The Responsibilities of the Media



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Many years ago, when I was at the beginning of my career in journalism, I worked in a newsroom with a man who had a strange habit of jumping out of his seat for no apparent reason and raising his arms in the air, loudly declaring to no one in particular: “I fear the worst.” My colleague, who was otherwise a quiet, mild-mannered man in middle age, would immediately sit back down, hunch over his keyboard and resume typing as if nothing had happened. If you looked his way after one of these eruptions, he might offer a small, benign smile but there was never any explanation forthcoming for his agitation.

This was certainly unusual behavior, even by the newsroom standards of the day, when eccentricities were generally overlooked or even welcomed as a way of relieving the tedium of the night shift. Over time, with our colleague still disinclined to offer any explanation for the recurring eruptions and no one daring to ask outright, a few people began putting forward their own interpretation of the bizarre behavior. Some claimed to have noticed that particularly strenuous outbursts from our colleague would be followed by breaking news of an earthquake, a tsunami or some other natural disaster, a refugee crisis, a famine or a war. That is, bad things happened, just like our agitated colleague had said they would. And so we began to joke among ourselves that he possessed the powers of prediction.

Just as often, of course, the worst did not occur. Our colleague would leap out of his seat, agitated as ever for no particular reason, and it would remain a routine news day for the duration of our shift. We were less inclined to notice those occasions, however, precisely because nothing dramatic had happened. There had been no reason to notice anything, it had been a routine shift.

And that is the importance—and also the challenge—of reporting about climate change and sustainability.

Climate change is a life-and-death threat on a planetary scale. It is the human rights story of the twenty-first century. Heat waves and floods, food shortages and climate-spurred migration are already upending the worlds of business and politics, threatening global security and decades of development.

But telling that story—relaying the enormity of an upheaval that has yet to fully unfold, that is occurring at a much slower pace than the 24/7 bombardment of the digital news cycle—is incredibly difficult. It is perhaps a story too big to tell. The story of climate-inflected events does not readily conform to a single, easily digestible message. It is messy: it is global but the effects are hyperlocal, and it does not have a clear beginning, middle, and end—at least not one that is understood fully by scientists at this time.

If journalists do not cover climate change—the rising seas and sudden downpours that are already causing regular “nuisance” floods in cities like Miami and Manila, the blistering heat waves from Abu Dhabi to Australia, and the rapid melting at both poles—then they are missing the greatest threat to humanity ever. They are not performing the public service that is a vital part of their job. They are not telling the public what to expect from climate change. They are not warning the public how to prepare for the worst—and in good time, so that they can take measures to avoid upheavals and unrest.

And if journalists do not tell the story of how to avoid such worst-case scenarios—the free fall in the price of solar panels, the advances in battery storage, the lengthening range of electric cars—then they are leaving their readers without any hope for the future.

The worst does not have to occur. With careful planning, it is possible to escape catastrophic scenarios—by moving to less polluting energy sources, by adopting better technologies, by careful use of existing resources. And those choices often bring their own benefits: the more sustainable course would have been the better choice, even without the forcing of climate change. That is a message that has been sounded for years by economists and government officials.

There have been mountains of studies about the savings that would result from careful preparations to avoid the worst effects of sea-level rise, extreme weather and other climate impacts. Accurate weather forecasts, early-warning systems, and shelters have demonstrated it is possible to avoid mass casualties that used to be commonplace with hurricanes, even in low-lying developing countries, such as Bangladesh, which are exposed to greatest risk. In Rotterdam and Hamburg, construction of flood gates and town planning—putting important infrastructure above the high-tide line, designating city parks as water catchment areas—protects billions in property from flood damage.

But the slow and orderly work of planning for disaster rarely jumps up and announces itself as a breaking news story. It’s a story of incremental change, damaging setbacks, and outcomes that fall short of the original soaring goals. It’s not the short, sharp shock of the big disaster story. It’s not the type of feel-good story that immediately goes viral.

It’s a difficult balance, further complicated, especially in the US, by a disinformation campaign by corporations and conservative billionaires that has—until recently—made it politically risky for the White House and Congress to confront climate change, and that has confused the public about the dangers of warming.

In November 2009, only weeks before governments were due to gather in Copenhagen for a major United Nations climate summit, unidentified hackers broke into the servers of the University of East Anglia’s Climactic Research Unit and published over a thousand of the climate scientists’ private emails online.

The timing could not have been worse. The election of Barack Obama, who had campaigned for the White House warning of a “planet in peril,” had put climate change back on the US political agenda. With the run-up to the Copenhagen summit, the threat of climate change and the need for global action finally commanded public attention. The hack caused an immediate uproar.

