The CounterSpin episode for November 24, 2017, was a special show on climate disruption and media—featuring excerpts of archived interviews with Kandi Mossett, Dan Zukowski, Marianne Lavelle and Jim Naureckas.
Janine Jackson: This week on CounterSpin: As Americans celebrate a fairly tale about the relationship between Native Americans and settlers, Native Americans are mourning the pollution of more of their land, and lives, by fossil fuels. The November 16 spill of more than 200,000 gallons of oil from the Keystone pipeline occurred adjacent to the South Dakota reservation of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe.
The inevitability of such spills is, of course, only one of many reasons millions of people resist pipelines like Keystone. Last August, CounterSpin heard from Kandi Mossett, Native Energy and Climate Campaign organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. She talked about the peaceful protest against the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota. We’re going to revisit that conversation today.
Climate disruption is many stories—not just big messes like oil spills, but some maybe subtler but no less meaningful impacts, like birds disappearing from your backyard. We talked about some of the less-discussed changes with environmental writer Dan Zukowski. We’ll hear some of that too.
There’s no scientific controversy: We have to keep fossil fuels in the ground. The fight is entirely political. InsideClimate News reporter Marianne Lavelle spoke with us early in the Trump administration about how the White House’s plans are setting us back.
And finally, why, in 2017, do corporate media insist on making ideological room for climate change denialists and go-slowers, even as working journalists report the utterly undeniable? We spoke with FAIR’s own editor Jim Naureckas about that.
Climate disruption—and corporate media’s compromised and inadequate response, this week on CounterSpin.
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When we spoke with Kandi Mossett in August of 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux had been engaged in peaceful protests over the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline for months, drawing solidarity from indigenous people and others around the country and the world, and repression from state authorities. Big media took little notice; none of the three major TV networks had said word one, with social, independent and especially Native media doing the work of getting the story out. Kandi Mossett is Native Energy and Climate Campaign organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. We asked her to explain what the struggle was about.
Kandi Mossett: I think it’s important to understand where we are here in North Dakota. It has a history of being a fossil fuel state. I grew up here in North Dakota, I was born and raised here, my family, a majority, lives here, and I sort of had to work my way through how we were different or set apart from other areas. We had a lot of people in this state that had a lot of sicknesses and illnesses, particularly in my family, particularly on my reservation, which is just northwest of here, known today by the government as the Four Bristles Reservation, but known by us as the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations. We’re surrounded by seven coal-fired power plants and the country’s only coal gasification plant. Every single bit of the over 11,000 miles of rivers, lakes and streams that are in North Dakota are already contaminated with mercury contamination because of the coal industry here. So that history already exists.
And then we have fracking, which started in 2007, 2008, and we started seeing so much development taking place, and that’s how we learned about the Dakota Access Pipeline, and they wanted to come through North Dakota and start here. And we had just been fresh, myself working with the Indigenous Environment Network, just fresh off of fighting against the Keystone XL Pipeline, which many people are calling this Keystone XL Part II, because it’s still another way to move and transport oil, although now it’s Bakken oil, which is being dug out directly under my feet at my homelands, and I’m seeing the devastation.
So I think the media have always had a blackout from the bad things around energy development, and around oil industry or gas or coal or anything to do with fossil fuels, because they feel like it’s a good thing for our state—because it provides jobs, is always what the main headline is. But what they don’t tell people is that North Dakota does have a low unemployment rate, yes. We always have. You can look back to statistics before even this Bakken oil boom, and we’ve had this 3 or 4 percent unemployment rate in our state, which is the same today.
And so it’s politicians here protecting the work that they know. I think that they don’t know any better. It’s business as usual. And because this infrastructure is already set up for fossil fuel development, they don’t want the rest of the country to know and understand the struggles and the suffering that those of us on the ground have faced on a day-to-day basis—I’m getting emotional—
KM: —because I am a cancer survivor, and there’s so many around me that are fighting and struggling with it now. And I truly believe that the health of our people is impacted directly by the fossil fuel development, and it’s frustrating that the media are not telling the truth about what’s happening here. The truth being, we are peaceful protectors of water and of health, and we want our future generations to not have to deal with the cancers and the asthmas and the problems we’ve been facing here in this state.
