The all-consuming coronavirus story is burying all sorts of bad news, and bad news about the climate crisis is no exception. Research published last Monday described a recent heatwave in Antarctica as “unprecedented in the observed record.” Last Tuesday, the Trump administration moved to roll back automobile fuel-efficiency standards—a move that the Times described as “gutting the federal government’s most important climate change policy” and the administration cast as its “single largest deregulatory initiative.” The Environmental Protection Agency is allowing prolific polluters to self-regulate for a to-be-determined period, single-use plastic use is having a moment, and several states have new laws criminalizing protests against fossil-fuel infrastructure, all under the cover of the virus. Emily Atkin—whose newsletter, HEATED, has tracked these developments and others—argued last week that right now is “a great time to be evil.”
Climate journalists are very busy right now. As well as staying vigilant to threats like those above, their beat is intersecting with the coronavirus story in a wide range of different ways; as I wrote recently, the coronavirus is “an everything story,” and that means it’s a climate story, too. Some reporters—Kendra Pierre-Louis, of the Times, and Yessenia Funes, of Earther, for instance—have covered the devastating logistical impact the pandemic could have on efforts to fight the forthcoming wildfire and hurricane seasons; others have noted how the virus has curtailed the Democrats’ “policy primary,” and bolstered attacks on climate policy on the other side of the aisle. (Mitch McConnell: “Democrats won’t let us fund hospitals or save small businesses unless they get to dust off the Green New Deal.”) A sudden, worldwide decrease in economic activity—including air travel—has led to a sharp fall in emissions; for now, at least. In countries from China to South Korea to Italy to the UK, air pollution is way down. Venice’s canals are clearer (though contrary to some viral stories, no, dolphins have not “returned”).
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The climate and coronavirus stories don’t just intersect—they share deep structural similarities. Both are about injustice. (“Coronavirus is the ‘great equalizer’ the same way that climate change is the ‘great equalizer,’ which is to say: not at all,” Jie Jenny Zou, an investigative reporter, tweeted yesterday. “Communities of color, lower income households and vulnerable populations are bearing the brunt.”) Both are about the importance of data and science, and the catastrophic consequences of ignoring, or distorting, expertise. And both involve huge, unthinkable changes to the routine ways we consume, interact, and live. “The coronavirus has plunged the world headfirst into an era of unity, solidarity, and rapid societal change that looks like a compressed version of what climate scientists have been warning us about for decades,” Eric Holthaus, a climate journalist with The Correspondent, writes. “It’s a moment of triage for the entire planet.”
In recent weeks—between the rings of the grim pandemic news cycle—a debate has taken shape: could our changed way of life end up having positive, long-term consequences? In early March, James Temple, an energy editor at MIT Technology Review, argued that the coronavirus is actually “terrible news” for the climate fight; emissions, Temple wrote, will rebound, and the economic carnage trailing in the pandemic’s wake “could easily drain money and political will from climate efforts.” The point of fighting climate change, Temple argued, is to stop mass suffering and death, which the coronavirus is causing; as Gernot Wagner, an academic at NYU, told him, “This is not an analogy for how we want to decrease emissions from climate change.” Others, while agreeing on the extent of the present tragedy, have taken a different view. Writing for The Intercept yesterday, Charles Komanoff and Christopher Ketcham argued that while lower emission rates might not be sustained, the current reduction still counts for something; “avoided emissions,” they wrote, “are a permanent balm.” (Some analysts in the energy sector think the oil industry may never fully recover from its corona shock.) Writing in the Times, meanwhile, Meehan Crist, of Columbia University, framed the debate differently. “Perhaps the real question is not whether the virus is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for climate, or whether rich people will take fewer airplane flights,” she wrote, “but whether we can create a functioning economy that supports people without threatening life on Earth, including our own.”
This is a very useful debate to be having—the urgency of the coronavirus crisis isn’t a mandate to ignore all the other crises we face, but rather an opportunity to expand outward, and show news consumers what urgency looks like. Several writers and outlets are addressing such dynamics in their work. Atkin, of HEATED, now has a podcast of the same name, in which she parses the links between the coronavirus and the climate emergency. Grist started a newsletter called “Climate in the Time of Coronavirus.” The climate writer and campaigner Bill McKibben also has a new climate newsletter, at the New Yorker; so far, it’s discussed the virus’s effect on movement-building, the nature of time, and the centrality of social trust. The list goes on.
Today, CJR is launching a new issue of its print magazine, focused entirely on coverage of the climate crisis. (The Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas, an Australian nonprofit, is partnering on the issue.) We pulled the magazine together before the coronavirus crisis intensified, but we’re urging you to read it in the light of the pandemic. “The coronavirus is a reminder of the looming threat we face from the climate crisis, which will continue even after this terrible pandemic ends. And it, like the coronavirus, will test journalism—test how we apply data and science, how we plan for global, amorphous threats, how we can prod national leaders to focus on catastrophes yet to come,” Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, says. “Most of the press has only recently awakened to the climate crisis, just as it was delayed grasping the seriousness of the pandemic.” Much of the magazine—including features by Atkin, E. Tammy Kim, and Eva Holland—is already online, and there’s more to come. You can find it all here.
