After a week of dire news — the certainty of our ruptured nation, the likelihood of a journalist being murdered — the United Nations’ report on climate change was, for some people, a bridge too far.
“I heard something about it,” a normally well-informed friend told me, “but I’m on a week-long hiatus from the news.”
For those who were still able to take it in, the report could hardly have been more frightening: By 2040 — only 22 years from now — the world will be in deep trouble, according to the unassailable expertise of the U.N.’s experts. Food shortages, wildfires and the mass death of coral reefs are just some of the dangers.
Getting the planet’s warming under even a modicum of control requires a fast-moving “transformation of human civilization at a magnitude that has never happened before,” The Washington Post reported.
That story on the report was the most prominent one on The Post’s home page on Monday morning, and in almost as prominent a place in the New York Times, as well as both papers’ print front pages. It got prominent attention on TV, too.
But it will need sustained emphasis, by the media and the public, all over the world, if we stand a chance of maintaining a livable planet.
“A bracing reminder that every issue we devote attention to other than climate change is really a secondary issue,” wrote Philip Gourevitch, author and New Yorker staff writer, on Twitter about the report.
And The Post quoted Erik Solheim, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program: “It’s like a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen. We have to put out the fire.”
That will be very much against the grain for the distraction-prone media and the news-weary public.
Recall that in the three presidential debates, not a single question was asked about climate change. Nor was it raised in the vice presidential debate.
Since his election, President Trump has turned his back on national and global efforts to control the problem — essentially saying it’s going to happen anyway so why bother to try to stop it?
Meanwhile, there is so much else to distract us at every turn.
Taylor Swift, we learned on Sunday, has broken her vow to keep out of politics, declaring her support to Tennessee Democrats.
Trump is holding raucous rallies and tweeting at every turn, portraying his political opposition as a dangerous mob of arsonists — and all but ignoring the Times’s groundbreaking 18-month-long investigation that revealed fraud and deception in his, and his family’s, finances over decades.
There is just so much happening at every moment, so many trees to distract from the burning forest behind them. And some of that news seems more important: Certainly the apparent murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Post global opinions columnist, deserves our immediate attention.
So it’s hard to sustain interest in the environment. It’s not easy to find a compelling, immediate angle to compete with palace intrigue or horse-race politics.
“There’s not a lot of news in this area — we’re watching glaciers melting — so there isn’t an urgency to get things into the paper right away,” Elisabeth Rosenthal, then a New York Times science reporter, told me in 2013.
Just as the world, especially the United States, needs radical change to mitigate the coming crisis, so too for the news media.
Journalists and news organizations all over the world — but especially in America — need their own transformation.
This subject must be kept front and center, with the pressure on and the stakes made abundantly clear at every turn.
There is a lot happening in the nation and the world, a constant rush of news. Much of it deserves our attention as journalists and news consumers. But we need to figure out how to make the main thing matter.
In short, when it comes to climate change, we — the media, the public, the world — need radical transformation, and we need it now.
Just as the smartest minds in earth science have issued their warning, the best minds in media should be giving sustained attention to how to tell this most important story in a way that will creates change.
We may be doomed even if that happens.
But we’re surely doomed if it doesn’t.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan