What’s Your Poison?

words by Willow Defebaugh

Photograph by Gabriela Barros

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, President Trump’s only real mention of the environment came in the form of a claim that the United States has the cleanest air and water on the planet. Two days later, his administration finalized its stripping of the Clean Water Act, which protects streams, wetlands, and groundwater from pollution.


In what will surely be remembered as the most egregious campaign ever enacted against the environment under one presidency President Trump has repealed or weakened close to 100 environmental laws and regulations. The United States is the only country to have pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, and has contributed more to global heating than any other country. And yet, President Trump went on to say in Davos that: “We have to do something about other continents, other countries. I think Greta ought to focus on those places. We have a beautiful ocean called the Pacific Ocean. So I think Greta has to start working on those other countries.”


Whether we are talking about the literal poisoning of our waters or the toxicity of blatant deflection, misinformation, and deceit, there is only way to handle falsity: by continuously coming back to the truth. This has been Greta Thunberg’s tried-and-true tactic since conservatives began to attack her with conspiracy theories as wide ranging as being a child puppet to being a time traveler from 1898 (yes, you read that correctly). At a panel during the Forum, Greta repeatedly directed everyone back to the findings of the IPCC. It is the foundation of her now-famous line, “Listen to the science.”


Closed doors and coverups will always be the tactics of the industry tyrants who got us into this mess. As we explored in a collaborative story between Atmos and Parley for the Oceans this week, the oil spill that occurred in Brazil last year is still without a culprit—but with plenty of side effects to the local ecology, from the beaches and vital mangrove trees to the Pataxó indigenous peoples who were afflicted with headaches, vomiting, and rashes after cleaning up the ecosystems they rely on. All of the finger-pointing distracts from the fact that it took the government over a month to act on the crisis, allowing the toxic oil to spread over three thousand kilometers.


As professional truth-tellers, journalists and news outlets need to be held responsible for not spreading misinformation more than anyone. That’s why this week, we put out an open call for media companies like the New York Times, Politico, the Washington Post, and CNN to stop funding fossil fuel companies through branded content and poisonous native advertising.


When we play into false narratives, we only further them. As I touched on in my previous newsletter on shame, this is exactly what the propagators of the climate crisis want: to distract us from focusing on the larger issues at hand. Right now, the conversation is all about how we have failed as consumers—when in actuality, we are in this mess because of governments and corporations. Climate journalist Emily Atkin put it so brilliantly in a recent edition of her own newsletter, Heated, saying that we need “to start treating the climate crisis as a failure of systems, rather than individuals.”


Now more than ever, commit yourself to uncovering the truth by asking the right questions, coming back to the facts, and making sure those around you do as well. As George Orwell put it, “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

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