Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone Article Was a Hit — So Why Didn’t It Make a Splash?

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Earth Island Journal

Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone Article Was a Hit — So Why Didn’t It Make a Splash?

Have you seen the numbers on Bill McKibben’s numbers? If you follow environment-related news (and even if you don’t), there’s a good chance you’ve read Bill McKibben’s recent Rolling Stone article, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. I know this because of the numbers displayed right below the article’s headline: 112k Facebook likes, more than 12,000 mentions on Twitter, 7,300 Stumble Upon tags, and nearly 5,000 reader comments. “Wickedly viral,” is how the New England-dwelling McKibben has described the response to the piece.

“After the article came out, a Rolling Stone editor called up Bill and said they had never seen anything like it,” a 350.org staffer, Daniel Kessler, told me recently. Mark Neschis, a spokesperson for Wenner Media (the publishing group that owns RS), was coy about discussing readership stats with me. “We don’t really get too much in[to] specifics about traffic,” he wrote in response to questions about the article. But Neschis did acknowledge that the article “was the top performing story on our site the month it came out.”

Without firm statistics from Wenner Media, figuring out the exact number of people who read the story is difficult. Still, the social media tags provide an indicator of the article’s success. I can’t find any other recent Rolling Stone story that even comes close. The magazine’s damning expose of Stanley McChrystal, “The Runaway General,” has less than a thousand thumbs-ups. Matt Taibbi’s take-no-prisoners lashing of Goldman Sachs, with its infamous line comparing the investment bank to “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity,” earned 15,000 Facebook likes. The only American magazine articles (excluding celebrity coverage) I can find that are in the same league are Jane Mayer’s unveiling of the Koch Brothers in The New Yorker (122k likes), and the much discussed, and much derided, Atlantic essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All (201k Facebook shares).

At the risk of hyberbole, it appears that McKibben’s Rolling Stone article is among the most widely read single articles on climate change … ever.

The success of “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” raises a couple of important questions for climate justice campaigners, climate scientists, and journalists covering climate change and the environment. First, why exactly did McKibben’s piece go viral? And, given its success, why was it greeted with such a yawn by the mainstream media?

[McKibben's article] is a long read with a short point: we’re in deep shit.

To answer the first question, it’s important to note that McKibben enjoys some advantages most environmental journalists don’t. For starters, he wrote the first popular book on global warming, The End of Nature, more than 20 years ago, giving him unmatched credibility on the issue. Probably more important, he has a global grassroots movement, 350.org, at his back. I don’t know of any other writers who can write an article and then blast it out to a 300,000-plus email list. 

But something else is going on besides the mechanics of twenty first-century social media maneuvering. Clearly the article touched a chord in people. The piece provided a candid assessment of our environmental predicament and, in doing so, delivered to readers something they rarely get from national media outlets: Real talk about the unfolding climate change catastrophe.

McKibben’s tone is bleak from the outset — terrifying math — and over the course of more than 6,000 words he barely lets up from the bad news. With global temperatures rising and vast stores of fossil fuels waiting to be tapped, we are in a “precarious —… almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless — position.” McKibben goes on to report that “among scientists speaking off the record, disgusted candor is the rule.” He is also unforgiving to the environmental movement to which he belongs, and notes, rightly, that all the efforts to stem greenhouse gas emissions have added up to a “record of failure.” This is a long read with a short point: we’re in deep shit.

So, why, given all of this gloom-and-doom, did the article become such a success? Because it was honest about the danger we are in. At some level, most people understand that climate change is a serious threat we need to address. The extreme weather of the past year has only made the danger more obvious than ever. And yet the danger is all-but-ignored by our political leadership. McKibben makes this point himself at the very beginning of the article when he writes: “We're losing the fight, badly and quickly — losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.” So it feels like a tonic when someone comes along and punctures the bubble of willful ignorance that smothers discussions of climate change. McKibben’s article was a success because many people are hungry to hear the cold, hard truth about global warming.

Yes, you can find this kind of sobering analysis other places (tip o’ the hat to Joe Romm, Dave Roberts, Justin Gillis, Elizabeth Kolbert, climatologist Ken Caldeira, and all the climate activists out there — you know who you are). But it’s all-too-rare. Most American politicians, ever-cautious, don’t want to touch to the issue. They’re afraid of angering the all-powerful energy lobby or of alienating voters. (The second concern is unfounded, as you can see here.) Most scientists understand the risks we face, but scientists are conservative by nature, preferring to arrive at consensus among their peers before making clear-cut conclusions. Few scientists are willing to sound an alarm bell; they move at a glacial pace, even as the glaciers are melting. Who’s left to tell the people about the predicament we’re in? A mild-mannered writer’s writer.

McKibben’s makes clear that we have a responsibility to address the climate change challenge: “this is, at bottom, a moral issue.” Despite the often-glum tone of the article, McKibben remains hopeful that we can come together to confront this threat. And, perhaps most importantly, McKibben isn’t shy about naming and blaming the culprit of this unfolding crime against humanity: the fossil fuel industry.

