British Columbia floods, human extinction, and the pursuit of page views
For several years, climate change has been linked to sharply rising spring temperatures in the Kootenay-Boundary region of B.C.
Those higher temperatures cause a more rapid snowmelt in the mountains. That is leading to severe flooding in more populated river valleys, which is being compounded by spring rains.
The worst could come over the next few days as water levels are rising in several B.C. rivers, including the mighty Fraser.
Welcome to the new normal.
The one-in-a-200-year catastrophic event is probably going to happen far more frequently in the future.
We can expect the same in the summer when it comes to forest fires and smoke-filled B.C. cities.
It's a real downer and it's not going to be good news for B.C.'s $17-billion tourism industry going forward.
Several sources of climate apathy
How did we get here?
Part of the reason is that the public isn't nearly as interested in climate change or climate-change mitigation as many other topics.
That includes crime and mayhem, terrorism, cannabis, electoral politics, new restaurant openings, and the fate of the professional sports teams in their communities.
Then there's the challenge of simply putting food on the table and a roof over one's head in a world marked with rising income inequality.
The media haven't helped much. Climate change very rarely receives front-page coverage in newspapers or lead treatment on TV and radio newscasts.
Over the past few decades, Big Oil has tried to sow confusion by funding think tanks that downplay or outright deny the impact of rising greenhouse gases on the climate. That's another source of the problem.
And politicians who understand the issue, such as Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson or Richmond councillor Harold Steves, are sometimes written off or even ridiculed.
This is the case even when they want to prepare the region for blistering heat waves, massive windstorms, and more atmospheric rivers dumping huge amounts of water.
If there's little media coverage of climate change, there's often little political will to address the issue.
That's reflected in the B.C. NDP government's new Climate Change Accountability Act.
In the words of Martyn Brown, it includes two "equally toothless targets": a 40 percent fall in greenhouse gas emissions below 2007 levels by 2030 and a 60 percent drop by 2040.
Why toothless? Because there will be no accountability before then in this Orwellian-named legislation.
In the meantime, communities are being devastated around the world by the effects of climate change, which include more intense hurricanes, huge forest fires, and flooding at unimaginable levels.
We're on a road to extinction
Here's the scariest part of the story: the Earth's average temperature appears on track to be 1.5 °C above pre-industrial times within a decade.
That's the objective of the 2015 Paris Agreement, but the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions means we will likely blow past that in our lifetime.
According to a recent article by Australian climate-change researcher David Spratt, who examined six recent peer-reviewed studies, we're "on a path of 3.4°C warming by 2100".
If true, this will accelerate feedback loops, leading to more rapid melting of Arctic, Antarctic, and Greenland ice sheets. That, in turn, will lead to less heat being reflected back into the atmosphere, accelerating warming.
This elevates the possibility of large amounts of carbon being released from warming oceans, creating another feedback loop.
And worst of all might be the threat of massive releases of methane from Arctic areas. That's because it's 85 times more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping heat.
You would think that the fate of humanity on Earth would merit massive media attention.
But it doesn't.
Here's why: most people don't want to read articles like this because it brings them down.
They don't share them on Facebook or Twitter at anywhere near the same rate as articles about cannabis or new restaurant openings.
As a result, these articles about climate change don't generate nearly as many page views.
Eyeballs drive MSM coverage nowadays
Modern mainstream media companies have access to sophisticated computer programs that evaluate how often articles are read.
The Globe and Mail, for example, has a system that even tracks which articles are more likely to convert into paid subscriptions.
This is particularly important in a world where advertising revenue isn't what it used to be.
If people don't share articles about climate change, they won't get the readership numbers that lead to more paid subscriptions.
Without these, media companies have trouble paying the bills and keeping the lights on.
There's a lot of talk about how big media is being silenced by advertising dollars from the fossil-fuel industry.
But I would argue that an equally pernicious problem is the lack of readership that most articles on climate change attract.
These days, media workers are measured like baseball players. Statistics are compiled on how many page views they generate per day, per month, and per year.
Outrageous columnists, such as Margaret Wente, produce copy that infuriates many people. Her detractors condemn it even as they share it on social media, which drives up the page-view counter.
As a result, Wente's stats improve and the publisher is happy. She gets to keep her job.
This creates a conundrum for those who can do the math around greenhouse gases and want to mobilize political action.
Politicians will sometimes only respond to an issue if there's media coverage. And there won't be much media coverage if journalists who cover climate change in the mainstream media can't generate sufficient page views to justify their existence to their employers.
What's the solution?
Vancouver theatre producer David Diamond once told me that sometimes, you have to deal with the world the way it is, rather than the way you want it to be.
So if people who are utterly freaked out about the climate want to make a difference, they have to give this issue serious thought.
First and foremost, they should share articles they see about climate change, not only because they like them but because it will increase the likelihood of more such articles being produced in the future.
Some are already doing this in admirable ways. Among them are transportation planner Eric Doherty, Climate Race cofounder Ben West, Greenpeace's Mike Hudema, and Seth Klein of the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
But there needs to be a far grander and more systematic approach if it's going to lead to a stronger political response.
The future of humanity on Earth is at stake.
I don't have all the answers.
But I put this out as a challenge to those who are on the front lines of this fight, including 350.org, Greenpeace, Al Gore, and the David Suzuki Foundation.
They need to wrap their minds around how to make climate change a far bigger priority for media organizations rather than just writing off these companies as stooges for Big Oil, even if this is the truth.
In this economic environment, Big Media is being ravaged by Google and Facebook.
Everyone from the New York Times to Rupert Murdoch is scrambling for page views.
Any topics that deliver eyeballs are going to generate more coverage in the future.
This is particularly true as revenue from advertising diminishes and as subscription income becomes a more important consideration.
In the old days, environmentalists could count on Time magazine and CNN (in the Ted Turner era) to devote significant resources to covering climate change.
That's no longer the case when metrics indicate that these stories aren't generating anywhere near the numbers as Robert Mueller's investigation of Donald Trump or something as trivial as a Royal wedding.
Something has to change or else we're all eventually going to be fried.More