Every once in a while there is good news in this troubled world, and the choice of Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai as this year’s Nobel Peace Prizewinner is one such moment. The timing could not be more apt. The choice of Maathai was announced near the end of a US presidential campaign that has resolutely ignored the greatest danger facing humanity, global climate change. Her selection thus stands as an implicit rebuke to the environmental backwardness of America’s political and media classes. It also represents an explicit assertion that, as the Nobel committee put it, “Peace on Earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment.”
The Bush Administration remains in denial about climate change even though its closest overseas ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said in September that climate change is the single biggest long-term problem his nation faces. Blair’s top scientific adviser, David King, has gone further, declaring that climate change is the biggest threat civilization has ever faced–bigger even than the global terrorism that dominates headlines and obsesses George W. Bush. King warned in July that there is now enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to melt all the ice on earth, which would put most of the world’s biggest cities under water, starting with low-lying metropolises like New York, London and New Orleans. “I am sure that climate change is the biggest problem that civilization has had to face in 5,000 years,” King said. Even Shell Oil chairman Ron Oxburgh admitted in June that he is “really very worried for the planet.”
Climate change is to the twenty-first century what the nuclear arms race was to the twentieth: the overriding threat to humanity’s continued existence on this planet. And it is already killing people. In the summer of 2003, some 15,000 people died in France from an unprecedented heat wave. No single weather event can be definitively attributed to climate change, but such heat waves are exactly what scientists expect as warming intensifies. If climate change is not moderated, more will die in years to come–either directly, through more destructive storms and droughts, or indirectly, through declines in food production and the spread of infectious disease.
Yet except for two brief references to the Kyoto Protocol during the Bush-Kerry debates, climate change has been absent from the presidential campaign. Kerry criticized Bush for walking away from Kyoto without mentioning that he himself also opposes the protocol (though Kerry pledges that, as President, he would re-open negotiations and fix what he considers its flaws). Bush sounded almost proud of having rejected Kyoto, which he claimed, incorrectly, would hurt the US economy.
Although parts of the media have woken up to the danger–Business Week and National Geographic ran cover stories on it this past summer–most US journalists still don’t get it. At best, they see climate change as just one of many environmental issues. At worst, they are still fooled by industry propaganda casting doubt on the science behind claims of climate change. Television networks approach the issue with a particular conflict of interest. As Robert Kennedy Jr. has observed, cars are the leading source of US greenhouse gas emissions, but car ads are the leading revenue source for US television networks.