And also to let the rest of the country know that what happens in North Dakota does not stay here. The water, the Missouri River, flows downstream, all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, all the way down through to the oceans. And the toxins, the pollutions, the dioxins, the carcinogenic poisons, the cancer-causing poisons that are being put in our water, flow downstream. And this air that we breathe blows through the rest of the world, and we do not want that to be our legacy, as concerned community members and people that live here.
JJ: Well, the Sacred Stones camp seems focused very much on a response to that broader and ongoing historical environmental context, but on an interruption of that business as usual, on saying, we want to say no and call attention to our saying no to this, and I think that’s why it’s so galvanizing and exciting for people. And I wonder if you could tell us: This is, as you say, a peaceful protest, a prayer protest, and it was begun, wasn’t it, by women? Women have a central role here.
KM: Women do have a central role. That’s not to say that men don’t have a role as well. There were ceremonies that were led by four leaders that were actually men, that went into ceremony, but through the support of the women. The actual blockade itself, some of the things that people may have seen, where when the field was stormed by a group of women, it started with one woman that went out and took the field on the west bank, where they were trying to build a road to bring in the heavy equipment which would help pull the pipe under the water for boring. So when they bore, they go underneath the ground instead of trenching and laying a pipe directly on top of the water, on like a water bed.
So that’s how the industry and how our state officials that signed off on this project make themselves feel better, is that they say they’re being environmentally responsible by boring. But they still have to build all these roads, they still have to bring all this equipment, and that pipe can still leak. The problem is that it will be 90 feet below ground, so you won’t detect the leak as immediately. So it’s really kind of interesting in that regard, but women stormed the field and went out. The workers didn’t know what to do, they just stopped their equipment. They were like, OK, hold on, and shut down and walked away, and they were like, OK, go ahead, jump up there.
And that effectively is what stopped the work, because there hasn’t been this level of pushback in North Dakota, I don’t think ever before. Our tribe is the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, and certainly the Standing Rock Sioux, fought back against the building of the dam that created our reservoirs here. Lake Sakakawea and Lake Waahi are reservoirs that are man-made, that were created by a dam, and that was in the ’50s, late ’40s. We fought back then, but not to this extent, where so many people came and stood with us, because we lost that battle. And now here we are trying to protect what we were forced into having, a reservoir to get our water supplies from, and now they’re threatening those reservoirs with this pipeline.
JJ: Right. Well, I hear a quiet voice in the background there.
KM: I do have my three-year-old here with me at the camp, and I have to say something, that if I thought it was a violent place, I wouldn’t have her with me. And there are also other children out here as well.
JJ: That’s an excellent point. Because a lot of what coverage I have seen has focused on conflict, has focused on violence. And to the extent that they talk about the concerns, the concerns get a phrase, which is, the indigenous people or the Standing Rock are concerned that a leak in the pipeline will pollute their drinking water. Well, I would say, first of all, leaks are not fears, really. I mean, look at history, they are a near certainty, pipeline leaks. But also it’s important to say that it is not just the fear of a leak that is the concern here. There are other concerns as well, aren’t there?
KM: There are many, many, many concerns. And they have to do with spirituality, too. I mean, that’s why we come here in prayer. Everything is impacted, not just what a person might see on the surface. It’s not just the water, and it’s not just us as human beings. It’s everything that relies on that water. The four-legged, the winged, everything that swims in those waters is impacted, yet doesn’t have a voice to say, no, protect us, we don’t want this either. It‘s all of the processes that go into getting that pipe there in the first place, and then that pipe isn’t just here; it’s through several states, in fact.