Leading conservative figures such as Sarah Palin, the former US vice-presidential candidate who notoriously denies the planet is warming, claimed the emails showed that climate scientists had colluded to hide data showing temperature rise had stalled. They based their arguments on a highly selective reading of the emails, but the breach conveniently fed into the climate change deniers’ narrative that the science of climate change was still not settled. Four separate investigations subsequently cleared the scientists of falsifying their data, but by then the Copenhagen climate conference had already ended in collapse.

The email hack did not cause the collapse of the Copenhagen summit. The global economy was mired in a painful recession and climate change, seen as a distant threat, was relegated to the bottom of the agenda. With the recession, media companies were also fighting for their survival in a digital age that was destroying their economic model. Companies reduced their staff—including environment reporters. But the scandal sapped the political will to come to an agreement, and distracted the public. It was hard to argue that climate change was the real story when there appeared to be doubts—even among scientists—that climate change itself was real.

In reality, of course, the science behind climate change was already well established by 2009. Researchers began suspecting that humans were capable of changing the climate through the burning of fossil fuels in the late nineteenth century. By the second half of the twentieth century, the risks of climate change were seen as sufficiently serious to merit the preparation of briefing papers for US presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. In 1988, the leading climate scientist, James Hansen, told the US Congress that climate change was already occurring in real time—it was no longer a threat or a risk. Climate change was already happening.

In the US in particular, oil and coal companies—and more recently electricity providers and conservative billionaires—bankrolled disinformation campaigns that sought to confuse the public about the risks of climate change

But it would take fifty years after those early White House briefings, and twenty-five years after that public warning to Congress, before a US president took decisive steps to respond to the threat of climate change.

In the US in particular, oil and coal companies—and more recently electricity providers and conservative billionaires—bankrolled disinformation campaigns that sought to confuse the public about the risks of climate change. These disinformation efforts were extremely sophisticated, with the industry distributing money to a variety of front groups—think tanks, “astro-turf” groups which mimicked grassroots activism, “experts” in the pay of fossil fuel companies.

Those efforts proved remarkably effective: long after scientists had reached a consensus about the causes of climate change, leading US, British, Canadian and Australian news organizations continued to give an airing to so-called experts whose mission was to spread doubt.

Those so-called experts raised doubts that industrialized countries could run their economies on clean energy—without shutting off the lights and idling business. They warned that electricity prices would skyrocket, hurting ordinary consumers. They argued that efforts to deal with climate change would ultimately fail, claiming there was no chance other countries would join the historic big emitter, the US, in cutting emissions—even after China and other countries had embarked on the construction of ambitious solar and wind power plants. They even raised doubts about the existence of climate change—although the underlying science had been broadly accepted for years.

Those false assertions—amplified by think tanks and campaign groups—found their way into the opinion sections of newspapers, and too often into the news columns, in the name of balance. The result was very damaging, when it came to coverage of climate change, because the disinformation campaign muddied the message. With so many competing messages, it grew even more difficult for news organizations to seize on a clear storyline about climate change, and it became harder for the public to grasp the urgency of dealing with it.

And crucially the narrative of doubt found its way into the political agenda. One year after the collapse of the Copenhagen climate summit, efforts to pass US climate legislation also failed. For the remainder of Obama’s first term in the White House, climate change was regarded by the president and democrats in Congress as politically toxic. And for many news organizations, that turned climate change into a non-story.


On a blistering June day in 2013 Barack Obama announced a sweeping plan to fight climate change, anchored on regulations cutting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. “The question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it is too late,” Obama said in his speech at Georgetown University. “And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world we leave behind not just to you but to your children and your grandchildren. As a president, as a father and as an American, I am here to say we need to act.”

Obama made it clear he was done with waiting for Congress to take up climate change, and was directing US government agencies to take charge. He also began hitting back at opponents who deny the existence of climate change, dismissing them as members of the Flat Earth Society. Over the next three years, the White House went on to roll out actions and announcements about climate change almost on a weekly basis—and continued to hit back hard at climate change deniers.

The high-visibility climate campaign—reinforced by Obama’s trips to climate-affected locations such as Alaska and Hawaii—also put climate change on the news agenda. Climate coverage on its own might be a non-story according to traditional news judgment, but the president certainly was news, and news organizations covered him. Over the course of Obama’s second term, there was a far greater coverage of climate issues in US news outlets than before, while big newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times pledged they would no longer give space to climate deniers.

It took far too long—and it’s not going fast enough. But the US is finally on its way.


Suzanne Goldenberg

A former correspondent on environmental topics in the United States for The Guardian, she spent years as a reporter in areas of conflict, earning several prizes for her work in the Middle East. She has also reported from the most remote places in India and Pakistan, including the world’s highest battlefield, the Siachen Glacier. In 2003 she covered the American invasion of Iraq from Baghdad. She is the author of Madam President, which deals with the historic career of Hillary Clinton and her attempt to reach the White House.

Download Paths to sustainability S.M.A.R.T. (PDF)

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