• Mukti Bari

The Cataract of Environmental Censorship

With the rising popularity of a certain Chinese social networking app (which shall remain unnamed), I realised that I’ve grown up with the media influencing a substantial amount of my decisions. What to wear, what songs to listen to, how I should drink my coffee. While trivial stuff like this is mostly (keyword: mostly) harmless, what happens when we rely on the Internet when it comes to the more pressing, global matters? Is it okay to rely on the same media when it comes to educating ourselves about climate change or sustainability? Are governments and politicians as transparent as they claim to be? Before we try to answer these, we need to reawaken that tiny, nagging conspiracy theorist inside of us. Yes, the same one that thinks COVID-19 is a bioweapon and that the moon landing was a Stanley Kubrick production.

The most important tool that a government (or anyone in a position of authority) has, is the ability to control what information the general public consumes. Censorship allows governments to knowingly withhold information that is ‘harmful’ or ‘offensive’ to the public. But since what is ‘harmful’ or ‘offensive’ is, of course, subjective, governments take blatant liberties in what they think should be censored (just ask Salman Rushdie). Naturally, the degree of government influence on the media would primarily depend on the type of government we’re talking about. Dictatorships, like North Korea, would have the greatest amount of media control, which they infamously do. Following that same logic, a democracy that (apparently) emphasises the right to information should be the exact opposite. But is this actually true?

The USA, second-largest democracy in the world, has come under global scrutiny after

the election of Donald Trump. Which is, of course, not news to anyone. His actions as President have been critiqued immensely, especially his contradictory views on climate change. He has famously called the global phenomenon a ‘hoax’, and then subsequently claimed it to be a ‘serious subject’ after he faced backlash. But, more insidiously, the Trump government seems to be censoring environmental issues with unparalleled frequency. An example of this would be the USGS 1 press 1The United States Geological Survey, a government research body responsible for investigating USA’s natural resources

Waves flooding across a coastal road near Santa Cruz, California. [Credit: Image taken from the USGS website]

release about a study conducted on the rising sea level at the California coastline. While the study itself 2 states that ‘600,000 people could be impacted by dynamic flooding by 2100’ , the press release doesn’t seem 3 to emphasise the urgency of the issue at all. The phrase ‘climate change’ is used toward the end once, as a mere afterthought. The original press release , which is available only on the website of an environmental 4 NGO, Point Blue Conservation Science, is drastically different from the one that was ultimately released. The un-censored press release details the actual severity of the issue, stating that “by 2040 [the sea rise] could flood more than 150,000 residents and affect more than $30 billion in property value”. Similar instances are meticulously detailed in an initiative by Columbia Law School (Sabin Center for Climate Change Law), called the Silencing Science Tracker. Their website reveals 279 instances (thus far) where the 5 Trump government has restricted or prohibited climate-related research.

Contrary to what we’d like to believe, this is not an isolated incident. In a report by the Climate 6

Council, the Australian Federal 7 Government asked UNESCO to entirely remove any mention of Australia (also a democracy) in a report on climate threats to World Heritage Sites. This is especially alarming as the Great Barrier Reef, located off the Australian coast, was subject to one of the worst instances of coral bleaching in history. Coral bleaching is when corals expel algae that are essential to their health, leading to stunted growth or even death, the primary cause of this being rising water temperature. Turns out,

Bleached coral of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef [Credit: Image taken from the NBC News website]

this particular instance of censorship was Australia’s way of protecting their tourism sector, which plays a significant role in their economy. But at what cost?

In both cases, the actions of the US and Australian governments handicap not only the general public but also the environment, leaving it exposed to continual abuse. Censoring essential information in most cases (environmental and otherwise) encourages apathy instead of action because no one is truly aware of the severity of the situation. For instance, the Tiananmen Square Massacre (4th June, 1989) in China, where about 10,000 students attending a pro-democracy protest were brutally killed by Chinese troops in order to suppress the movement. The government has since taken measures to erase the memory of the protest, heavily censoring all forms of media. Since then, the Chinese pro-democracy movement has been almost entirely suppressed (at least in the Chinese mainland). For today’s Chinese youth, 4th of June may just as well be like any other day. Similarly, if my government, whom I supposedly trust, tells me that this colossal, looming issue of climate change is a hoax, why would I care about the icebergs melting, and the world slowly going underwater? To prevent this from happening, scientific research and content editing (for press releases e.t.c.) should be left to qualified researchers. Bodies (such as the USGS) that are responsible for any type of scientific research, including environmental, must be allowed to function independently, to reduce any third-party government influence.

While organisations and initiatives such as the Climate Council and the Silencing Science Tracker mitigate the effects of censorship in environmental issues, mainstream media and larger organisations have an influence that smaller organisations cannot match. Consequently, censored, sanitised information reaches more people than the truth does. As individuals, there isn’t much we can do about this. But, even though we can’t control the information they give out, we can control the information that we take in. Constant awareness is tough, but it's necessary. Even though we have a tendency to let social media algorithms guide us through hours of trivial content (I’m definitely guilty of spending a considerable amount of time trying to figure out how ‘X Æ A-12’ is pronounced), I think its high time we actually educate ourselves about our environment, understand the dire need of a sustainable future, and hold those in power accountable for their actions.

Reliable Sources of Environment-Related News

• Earthsight: a non-profit organisation that reports on a wide range of current environmental issues (https://www.earthsight.org.uk)

• Climate Feedback: consists of a global network of scientists that fact-check and assess the credibility of climate change media coverage, mainly news articles (https://climatefeedback.org) • Grist: interesting and relevant articles and opinion pieces regarding environmental issues (https:// grist.org/climate-energy/)

• Vice: similar to most other news it covers, Vice brings to light environmental news that has been under- reported in mainstream media (https://www.vice.com/en_us/topic/environment)

“New US Geological Survey-Led Research Helps California Coastal Managers Prioritize Planning and

Mitigation Efforts Due to Rising Seas and Storms.” Accessed May 25, 2020.



Works Citated:

Barnard, Patrick L., Li H. Erikson, Amy C. Foxgrover, Juliette A. Finzi Hart, Patrick Limber, Andrea C. O’Neill, Maarten van Ormondt, et al. “Dynamic Flood Modeling Essential to Assess the Coastal Impacts of Climate Change.” Nature News. Nature Publishing Group, March 13, 2019. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-40742-z.

March 13, 2019. https://rdjzr2agvvkijm6n3b66365n-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/ 42019/03/PR_SLR-and-Storm-Threats_031319.pdf.

“Silencing Science Tracker.” Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. Accessed May 26, 2020. 5 https://climate.law.columbia.edu/Silencing-Science-Tracker.



7 Australian non-profit organisation that propagates environmental awareness to the general