And the big picture, the long-term, what that’s doing is, it’s saying that it’s OK to continue business as usual, when we know that our planet is in climate chaos because of anthropogenic causes, human-induced causes, of messing with our Earth systems and our Earth cycles. We burn these oils and these fossil fuels and we put them into the atmosphere, never knowing the full impact of what it’s going to do.
Well, I should correct myself. We didn’t know before, maybe, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, but we certainly know now. We know that ethane and methane are causing warming temperatures, which are causing people to be displaced in the island states, in the Philippines. People are being displaced right now. We have all of these storms that are occurring, these hurricanes and flooding in Louisiana, where my friend Cherri Foytlin down there is fighting to say “another Gulf is possible,” yet she’s cleaning the walls out of her home, cutting the walls out, so they don’t get mold because they were flooded. There’s fires in California that are burning everything. There’s intense heat in the Northeast.
These are related. All of this is not a coincidence. And it’s kind of taking a step back and looking at the big picture and seeing that this not just a fight about this one pipeline. This is a fight to protect our planet for all of us as humanity.
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Janine Jackson: The same corporate media who presented Standing Rock as a story of violent protesters interfering with the lawful workings of industry talk about climate disruption itself as an abstraction, represented often by the image of a polar bear stranded on an ice floe. Getting reporters to pay attention to all of the stories of climate change is an urgent effort. CounterSpin spoke with environmental writer Dan Zukowski about recent work he’d done for EnviroNews about, for one thing, songbirds.
Dan Zukowski: They looked at 48 species of songbirds, and these are birds that migrate primarily from Central and South America up to places in North America, in the US and Canada, for their summer migration. Because of the changes in climate patterns—and those changes are somewhat different in different parts of North America—it’s throwing these birds off as to when they should leave their winter homes in Central and South America, and when they should arrive here in their summer homes in North America.
They found, for example, that in Vermont, winter has been shortening by four days per decade for the last several decades. So the trees are blooming and the grass is coming out and maybe the birds aren’t even here yet. So it’s an issue: If these birds arrive too early, it will be cold and they may not be able to find a place to nest; they may not find a mate, because their mate hasn’t arrived yet. On the other hand, if they arrive too late, it’s the opposite: All the best nesting places may be taken. So there’s a real impact. And it’s kind of funny, because one of the researchers there in that article said, you would think that birds who know how to migrate over thousands of miles would be easiest to adapt.
DZ: But they have hundreds of thousands of generations of cues, such as the length of daylight, that haven’t changed. And they use those things to determine when to leave and when to arrive, and when they get to their summer homes, things are not what they expect. These birds may adapt over years and generations going forward—as, for example, the earlier birds will survive better than the birds who arrive later. But that’s sort of the workings of evolution that happen much more slowly.
JJ: Right. Well, the work on birds is just a piece of this article, because it’s about various species’ response to climate destabilization. And folks might think it’s interesting that it includes trees, but trees are moving—if you will—too, and that also has implications.
DZ: Yeah, trees are moving. Of course, it’s not an individual tree that gets up and walks, but it’s where certain concentrations of trees—they call it the “center of abundance” for a particular tree species, whether it’s the oaks or certain forms of conifers and so forth. What they’re finding is that trees are basically moving north and west. They’re moving a bit more, in the study that was done, to the west, about 50 feet per decade west, and about 36 feet per decade north. And these again are due to both precipitation changes and temperature changes.
Other researchers have also seen trees moving further up mountains. This has been seen in Colorado and California and other places, where, as the global temperatures warm, tree species that couldn’t survive previously at higher elevations now can. The implication of this is that it changes the entire ecosystem, and it changes the food supply for the animals, whether it be birds or other terrestrial animals, that depend on this vegetation to survive.
DZ: It’s funny that you started off with the polar bear issue. Well, the polar bears, of course, have no place further to go; there is no more north for them. But another piece I’m working on now is looking at how grizzly bears are now being seen in polar bear habitat, where they’ve either never been seen before, or they’ve only been seen very rarely.
