British daily’s campaign to prevent climate change raises bold questions about role of press advocacy

The Guardian, the London daily that has risen from a respected but fringe player on the British political scene to a major transatlantic voice of liberal thought, did something notable and gutsy a few weeks ago, and just about nobody on this side of the ocean paid any attention.

Flanked by stories and commentaries, Alan Rusbridger, the editor credited with leading the Guardian’s rise, announced March 6 that his organization was launching a campaign intended to head off the climate catastrophe that the scientific consensus has concluded is unavoidable without deep changes in public policy and industrial practice.

The Guardian’s objective is to slow the production of fossil fuels by pressing to halt the exploitation of new energy reserves. The world has much more coal, oil and gas in the earth than it can safely burn. “Leave it in the ground,” is the rallying cry.

The immediate goal is to encourage investors to dump their holdings in fossil fuel-based companies, on grounds that pulling money out would slow the use of suicidal fuels and goad the energy giants into investing in environmentally palatable power sources. As a first step, the Guardian would lead a drive to persuade two immensely rich—and by reputation, socially responsible—foundations, UK’s Wellcome and the U.S.-based Gates, to unload the $1.5-plus billion worth of energy shares they own.

The Guardian was allying with an organization called 350.org, associated with the influential U.S. environmentalist Bill McKibben. It takes its name from the prediction that unless the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is cut from its current 400 parts per million (ppm) to 350, we’re all in very big trouble.

In a personal note, Rusbridger explained that as he looked back on his two decades as The Guardian’s editorial chief—he retires this summer—his greatest regret was “that we had not done justice to this huge, overshadowing, overwhelming issue of how climate change will probably, within the lifetime of our children, cause untold havoc and stress to our species.”

Now I’m a big fan of the Guardian, and I’ve watched its ascent under Rusbridger with admiration. It stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s top news organizations in the Wikileaks stories and in the publication of the Edward Snowden leaks, for which it shared a Pulitzer, and I applauded.

And I was moved by Rusbridger’s epiphany that, for all the fights he’s fought and won, none will matter 20 or 30 years from now if climate science is right, and we have lost it all.

So I don’t wonder why Rusbridger took this move, but I do wonder why it has gone unnoticed. I’ve poked around online and can find almost no mention of this campaign—to which The Guardian devoted lavish space, solid reporting, and gorgeous graphics—in the U.S. media. It’s as if, to borrow an English image, the quirky matriarch had now become the batty old aunt in the attic.

On reflection, I’d say there are any number of reasons why the U.S. news media are uncomfortable with this, some that speak well of our media, others less so.

Among the less so is the media’s wish to avert the deluge of scorn, abuse, political vilification, and engineered disparagement any major news organization here would undergo if it did anything beyond raising an eyebrow at the unimaginably destructive practices The Guardian has had the effrontery to try not just to expose, but to stop.

News organizations here, by and large, are chicken, but that’s a topic for another day.

Still, there’s another element to U.S. media reluctance to embrace—though not, let me add, to fail to acknowledge—what The Guardian is doing.

It’s a principled objection to advocacy: If the news media campaign, as The Guardian has done, who’s left to report? What happens to the credibility of journalists when their bosses have labeled, beforehand, heroes and villains—have declared their sympathies in what’s bound to be a complex, nuanced, matter of public policy where a great deal is at stake and the potential stakes are unknowable in advance?

ExxonMobil, with commendable clarity, pointed out this problem in a rebuke to The Guardian, whose reporters sought comment about ExxonMobil’s funding of dubious research intended to buttress skepticism about climate change.

The company refused comment: “ExxonMobil will not respond to Guardian inquiries because of its lack of objectivity on climate change reporting demonstrated by its campaign against companies that provide energy necessary for modern life.”

That’s the nightmare scenario for U.S. news mavens: Their stature as disinterested fact-finders destroyed by the fact they’ve chosen sides.

But haven’t they always? News ethics has never required mindless impartiality, has it? Does anybody expect the spurious balance of “30 seconds for Hitler, 30 seconds for the Jews?” Are the media supposed to be neutral between food and hunger, between sickness and health, order and violence, life and death?

U.S. media may, for want of spine, reserve their “campaigns” to soliciting Thanksgiving turkeys for the poor, but that doesn’t answer the challenge that The Guardian has issued:

If we are, indeed, on course for doing irreparable harm to our planet, and if we are about to bequeath to our children an environment that will, in important respects, be uninhabitable, shouldn’t somebody do something about it? And if so, where should the media be?

We could quarrel with divestment as a useful tool, and scientists may quibble with the 350 ppm target, but it’s clear the planetary challenge we all face requires boldness and sacrifice to surmount. I’m glad for The Guardian’s example, and wish only that the media in this country could summon something like the same courage.

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6 thoughts on “British daily’s campaign to prevent climate change raises bold questions about role of press advocacy

  1. Excellent discussion with some quite quotable lines.

    “U.S. media may, for want of spine, reserve their “campaigns” to soliciting Thanksgiving turkeys for the poor.”

    — We will have society respond to media discussion of a hard-working Detroit man having an extremely long commute — a free car and then $100,000s. However, left unaddressed was the more general problem of the inadequacies of Detroit’s public transit that made it impossible to get from point A to point B in both reasonable time and at reasonable cost.

    — We will have fundraising efforts post Hurricane Sandy but not systemic examination of how our societal structure (including energy system) contributes to the worsening of damage and increased risks from storms.

    While the Guardian makes a determined effort to help move the public discussion forward, US newspapers give column inch after column inch to deceptive — if outright dishonest — discussions that undermine movement forward. The Washington Post as a leading example … with George Will & Krauthammer regularly on its editorial pages. http://getenergysmartnow.com/2011/12/01/post-watch-balance-and-absence-arent-top-flight-journalism/
    Yes

  2. The Guardian’s campaign is Quixotic. Energy companies , even the largest like Exxon Mobil, cannot unilaterally have any meaningful impact on global climate change. The problem is inherently governmental. EPA is doing what it can within the limits of its authority. The failure of the United States Congress to enact laws to curb carbon emissions undermines Europpean efforts.

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