They say print newspapers are increasingly irrelevant in the 21st century — until those rare days when something really, really big happens. Win a Super Bowl, and folks will be lined up around the block to own the headline from a once-in-a-lifetime (in the case of the Philadelphia Eagles, literally) occasion. There was a huge spike in print sales in 2008 when America elected its first black president. And when the next president got himself impeached, folks were suddenly interested again in how it played in black and white.
Indeed, it seemed like most of my Twitter feed on December 19, 2019, the day after Donald Trump became just the third president in U.S. history to experience the shame of impeachment, was some form of media criticism of the front pages of the New York Times or the Washington Post or USA Today with their 72-point “TRUMP IMPEACHED” headlines. That night, though, a jarring newspaper headline came over my social media transom that made me rethink everything, or at least reminded me that we shouldn’t lose sight of the burning forest for the shiny trees of Trumpworld.
“Fires close in on city,” blared the Sydney Morning Herald. It looked like a front page prop from a Batman movie or something, but it was a real newspaper serving Australia’s largest city — a modern metropolis of more than 5 million people, a cultural icon for its ultramodern opera house that frames the first big fireworks of every new year. But as this decade-to-forget comes to a close, the pyrotechnics are on the edge of town, and they are non-stop.
“'Hazardous' air 28 days in the last two months,” read the sub-headline, describing the thick smoke that had enveloped Sydney for days. On the suburban outskirts, more than a dozen homes burned down that day, and hundreds more were imperiled.
The story of the Australian wildfires also seemed like a metaphor for where the global response to our changing climate stands at the dawn of the 2020s. Ten years ago, folks complained that global warming stories were too abstract, complicated and in the faraway future for the public to care. Today, it’s pretty simple. Australia is wicked, wicked hot. And the continent is catching fire.
In the middle of summer Down Under, Australia just recorded its hottest day on record — nearly 106 degrees, on average across the entire nation — as part of an epic heat wave that has stretched on for weeks. The fires have meant unspeakable tragedy for some families, with hundreds of homes destroyed and at least a half dozen dead, and increased risk for the many, as commuters wear masks to breathe the unhealthy air. Mimicking Trump’s America, Australia’s conservative prime minister Scott Morrison has vastly downplayed the potential dangers of climate change, eager to exploit his continent’s vast coal reserves.
At the end of 2019, the United States is consumed with the fate of the 45th president, headed into a year that will be bracketed by his impeachment trial (maybe) and an election that will be viewed, for better or worse, as a referendum on his four chaotic years in the White House. The Australian bushfires are just another one of these stories that would have gotten a lot of cable TV coverage five years ago — in the days of disappearing jetliners or cruises-from-hell — that these days have been lost in our soap opera obsession with a decadent White House.
And yet I can’t help but thinking that many decades from now, historians will look back at the bushfire front pages of the Sydney Daily Herald as a lot more significant than a ream of Trump impeachment headlines. That’s assuming that old newspapers aren’t all just more tinder for the looming apocalypse. I’m praying Americans will keep the focus and perspective to remember that we’re not only deciding the future of the 45th president next year, but also whether the planet will be habitable for the 55th.
The hellfires of Australia weren’t the only big climate story to get buried in the 24-hour-a-day U.S. impeachment chatter. In fact, there was article after article reflecting the growing scientific consensus that greenhouse-gas pollution caused by humans is warming the planet faster, and with more dangerous consequences, than previously predicted. Here’s a small sample of what we missed:
— Two leading climate scientists warned last week in the journal Science Advances that the deforestation of the Amazon rain forest in South America is happening at a much faster rate than predicted, or feared, writing that “[t]he precious Amazon is teetering on the edge of functional destruction and, with it, so are we." This phenomenon, they noted, mirrors both rapid ice melting in the Arctic and the thawing of permafrost in Siberia.
— The New York Times reported that satellite imagery of a recent. unpublicized accident at a fracking site in eastern Ohio (near the Pennsylvania border) revealed that a methane leak there was much greater than experts would have predicted. That’s hugely significant, because methane gas is a much more potent contributor to greenhouse-gas pollution than carbon dioxide, and because scientists fear such leaks are common at rigs in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
— Another jarring but little noticed report about fracking in Pennsylvania was published last week in the Wall Street Journal, noting that 31 people in the southwest corner of the state have been diagnosed with the extremely rare cancer known as Ewing’s sarcoma since the drilling boom took off in 2006 — a sharp and unexpected spike. The Wolf administration is about to spend $3.9 million on a study to learn why. It’s a reminder of the potential moral costs of our addiction to fossil fuels that runs even deeper than climate change.
Fortunately, some people are paying attention. Mostly young people. Over the last generation, America’s done a decent job educating our youth about how human activities affect the planet and its climate, and now as they get older they’re wondering why on earth the Donald Trumps and the Mitch McConnells and the Scott Morrisons of the world won’t take it as seriously as they do.
In 2020, the youth climate strikes are going to be bigger, and so will the acts of civil disobedience by teens and 20-somethings feeling an existential threat from pollution. I predict you’ll see more folks at July’s Democratic convention in Milwaukee protesting for a Green New Deal than protesting the orange menace at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — as they probably should be. My generation of Baby Boomers that dropped the ball so badly can decide, in the words of the late Lee Iacocca, to either lead, follow or get out of the way.
What would climate leadership look like? In Washington, the only realistic focus will be elections to remove the folks that have moved us backwards since January 20, 2017. In Harrisburg, the New York Times expose should be the spark for much stricter rules on methane leaks than those currently under consideration. Those are baby steps toward the ambitious United Nations goals of slashing greenhouse gas pollution by 50 percent over the next ten years, but at least we can start a new decade by moving in the right direction.
This month’s climate tip. At the start of 2019, I promised readers I’d deliver one column on climate change every month, and I did it! I won’t make the same promise for 2020, but I’d be shocked if I didn’t write about the issue even more often in the months ahead. It’s too damn important. I’m also ending my monthly tradition of offering a tip about something that you can do personally to reduce greenhouse-gas pollution.
Why? The world’s worst climate polluters aren’t people like you or me. They’re giant corporations. A 2017 study found that just 100 companies — mostly fossil fuel producers — have produced more than 70 percent of greenhouse-gas pollution over the last generation. Yes, you and I absolutely should eat less red meat, recycle and take mass transit. But going forward, I will aim my journalistic guns at these big players who do the most harm.