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Saoirse McHugh: Climate denial is dangerous at this stage, and the media has a case to answer

In light of the Australia fires, Saoirse McHugh asks: when will the media take the climate crisis seriously and place it top of the reporting agenda?

Saoirse McHugh

IN HER FORTNIGHTLY column for TheJournal.ie, Saoirse McHugh of the Green Party writes about our apathy in the face of climate change. 

For years now, as natural disasters increase in scale and unpredictability, I have expected each one to be the moment when the media begins to panic and shortly after, people respond and demand action.

Events such as Cyclone Idai killing hundreds in Mozambique, the ice caps destabilising, and the people of Kiribati searching for a new home as rising sea levels make their island uninhabitable have all risen to the headlines for a few days and disappeared again; this lack of permanency in the news gives the impression that the problems themselves have also disappeared.

Honestly, I thought that the dearth of sustained media response from Ireland was because it felt so removed from us. Very few of us have ever been to Kiribati or Nicaragua and even fewer have ever met anybody from the Sami or Yupik communities.

We imagine that those type of catastrophes will never occur here and, because the news cycle moves on without ever explicitly laying out why this is happening and how it will get worse, we move on too.

Disasters caused by climate breakdown that occur in other parts of the world have a tinge of “that’s awful but what can be done?” about them and we are left feeling uncomfortable for a few minutes – but very quickly we see an advert for cheap flights or a clip about how BP is going green and again things feel like they are okay.

Calamities that affect poorer countries often get less air time than the day’s sports results.

Responsibility 

What is never mentioned in any of these reports is how we (in rich countries) are to blame for the majority of historical emissions and how we have a duty to respond to climate breakdown which is causing so much suffering today.

The lack of urgency in news coverage on climate breakdown has helped us get to a stage where large oil company lobbyists are enjoying more access to legislators than ever. 

If the media was to accurately reflect the dire situation we face in the face of climate change, I believe that no oil company would be allowed near a government, period.

I predicted (wrongly) that as soon as there were a few climate breakdown-related tragedies in predominantly white, rich, English-speaking countries then the media response to soaring carbon emissions and a heating biosphere would kick into gear.

I hoped that the 2018 Californian fires were going to change the US attitude towards climate breakdown but unfortunately that didn’t happen.

Now that Australia is on fire and the most heart-wrenching scenes are all over the internet, I once again expect the climate emergency to be finally reported on appropriately.

However, talking to Irish people home from Australia over the Christmas and following Australian news coverage of the fires, it looks like the role climate breakdown is playing in this is being largely ignored.

The media 

The storyline that has emerged is that this is a particularly bad bushfire season, possibly exacerbated by arson, but things will hopefully be back to normal soon.

This is morbidly fascinating to watch.

The refusal to link climate breakdown to disaster is more entrenched than I had imagined possible; it is the complete unwillingness of much of the media to acknowledge that our current economic system, if not changed, will kill everything.

Australia has one of the highest carbon footprints per capita in the world and yet, as the continent is being swallowed up in hellish flames, the government has not mentioned climate action as any part of its response to these fires.

Some articles and publications are covering the link to climate breakdown, but for something that should be getting wall-to-wall coverage every day, all over the world, its absence is notable.

What will it take for the highest polluting countries to stop and do a U-turn on carbon emissions?

Perhaps it will take people refusing to participate in a 40-hour working week for the corporations responsible for destroying the planet for shareholder wealth.

The media has a responsibility to communicate that our life-sustaining systems are being obliterated for profit and to communicate it with the appropriate urgency.

To this day many people do not fully realise what a catastrophic and complex problem climate breakdown is.

cyclone-idai-2019-aerials An aerial view of damaged homes in the community of Beira City after it was hit by Cyclone Idai last March. The deadly cyclone and hammering rains left more than 1000 people dead in Mozambique alone. Source: Tafadzwa Ufumleli

Australia is no different to many western countries in that the media wields serious power, as well as the coal and gas lobby, neither of which are known for their love of climate action.

At this late stage in the game climate delay is as bad as denial. I urge everybody to go and read about climate breakdown; find journals, blogs, and articles where it is discussed.

Read about its history, the embedded racism and need for social justice in combating it, the most negative predictions, and what people are doing about it.

Try to find community, and begin to organise your own, send emails and letters to your media sources demanding more coverage, and begin to think about how long you are willing to participate in this.

How much longer until we as a society refuse to let this continue.

What if Ireland was up in flames? Would that be enough for us?

Would our media cover it then?

Let’s not let it get to that.  

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About the author:

Saoirse McHugh

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