President Barack Obama issued the third veto in his more than six years in office, rejecting S.1 (Senate Bill One), the “Keystone XL Pipeline Approval Act.” This was the new congressional Republican majority’s first bill this year, attempting to force the construction of a pipeline designed to carry Canadian tar sands oil to U.S. ports in Texas for export. A broad international coalition has been fighting the project for years. Climate scientist James Hansen, the former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, wrote in The New York Times that if the pipeline gets built, “it will be game over for the climate.”
This vote and veto came as much of the U.S. was gripped by extreme cold weather, with cities like Boston reeling from historically deep snowfall and Southern states like Georgia getting snowed in. Meanwhile, most of California braces for even more drought. The corporate television newscasts spend more and more time covering the increasingly disruptive, costly and at times deadly weather. But they consistently fail to make the link between extreme weather and climate change.
Millions of dollars are poured into flashy television “Weather Centers.” Now these sets, with their polished presenters, are being upgraded to “Severe Weather Centers” or “Extreme Weather Centers.” Why not make the link? As they flash the words “Severe Weather,” why not also flash the words, “Climate Change” or “Global Warming?” Why not explain how global warming can actually lead to more snowfall, or to, yes, colder weather? The public depends on broadcasters for most of their news and information, even in this Internet age. How could a drought in California be related to Niagara Falls freezing over thousands of miles away? People aren’t stupid. The daily deluge of sensational weather reporting must include explanations of the deeper changes occurring to our entire planet.
Check out the advertisements that sandwich the newscasts. Often, you are presented with a highly produced, compelling ad describing how clean and wonderful the fossil-fuel industry is. But is this really the case? Look at what happened this month when more than 100 U.S. cities reported record cold: An explosion at an ExxonMobil refinery south of Los Angeles rocked the surrounding area with the equivalent of a 1.4-magnitude earthquake. In West Virginia, an oil tanker “bomb” train derailed and exploded, lighting up the night sky with massive fireballs and forcing the evacuation of two towns. Two days earlier, another oil train derailed in Ontario, Canada, and left rail cars burning for days.
Beyond these explosions, there are the leaks, the spills, the toxic air pollution that causes epidemic asthma in impacted communities. And all these ill effects of the fossil-fuel industry are small, when compared with the ongoing destruction caused by worsening, and potentially irreversible, climate change.
The debate over climate change is over. The U.N.‘s Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report, written by 800 scientists from 80 countries, that summarized the findings of more than 30,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers and concluded:
“Human influence on the climate system is clear; the more we disrupt our climate, the more we risk severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts; and we have the means to limit climate change and build a more prosperous, sustainable future.” Compare that with the handful of scientists who deny the reality of climate change. One champion among them, Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, received $1.2 million from fossil-fuel interests, including oil baron Charles Koch, according to an investigation conducted by Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center. Dr. Soon failed to report these contributions, and is now being investigated by the Smithsonian for possible ethical violations.
Among those for whom the science is clear and the debate settled: the Pentagon. Under the Obama administration, as well as under President Bush before him, the Department of Defense has named climate change as a major threat to national security. Likewise, large insurance companies carefully track the number of billion-dollar climate disasters that occur every year, since these catastrophes impact their bottom line.
Just when the public needs increased reporting on these issues, some of the largest news organizations are scaling back their climate reporting. Last October, NPR reduced its staff of four covering the environment and climate change to just one person, working part time. The New York Times gutted its nine-person environmental desk in 2013.
No one weather event is proof of climate change, but the trends are clear. Meteorologists, especially those on the television news programs, have a duty to state the cold, hard facts: Climate change is real, it is a planetary threat, and there is plenty we can do about it.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.