Nov. 12 2014 11:39 AM

Ocean acidification tops the annual list of important stories ignored by the mainstream media

ProjectCensored
Illustrations by Lindsey Voltoline

Our oceans are acidifying—even if the nightly news hasn't told you yet.

As humanity continues to fill the atmosphere with harmful gases, the planet is becoming less hospitable. The vast oceans absorb much of the carbon dioxide we've produced, from the industrial revolution through the rise of global capitalism. Earth's self-sacrifice spared the atmosphere nearly 25 percent of humanity's CO2 emissions, slowing the onslaught of many severe weather consequences.

Although the news media have increasingly covered the climate weirding of global warming—hurricane super-storms, fierce tornado clusters, overwhelming snowstorms and record-setting global high temperatures—our ocean's peril has largely stayed submerged.

The rising carbon dioxide in our oceans burns up and deforms the smallest, most abundant food at the bottom of the food chain. One vulnerable population is the tiny shelled swimmers known as the sea butterfly. In only a few short decades, the death and deformation of this fragile and translucent species could endanger predators all along the oceanic food web, scientists warn.

This "butterfly effect," once unleashed, potentially threatens fisheries that feed more than 1 billion people worldwide. Largely left out of national news coverage, this dire report was brought to light by a handful of independent-minded journalists: Craig Welch from the Seattle Times, Julia Whitty of Mother Jones and Eli Kintisch of ScienceNOW.

It's also the top story of Project Censored, an annual reporting project that features the year's most underreported news stories, striving to unmask censorship, self-censorship and propaganda in corporate-controlled media outlets.

Computer modeler Isaac Kaplan, at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office in Seattle, told Welch that his early work predicts significant declines in sharks, skates and rays, some types of flounder and sole and Pacific whiting, the most frequently caught commercial fish off the coast of Washington, Oregon and California.

Acidification can even rewire the brains of fish, Welch's story demonstrated. Studies found rising CO2 levels cause clown fish to gain athleticism, but have their sense of smell redirected. This transforms them into "dumb jocks," scientists said, swimming faster and more vigorously straight into the mouths of their predators. These Frankenstein fish were found to be five times more likely to die in the natural world. What a fitting metaphor for humanity, as our outsized consumption propels us towards an equally dangerous fate. 

"It's not as dramatic as say, an asteroid is hitting us from outer space," Roth said.

No, the changes caused by ocean acidification are gradual. Sea butterflies are among the most abundant creatures in our oceans and are increasingly born with shells that look like cauliflower or sandpaper, making this and similar species more susceptible to infection and predators.

"Ocean acidification is changing the chemistry of the world's water faster than ever before, and faster than the world's leading scientists predicted," Welch said, but it's not getting the attention is deserves.

Our oceans may slowly cook our food chain into new forms with potentially catastrophic consequences. Certainly 20 years from now, when communities around the world lose their main source of sustenance, the news will catch on. But will the problem make the front page tomorrow, while there's still time to act?

Probably not, and that's why we have Project Censored and its annual list.


2. Top 10 U.S. aid recipients practice torture:
Sexual abuse, children kept in cages, extra-judicial murder. While these sound like horrors the United States would stand against, the reverse is true: This country is funding these practices.

The U.S. is a signatory of the United Nations' Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but the top 10 international recipients of U.S. foreign assistance in 2014 all practice torture, according to human-rights groups, as reported by Daniel Wickham of online outlet Left Foot Forward.

Israel received more than $3 billion in U.S. aid for fiscal year 2013-14, according to a Congressional Research Service report. Israel was criticized by the country's own Public Defender's Office for torturing children suspected of minor crimes.

"During our visit, held during a fierce storm that hit the state, attorneys met detainees who described to them a shocking picture: In the middle of the night dozens of detainees were transferred to the external iron cages built outside the IPS transition facility in Ramla," the PDO wrote, according to The Independent.

The next top recipients of U.S. foreign aid were Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, Jordan, Iraq, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. All countries were accused of torture by human-rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Kenyan police in Nairobi tortured, raped or otherwise abused more than 1,000 refugees from 2012 to 2013, Human Rights Watch found. The Kenyan government received $564 million from the United States in 2013-14.


3. Trans-Pacific Partnership, a secret deal to help corporations:
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is like the Stop Online Piracy Act on steroids, yet few have heard of it, let alone enough people to start an Internet campaign to topple it. Despite details revealed by Wikileaks, the nascent agreement has been largely ignored by the corporate media.

Even the world's elite are out of the loop: Only three officials in each of the 12 signatory countries have access to this developing trade agreement that potentially impacts more than 800 million people.

The agreement touches on intellectual property rights and the regulation of private enterprise between nations and is open to negotiation and viewing by 600 "corporate advisors" from big oil, pharmaceutical and entertainment companies.

Meanwhile, more than 150 House Democrats signed a letter urging President Obama to halt his efforts to fast-track negotiations and to allow Congress the ability to weigh in now on an agreement only the White House has seen.

Many criticized the secrecy surrounding the TPP, arguing the realworld consequences may be grave. Doctors Without Borders wrote, "If harmful provisions in the U.S. proposals for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement are not removed before it is finalized, this trade deal will have a real cost in human lives."


4. Corporate Internet providers threaten net neutrality:
This entry demonstrates the nuance in Project Censored's media critique. Verizon v. FCC may weaken Internet regulation, which Electronic Frontier Foundation and other digital-freedom advocates allege would create a two-tiered Internet system. Under the FCC's proposed new rules, corporate behemoths such as Comcast or Verizon could charge entities to use faster bandwidth, which advocates say would create financial barriers to free speech and encourage censorship.

Project Censored alleges corporate outlets such as The New York Times and Forbes "tend to highlight the business aspects of the case, skimming over vital particulars affecting the public and the Internet's future."

Yet this is a case where corporate media were circumvented by power of the viral web. John Oliver, comedian and host of Last Week Tonight on HBO, recently gave a stirring 13-minute treatise on the importance of stopping the FCC's new rules, resulting in a flood of comments to the FCC defending a more open Internet. The particulars of net neutrality have since been thoroughly reported in the corporate media.

But, as Project Censored notes, mass-media coverage only came after the FCC's rule change was proposed, giving activists little time to right any wrongs. It's a subtle but important distinction.


5. Bankers remain on Wall Street despite major crimes:
Bankers responsible for rigging municipal bonds and bilking billions of dollars from American cities have largely escaped criminal charges. Every day in the U.S., low-level drug dealers get more prison time than these scheming bankers who, while working for GE Capital, allegedly skimmed money from public schools, hospitals, libraries and nursing homes, according to Rolling Stone.

Dominick Carollo, Steven Goldberg and Peter Grimm were dubbed a part of the "modern American mafia" by the magazine's Matt Taibbi, one of the few journalists to consistently cover their trial. Meanwhile, disturbingly uninformed cablemedia "journalists" defended the bankers, saying they shouldn't be prosecuted for "failure," as if cheating vulnerable Americans were a bad business deal.

"Had the U.S. authorities decided to press criminal charges," Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lanny Breuer told Taibbi. "HSBC [a British bank] would almost certainly have lost its banking license in the U.S., the future of the institution would have been under threat and the entire banking system would have been destabilized."

During the course of decades, the nation's bankers transformed into the modern mafioso. Unfortunately, our modern media changed as well, and are no longer equipped to tackle systemic, complex stories.

This was a shortened version of the full list, which originally appeared in the now-shuttered San Francisco Bay Guardian. Read the rest of the top-10 list here.

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