by Seth Heald, cross posted from Power for the People VA
The Daily Press, Virginia’s fourth largest newspaper, recently ran an ambitious series of insightful articles on climate change adaptation. The series movingly showed the daily reality of the many Virginians living near the coast, on the front lines of climate change.
The Newport News-based paper serves the Hampton Roads region, with particular focus on the Peninsula and Middle Peninsula. The paper’s readership territory is mostly low-lying, much of it adjacent to or near tidal waters, so there are plenty of sea-level rise and storm-flooding stories to cover. But one thing about the eight articles in the series that I’ve reviewed is odd, and also sad. Not one of them mentions “climate change” or “global warming.” To be sure, “sea-level rise” is mentioned often, along with “coastal flooding.” But the articles avoid mentioning the primary cause of those phenomena—global warming, aka climate change.
The Daily Press series’ focus is hyper-local: articles by six different reporters, each focusing on sea-level rise and other climate-change effects in a particular neighborhood or jurisdiction—Newport News, Carmines Island, Hampton; and York, Mathews, James City, Isle of Wight, and Gloucester Counties. Many residents and local officials were interviewed. The articles’ tone at times is elegiac, as people describe the way things were not long ago, and how they’ve changed for the worse as the waters rise. While climate-adaptation terms like “retreat” and “abandonment” aren’t mentioned, an official in Mathews County notes that property owners are beginning to donate their land to a nonprofit, a trend that he says is likely to accelerate. (Landowners can claim tax benefits for donating their property to qualifying nonprofits.)
In one of the saddest comments, an official in Hampton notes that the city’s building code may need to be updated to prevent houses from getting knocked off their foundations by “wave action.” Sadder yet, a Carmines Island resident says “We’re drowning down here. We need some help.”
The Daily Press deserves great praise for this detailed, ongoing coverage of the climate crisis. This is the type of quality, in-depth local reporting that could earn a Pulitzer Prize. It focuses on human faces in nearby places dealing with a problem that is global, abstract, and too often easy for many Americans to ignore. Every Virginia official from Governor Terry McAuliffe on down, including all members of the General Assembly and our representatives in Congress, should read these articles.
But still, why the climate change silence? Why not at least mention or better yet analyze the real issue—the underlying cause? True, the articles do frequently use the term “sea-level rise,” a phrase that Republican Delegate Chris Stolle of Virginia Beach once called “a left-wing term,” presumably because he recognizes that rising seas are caused by our greenhouse gas emissions, which heat the planet, and knows that politicians in his party aren’t supposed to admit that. He received well-deserved ridicule for that comment, and at least some in his party are now willing to utter the expression “sea-level rise,” as long as they studiously avoid linking it to climate change. But when six Daily Press reporters write a series about rising seas and more-intense storms while failing to note the larger climate-change causes, something is amiss.
Perhaps the best clue for what is happening can be found in the comment of Garrey Curry, assistant Gloucester County administrator. He told the Daily Press: “Locally when we talk about sea level rise we try not to get bogged down to the whys and hows. We want to understand the trends.” Left unsaid, and apparently unchallenged by Daily Press reporter Frances Hubbard, was how one can understand the trends and implement solutions if one doesn’t talk or think about, much less act on, the “whys and hows.” Curry in effect admitted that he wants to avoid talking about climate change, apparently because he thinks it is too “controversial.” He of course is entitled to his views, but a newspaper ought not to avoid underlying causes to avoid controversy. Indeed a newspaper’s mission should be to enlighten readers about what’s causing the problems it’s reporting on.
At first I thought another clue explaining the Daily Press’s climate silence might be found in a rather appalling 2014 editorial, in which the paper blasted some local officials for taking climate change seriously. The officials’ crime back then? They had “jumped on the global warming bandwagon” which the paper called “trendy” and “a cult-like fad.”
But in the intervening years, as sea levels (and temperatures) continue to rise as predicted, the paper’s editorial staff seems to have had a change of heart (or perhaps a change of personnel). A powerful editorial this month summed up the findings of the paper’s series of articles on the human costs of the region’s flooding. The editors acknowledged (without mentioning the 2014 editorial): “Our global climate is getting warmer and th[e] temperature is rising faster than it has in the past. Glaciers are melting, and sea levels are rising. Human activity is the primary cause, or at least one of the primary causes, for these changes.” The editorial concluded: “We are in the eye of the storm, and our region can either take on a leadership role [in addressing climate change] or serve as a cautionary tale.”
