Environment, Public Health

World War II and climate change reporting

May 27, 2019

Bill Moyers argues the similarities

Demonstrators on Pennsylvania Avenue, near the Capitol, in Washington, DC.
Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash.

In a compelling, cautionary address, reported last week in The Guardian, the distinguished writer and commentator, Bill Moyers, 84, drew a parallel between journalists’ roles in covering the approach of World War II and climate change today. To a gathering of journalists, Moyers said: “In the war, the purpose of journalism was to awaken the world to the catastrophe looming ahead of it. We must approach our climate crisis the same way.” He went on to say:

But events educate, experience instructs, and so much destructive behavior has been caused by climate disruption that more Americans today than ever seem hungry to know what’s causing it, what’s coming and what can be done about it. We journalists have perhaps our last chance to help people grasp the magnitude of the threat.

If that is true for journalists, it is just as true for those in public health. Climate and public health are deeply convergent. Health inequities, disruption of ecosystems, food insecurity, catastrophic storms – all are related to both climate and health outcomes. Many of us, and I include myself, have not done enough to spread the word about the crisis of climate.

Moyers described reporters positioned across Europe who tried in vain to get the media to pay attention to the story of impending war. Time and time again, they were put off, given short shrift, told it wasn’t happening and asked to replace their stories with feel-good Hollywood antics. Combining information from several sources, Moyers said,

…and still the powers in New York resisted. Through the rest of 1939 and into the spring of 1940, Hitler hunched on the borders of France and the Low Countries, his Panzers idling, poised to strike. Shirer fumed, ‘My God! Here was the old continent on the brink of war…and the network was most reluctant to provide five minutes a day from here to report it.’ Just as the networks and cable channels provide practically no coverage today of global warming.

Today is Memorial Day. There are lessons from the war and the brave men (my father included) and women who fought a despot who beguiled the public with stories that only the desperate could – and did – believe. There also are lessons that can be applied today about standing by while the world is in flames or may soon be. Moyers said:

My colleague and co-writer, Glenn Scherer, compares global disruption to a repeat hit-and-run driver: anonymous, deadly, and requiring tireless investigation to identify the perpetrator. There are long stretches of nothing, then suddenly Houston is inundated and Paradise burns. San Juan blows away and saltwater creeps into the subways of New York. The networks put their reporters out in raincoats or standing behind police barriers as flames consume far hills. Yet we rarely hear the words ‘global warming’ or ‘climate disruption’ in their reports. The big backstory of rising CO2 levels, escalating drought, collateral damage, cause and effect, and politicians on the take from fossil-fuel companies? Forget all that. Not good for ratings, say network executives.

All is not yet lost

Moyers ended by providing hope and a call to action.

Can we get this story right? Can we tell it whole? Can we connect the dots and inspire people with the possibility of change?

Here’s the good news: While describing David Wallace-Wells’s stunning new book The Uninhabitable Earth as a remorseless, near-unbearable account of what we are doing to our planet, The New York Times reports it also offers hope. Wallace-Wells says that ‘We have all the tools we need…to aggressively phase out dirty energy…; [cut] global emissions…[and] scrub carbon from the atmosphere…. [There are] obvious and available, [if costly,] solutions.’

What we need, he adds, is the ‘acceptance of responsibility.’

Our responsibility as journalists is to tell the story so people get it.

Our roles as public health professionals, advocates and citizens

If the responsibility of journalists is to tell the story so people get it, we have the responsibility as public health professionals, health professionals, and others to use our collective voice. That voice can be powerful and amplified thousands and millions fold if we use it well. We can use our skills and expertise as policy makers, engineers, biostatisticians and epidemiologists, communicators and behavioral experts and more to make a difference and encourage the right actions at every level. We cannot simply sit on the sidelines of history and watch the degradation of the planet and everything on it. It is not enough to frighten people, especially when many perceive the risks as far off and not affected by their individual behaviors. It is not enough to simply provide facts, as we know from behavioral theories. We must also give them clear, actionable messages about what they can do to make a difference.

I will be asking a lot of questions in our School to assess what we can do to ensure that our students are learning what they need to know about climate, and that we are doing what we can and should, to avoid a cataclysm as horrific as the worst war we can imagine. I know some will say that there are more important topics students should learn now, but what could be more important than the future of the earth? Yes, this post is apocalyptic in tone, but that’s what we face when governments refuse to believe in or act on evidence. The clock is ticking.

I am spending some time this holiday weekend reading The Uninhabitable Earth to get ideas for action. I also am thinking with love about my late father who ran across battlefields as a medic to save lives in World War II, and once shamed a cowardly cleric for leaving injured soldiers alone and dying. He never told us those stories until the closing years of his life.

With thanks to those who protect our country and the planet.

Doing the important work to address climate

Photo courtesy of UNC.

Innovative, solution-oriented work, like that of student startup Phyta, Inc., gives reason for hope. Eliza Harrison, who just completed a BSPH in environmental health science from the Gillings School this month, co-founded Phyta in 2016 based on the belief that cultivating seaweed would benefit the planet in multiple ways. Gillings School executive entrepreneur-in-residence Don Holzworth and health behavior professor and chair Kurt Ribisl have mentored the Phyta team along their amazing journey. Local television station WRAL aired a story in April.

Postscript: Each of us has our own way of responding to the climate crisis. Steve Regan, assistant dean for human resources at the Gillings School, shared with me that he wrote a poem and then turned it into a song about the urgent need to act on climate. “This is a sad song, but I think it makes the point about a very scary and sad situation,” Steve said. “I think of my grandchildren when I sing this song.” A recording of Steve singing Wild Horses Don’t Run is embedded here. “We must keep trying to get the message across,” he explained. I couldn’t agree more.

Want to leave a comment or contact us?
The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.