TV journalist Bill Moyers likes to tell the story of how Edward R. Murrow, the preeminent U.S. broadcast journalist of his time, insisted on covering what became of the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Murrow’s bosses at CBS News had other priorities; they ordered Murrow journalists to cover dance competitions in Hamburg, Paris and London, explaining that the Americans needed some happy news. Murrow didn’t hurt her. “He will probably fire us,” he told his colleagues, but he sent his correspondents to the German-Polish border; they arrived just in time to witness Hitler’s tanks and troops screaming in Poland. Suddenly, Europe was at war. And Americans have heard about it because journalists from one of the nation’s most influential news outlets have defied the convention and done their job.
Today, all of humanity is under attack, this time from an overheated planet – and too many newsrooms are increasingly inclined to cover today’s equivalent of dance competitions. Record heat waves and 2020 storms have confirmed what scientists have been predicting for so long: climate change is underway and threatening an unparalleled catastrophe. And because carbon dioxide has been trapping heat in the atmosphere for centuries, rising temperatures and their effects are just beginning. As well as a scientist said When the fireworks turned the San Francisco sky over orange last September, “We’re going to look back at 10 years, definitely 20 … and say, ‘Wow, 2020 has been a crazy year, but I’m missing it.’ .
A handful of major newspapers are paying attention. But most news coverage, especially on television, continues to be subject to climate history, considering it too complicated, or disheartening, or controversial. Last month, we asked the world press to commit to treating climate change as the emergency that scientists say it is; his response was dispiriting.
We created Climate Covering Now in April 2019 to help break the climate silence of the media; Bill Moyers spoke about Murrow at our inaugural conference. Since then, Covering Climate Now has become a consortium of hundreds of stores reaching a combined audience of about 2 billion people, and media coverage of the media in general is greatly improved.
But this coverage is still not far enough. To convey to the public that civilization is literally under attack, news outlets must play much bigger climate history, managing more stories – especially about how climate change is increasingly affecting the climate, the economy, the politics and other spheres of life – and manage those stories at the top, not the bottom, of a homepage or a broadcast. The news will speak even more clearly, presenting climate change as an imminent, lethal threat.
This message is silenced at its best today, and the result is predictable. In the United States, only 26% of the public is “alarmed” by climate change, according to opinion polls analyzed by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications (member of the CCNow consortium). One reason why? Less than a quarter of the public hears about climate change in the media at least once a month.
Good journalism leads the conversation, and there is certainly a lot of climate news worth covering today. In a couple of amazing developments last week, a court in the Netherlands ordered the oil company Royal Dutch Shell to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from its customers and customers by 45% by 2030 in compliance with the Paris Agreement, even as shareholders of ExxonMobil and Chevron rebelled against the management’s refusal to take strong climate action. One week earlier, the International Energy Agency said all development of new fossil fuels must be stopped to prevent irreversible climate destruction. The climate emergency will shatter politics, the economy and almost every other subject that journalists deal with, and newsrooms will have to deal with it.
They could start with the climate emergency statement that CCNow released in April as part of our Earth Day coverage. Confirmed by eight of our partners – Columbia Journalism Review, the Nation, The Guardian, Scientific American, Noticias Telemundo, La Repubblica, Asahi Shimbun and Al Jazeera English – the first sentence of the statement said that “it is time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here. ” Emphasizing that this was “a statement of science, not politics,” the statement linked to articles in peer-reviewed journals, where thousands of scientists have asserted this fact. The statement said the covid-19 pandemic illustrated how much the media can cover the emergency when they engage in it, and urged journalists everywhere to apply the same urgency to climate history.
More than 30 editors have signed this statement (an updated list is available) here), but some major outlets have told us in private that they will not sign. The phrase “climate emergency” sounded like activism, they said; approving them could make you seem prejudicial. Instead, they add, letting their climate cover speak for itself.
But that’s the problem: its coverage speaks for itself, and it’s not just reflecting the facts of history. It’s a fact that thousands of scientists around the world, including some of the most eminent climate experts, say humanity is facing a climate emergency. Most of the main information still presents climate change as no more important than a dozen other public issues, when the fact is that if the world does not take it under control, rapid, change climate overcomes all other problems. Another fact: The climate emergency comes with a time limit – wait too long to stop the temperature rise and it becomes too late; the long atmospheric life of carbon dioxide makes the highest temperature rise inevitable, perhaps irreversible.
We are not obsessed with whether or not a news magazine uses the term “climate emergency;” what matters is whether the overall outlet coverage treats climate change as an emergency. For example, does the outlet give climate history the same 24/7 coverage it devoted to the covid-19 pandemic or, earlier, to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or to other major events? Has it reoriented its editorial staff and reassigned journalists to cover climate history? Do their journalists present the story with a sense of urgency?
At a summit in Glasgow in November, world leaders are expected to take much stronger measures against the climate emergency. From now on, journalists have a responsibility to ensure that the public understands what is at stake and, crucially, that humanity already has the technologies and solutions to decarbonize our economies; there needs to be the political will to put them into practice. Journalists also have a responsibility to hold strong interests accountable for doing what is necessary to preserve a habitable planet. That starts with the truth: about the climate emergency, its solutions, and how soon it will be too late.
Mark Hertsgaard, the environmental correspondent for The Nation, and Kyle Pope, the editor and editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, are the co-founders of Covering Climate Now.