We Need A Fossil Fuel Primer Because The Media Isn’t Telling Us Enough About Climate Change

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People sometimes declare that the world has always had periods of warming and cooling. So — how do we really be certain that today’s warming is primarily caused by humans? How do we know that putting too much carbon into the atmosphere (CO2) when we burn coal, oil, and gas or cut down forests is really the cause of current global warming trends? According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, we know human activities are driving the increase in CO2 concentrations because atmospheric CO2 contains information about its source.

Carbon from fossil fuels has a distinct “signature” — its composition of heavier and lighter atoms of carbon. The smaller the ratio of heavier to lighter carbon atoms, the higher the proportion of carbon from fossil fuels. Over the years, the ratio of heavy to light carbon atoms has decreased as the overall amount of CO2 has increased. This information tells scientists that fossil fuel emissions are the largest contributor of atmospheric CO2 concentrations since the pre-industrial era.

fossil fuel primer

The US Environmental Protection Agency states that current levels of the greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide — in our atmosphere are higher than at any point over the past 800,000 years, and their ability to trap heat is changing our climate in multiple ways. Climate change encompasses not only rising average temperatures but also extreme weather events, shifting wildlife populations and habitats, rising seas, and a range of other impacts. All of these changes are emerging as humans continue to add heat-trapping greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Renewable Energy Technology Will Make Fossil Fuels Obsolete

Look around your neighborhood. Why are we starting to see wind turbines, solar panels, or electric vehicles nearly everyday in our regular travels? That’s because these and other renewable energy devices are getting cheaper and more abundant by the day. Technology and cost of production for renewables are coalescing in favor of the consumer. And the result is that the demand for coal, oil, and natural gas is falling.

What will happen as the demand for fossil fuels diminishes?

The price for fossil fuels will fall, and fall, and fall, to the point where it won’t be profitable any longer for companies to mine for coal or dig oil wells. They won’t be able to obtain a profit by extracting that fuel. The fossil fuel companies will fail before 2035, according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Renewable energy sources will become common in every home in the US well before fossil fuel prices fall precipitously. By taking over a small, but significant share of the market, renewables will force producers to slash costs to stay competitive. There will be a delicate dance in which fossil fuels will become really inexpensive while renewable technologies become commonplace. Why?

Fossil fuel companies will want to sell any coal, oil, or natural gas they own before these become worthless — known as stranded assets. Investors are moving away from fossil fuels as it becomes increasingly evident that continued expansion of oil, coal, and gas is exacerbating global conflicts and prompting corruption. The processes involved in fossil fuel production, distribution, and burning threaten biodiversity, clean water, and air. They infringe on the rights of indigenous peoples and vulnerable countries and communities.

As more and more individuals buy electric vehicles, fewer gasoline stations will be needed. When people find how warm, efficient, and convenient electric heat pumps are, they’ll turn away from natural gas to heat their homes. Electricity that is available from solar panels and home batteries will be so affordable and reliable that people won’t want to buy power from a coal- or gas-fired power plants.

fossil fuel primer

The Media and Climate Change Responsibility

As recently as 2018, there were a number of significant developments on climate change.

If climate change was so in-our-face in 2018, why did the media do such a lackluster job in reporting it? Okay, you’ll say, the media did better in 2018 than 2017 in covering the topics on the list above. Maybe so, but it wasn’t enough.

Public Citizen wanted to know which media coverage of topics relevant to climate change garnered significant attention in 2018 — like extreme weather events — and the extent to which media outlets explicitly connected them to climate change. In 2018, only 8% of newspaper articles, 5% of television transcripts, and 16% of online news articles mentioned solutions or mitigation in pieces discussing climate change. Public Citizen determined that news media have a major role to play in providing key information about the crisis and solutions to inform those actions. One way to report on the subject, they say, is simply to connect everyday coverage to climate where relevant. Another is to cover the climate crisis directly, including by discussing how we can mitigate it.

