On September 23, the United Nations (UN) will hold its 2019 Climate Action Summit in New York to rally world leaders around the urgent cause of reigning in human-driven climate change before it’s too late. President Donald Trump, who once described climate change as a Chinese plot to weaken US manufacturing, and who in 2017 announced withdrawing the United States from the international Paris Agreement, is expected to skip the summit. In the absence of US leadership on climate change, two American publications, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) and the Nation, have launched a global journalism initiative to intensify news coverage of the climate crisis in the week leading up to the UN Climate Action Summit. To kick off the initiative, CJR teamed up with Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the ad agency TBWAChiatDay New York to organize a pop-art exhibition that opened today at Foley Gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Open to the public for just three hours (9am-12pm), Flood the News: Bringing the Climate Change Crisis to the Front Page targeted a narrow audience of New York journalists (most of whom have already attended a press preview the night before). The exhibition aims at urging news publications to bring the climate crisis to their front pages with works that visually illustrate environmental calamities. It does so by exhibiting 41 flooded, scorched, and damaged front pages of world newspapers including the New York Times, Folha de S.Paulo (Brazil), Le monde diplomatique, the Australian, and Dagens Nyheter (Sweden). The front pages have been treated in various techniques to visualize the catastrophic real-life consequences of rising sea levels, hurricanes, intensifying heat waves, melting ice caps, and other climate hazards threating the inhabitants of this planet.
More than 250 news outlets from North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia have joined CJR and the Nation’s Covering Climate Now initiative. “For years, most of the American media has failed to adequately cover the most urgent issue of our time,” CJR writes in the exhibition materials. “We need to change the way we report about the climate, and we need to do it today,” it continues. By soiling and deforming newspaper front pages, CJR hopes to speak to journalists in a language they understand.
The visual treatments of the newspaper front pages are based on data and findings backed by scientists the Earth Institute, Climate Central, and federal and international climate reports. The papers were altered by the Brooklyn design and fabrication company Standard Transmission, overseen by New York-based artist Joan Wong, who shows her work “Melt” (2019) in the exhibition.
Every work treats the newspaper front page like a diagram, with the level of damage representing the projected percentage of increase in water levels, temperatures, or air pollution. The September 6 front page of the New York Times, which reported on Hurricane Dorian’s devastation, is about a third waterlogged as if soiled by floodwaters. This exhibit warns against the rising sea levels that threaten New York. According to wall text beneath the piece, a 4-foot rise is a midrange estimate by 2100, but higher levels are not out of the question. This could affect large areas along the city’s 520-mile shoreline.
The Wall Street Journal‘s bleached front page visualizes New York City’s rising heat index. At the current rate of global warming, New York City could see days with a heat index above 90 degrees Fahrenheit increase from 39 a year to 83 days a year by 2050, and to 111 by 2100.
Las Vegas is one of the fastest-warming cities in the US, according to Climate Central. Still, worse times lie ahead. If greenhouse gas emissions aren’t sharply reduced, Nevada could see the number of days hotter than 90 degrees Fahrenheit increase from 99 per year to 150 by the end of this century, Climate Central says. A heat-scorched Las Vegas Sun front page delivers that sinister warning.
The Washington Post‘s front page is scorched even higher. If no action is taken on climate change, the DC region can expect nearly 10 times as many days that feel like 100 degrees Fahrenheit when heat and high humidity are combined. There was an average of seven such days in 2000, but the number could top 50 in 2050 and 70 in 2100.
The front page of the Aspen Times illustrates the snowpack decline in Colorado’s Mountain, with the damaged area representing the level of melted ice due to rising temperatures. According to CJR, the snow season in Aspen is projected to shrink down to just 75 days later in the century.
News is worse in Alaska, which warmed as twice as fast as the US over the last 60 years, as can be seen on the front page of the Anchorage Daily. Alaska has been seeing urban heat waves, and a sharp rise in wildfires and coastal erosion, a trend that is expected to further exacerbate.
The city of Venice in Italy has been sinking into its soft sediment by an inch a year for generations. The condition was worsened by groundwater extraction, which the city has finally reduced. But with tides, winds, and storm repeatedly flooding the old city, scientists doubt if Venice can remain above water by the end of the century.
As opposed to other works, which were treated with dyes and other materials to simulate the effect of rising temperatures, the Sydney Morning Herald’s front page was literally burned, leaving only the top headlines unharmed. In 2009, 180 people died in an explosive outbreak of bushfire in Australia’s state of Victoria. The lethal combination of rising temperatures and dry conditions are only expected to worsen in the country’s east and south. In 2013, Australia had to add a new color (purple) to its weather maps for representing unprecedented blistering heat. Government studies project up to a 9-degree Fahrenheit rise in average temperatures in the country by late in the century.
About two thirds or more of Maharsha Times‘s frontpage, a newspaper that comes out in Mumbai, India, appear covered in soot. India, a country that heavily relies on fossil fuels, has high-levels of life-threatening smog in its big cities. Air pollution in India, says CJR, poses an outsize threat to the poor, who are most exposed.
Flood the News: Bringing the Climate Change Crisis to the Front Page successfully reawakens the sense of urgency needed toward climate action. However, it’s a shame that the general public was not given the opportunity to view this important and eye-opening exhibition for a longer stretch of time.
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