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HackwatchNewsletter | June 14, 2024

The Mainstream Media Keeps Burying the True Cost of Fossil Fuels

Climate and EnvironmentCorporate CrackdownMedia Accountability
The Mainstream Media Keeps Burying the True Cost of Fossil Fuels

This article first appeared in our weekly Hack Watch newsletter on media accountability. Subscribe here to get it delivered straight to your inbox every week, and check out our Hackwatch website.

As the summer heats up, we seem to be in for another year of record temperatures… and lukewarm climate journalism from the mainstream media. That is, if recent New York Times reporting on heat-related deaths in the workplace is any indication.

An Effect Without A Cause? 

Last month, Coral Davenport and Noah Weiland reported for The New York Times on the Biden administration’s struggles to address extreme heat-related on-the-job deaths, with some saying that forthcoming OSHA regulations will not go far enough toward addressing the issue. And the issue of extreme heat is severe; it’s the leading cause of weather-related fatalities, resulting in more deaths than visible and dramatic disasters like “hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes combined,” according to National Weather Service statistics. As Davenport and Weiland write, “An estimated 2,300 people in the United States died from heat-related illness in 2023, triple the annual average between 2004 and 2018. Researchers say all those figures are probably undercounts, in part because of how causes of death are reported on death certificates.”

The two rightly point out that OSHA’s rule-making, which would create clearer requirements for worker protections in different heat index ranges both inside and outside, is unlikely to survive if Biden does not win reelection. They also, correctly, stress the difficulty of implementing the rule once it is enacted, given the broad reach of extreme heat and the lack of preparedness of FEMA and other federal emergency response systems. The authors even mention that the rule-making has faced and will continue to face “stiff resistance from some business and industry groups” opposed to spending the money required to offer workers “more breaks and access to water, shade and air-conditioning”—that is, basic human decency in hot weather.

But Davenport and Weiland’s analysis ends there—they name the regulatory challenges facing the Biden administration without ever naming a villain, or a root cause of worsening extreme heat. They don’t once mention the role of the fossil fuel industry in creating the climate crisis, despite recent and very relevant cases of lawsuits being brought to hold corporations accountable for knowing how dangerous burning fossil fuels was, and continuing to pursue maximal profits anyway. (As polling by our friends at Public Citizen has demonstrated, these lawsuits enjoy widespread popular support.)

In addition to failing to mention that fossil fuel companies are most responsible for exacerbating the problem of extreme heat, Davenport and Weiland fail to be specific about the “business or industry groups” that have pushed back on the regulations—which include, prominently, the fossil fuel industry. The authors’ only mention of industry comes when they name the kinds of job roles the OSHA legislation is intended to protect: ”farm laborers and construction workers, but also people who sort packages in warehouses, clean airplane cabins and cook in commercial kitchens.”

But a cursory look at the official docket for OSHA’s “Heat Injury and Illness Prevention in Outdoor and Indoor Work Settings” rule demonstrates that it’s not just the agriculture, construction, and air travel industries who have protested the rule. Major energy and fossil fuel industry interest groups, including the notorious American Petroleum Institute (API), the petrochemical-focused and API-funded American Chemistry Council, and the greenwashing-prone American Clean Power Association, submitted public comments lamenting the difficulty of following universal workplace safety requirements related to heat (with dubious rationales).  

You got that right: not only is the fossil industry continuing to fight tooth and nail to avoid accountability for its role in generating catastrophic climate change, it’s also protesting the implementation of policies intended to protect workers from the downstream impacts of climate change, like extreme heat. If Davenport and Weiland are serious about reporting on extreme heat in a way that lays bare causes and potential solutions, they need to be serious about pointing out the corporations and industry groups getting in the way of the Biden administration taking effective action. (They might also follow the lead of the website we co-developed, Supreme Transparency, and look into ties between corporate interests and the judges who might take corporate legal arguments far too seriously.) 

It’s not just the Times

Davenport and Weiland are not the only ones highlighting the mounting death tolls from climate change. Outlets from Scientific American to NPR to NBC to Forbes have covered rising heat deaths, hurricane and flooding damage, and increasing turbulence on planes. But they also don’t cover who is at fault for all of these deaths. Some do mention “human-caused climate change,” or a similar phrase, but the problem isn’t attributable to all of humanity equally. Some people and corporations played a much larger hand in this new nightmare we all inhabit.

More than anyone else, oil companies have conspired to actively stave off climate change mitigation. They’ve known about it and covered up evidence for decades. They decided that their profits were more important than global well-being. And when they did, they made the business decision that these deaths were less important than their shareholders’ pocketbooks. This is one of the biggest parts of the story of climate deaths. Corporations have fought tooth and nail to be able to keep polluting, knowing that in doing so they were putting people at heightened risk of serious harm and death. 

Monsanto is another good example. The company poisoned the water in northern Alabama for years just because it was cheaper to dump their chemical waste into creeks than to properly dispose of it. Housing developers have sought to limit the definition of “waters of the United States” to keep the EPA from regulating their pollution of watersheds while building. Corporations have shown, year after year, decade after decade, that they are not concerned with obeying the law or with protecting the public or the environment. But even these examples pale in comparison to what fossil fuel companies have been engaging in. Polluting certainly, but also peddling lies and setting our collective future up in flames (in an all too literal sense).

And yet, they are conspicuously absent from so many of these stories surrounding climate change-driven deaths. Fossil fuel interests should be a defining topic of any discussion of the human costs of climatic disasters. Just like the tobacco industry before them, these firms decided that profit margins were more important than the lives of living, breathing human beings. A huge part of why we are so ill-prepared for the increased risks from a less stable global climate is because oil companies stepped in the way, fearing that acknowledging the bruising we were in for would be the first step in abandoning their product. 

Toward Responsible Climate Reporting 

The systematic bias against naming and shaming powerful corporate villains is, as we have consistently argued, a major problem for the mainstream media. Rather than obfuscating the root causes of climate change and bemoaning the challenges of effective governance without explaining why the challenges exist, reporters must rise to the urgency of this moment—climate catastrophe will only continue to worsen, and collective action to stop it will be impossible without an informed public. 

Consider, for example, this week’s Democracy Now! segment on the dangers of extreme heat, which also made the important point that while air conditioning is crucial given the extent to which today’s infrastructure is ill-equipped to keep indoor temperatures livable, it’s an energy-intensive technology powered by a grid that is still largely fossil fuel-reliant. And as such, we should not consider blasting the AC as a long-term solution for rising temperatures in the absence of decarbonization. Rather, reliance on air conditioning powered by today’s dirty grid contributes to the vicious cycle of increased emissions that harm the climate. 

This kind of reporting would also help pressure the Biden administration to engage in the kind of proactive corporate crackdown we’ve been calling for, by pointing out how specific corporations like Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and others are funding the trade groups protesting workplace safety regulations while ducking responsibility for the impacts of climate change at every turn. 

Shifting the bottom line

When we talk about climate change-driven deaths, it’s imperative that we remember these disasters aren’t acts of God, they are being caused by a massive destabilization in climate across the globe that some people with inside information decided they were okay with. We are here not solely, but largely, because of fossil fuel firms. It should not be difficult to point that out. People are dying because of the fossil fuel industry’s willful obfuscation of real climate action. If we ever want to break the cycle of corporations killing the reforms we need to defend ourselves from the harms they have brought to our doorstep, we need to be honest about this. People in power need to point this out and label it as what it is: a blood sacrifice at the altar of the bottom line.

Image Credit: “Extreme Heat” by Chris Yarzab is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Climate and EnvironmentCorporate CrackdownMedia Accountability

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