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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Breaking the breaking news cycle.

Remember when "Breaking News" meant something important was happening?
By Peter Dykstra, Environmental Health News 

Image result for breaking news gifBack in the day when cable TV news paid my salary, the screaming “Breaking News” banner drew in viewers, but it knew its time and place. 

Its timing was a few hours after the frenzy over the world’s biggest news—an infant stuck in a well or a cheerleader gone missing in the Caribbean.

Those are stories that at least have news value that tugs at our parental heartstrings or our love of a story with a beginning, middle, and end—happy or otherwise. They're not trivial.

But I've been dealing with a life-threatening, life-changing disability for the past few months—my own Breaking News—and one of the side effects has been the leisure time to return to a dozen hours a day of watching "Breaking News" headlines slapped onto every unfortunate Tweet or barnyard insult issued by our Commander in Chief or Anthony Scaramucci, the potty-mouthed venture capitalist who lasted ten days as White House Communications Director.

It's got me in enough of a moral high dudgeon that I'm thinking about Breaking News a little differently: Things that are truly broken, like the coal and fishing industries, the Arctic ice cap, or the Ogallala Aquifer, which irrigates much of America's breadbasket. For now.

There is, of course, an exception that proves the rule: Trump's announcement that he'd pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord became the Breaking News for June 1.

Problem is, this Breaking News was largely covered by the same windbags and blowhards that gave us the daily re-hash of why James Comey or Jared Kushner was the Prevaricator du jour. 

It would have been a nice narrative-breaker to stage one of those endless panel discussions with people who actually have a passing acquaintance with climate science and policy, even if it meant dragging Al Gore out of the cliche closet. 

Imagine Anderson Cooper presiding over one of those Last Supper-ish panels laden with people who had an interest and a clue about an issue we're blithely whistling our way into.

Cooper did better than most of his news anchor rivals. He devoted a massive panel chat to Paris and included a former Obama clean energy activist, an actual science reporter, and a Trump-supporting economist brought in to assure the false balance that's tainted climate reporting for decades.

And those three were roundly out-talked by five DC acolytes whose attachment to climate impacts—or anything beyond a broken Beltway—is shallow and condescending. Journalists may be the only group who could score lower approval and trust ratings than DC-bound politicians, so news execs conclude that what America craves is to have the unworthy explain to us what the reprehensible are up to.

And this past Tuesday, CNN’s Cooper led a one-hour “Town Hall” in which Gore fielded questions from people with genuine questions about climate change, including a part-time mayor who genuinely does not see a link between rising seas and the eventual disappearance of his community in Tangier Island, Virginia. His mayoral counterpart from South Florida asked about whether the Federal government would do enough to save her sea-level beach town from obliteration.

The program was far from perfect, but it represented what “Breaking News” should really be – things that leave us all more broken if the news is not fixed. Oddly, the CNN Town Hall succeeded by mostly excluding groups that have been loudest about climate change: Trump-ish deniers, politicians (save for Gore and the two mayors), NGO’s that are sometimes far more shrill than they seem to realize, and scientists.

Those scientists, with all their facts, projections and decades worth of on-the-ground validation.

So here's a reasonable, thoroughly unworkable proposal. Let's take a deep breath and map out a dozen stories that could truly be Breaking News—just the headlines, since anyone who reads this far into an environment story in an environment publication likely knows the Awful Truth.


Global Security: Americans aren't the only ones coming unglued over Islam. Bangladesh is a comparatively tranquil Islamic nation of 161 million people. Imagine what happens when their primary freshwater sources in the Himalayas dry up, and storms bring the saltwater into low-lying farm fields on a tragically regular basis.

Ocean Acidification: Changing the chemical composition of the ocean wasn't quite the impossibility we thought. First the mollusks and crustacean, then they came for the finfish.....

Fish: We're fishing the daylights out of what's left of those oceans. From pole to pole, including forage fish and keystone species like krill. And we're actually opening up new fishing territory as the northern ice melts, while both the Arctic and Antarctic become new focal points for future conflicts over minerals and fossil fuels.

Extreme Weather: While the developing world sees places like Bangladesh in agony, we'll be saying goodbye to estuaries like Chesapeake Bay, and urban icons like Miami Beach and Wall Street.

Desertification: Spreading, unlivable areas like the Sahara will become focal points of desperation.

Disease: West Nile, Zika, and the still-unknown micro-hellscape that could be unleashed as the permafrost melts.

Wildfires: From the boreal to the tropics, wildfires are on the march just as our ability to pay to fight them is under new stress.

Too Hot to (insert threatened activity here): Everything from August pre-season football practice to ski season to operating commercial aircraft. (Phoenix halted flights last month during the peak of a brutal heatwave.)

More intense storms: Katrina, Sandy, Haiyan, will have to give up the "storm of the century" labels as they become more commonplace.

Ignorance ≠ Bliss: As much of the rest of the world settles into nervous acceptance of climate science and the need for global action, the U.S. lards its cabinet with climate deniers.

All that money: Sovereign nations see their prospects for economic improvement completely undermined by the financial tolls from storms, crop failures, property and land destruction, and more. The poor get poorer, the rich get dumber, and the poor also get angrier.

The Sixth Extinction: And the first one whose primary driver is human influence.

Phenology: Changing patterns of where fish, crops, and wildlife grow, or no longer grow. Fishermen along the U.S. Atlantic Coast are already watching this happen as lobsters, flounder, and a parade of other species move north toward cooler water.

By the way, that life-changing disability I mentioned? Spinal infection. I'm in a wheelchair for life.
It really sucks, but it's not nearly as scary to me as climate change, or any of the dozen things above—news that could break us.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.