The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Peeved by Record Reports
It has been more than a decade since I've used Eco-Justice Notes to vent about some of my pet peeves -- at least explicitly. I do so today, not because I feel like unloading toxic emotions on my unsuspecting readers, but because my irritation this week is related to a very important issue that need to be addressed.
I'm going to look in some depth at a very dangerous way that mainstream reporting distorts our perspectives about climate change -- with a some suggestions for ways we can respond. If you get peeved too (or perhaps beyond peeved), today's musings show how to explore your feelings, and how to take responsible action.
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On Tuesday morning, I became peeved when I read page 9A of the Denver Post. In the "Briefs" column of the business section -- which has short news clips, not underwear reports -- there was a one paragraph story, "New Mexico marks record year for oil production." (The USNews version of the AP story is slightly longer.)
Three things in that paragraph set me off. (1) There was the framing of the story as good news -- isn't it wonderful that a record 172 million barrels of oil were produced in 2017! (2) There's the second tier of "good news" -- output from the Permian Basin is expected to double over the next several years. Hooray! (3) Not a word was said about the climate impact of this rapidly increasing oil production.
I was primed to be peeved because I'd heard a similar report on NPR a few weeks ago about total US production breaking records. It, too, was framed as good news, and climate impacts were ignored. I didn't follow up on that story, but it set me up to react strongly to Tuesday's newspaper brief.
As I've done some Googling, I find that this kind of reporting is quite common.
A much longer story about the New Mexico record from the Albuquerque Journal is full of business boosterism. "Oil production gushes to all-time record" -- "booming at levels never before seen" -- "modern drilling technology began pumping new life into the aging Permian Basin" -- "literally positioned to be a global leader in energy production."
When US News & World Report ran the AP story about the New Mexico record, they put it in their "Best States" ranking.
Nationally, the US production record was broken in November, with those figures just being released. CNBC's headline is excited: "US crude oil output hit an all-time high in November, taking out the 1970 record, new data show." USNews goes into more detail, even in the headlines: "U.S. On Track to Become World's Top Oil Producer -- Booming production and restrained global supply have put the U.S. in a position to surge past Russia and Saudi Arabia." NPR takes a small step back toward objectivity in January: "Drillers Are Optimistic As U.S. Oil Production Booms."
I'm grateful to NPR for breaking the pattern with a story aired just this morning: "'Keep It In The Ground' Activists Optimistic Despite Oil Boom". In my less-than-exhaustive research, that's the only reporting I've seen about surging oil production which acknowledges that there are severe climate implications.
The dominant approach, by far, is for journalists to look at oil and gas strictly in economic terms. Pumping that stuff out of the ground means lots of money for businesses and in taxes, and lots of jobs. There's also a healthy dose of state and national pride in doing such a great job of extracting all that wealth from the rock with whiz-bang new technologies of fracking and directional drilling.
George Lakoff introduced many of us to the complex ideas of strategic framing with his little book, "Don't Think of an Elephant." He writes, "Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary -- and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas." The vast majority of news reports about oil and gas production are framed to celebrate money, extraction, technology and "energy dominance." That is a worldview which is absolutely contrary to progress toward a just and sustainable society.
It doesn't have to be that way. Think of other records that are handled very differently. A press release from the Colorado Department of Transportation is headlined, "Colorado Traffic Fatalities up 24 Percent in Two Years -- Motorcycle deaths hit all-time record." There's nothing celebratory in this story, and it ends with a lengthy section on "What CDOT is Doing" to cut the death rate. We should be horrified by some records, and work hard to be sure that they are never broken again.
Here are two quick suggestions for how to push back.
(1) Does your church have a bulletin board for your "green team" or for environmental news? If so, clip out or print out the news stories that have dangerous framing about things like record production of fossil fuels. Put it up with the question, "Is this really good news?" Maybe that question can be an ongoing feature of the bulletin board, with regular postings to stimulate thought and conversation.
(2) In a more public setting, we can challenge the reporters to take a bigger look at the story. Adding some easy to calculate details can shift the framing, or at least acknowledge a larger reality.
Even in its current, trimmed back version, the website of the US Environmental Protection Agency has a Greenhouse Gases Equivalencies Calculator. Among many options, that page offers two easy-to-use conversions. Each barrel of crude oil will lead to 0.43 metric tons of CO2 emissions. For natural gas, one million cubic feet (Mcf) will lead to carbon dioxide emissions of 0.0550 metric tons. (They do add an important note: "When using this equivalency, please keep in mind that it represents the CO2 equivalency for natural gas burned as a fuel, not natural gas released to the atmosphere. Direct methane emissions released to the atmosphere (without burning) are about 25 times more powerful than CO2 in terms of their warming effect on the atmosphere.")
The Albuquerque Journal is happy to tell us that last year's record production was 171 million barrels of oil. It only takes a second with a calculator to learn that New Mexico's 2017 production will add 73.53 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, significantly increasing the rate of climate change. This is not good news.
Whenever you come across one of these badly-framed stories, where oil and gas production is celebrated and climate change is ignored, fire off an email to the reporter or the editor.
I was upset to see that your recent report on oil and gas production didn't mention the climate impacts of burning those fuels. According to EPA figures, that record production will lead to another record -- _____ tons of climate-warping carbon dioxide being released. In the future, tell us the whole story about fossil fuels.
I'm sending emails like that to both the Denver Post and the Albuquerque Journal reporter.
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In today's political and cultural climate, I get peeved fairly often. If I don't do anything about it, I just get cranky (or even more cranky), and the world keeps rushing along in the wrong direction.
A quick response to news stories like the ones on record oil and gas production is good for the psyche -- it helps us let go of the irritation. And a simple response can also help change the world. It could open up a conversation in church, or it could prod a news agency to frame their stories differently.
We're called to work toward God's shalom -- toward the well-being of all humankind, now and into the future, and toward the protection of all creation. Sometimes, that takes big and dramatic action. But sometimes a quick email or an easy bulletin board posting is a good step.
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