VICE Magazine started in 1994 by meticulously documenting hip for the young and tattooed, but in recent years, its founders have transformed it into a sort of National Geographic for the young and tattooed. Shane Smith, founder and CEO of VICE Media and host of VICE on HBO, insists dominating the news cycle will be next on the menu, and that includes expanded coverage of climate change — what he calls the biggest story of our age.
He makes good on his promise in the newest episode of VICE, which airs on HBO tonight at 11 p.m. EST. In it, Smith travels to Greenland with climate scientist Jason Box to document Greenland’s rapid melt in real time. Watch a clip:
We caught up with Smith to chat about climate storytelling, denier trolls, and how to make people understand how melting ice in Greenland will end up flooding their basements.
Q. What made you guys want to tackle climate change?
A. I did a story last year — and I’m going to do this every season, every time we get a chance because I think it’s the biggest problem facing humanity as a whole today. I don’t know how you get bigger. We’re up shooting now in Norway, shooting a story on these massive land grabs as the Arctic melts in Canada, Russia, and Norway. It has massive geopolitical significance.We’re interested in how it affects food protection, geopolitics, international security. There are five pillars affecting youth: No. 1 is going to be the environment.
Q. And yet mainstream media often shies away from covering it, at least in proportion to the seriousness of the problem.
A. I find it incredibly strange that that’s the case. When you talk to people in the scientific community and ask how much of this is our fault, they say, “Oh, 100 percent of it.” And most people don’t think it’s true. But I guess there’s people who deny gravity and evolution. As media, it’s our job to say, this is the truth, the real deal, we can’t stick our heads in the sand. It’s not even that the gun is to our heads; the hammer has been cocked back. We have to do it now or we’re screwed.
Q. What made you want to focus on Greenland?
A. TV is a visual medium, and climate change is an incredibly difficult subject. The story of climate change is different for everyone: In some places it’s drought; in some tornadoes; in some it’s crazy winters; in some it’s crazy summers. It’s hard to visualize. But Greenland is simple because Greenland is made of ice, the ice is warming, as a consequence sea level is rising. People can understand the majority of the world’s cities being underwater. When you can see that happening, hundreds of tons of ice calving by the minute, then I think it gives a visual representation of what’s happening. The fact that Antarctica is following suit is terrifying — but it’s an opportunity to visually tell a story that’s happening to humanity as a whole.
Q. What made the biggest impression on you while out there on the ice?
A. The scale of what’s happening is amazing. I live in Tribeca, and during Sandy my whole street was underwater. It’s personal: My house is going to sink. You realize the scope of the problem. Greenland is several miles thick, and it’s sinking as fast as it can. We flew over this deglaciated land which has been covered for 50,000 years, and 10-15 miles of it is deglaciated. You realize what used to be miles wide and miles thick is just gone. If you understand the science, you understand it will happen at an exponential rate. And then it becomes wholly terrifying. You can see how a place that’s three times the size of Texas is melting all at once. It’s mind-bogglingly huge.
Q. I think we’re starting to see some high-profile scientists — people like Neil deGrasse-Tyson — starting to step up and embrace the role of communicator on climate change. Do you think that will continue to develop?
A. I hope so. I get disappointed when you talk to scientists and they’re all, “Climate change isn’t going to stop; it’s only a question of how fast.” Hold on, hold on: It’s going to continue no matter what? Why don’t I hear that? The scientific community [is] doing a terrible job of getting it out to the people.
I don’t think the scientific community understands the war they’re in. [They say], “It’s difficult to say anything is 100 percent this or that.” They don’t understand that if they leave any loophole, the far right, the Koch brothers, the well-funded lobbies will exploit it. Ninety percent of the comments on anything we do [on VICE] are positive, but when we cover climate change they’re negative, and it’s because they’re funded.
That’s what I really think is the most insidious. Look, we all know [climate change] is real — the science at this point is indisputable. But people who know the science is real are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for people to say it’s not real. That’s the definition of shitting where you eat: damning future generations so you can make short-term profit on fossil fuels.
We went to Texas, where they’ve had a drought for three years and they’re denying it as cows are dying off. “Climate change isn’t real; it’s been disproven.” By who? What the hell is happening? The philosophy there is “we’re going to pray for rain because that worked for Elijah.” It’s really shocking how scientists have been discredited.
Going forward, young people are realizing that this is a manufactured debate rather than a real debate. Gen Y is going to hold the check. They’ll suffer from the sins of our generation and the baby boomers.
Q. So when you go to Greenland and find yourself so deeply embedded in shitty news about climate change, how do you look for faint glimmers of hope?
A. I vacillate between thinking this is too insurmountable of a problem and trying to find some hope. If you look at 2008, prior to the economic meltdown, Hummers and SUVs were best-sellers, and after, the Prius became a No. 1 seller. When people can’t afford gas, a huge shift can take place. It’s going to become so costly to ignore climate change that it will force change.
I also believe in tech. I saw a super genius kid who built a reactor in his garage when he was 19 — he was saying that 90 percent of spent uranium fuel still has power and he found a way to tap into that energy. It sounds too good to be true and it probably is, but at some point tech will come along — whether that’s a great way of using solar, or spent fuel rods, or whatever — and it’ll get us off this. If George W. Bush is saying we’re addicted to fossil fuels, we’re in trouble. But I think economics will force us and I think tech will be our only salvation. We can’t do it any other way.