Why isn’t it big news today — and every day — that humanity’s social arrangements are undermining the climatic conditions of civilization, battering the most vulnerable habitats of human and other animal life, depleting their potable water, wrecking their flora and fauna, uprooting refugees?
Aside from noting that ferocious storms, floods and droughts have been intensified by the heating of the oceans and the atmosphere, how might journalism help people face the actual dimensions of the emergency? By making it harder to ignore deep reality. By taking note of the vast populations of human beings (the most vulnerable, most of all) who already bear the burden of capitalism’s global experiment with unleashing vast quantities of energy by burning the remains of extinct life.
Congratulations to The Guardian, which decided last month that its readers were entitled to a steady infusion of facts about the clear and present danger. Reasonably, they decided that the lay of the land — and the oceans, and the atmosphere — could be conveniently approximated with a single statistic: the proportion of carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere. Accordingly, their weather page now lists the daily CO2 measurements taken at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.
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Front pages online and in print, as well as radio and television news bulletins, routinely feature temperature and precipitation reports and forecasts — “news you can use,” telling you whether to wear a raincoat and carry an umbrella. Why not also a measure of the health of the earth? Easy. Now, that didn’t hurt so much, did it?
Compare CO2 count over time
This news is not so hard to deliver, because various dimensions of world-transforming physics and chemistry are readily conveyed. A crucial measure is the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at any given time. Climate scientists have determined that 18th century atmosphere included about 280 parts of CO2 per million. In 1958, when Mauna Loa was opened for business, the ratio was 315 ppm. It passed 350 ppm in 1986.
In other words, the average increase between 1986 and 2013 was about 1.85 ppm a year, while since 2013, the increase has accelerated to an average 2.22 ppm per year.
You might not need all those numbers every day. Just compare today’s CO2 count with the count one year ago and one decade ago: The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration does it for you. The numbers on Tuesday:
Week beginning on May 12, 2019: 415.39 ppm
Weekly value from one year ago: 411.84 ppm
Weekly value from 10 years ago: 390.12 ppm
The news is that the world is threatened
The atmosphere is now 1 degree Celsius hotter than in preindustrial times. On its present course, it will rise a half degree by 2030 (worst case) and 2052 (best). In October, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that to keep the expected increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial mean, carbon emissions will need to be cut by 45% by 2030 from 2010 levels, and eliminating them entirely by 2050. Ignorance will not keep the seas from rising, though it pays dividends to the stockholders of fossil fuel corporations and a political party deeply invested in flat lies.
Journalists don’t like hearing about moral imperatives. They don’t like feeling dragooned. Who does? They don’t like being told how much depends on them. They want to know what’s the story.
The story is that the world is in jeopardy. That’s not just the story of yesterday, or today, but tomorrow; the day after tomorrow; every day. It won’t do to say we covered that. It won’t do to say nobody cares. On any given day, the world may gleam with shinier objects, but journalism that ducks the climate emergency withers into a distraction machine.
Yes, it’s hard to do justice to this immensity. But the handwriting’s on the atmosphere. If you can’t take the heat, stay off planet Earth.
Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology, is chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: We need news to use about climate. Give us a daily carbon dioxide count with the weather.