The Nature of Things·Point of View

The media has wasted decades arguing over climate change

We need to stop fuelling a fairy-tale binary, says Severn Cullis-Suzuki: ‘The campaign to deny the truth about climate has cost us dearly.’

We need to stop fuelling a fairy-tale binary, says Severn Cullis-Suzuki

Carol Stream, IL, USA - November 4, 2012: A pile of local and national newspapers, many of them with headlines on the front pages reporting stories in the days immediately following the impact of hurricane Superstorm Sandy after it hit the East Coast of the USA. (Allkindza)

Control the narrative, and you control the people. We know this from the great wars and campaigns of the 20th century. Powerful propaganda was used throughout each decade, greatly influencing the events that shaped our world's history. 

Journalists are an essential part of democracy, fact-checking and keeping watch on government and industry. But they themselves are beholden to larger forces. Their "who, what, when, where, why" is  shaped by systemic biases, not least of which is who owns the news outlets and who supplies funding. Many of our news sources are owned by billionaires who have built empires on an ecosystem-destroying economy. 

On the issue of climate change, truth-tellers have been marginalized for 30 years. "If you were to ask me who has done more harm to the living planet, the fossil fuel companies or the media companies, I would say the media companies," says environmental writer and activist George Monbiot in Rebellion, the upcoming documentary from The Nature of Things.

Severn Cullis-Suzuki first spoke out about climate change over 25 years ago and says we need to stop fuelling a fairy-tale binary in the media. (Grand Passage Media)

Wasting decades in a 50-50 debate on climate

I remember the first time I was on stage alongside a paid climate change doubter, over 20 years ago. I was a young activist calling for justice for youth and future generations. 

I had carefully prepared my arguments on why we had to take action to stop climate change, but was shocked when my opponent made no effort to debate. Instead, his strategy was to ignore everything I said and state his messages — which were opposite the science on climate — as loudly, dramatically and repetitively as he could. I later learned to deal with this scenario by telling the audience to follow the money to expose the bias. But I realized that in agreeing to be onstage with a climate change doubter, I was upholding the misperception that climate change is a 50-50 debate. 

For decades, in the name of objectivity, environmentalists have had to respond to interviewers' questions about the "other side of the argument," as though there is not overwhelming consensus among climate scientists (some 99 per cent) that human-created climate change is occurring. 

This habit has been a powerful device, which has kept society from having the real conversations, like how can we get off fossil fuels?; where are the opportunities?; and how can we use the transition from carbon to build a just and inclusive economy? The campaign to deny the truth about climate has cost us dearly. 

Today's youth are protesting injustice

Today, the fog is lifting, thanks in significant part to Greta Thunberg and, as environmental journalist and activist Bill McKibben says, the 10,000 other Gretas on the planet. Youth are rising up. They understand innately that the climate change issue is not about a disembodied "environment," but about justice, inequity and racism too. 

More than half of the human population is currently under the age of 30. Climate change represents a massive injustice. Perhaps one day there will be a tribunal for addressing this intergenerational crime, or recognize the climate crisis as a crime against humanity. But today, we are only just catching up to our climate reality, and at the 11th hour. 

Rebellion: Change is Coming

2 years ago
Duration 2:01
Great Thunberg visited Montreal during a climate march that stretched 4km through the city. Her message: "we are the change, and change is coming."

Humans are governed by the laws of nature

The narratives we tell today will determine whether and how we address the existential threat of human-made climate change. And in 2020, we have a chance as we sit at home, humbled by COVID-19. In that quiet, we are actually listening to different narratives — real narratives: George Floyd, fire and smoke on the West Coast, Joyce Echaquan, Mi'kmaq fishermen. 

COVID-19 has also been a sudden awakening to a forgotten reality: that we are governed by the laws of nature; that science and expertise are key to our survival; that we are all interconnected; and that we have agency. Our actions can mean the difference between life and death. 

Right now, we have a chance of a massive shift in the climate narrative. We do not need to further the propagandist drama that pits us against each other in a childish fairy-tale binary.  We need informed, diverse and empathetic plans to decarbonize. We need to highlight stories like that of Iron & Earth — oil sands workers calling for massive upskilling of those in the oil industry, so they can be leaders in clean energy. 

The narratives that are told and amplified will determine whether we rise to the occasion; whether we kick our fossil fuel habit and manage to transform to clean energy; whether we use this powerful opportunity to change from an economy focused on destruction to one focused on justice and well-being.

It's time to reclaim humanity's story and join the rebellion against a narrative that leads us to extinction.

Watch Rebellion on The Nature of Things.

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