I’ve been to the Canadian tundra; it’s a very inhospitable place. There’s not a lot growing there. And polar bears don’t care, because they’re not eating vegetation, they’re just waiting to get out and hunt for seals. But grizzly bears, as the vegetation changes and it becomes more something that they can actually eat, well, it’s going to draw them further north. So we’re seeing some conflicts, we’re even seeing some interbreeding among grizzly bears and polar bears. When you change one thing in the ecosystem, lots of things ripple out.
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Janine Jackson: Listeners will know questions about climate change played virtually no role in coverage of the presidential election, but there was no surprise when Donald Trump, who once referred to it as a Chinese hoax, filled his administration with extractive industry types, invested in denial. Marianne Lavelle is a veteran environmental journalist, now a reporter for InsideClimate News. We asked her about the impact of the new White House on, for instance, the US’s commitments under the Paris Agreement.
Marianne Lavelle: President Obama had made a very ambitious pledge, but felt that it was an achievable pledge, to cut greenhouse gas emissions about 26 to 28 percent by 2025, and that was based on levels from 2005. Well, we’ve cut emissions about a third since then. So the Obama plan was really to achieve the rest through this whole array of different regulations and possibilities. And very key to that was the Clean Power Plan, to attack those emissions from power plants, which are our biggest single source of emissions. That, of course, is No. 1 target for elimination by President Trump.
And, of course, the EPA is the agency that’s supposed to be executing all of these rules, or most of them. There was a regulation on methane. And the Obama administration felt that this would be a very achievable goal, of cutting methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, because methane, although it’s a very, very potent greenhouse gas, we have the technology to capture any methane leaks. We just need to monitor and detect and make sure that it’s not leaking.
But the oil industry has been very opposed to having federal rules on that. And one of the first things that the new EPA did was put a stop to most of the regulation for methane from oil and gas. Regulations on energy efficiency, on car efficiency, all of those seem to be in the sights of the White House. And this was the ladder we were going to use to reach our target for the Paris Agreement.
JJ: Clearly, as you’ve touched on, cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency itself are going to be harmful. And I would note that in one piece you wrote, you showed how small a slice of the budget EPA actually accounts for.
ML: Yes. You almost need a magnifying glass to see it. If you look at the whole federal budget, it’s two-tenths of 1 percent of that budget. They certainly aren’t going to get a lot of money by cutting all of these programs. And that shows that it’s not about money, it’s ideological—and also, they’re looking at what businesses are going to be favored under this administration. And although the EPA is a very small agency, the oil, gas and coal industries are very much affected by what it does. They have been fighting it for quite some time, and now they feel they’re going to be successful in really reducing the agency’s clout.
JJ: You mentioned ideology, and I think Scott Pruitt’s history, of course, is telling. I understood that he just tweeted last month that he was dedicated to working with “stakeholders—industry, farmers, ranchers, business owners—on traditional values of environmental stewardship.” Are those all the stakeholders? Somebody’s missing there.
ML: The public doesn’t get really mentioned in that, which, of course, is the biggest stakeholder that the EPA was actually established to protect. But this is Scott Pruitt; this was his view even when he was attorney general in Oklahoma. Talk about the whole idea of corporations as persons—that was the part of the public that he was serving. And some would say a large part of what he did, when he was suing the EPA, 14 times as attorney general, was serving the Oklahoma oil and gas industry. So that is really where we stand.
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Janine Jackson: Some 200,000 people gathered in Washington, DC, in late April this year for the People’s Climate March, identified as being about climate, jobs and justice. But just as so many see the urgent need to marshal forces to meet an unprecedented crisis, and heal its already evident harms, corporate media, some of whom have vigorously branded themselves as bastions of rationality in a post-truth world, continue to boggle us with backward-looking decisions, like that of the New York Times to give a regular column to former Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor Bret Stephens. Jim Naureckas is editor of FAIR’s newsletter Extra! and fair.org. He joined the show to talk about the sad kind of sense such a choice actually makes.
