It’s Okay to Root Against the Asteroid
Climate change isn’t like anything else we report on. You can act like it.
At the World Conference of Science Journalists in San Francisco a few weeks ago, one session featured a House of Commons-style debate on various issues. It involved a bunch of writers and editors walking back and forth across the room in order to take one side or another, punctuated by “hear hear!” and “boo!” as needed. One of the questions: If you worked for a newspaper that began an advocacy campaign to battle climate change, would you support such a move?
I changed sides *twice* as the discussion on this one played out, but at the end I found myself one of only a sprinkling of people still on the “yes, I would support it” side of the room. The moderators asked for my reasoning, since they spotted me scampering back and forth as others spoke. I answered, more or less: I imagined an advocacy campaign for trying to stop the asteroid careening toward the Earth, and I figure that would be pretty easy to support.
No one there seemed particularly taken by my argument, which I suppose doesn’t shock me. Journalists often seem to stick by the myth of objectivity at the expense of pretty much anything. But I kept wondering about this, and I’ve started to think we’re just framing climate change poorly. We talk about it as a pure policy issue, so something like the Guardian’s “Keep it in the ground” campaign opposing fossil fuels feels like taking a specific side in a reasonable debate. If that were the case, then sure, I could see how journalists would balk at joining in. But it is not a “reasonable debate,” or really any debate at all.
Imagine: Tomorrow, NASA and every other country’s space agency announce the discovery of a Peru-sized rock hurtling through space on a direct collision course with Earth, and we have five years to figure out what to do about it.
Every newspaper and magazine and website on the planet would be on the *side* of fixing the asteroid problem, because, well, we all die otherwise. There is no other side. A campaign by those publications pushing for all the funding necessary to get there wouldn’t be a controversial stance. What *may* be controversial is picking a specific policy proposal over another — the giant space lasers versus the 150 sequential nukes plan, say. In this pre-apocalyptic scenario, the role of journalists should probably be to report on the various ideas and who is pushing them and why and help the world understand what’s happening as the people in charge try to save us.
I’m sure the criticism of this analogy is that the Guardian’s campaign *was* a policy-specific one: keep fossil fuels in the ground. But that’s not quite right. Climate change is not really the asteroid, it is fossil fuels themselves that fill that role. They are the culprit here (yes, deforestation and agriculture and other land use changes play a big role, I know; one thing at a time), and stopping them equates nearly directly with blowing up or diverting the asteroid.
There are plenty of people — journalists included — who will yell at me that this is being unnecessarily alarmist, and that we’re not actually about to blow up as if an asteroid hit us, and so on. My counter: You are the problem. Framing this as some simple policy debate — should we keep the fossil fuels in the ground, or not? — obscures the fact that left unchecked we are *nearly* as fucked as we would be were we to do nothing to stop from the asteroid. It’s a matter of time scales — the asteroid strike kills us quickly, climate change takes its time. But, again, if we don’t do something remarkably drastic, over the scale of a few hundred years there is little doubt that human society won’t resemble in any sense what it is today. Leaving the fossil fuels in the ground isn’t a policy position; it’s a survival imperative.
Which brings us to Bonn, Germany. On Monday, during the annual U.N. climate summit that a couple of years ago gave us the Paris Agreement, the U.S. delegation hosted a session titled “The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation.” It was unabashed dirty-energy boosterism, and it was a remarkable display of defiance from the Trump administration; coal and natural gas executives spouted condescending bullshit about providing energy access to developing countries, while pretending that “clean coal” is more than a pipe dream. It was an advertisement for the asteroid.
The panelists blurred the lines between two arguments: “Fossil fuels WILL be a major power source in the coming years” and “Fossil fuels SHOULD be a major power source in the coming years.” Just because logistically we can’t turn off every coal plant tomorrow does not mean that we wouldn’t if we could. Imagine showing up to the International Congress on Saving Us All From Death From Above and arguing “look, it is coming no matter what, so let’s talk about the best way to *live* with the asteroid.” That is the Trump administration’s position.
The session at the UN meeting was framed as a wonkish discussion about how to move forward in thoughtful fashion, which technologies to focus on, and so on, all with the simple repeated lie that everyone there really just wanted emissions reductions in the end. If we journalists fall into that trap and allow them to frame it as such, we have already taken a position: we’re both-sidesing planetary destruction, a pretty clear stance in itself. There is, in reality, no actual debate about fossil fuels and their place in a world that does not want to get annihilated; the U.S.’s stand as the only country in the world refusing the not-even-close-to-enough tenets of the Paris Agreement illustrates this well. What country would stand with the asteroid instead of with humanity?
The world of science journalism spent a lot of pixels debating a New York Magazine feature this past summer that asked us all to focus on the worst possible outcomes of climate change, and a good portion of the community continues to insist that this is an unproductive — or even counterproductive — approach. But even having that sort of debate, or the one in San Francisco where we yelled across a room at each other, sort of misses the point. This is not like any other issue we have ever covered. No one would blame you for supporting the Kill the Asteroid campaign your publication started up, because failing to support it means we all die. Stop seeing climate change as just another policy debate, and start seeing it as the existential threat it actually is.