In his introductory note to the issue, Pope writes that in journalism, saying what happened yesterday is no longer valuable. “The task at hand is to examine events carefully and deeply—to think of a moment not in isolation, but as part of a broader context,” he writes. “Old forms of storytelling—fast, without helping readers draw crucial connections—are not what’s needed to confront the crisis we face.” He was talking about coverage of the climate crisis. But his words apply equally well to reporting on the coronavirus.
Below, more on the coronavirus:
- Yet more layoffs: Friday was another atrocious day for the media business. Bustle Digital Group moved to implement pay cuts and laid off around 25 employees, including the entire staff of The Outline; the site will shutter for now, though its founder, Josh Topolsky, is exploring “alternative paths” that might revive it. (Bryan Goldberg, Bustle Digital Group’s CEO, is reportedly taking an 85-percent salary cut. ICYMI last year, Lyz Lenz profiled Goldberg for CJR.) G/O Media laid off 14 staffers, including six unionized employees of The Onion; their union called the layoffs “callous,” and accused G/O management of hypocrisy. And the Cleveland Plain Dealer cut 22 staffers, including Brie Zeltner—a health reporter at the paper.
- On the subject of layoffs: The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University is trying to keep track of all the cuts—lay-offs, pay reductions, furloughs, reductions in print frequency, and more—that newsrooms are making amid the coronavirus crisis. Tow is inviting readers to help its effort. If your newsroom has been affected, or you know of one that has, please fill in this form with some basic details.
- The impact on local TV: Greg Braxton, of the LA Times, reports on the steps TV news stations in the city are taking to protect staff and the public from the coronavirus—anchors are broadcasting from home and field reporters “are permitted to turn down an assignment if they feel it’s unsafe,” all while viewing figures are way up. Ellen Gray, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, has a similar dispatch from her city. “CBS3 chief meteorologist Kate Bilo recently found herself putting a pair of ‘Cinderella princess heels’ on her 2-year-old while delivering a weather forecast,” Gray writes.
- A personal perspective: On our podcast, The Kicker, CJR’s Amanda Darrach spoke with Pope, our editor and publisher, about her own experience with a suspected case of COVID-19, and how her visit to a New York City ER changed her outlook on media coverage of the pandemic. “I suddenly had this realization that the numbers were completely meaningless,” Darrach said.
- In the UK: Last night, the Queen addressed the British people about the coronavirus crisis—only the fifth such speech she’s made to the nation outside of her yearly Christmas slot. The Queen, who is 93, was filmed by a single camera operator wearing full protective equipment. Shortly after the address was broadcast, news filtered through that Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, who has COVID-19, had been admitted to hospital for tests. According to The Times of London, Johnson stayed there overnight, and has been given oxygen.
- In brief: The Canadian Jewish News—a newspaper that has served Canada’s Jewish community since 1960—said it will shutter this week, blaming lost revenue caused by the coronavirus. Wea Lee, CEO of the Houston-based newspaper company Southern News Group, donated 10,000 masks to local medical workers in his capacity as chairman of the city’s International District. And the Sapulpa Times, a newspaper in Oklahoma, apologized for reporting that students in Tulsa, where schools have closed, will have to repeat their current grade level. The story—which caused panic—was an April Fools’ joke. The paper’s owner admitted that with hindsight, it was “not funny.”
- In memoriam: Last week, Anick Jesdanun, a technology writer and editor at the Associated Press, died after contracting the coronavirus. He was 51. “He ran marathons on every continent, including Antarctica—83 of them in all, many followed by a visit to an obscure craft brewery. Last year, he watched 365 movies—most of them in theaters,” the AP’s Ted Anthony wrote in an obituary. “And Anick Jesdanun made sure—always—that when millions of people read his coverage of the internet and its ripples, they got all the facts and the context they needed.”
Other notable stories:
- On Friday night, a Friday Night Massacre: President Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general who fielded the whistleblower complaint that set in motion Trump’s eventual impeachment. On Saturday, Trump said Atkinson “took a fake report and he brought it to Congress,” and called him a “total disgrace.” Yesterday, Atkinson said in a statement that he felt he’d been fired for faithfully executing the law.
- Mark Meadows, Trump’s new chief of staff, is thinking about hiring a new White House press secretary, Axios reports. Alyssa Farah, a current Pentagon spokesperson, and Kayleigh McEnany, of the Trump campaign, are both in contention. It’s unclear if Meadows wants to replace or supplement Stephanie Grisham, the current press secretary. (Grisham told Axios it would be “ironic” if she learned of her ouster through the press.)
- Twitter deleted 20,000 fake propaganda accounts tied to officials in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia, Honduras, and Serbia, The Guardian reports. Nearly 9,000 of the purged accounts were linked to the party of Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia’s president; together, they posted 43 million tweets amplifying positive coverage of Vučić and slamming his rivals.
- And Quibi, a streaming service for mobile headed by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, launches today. In addition to its entertainment offering, Quibi will feature news programming from NBC, CBS, the BBC, Telemundo, and Canada’s CTV.