The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger: putting fossil-fuel divestment on the agenda

April 28, 2015

AFTER ALAN RUSBRIDGER ANNOUNCED last December that he would step down as editor of The Guardian, he looked back on his 20 years at the helm of one of the UK’s best known papers and asked himself, “Do I have anything to regret?”

One thing stood out: his paper hadn’t done justice to the subject of climate change. As he wrote in the paper last March:

“The problem with this story is … it’s so big, and it doesn’t change much from day to day. Journalism is brilliant at capturing momentum, or changes, or things that are unusual. If it’s basically the same every day, every week, every year, I think journalists lose heart.”

Thus began the Keep it in the Ground project, The Guardian’s latest foray into advocacy journalism: six months of stories, a podcast, and a campaign of activism aimed at generating excitement about an issue Rusbridger felt people had lost interest in. “If you listen to experts and you think there is a catastrophe around the corner, then we should write about that with the prominence and seriousness that that merits,” Rusbridger said in a telephone interview.

In partnership with the environmental group, the paper has called on two of the world’s richest charities, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, to stop investing in the 200 largest fossil fuel companies, and urged its readers to do the same. Of 7.3 million daily visitors to The Guardian’s website, 180,000 have signed a petition urging the foundations to divest. (For purposes of comparison, 24 hours after the BBC fired controversial Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, a petition calling for his reinstatement had one million signatures.)

The idea behind divestment, as Rusbridger put it in an article launching the campaign, is “to delegitimize the business models of companies that are using investors’ money to search for yet more coal, oil and gas that can’t safely be burned. It is a small but crucial step in the economic transition away from a global economy run on fossil fuels.”

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Rusbridger proudly notes that the paper has been at the forefront of environmental reporting. Each month The Guardian’s coverage, produced by five science and environmental correspondents and a team of 28 external specialists, gets more than seven million unique views. Researchers at the University of Colorado found that The Guardian is among the leaders in reporting on the issue.

But the editor feared that the paper’s coverage wasn’t enough to make people sit up and take notice.

“We’re now going to write this as a financial, political issue,” he said. “Let’s talk about the people who are funding this and whether they’ve thought about the risk adequately and the money markets and bonds and the subsidies and public policies and how all those issues relate to each other. Let’s look at how fossil fuels are performing as stocks. Let’s look at the money that’s going into green tech.”

While scientists agree that climate change is occurring, not all are on board with The Guardian’s divestment campaign. Myles Allen is an Oxford climatologist who was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established by the United Nations. He acknowledges that the campaign has succeeded in getting people to talk about the issue of climate change – “otherwise you wouldn’t be phoning me.” But he says the Keep it in the Ground coverage has sometimes been simplistic about climate science, and he opposes the divestment petition.

“A campaign on what we would like the fossil fuel industry to do would be more helpful than one that simply says ‘We don’t like them and don’t want to have anything to do with them,’” he says. Allen points out that the IPCC urges the use of carbon capture and sequestration, which aims to mitigate the effect of fossil fuels on the climate, and says the energy companies are best placed to develop that technology. “Rather than disengaging with the fossil fuel industry,” he says, “concerned activists should be engaging with them to promote the kind of technologies that are going to be needed to use fossil fuel in a way that won’t be endangering the climate in the future.”

“Lots of people agree that [carbon capture and sequestration] might be a good thing to do,” Rusbridger responds by email. “But it hasn’t happened. Doubtless it’s been the subject of many many discussions about ‘engagement.’ Can Myles, or anyone else, point to serious progress or fruits to show? This is our campaign, and it’s succeeding pretty well in doing what we intended it to do: make people sit up, notice, start reading again and engaging.”

Some media critics don’t endorse that advocacy approach. Richard Black, director of the nonprofit Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, worries that the paper’s activism has led to monotonous coverage. With six months to focus on the issue, Black says, the paper could broaden the scope of its reporting to include a diversity of ideas and a global perspective.

“The beauty of having a season of articles is that you don’t have to put everything in one article. You have more room, many more opportunities to deal with all the complexities,” he said. “I guess that is the opposite from advocacy, where the approach is to be very simple and most articles go along the same lines.”

Rusbridger defends the decision to launch a full-throated advocacy campaign.

“If you are thinking, ‘What is your role as a journalist’—it’s a good debate to have,” he said. “I’d like to see the balance sheet, the scorecard. I’d say ‘Well, these people who are being sniffy about the campaigning bit—what are they doing?’

“The reality is, we’ve run out of imaginative ways of doing this or we are faced with readers who have stopped reading. If you believe the science is even half right, the consequences of inaction would be so off the scale … Compare that to the amount of air time or prominence that most papers give it, there is a complete disconnect.”

Wellcome Trust director Jeremy Farrar met with Rusbridger four days after the campaign began. Farrar, who hadn’t been warned ahead of time that Wellcome would be a target, said he welcomed the debate and offered to write a column defending the foundation’s decision to engage with fossil fuel companies rather than divest from them. The paper later ran a blog post from Farrar on the effectiveness of the engagement strategy.

Rusbridger says he’s invited Farrar to appear on the campaign’s podcast, but that the director has so far turned him down. He points out that Ben van Beurden, the chief executive at Shell, has agreed to appear. “So it’s a funny old world, when Shell will sit down with The Guardian and talk about these issues but Wellcome won’t.”

Wellcome spokesperson Mark Henderson said in a statement, “We have not said no to recording a podcast, but have told Alan Rusbridger that we will gladly consider it when he can show that The Guardian has published a broad range of views on this issue that reflects the diversity of opinions among those who share environmental goals.”

Gates officials would not comment on the campaign for the record, except to say that they were “unpleasantly surprised” that the paper has targeted the foundation, which is funded by a trust charged with investing for maximum returns.

The Guardian has long been associated with the political left, and this isn’t the first time Rusbridger has enthusiastically swung the paper’s might behind political causes. In the run-up to the 2004 U.S. presidential election, The Guardian encouraged readers to write to residents of Clark County, Ohio, urging a vote against incumbent George Bush. (The campaign was scrapped when Clark County voters responded poorly to hectoring letters from strangers across the Atlantic.) More successfully, last year’s End Female Genital Mutilation campaign started with the goal of putting an end to the practice in Britain; it has since expanded to cover the United States and parts of Africa.

Rusbridger says that kind of rabble-rousing is a traditional part of journalism in the UK.

“British journalism has more polemical roots than American journalism,” he says. “A kind of truth is ground out by polarized arguments and reporting in Britain that sometimes isn’t in America. But other things suffer as well.”

Ultimately, he’ll measure the divestment campaign by its results. “We can all sit there with our intellectual top hats on and say it would be better to do this or that,” he says. “But what is the evidence that those things that are advocated in a high-table kind of way are working?”

Alison Langley 's stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and Deutsche Welle. She currently lives in Zurich.