Jim Naureckas: Bret Stephens does have a record at the Wall Street Journal, and you can see what kind of writer he is. He’s the kind of writer who publishes articles like “Global Warming as Mass Neurosis” and “Palestine: The Psychotic Stage,” and he’s published defenses of torture. This is the kind of writer he is.
And the New York Times is insisting that we need to broaden the range of debate, so we can have climate denial and anti-Arab racism and torture advocacy as part of our news diet. And I really want to ask, Why? Why do we want to have someone denying that the greatest calamity facing the planet, that it is happening? Why do we want to have people who talk about the “disease of the Arab mind” as their explanation for Mideast conflict? Why is this helping the discussion? What are we adding to our intellectual diet by reading these views on the New York Times op-ed page?
JJ: You’re talking about racism and pro-torture advocacy, and for a lot of people, that has actually been off the page, and all the focus has been about climate. And so it’s interesting that his very first piece was about climate, and the one fact that it had, they had to add a correction to it. But the direction you’re taking it—I mean, the fact that they had to correct the one fact in his first column kind of tells you really that it’s not about facts for them, that the facts are kind of secondary.
And Susan Matthews at Slate had a piece about how his piece wasn’t really about facts; it was really kind of classic denialism in saying, “Aren’t we all uncertain, isn’t everything uncertain? You know, people thought Hillary Clinton would win the election, and they were wrong.” And that that’s much more insidious, and it’s much more Timesian. You know—classy people find nuance in everything.
JN: You can tell by reading that column he does not know anything about the climate, he does not care anything about the climate. What he cares about is antagonizing liberals. And he did this very effectively at the Wall Street Journal, and got applause from his readers there. Now his role is slightly different. He was mocking the idea of global warming when he was at the Wall Street Journal, and saying that people who believed in global warming were members of a cult, and confidently predicted that in a hundred years temperatures would be the same as they are now. Now he’s at the New York Times, and he is, you know, “I’m very thoughtful and I’m thinking that we’re too certain about things, and we should be less certain.”
JN: And he throws out this fact, as an example of the kind of thing that we all agree on about climate, and he garbles it completely. It’s the one fact in the column, and he flubs it. He describes the global temperature rise as the Northern Hemisphere temperature rise. And now he claims, oh, yeah, well, there is some contribution that humans are giving to global temperature rise, but we really can’t say for sure how much or what we should do about it or — the effect is the same, let’s not do anything.
JN: But now he’s got a more Timesian approach to it.
JJ: I find it so galling, because part of what he’s saying, and part of what defenders from the Times editorial page are saying, on Twitter and elsewhere is, oh, people who are critical of Stephens don’t want to have a conversation. Now, of course, it’s galling on the first level of, no, we don’t want to have a conversation about slavery, either; we think some things are done, and we want to move on. And here, too, there’s so much conversation to be had about how the world would respond to climate change. There’s so much to talk about.
JN: Yes. Yeah.
JJ: We have to retrofit an economy, we have to—you know, there’s a whole lot to talk about. It’s not that people don’t want to have a conversation.
JN: The actual debate in science that’s going on about global warming is how bad the effects will be. There are reasons to think that there are multiplier effects in the climate that will make the temperature rise much worse, and the effects that humanity will have to endure are much greater. That is the actual debate that serious people are having about the serious disaster that is affecting the world.
And the New York Times would rather be able to say, “Well, we have the people who say global warming is quite serious and we should do something about it some day, and we also have the people who say it’s not so serious and we don’t need to do anything about it right now.” And that’s the debate that they want to have, because that is the debate that you can have at your cocktail party, and everyone will feel pretty comfortable about that debate.
Janine Jackson: That was FAIR’s Jim Naureckas. Before that you heard Marianne Lavelle, Dan Zukowski and Kandi Mossett. And that’s it for CounterSpin for this week.