Hyperbole and gotcha journalism threaten to obscure necessary debate on climate

In the old Looney Tunes cartoon, Wile E. Coyote would often end up going over a cliff in his ever-futile attempts to catch The Road Runner. The standard gag would feature a hapless Wile E. hovering in midair while his elusive prey looked on mischievously; Coyote would only actually begin to crash to the ground once he looked down and realized his predicament. A key part of the gag was the looney idea that gravity only kicked in once the character realized they had run out of ground underneath them.

I’m afraid it sometimes feels like our species is now a few feet over the cliff and just trying not to look down. How else to explain the strangely conventional terms of discussion in politics and the media when it comes to the great pipeline debates in Canada. Even after the much-hyped Most Important UN Summit Ever in Paris, when seemingly everyone holding elected office in Canada jetted over to France to take selfies with the Eiffel Tower and make earnest proclamations about reducing emissions, the whole conversation seems to have returned to business as usual.

Take, for example, the nationwide media hysteria that greeted the passage of a resolution at the New Democratic Party’s recent convention in Edmonton calling for grassroots debate of the Leap Manifesto, a statement drafted after a meeting of social movement activists last year which calls on Canada to reduce inequality and shift off of fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

The way the press reacted, you would have thought NDP members had voted to ban hockey. CBC’s old guard pundits unanimously scolded the Leap’s authors and the delegates who voted to debate it, while Maclean’s magazine featured the two most prominent initiators of the manifesto, author Naomi Klein and her filmmaker husband Avi Lewis, with the headline “How to Kill the NDP.” The media coverage all focused on the differences between Alberta’s provincial NDP government, which is committed to pushing for new tar sands pipelines, and the federal NDP. It’s a fair division to report on, especially since the convention was taking place in Alberta, but the sensationalistic coverage missed the forest for the trees.

There were two glaring bits of context almost entirely absent from this media tempest in a teacup. First, almost none of the outlets put the Leap Manifesto in the context of the global climate emergency. Global temperature records are now regularly being smashed. According to the Guardian, data from the Japanese Meteorological Agency showed that last month smashed a more than century-old temperature record, and that “every one of the past 11 months has been the hottest ever recorded for that month.” Meanwhile, new and alarming studies point to more rapid melting of the polar ice caps than previously predicted.

The other point the pundits overlooked in their rush to declare the demise of the NDP was that phasing out fossil fuels is not remotely controversial, and the proposed pipelines are not remotely popular. The urgent need to shift to renewable energy was central to the discussions in Paris, and it was even independently agreed upon by the G7 industrialized countries earlier last year. With Stephen Harper in attendance, the G7 (the G8, excluding Russia) pledged to eliminate fossil fuels by the end of this century.

Across Canada opposition to new tar sands pipelines is mainstream and widespread. A poll commissioned by the Climate Action Network in late 2015 found a whopping 78% agreed with this statement: “protecting the climate is more important than building pipelines and further developing the oil sands.” Eighty-four per cent wanted the federal government to prioritize investment in developing renewable energy.

Here in British Columbia, the usual suspects ignored the broader context and rushed to use the occasion of the federal NDP passing a resolution to do “gotcha” journalism, playing on the old trope that the NDP is against all forms of development. BC NDP leader John Horgan was pressed to disassociate himself from the Leap, even though many members of his party had just voted to discuss and debate it. Even before the convention vote, Global TV’s Keith Baldrey was churning out hyperbole on Twitter: “the Leap Manifesto is close to swallowing the federal NDP and, perhaps, the BC NDP.”

In fairness to Horgan, the B.C. media landscape puts him and his party at a disadvantage. Any time they follow the environmental and climate concerns of their base and oppose mega-projects, the media piles on in a qualitatively different manner than on those somewhat more rare occasions when the B.C. Liberals follow suit. The Kinder Morgan pipeline is a perfect example. It was a game changing controversy when the BC NDP came out against it during the 2013 election campaign, but there was barely a ripple when the BC Liberal government formally opposed the pipeline at the National Energy Board earlier this year.

Here’s hoping British Columbians, whether members of the NDP or not, will be able to have a sober debate about how best to transition our society off of fossil fuels. Let’s not let corporate media voices derail this urgent conversation. You can check out the Leap Manifesto yourselves at this link: www.leapmanifesto.org/en/the-leap-manifesto