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Global Environment > America's Blindfold Media

Underplaying the story
of the century

By Peter Orne
Commenting from Boston

Hello from the States. Hey, I’ve got an investment tip for you. The Wall Street Journal reports that the new “disaster-proofing” industry that sprung up in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 is booming.
Homeowners are now buying metal- and asphalt-based shingles as well as impact-resistant glass to shield against tornados and hurricanes. There’s a new plastic-coated cloth to protect windows from flying objects, and a safe-room kit made of Kevlar is currently being test-marketed.

It seems that incentives from insurance companies and new better-roofing regulations are spurring the industry.

Are global warming and more extreme weather driving investment in the industry? Aw, come on. You know we don’t talk about that stuff over here. The Journal didn’t even mention it.

A hypothetical telephone call from an American to an investor friend abroad shows the different levels of awareness of global warming and its future impacts. The Wall Street Journal links the boom in disaster proofing exclusively to better-roofing regulations and insurers’ incentives—not to any long-term changes in the climate because of global warming.

It is widely known, however, that an intensifying greenhouse effect is producing several major consequences, including melting polar icecaps, rising sea levels and more extreme-weather disasters. But investment-minded readers must look beyond the Journal’s October 4 story—“Out of wreckage, growth”—to make their own assessments of global warming and the future of the disaster-proofing industry.

In the United States, it remains routine to underplay or ignore climate change in all manner of daily-news story, from business to energy to the economy. Sadly, these omissions fall into a broader trend among the nation’s daily media to avoid challenging deep-seated views on major issues.

The most famous recent example is the major news outlets’ weak reporting on the debate leading to the US-led invasion of Iraq. It has taken a steady march of former weapons inspectors and White House officials, presidential contenders and Congressional commissioners to do what the national media failed to do on its own—sharpen a healthy skepticism about the White House’s argument for preemptive war, an action that flew in the face of the US Constitution. In the past six months, The New York Times and The Washington Post have admitted underplaying and burying challenges to the Bush Administration’s claims of Iraqi WMD and links to Al Qaeda.

For years now, the inertia around global warming has been much worse. On this issue, it isn’t a minority of antiwar skeptics that have been underplayed or ignored but hundreds of distinguished scientists who have been studying climate change for decades.

Since the mid-1990s, some 2,000 scientists—half of them American—on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have confirmed that human activities are responsible for global warming—by one account, some 75 percent of the increase in average global temperature across the 20th century. They warn about serious fallouts to the environment, food supplies and health.

The major daily news media in the United States continue to report on weather-related disasters in isolation. Consequently, Americans lack a broad-based understanding of the science and impacts of global warming and their industrial-country role in exacerbating it. Deep-seated perceptions, no matter how flawed, continue to prevail—that global warming may not exist, that human activities can’t change the climate, and that dealing with the issue could destroy the economy.

Medium is the message

The steady stream of stories, footage and photographs generated by war and weather-related disaster fit the formats of the major daily news media. Events and trends are presented in short and gripping segments and articles, often cast in terms that suit the national moment rather than placed in broad historical context.

Given the scarcity of historical depth and the overabundance of ideological balance on every issue, truth itself can be construed as offensive. Lulled into forgetting that the world has its own “spin,” Americans are caught off guard by events like the WTO protests in Seattle, the attacks of September 11, outsourcing of white-collar jobs and weather-related disasters. Ironically, the major daily news outlets may feel no great compulsion to explain this spin to any great degree: War, disaster and terrorism draw audiences and boost profits. Why bother to offend on touchy subjects?

For a nation that is normally obsessed with solid data for making good decisions, this flabby state of affairs is astonishing. Too few Americans know that 5 percent of the world’s population is responsible for 25 percent of its greenhouse-gas emissions, or that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are at a level not experienced on earth in 420,000 years.

Yet these scientific indicators could someday acquire an urgency greater than the stock-market indicators that are the hallmark of every daily newscast. For now, though, the “hot tip” here in the United States is that the numbers are up for the disaster-proofing industry—even as the American media continue to relegate global warming to the science pages.

Peter Orne is the editor of The WorldPaper