The annual Western wildfire apocalypse rained ash from clouds of charcoal, lightning and white-hot heat waves set half the continent ablaze. Another late summer in the Gulf swirled with record torrential hurricanes — Laura recorded some of the highest winds on record and Sally took first place for being the slowest moving storm in recent history. A severe derecho sent pounding hail, spawned tornadoes and flattened the Midwest.
Our world is growing hostile and uninhabitable and it’s only going to get worse. In the next 50 years, one in three people will live in cities and towns too hot for human life. The climate crisis is one of the most dramatic stories in our 200,000 year human history. But you won’t hear about it on cable news.
Fox, MSNBC and CNN do not give enough airtime to the crisis. Only 13 percent of their coverage connected the Western wildfires to climate change. A shameful fact, but unsurprising, when major news outlets allotted less than four hours of airtime to the climate crisis in the year 2019. This is largely because cable news is driven by clicks and ratings, not necessarily what the public needs to be informed about. As Chris Hayes put it in 2018, “it’s been a palpable ratings killer. So the incentives are not great.”
Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceYarmuth and Clyburn suggest .5T package may be slimmed Budget chairman: Debt ceiling fight 'a ridiculous position to be in' NIH director expects booster shots to be expanded, despite recommendation MORE, the first presidential debate moderator, vowed to uphold this media gag order on the climate crisis and not ask the candidates about climate change. But after a pressure campaign from the climate movement, he buckled and asked both candidates about their respective plans, starting with President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump takes shot at new GOP candidate in Ohio over Cleveland nickname GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default MORE, “What do you believe about the science of climate change, and what will you do over the next four years to confront it?”
And their answers made one thing very clear: Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse clears bill to provide veterans with cost-of-living adjustment On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default To reduce poverty, stop burdening the poor: What Joe Manchin gets wrong about the child tax credit MORE has a plan based on science to defeat the climate and COVID-19 crises. But after a full term in office, Trump is still a weak and an ineffective leader on both. His current policy, which has led to tens of thousands of American deaths, and political distraction will likely continue if reelected.
Trump would not let Biden explain his climate plan to the American people, but Biden lays out his plan clearly when speaking off the debate stage: listen to science and create jobs.
Cable news also does not give airtime to Biden’s climate plan. Americans are still waiting to hear about Trump’s plan. The mainstream media doesn't need to just to ask the candidates about their plan, but make them answer with committed specifics. Climate is a top issue among Democratic voters, and it’s the issue that defines our lifetimes. The mainstream media has a duty in this moment to get to the bottom of their climate plans. The American people need to know.
It’s why the right to a free press is enshrined in the Constitution. The job of that press is to carry out a vital service to our democracy: to hold the United States government accountable, expose corruption and report truth, and educate and inform the public about the most urgent issues of our time.
But the media has failed us, and they’ve done so for the past 32 years, since Dr. James Hansen first testified to Congress in 1988 about the danger of “global warming.” Climate change has been a fact, but the media conceded the truth to fossil fuel companies. The media let Big Oil, gas and coal capture the story of climate change and help spread their dangerous disinformation through the airwaves and into the minds of the American public. The media sold their airtime to fake experts and discredited science, and turned the climate crisis into a political debate.
And now, 32 years of denial and inaction, the American public and the world has paid the ultimate price: wildfires and floods, hurricanes and drought, civil conflict and resource scarcity. We see in my home state of California, in the Mississippi Gulf Coast and all the way upstream into the heart of the country. We see it at our border, with climate refugees.
The crisis is not just a threat to future generations — it’s a threat to those alive and reading this now. I will be 73 in 2050. My brother will be 61. We have already lived through the hottest decade and record California wildfires. At our current rate, 2050 will not be a livable world.
The mainstream media stayed silent and gave the fossil fuel companies a platform to lie to the public, while they mined and burned and polluted us to the brink of extinction. The media now has a responsibility to fix it.
Thank you, Chris Wallace, for asking the candidates about climate change. In 2016, only a single question was asked about climate in a presidential debate and it didn’t come from a moderator — it came from a concerned audience member. And for the last four years, we’ve had a man in the White House who is not only a climate change denier but is determined to undo every bit of progress that’s been made. The United States — and much of the planet, for that matter — will not survive in its current form if the climate crisis is discounted for another four years.
The climate crisis is the story of the century. The next president will write the most important chapter: either we rise and defeat the crisis, or we fall and let our failure on climate defeat us.
So cover the crisis. Connect the wildfires and hurricanes, the inhabitable heat and the rising sea levels to our accelerating rate of carbon pollution. Tell the public: climate change is a crisis. Then again, and again, ask the next president of the United States about their plan for our shared human survival. We need to know how this story ends.
Nikayla Jefferson is an organizer for Sunrise Movement San Diego and a Public Voices fellow of The OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Follow her at @kayla_nikayla.