But a larger question looms — Why do so few media outlets thoroughly cover climate change, which we know is directly related to putting too much carbon into the atmosphere (CO2) when we burn coal, oil, and gas or cut down forests?

fossil fuel primer

Why Do We Need Transparency from the Media?

“The tragedy in the lives of most of us is that we go through life walking down a high-walled lane with people of our own kind, the same economic situation, the same national background and education and religious outlook. And beyond those walls, all humanity lies, unknown and unseen, and untouched by our restricted and impoverished lives.”

—Florence Luscomb, architect and suffragist (6 Feb 1887-1985)

When we are debating the future of energy, it’s important to know the sources of the information that we use to make our decisions, who’s authoring the information, and what their opinion and bias might be. In that way, we can form our own opinions about what we think the future of the energy system should be. It’s not enough to say, ‘My friends have always trusted it. That’s good enough for me.’

Media celebrities, partisan think tanks, and special interest groups funded by fossil fuel and related industries raise false doubts about the truth of global warming.

They minimize the significance of climate change. They insist that the US economy depends of the production of fossil fuels. They lobby for policies that limit liability from mining and burning pollution. They attempt to weaken existing pollution standards.

Constant media misinformation misleads and confuses the public about the growing consequences of global warming — and makes it more difficult to implement the solutions we need to effectively reduce the human-made emissions that cause global warming.

At a time when we need sound climate science and evidence to set the record straight, including resources to help each of communicate the real facts about global warming, the media is all-too-often mute.

Why is that?

fossil fuel primer

Ask Yourself: What is the Real Source of My Fossil Fuel Information?

Way back in 2012, the Columbia Journalism Review pointed out some research that said the press routinely quotes think tanks that bash clean energy policies and technologies. The article also noted that these media outlets also fail to mention that they receive significant funding from fossil fuel interests.

Do you think that the following statistics have changed in the last couple of years, or not? Conduct a little informal sleuthing yourself: how often do you hear media mouthpieces questioning climate science without disclosing their funders? Let us know in the comments section at the bottom what trends you think are happening in 2019 about media transparency, climate change, and fossil fuel interests.

When was the Columbia Journalism Review study? 2007-2011

How many media outlets did they study? 10 organizations, including the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute

How much $$ was spent on the media by fossil fuel industries? Around $16.3 million

Which fossil fuel companies/ foundations were responsible? ExxonMobil and 3 foundations

How many times were they mentioned in articles about energy issues? 1,010 times in 58 daily newspapers, the Associated Press, and Politico

How many times did the media describe their financial ties to the fossil fuels industry? Only 6% of the time.

How frequently did the news outlets use only an organization’s name? 53%

How often would they describe an organization’s ideology?

  • “Conservative:” 17%
  • “Libertarian:” 6%
  • By its location: 3%
  • Function, like “think tank” or “nonpartisan” group: 3%

Which outlets disclosed a group’s industry ties most frequently?

  • The New York Times: 10%
  • The Washington Post: 12%
  • Houston Chronicle: 15%

Why is it important for disclosure of media sources when fossil fuels are discussed? The power of think tanks to move pro-fossil fuels industry messaging is much more effective when they appear to be unbiased or neutral institutes. When media aren’t transparent about their funding, they dilute trust in authenticity and accuracy in climate science information. This really seems like planned deception, doesn’t it?

What sources are reliable for information about the fossil fuel industry — and why? The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) was cited by Columbia Journalism Review as an independent institute —  a federally funded research laboratory. Its mission is to make sure the public and other parts of government know the facts about the research and development behind the clean energy industry.

Public Citizen, which conducted the more recent 2018 study of the media and climate change reporting, suggests that producers, editors, or reporters who want to know whether or how to discuss climate change in the context of extreme weather could look to Climate Central, in particular its Climate Matters program, and Climate Nexus, including its Climate Signals project.

And you can call out your favorite media outlet every time you perceive that they’re not fully transparent about their funding sources. It’s an important climate action that you can and should take.

Images copyright free via Pixabay.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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