The importance of naming an enemy can’t be overstated. To fuel a fighting faith — which is what building a movement is all about — you need to have an adversary. For too long, too many of us (including the greenest of greens) have assumed that when it comes to global climate change, the enemy is industrial society, or the economy, or human nature itself. Supposedly we keep guzzling gas for the same reason we keep drinking Coke, even though we know it’s bad for us: because it tastes good. McKibben offers a counter-narrative: We keep guzzling gas because there are a handful of mega corporations that stand to lose trillions of dollars (yes, you read that right) if we were to put a price on carbon. He couldn’t be clearer. The fossil fuel industry “is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”

Sure, all kinds of bloggers and NGO-istas have made this case before. But rarely do you see this kind of language in a magazine you can buy in the airport.

• • •

While “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” was a hit among ordinary readers, it was something of a dud in terms of having a ripple effect in the larger mainstream media. Outside of the rather insular world of green media (see, um, here), the piece spawned few follow up articles, no new exposés or, as far as I can tell, any increase in coverage of climate change issues.

A comparison to another recent RS journalistic coup, its June 2010 profile of General Stanley McChrystal, is revealing. A Google search for “Rolling Stone” and “Stanley McChrystal” comes us with about 230,000 results. A search for “Rolling Stone” and “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” generates 119,000 results. This is one indicator of what we already know: "The Runaway General" article made a huge splash, ultimately leading to McChrystal’s resignation as head of US forces in Afghanistan.

In a way, the comparison is unfair. McKibben’s piece is mostly a synthesis of existing science; he marshals numbers to craft a story. Michael Hasting’s story broke real news with its depictions of high-ranking US Army officers making derogatory statements of civilian leaders that bordered on insubordination. It was bound to create more of a media frenzy.

But look at the response to The Atlantic’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter. Mostly a personal essay bolstered by some sociological studies, the article contained no new reporting and broke no news. It also handily beats McKibben’s article, with some 205,000 search results.

This is part of a trend. Media coverage of climate change peaked in late 2009, during the Copenhagen summit, and has since dropped off dramatically. The decline in climate change coverage has occurred in both print articles worldwide and television broadcasts in the US. The American media has also done a piss-poor job of connecting the record-breaking heat waves and summer wildfires to climate change.

Why is this happening? A couple of factors are at play.

The US political establishment’s neglect of the issue is a central reason why the mainstream media gets away with ignoring this existential threat. If President Obama or Mitt Romney don’t talk about it, then the TV networks and national newspapers don’t have too, either. The spike in media coverage in 2009 coincided with the torturous attempts by the US Congress to pass comprehensive climate legislation. The legislative silence that followed has paved the way for a media blackout. If the chattering classes (or the “very serious people,” if you prefer) aren’t discussing an issue, then it’s not worth covering.

Given this reality, Romney’s sophomoric climate change joke at the end of his Republican National Convention speech is the best thing to have happened to climate change coverage all year. The issue is a political football again, and that will mean at least a smidgen more coverage.

But there’s something larger at work here. The media has a hard time wrapping its (herd-like, Borg-like) mind around climate change because climate change is the kind of story that calls into question the foundational assumptions of our economy and society. Unlike many other environmental issues, climate change isn’t just a local concern: clean up this one river, protect this one forest. Nor is it just a technical glitch that can be solved by a little more transparency or a few well-targeted regulations. Climate change, like no other political controversy, reveals the impossibility of having infinite economic growth on a finite planet.

The most lucid take on this comes from Naomi Klein’s 2011 article in The Nation, Capitalism vs. the Climate. Here’s Klein’s main point:

“The fact that the earth’s atmosphere cannot safely absorb the amount of carbon we are pumping into it is a symptom of a much larger crisis, one born of the central fiction on which our economic model is based: that nature is limitless, that we will always be able to find more of what we need, and that if something runs out it can be seamlessly replaced by another resource that we can endlessly extract.”

McKibben’s RS article hints at this clash when he argues that, in order for us to keep Earth’s atmosphere roughly in balance, the carbon barons will have to write off roughly $20 trillion in assets. This is not the kind of news that plays well alongside TV spots for pharmaceuticals of the latest full-page Macy’s ad.

The media’s built-in bias for staying close to the center of economic orthodoxy isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. So, then, what is to be done? Here I’ll defer to the wisdom of awesome media critic Robert McChesney: Our best bet is to democratize the media. We can’t wait for major media outlets to tell the hard truths about the climate change threat. We have to do it ourselves — with our blogs and our independent media outfits, our NGO newsletters and our dinner table conversations. We can also do it through our social media tools.

Which means that the next time you see a hard-hitting story like the RS article pop up in a national outlet, be sure to hit that Like button and keep spreading the word.

Jason Mark

Jason Mark is a co-manager at San Francisco's Alemany Farm and the editor of the quarterly environmental magazine, Earth Island Journal. His blog is here.

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