Well said. The Daily Press editorial page’s change of heart since 2014 gives one hope. But the editorial also noted that the paper got complaints from some readers of the series who “buy into the counterintuitive argument that climate change is either a gross exaggeration or a complete hoax.” In other words, even though the paper’s articles on flooding studiously avoided mentioning climate change, readers predisposed to deny climate science apparently wanted the paper to be silent about not just climate change but also about the flooding itself.
The moral of this story, it seems to me, is that deniers are gonna deny. So there’s little point in remaining silent about climate change, or using euphemisms to dance around the topic, in order to avoid supposed “controversy” about the science. After all, that controversy derives from disinformation manufactured by the fossil-fuel industry and promoted by the front groups and politicians it controls. So better for a newspaper to just be truthful and candid, rather than try to avoid supposed controversy. And being truthful about sea-level rise—telling the whole truth—includes discussing the causes, not just the symptoms.
Michael Allen, an assistant professor of geography at Old Dominion University, made a similar point in the Virginian-Pilot last summer, gently chastising the Norfolk planning department for issuing a report on “resiliency” and “living with the water” while not mentioning “the elephant in the room,” climate change. Allen noted that the city’s Norfolk Vision 2100 plan “failed to acknowledge, even in passing, the causes of our ongoing problem or provide a scientific context to our challenges.”
Climate silence is hardly limited to one newspaper, one government entity, or one political party. Even environmental activists sometimes avoid mentioning climate change when discussing measures that are, in truth, all about climate change. Governor Terry McAuliffe, who has supported the EPA’s Clean Power Plan effort to address climate change, nevertheless is silent on climate when he’s out promoting unneeded gas pipelines that will increase greenhouse-gas emissions.
Researchers at George Mason and Yale Universities released a study in 2016 on what they called “a climate ‘spiral of silence’ in which even people who care about the issue shy away from discussing it because they so infrequently hear other people talking about it—reinforcing the spiral.” The GMU/Yale report noted that “fewer than half of Americans say they hear global warming discussed in the media (TV, movies, radio, newspapers/news websites, magazines, etc.) ‘at least once a week’ … or even ‘at least once a month.’” Some 30% of Americans say they hear about global warming only “once a year or less,” “never,” or they are “not sure.” A just-issued GMU/Yale report found that only about 15% of Americans understand that almost all climate scientists are convinced that human-caused global warming is happening. That figure is up from 11% in March 2016, but still is very concerning. This is not a time to be silent about climate change.
A major antidote to the spiral of climate silence, of course, is more and better news coverage of the climate crisis. The Daily Press series presents a curious case of talking eloquently about climate change symptoms while carefully avoiding talking about causes. The paper’s follow-up editorial makes up for that omission somewhat, but the causes of climate change need to be explained in news articles, not just in the opinion pages.
In his classic 2007 book on socially organized silence (The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life) the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel explains that silence is a form of communication that often speaks louder than words. Moreover silence, like denial, “usually involves refusing to acknowledge the presence of things that actually beg for attention.” He adds, “ignoring something is more than simply failing to notice it. It’s often the result of some pressure to actively disregard it. By enabling … collective denial, conspiracies of silence prevent us from confronting, and consequently solving, our problems.” (Emphasis added.) There is considerable pressure in our society to be silent about climate change’s causes, originating primarily from fossil-fuel interests and politicians they control who spread lies and distortions about climate science.
Those of us who understand and care about climate change in this post-truth, alternative-fact age must push back against this pressure, and refuse to be silent or use euphemisms to avoid supposed “controversy.” Otherwise we are letting the disinformers control the boundaries of conversation. That’s just what the climate disinformers and their fossil-fuel backers want, and just what our commonwealth and our country cannot afford to let them do.
And finally, it’s worth noting another small form of climate silence related to the Daily Press series. The Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) issues a daily news summary, compiled from newspapers and other media sources around the state. VPAP is a non-partisan project, widely supported, used, and admired by people from all over the political spectrum (including me).
A couple years ago, I noticed that VPAP’s daily summaries relegated articles on climate change and environmental issues to a section titled “Virginia Other,” placed near the bottom of the report. I brought my observation to VPAP’s attention, noting the growing importance of climate change in Virginia and suggesting the topic deserves better treatment than “Other.” VPAP executive director David Poole politely responded, but declined to put climate and environment articles in their own section. The result is that VPAP’s “Other” section sometimes has nothing but environmental and climate articles. And “Other” is where VPAP listed the Daily Press’s articles on climate adaptation.
I noticed them there because “Other” is often the most important VPAP section—and therefore the one I always read first.
Seth Heald is chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter. He expects to receive an M.S. degree in Energy Policy and Climate from Johns Hopkins University in May 2017.