organizations surviving on reduced budgets and driven by imperatives of the marketplace—when they depart from the standard propaganda line at all—will run matching forit and againstit interviews so they can appear righteous--and balanced--in their presentation of “both sides.”

In such a context, interests with enough desire and money can buy the PR power to appropriate an entire side—or roughly 50%--of a manufactured debate.

News organizations are sitting ducks for corporate propaganda that seeks its share of a pie that is only going to be cut into two pieces at most.

This is what happened for 30 years with the good-science versus bad-science debate about climate change.

Today, the dualistic model of journalistic balance is being used again to shape a new debate. Is climate change an environmental problem or an economic one?

What is the solution? Carbon markets and techological innovation or strict emission controls and a carbon tax?

In reality, the environmental and economic viewpoints map just a fraction of the territory. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the Inuit leader who was nominated this year for the Nobel Peace Prize, speaks convincingly for the view that climate change is a crisis in cultural identity—a position that applies to sub-Saharan Africa and small island cultures as well as to the Arctic.

And that's not all. Last winter (Feb 4 2006), CBC's show Canada's Next Great Prime Minister featured five youthful finalists competing to demonstrate why they should be chosen to lead the country. The judges were Brian Mulroney, Joe Clark, John Turner and Kim Campbell.

Asked what they saw as Canada's most serious security challenge, all five contestants answered "terrorism." Yet it can be and is plausibly argued that the consequences of climate change that have already happened are more serious than all the damage caused by terrorism in all of history.

I would have to say that the nearly unabated progress of climate change of the last 30 years has exposed a failure of political will in the most developed countries—warmed and comforted by a media failure rooted in the dualistic concept of balance.

The greatest risk may come from the dualism in our political system which fosters the illusion that solutions to large, many-sided challenges such as those documented in GEO-4, will be solved by deciding between Democrats and Republicans, a dualism imperfectly replicated in Canada by Conservatives and Liberals.

We could be another 30 years deciding between a carbon market and a carbon tax and no closer to a real solution. Recommend this Post

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