The Media Today

The climate story won’t wait till the pandemic is done with us

July 23, 2020

The climate crisis has no sympathy for the crowded news cycle, or our fried minds.

Yesterday, a group of researchers published a paper in which they substantially narrowed the projected temperature range for global heating should carbon dioxide emissions double from preindustrial levels; the range has previously been cast as being between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius, but the researchers tightened it to between 2.6 and 4.1 degrees. Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist who reviewed the research, called it “probably the most important paper I’ve read in years.” Also this week, a group of major investors urged the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission to take action to avert a climate-related economic catastrophe, including by forcing companies to disclose their climate footprint and risk. The normally frigid tundra of Siberia has seen record heat and widespread fires, which have likely accelerated the melting of sea ice in the Arctic. And, as Earther’s Yessenia Funes wrote yesterday, “Hurricane season is unfortunately alive and well, folks.” Last night, the National Hurricane Center warned that Douglas, a storm in the Pacific, is now a Category Three hurricane, and could cause flooding in Hawai‘i this weekend. Linking individual storms to climate change is fraughtbut climate change has generally made storms worse.

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Despite the hellish intensity of the present news cycle, we continue to see outstanding climate journalism. Beat reporters—including at Earther, Grist, and heated, Emily Atkin’s climate newsletter—are doing sterling work, as ever. Major news organizations have made room for enterprising climate reporting, too. This month, Time magazine published a special issue under the strapline “ONE LAST CHANCE”; its cover illustration, by the artist and scientist Jill Pelto, incorporated climate-trend data—average global temperature, land ice, and more—into an image of a mountain and the ocean. Justin Worland wrote in an accompanying story that 2020 is a “defining year” for the planet. “Will a newfound respect for science and a fear of future shocks lead us to finally wake up,” he asked, “or will the desire to return to normal overshadow the threats lurking just around the corner?” This week, the New York Times Magazine has been publishing stories from its own climate issue, including Namwali Serpell on the Kariba Dam in southern Africa; Nathaniel Rich on coastal engineering in Louisiana; and Brooke Jarvis on young climate activists—“the teenagers at the end of the world”—and their movements.

Still, across the broader news cycle, the climate crisis is not as big a story as it could be. There’s nothing new in that, of course. As I wrote late last year, the publication of another important study—the UN’s annual assessment of greenhouse gas emissions—scarcely featured on TV news, even as network newscasts and cable talk shows found time to discuss Bernie Sanders dancing, Thanksgiving traffic, and President Trump pardoning the turkeys Bread and Butter. Now—thanks to the pandemic, the protests for Black lives, and the Trump administration’s alarming response to both—there’s less triviality, and more systemic injustice, in the news. But amid it all, the climate story still isn’t getting the airtime it urgently deserves.

Covering Climate Now—a climate coverage initiative founded last year by CJR and The Nation, in partnership with The Guardian—is continuing to try and change that. In late April, shortly after CJR published a print magazine wholly dedicated to the climate emergency, Covering Climate Now convened one hundred fifteen news organizations and institutional partners for a week of increased climate coverage to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day—the second such week Covering Climate Now organized following an inaugural collaboration last September.

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The media as a whole is making progress on the climate story, but not fast enough. Earlier this month, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, and Mark Hertsgaard, a reporter at The Nation who directs Covering Climate Now, argued that heading into the presidential election, the press needs to center systemic issues more proactively. “There’s a pattern here,” Pope and Hertsgaard wrote. “The news business waits for news to happen when, in fact, we shouldn’t need another Black person to be shot to start reporting on racism in the police force. Nor should we need yet another Category Five hurricane to flatten yet another community before we sound the alarm that the planet is on the brink of climate collapse.”

As Pope, Hertsgaard, and their colleagues have written in recent weeks, a good first step would be for more news organizations to recognize that the pandemic and systemic racism aren’t impediments to greater coverage of the climate crisis—they’re an invitation. The three stories are united by many factual details, and by their broader, structural hugeness.

The pandemic, in particular, is a hinge moment for the global economy. As Worland noted in Time, the massive stimulus spending to which even conservative governments have committed could be marshaled behind a new generation of green infrastructure. Or, as currently looks more likely, we’ll turn to dirty energy as a remedy for the covid slump. “From our vantage point today, 2020 looks like the year when an unknown virus spun out of control, killed hundreds of thousands and altered the way we live day to day,” Worland wrote. “In the future, we may look back at 2020 as the year we decided to keep driving off the climate cliff—or to take the last exit.” We’re drowning in news right now. But we retain the collective power to step back and take a longer-term view. Whether Worland’s dissonant prediction comes true is, in part, up to us.

Below, more on the climate crisis:

  • The Climate Beat: Covering Climate Now has a weekly newsletter, called The Climate Beat. You can sign up here. In last week’s edition, Andrew McCormick, the initiative’s deputy director, made the case for covering the election as a climate story. “Reporters and editors must step back from ephemeral shifts in the polls and all the nitnoid controversies of campaign overload,” he wrote. “Decades from now, most of us will have forgotten the names and deeds of Donald Trump’s various associates. But we will surely take note of unlivable heat and floodwaters lapping at our feet.”
  • Biden time? Last week, Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, presented a $2 trillion climate plan. Yesterday, the veteran climate writer Bill McKibben reviewed the plan in his New Yorker newsletter; Biden’s proposals, McKibben wrote, “seem a truly useful compendium of the mainstream and obvious ideas for an energy and conservation transition.” This week, the Democratic National Committee’s draft 2020 platform leaked to the press. Dharna Noor writes, for Earther, that the climate portion of the platform “shows how far climate advocates have pushed the party in just four years,” but “still falls far short of the recommendations of leading climate scientists.”
  • Apple trees: On Tuesday, Apple pledged that by 2030, every device it sells will be carbon neutral; the company said it plans to reduce manufacturing emissions by 75 percent and will also fund reforestation projects. Somini Sengupta and Veronica Penney write, for the Times, that big tech firms have come under increasing pressure to take action on climate change, both from external groups and from their own employees.
  • How to Save a Planet: Next month, Gimlet Media will debut How to Save a Planet, a new climate podcast hosted by Alex Blumberg, Gimlet’s managing director, and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist. The climate reporters Kendra Pierre-Louis and Rachel Waldholz will contribute to the podcast. The Hollywood Reporter has more.

Other notable stories:

  • In September, Mark Thompson will step down as chief executive of the Times, and Meredith Kopit Levien, the paper’s current chief operating officer, will replace him. Thompson oversaw a successful expansion of the Times’ digital footprint, including a subscription boom; Levien says she will continue the “subscription first” strategy and seek to further expand the paper’s non-journalistic content. In other Times news, the paper said yesterday that it is buying Serial Productions, the studio behind the podcast of the same name. The move will allow Serial to increase its output and possibly collaborate with Times reporters.
  • And then there’s everyone else. While the Times seems to have the transition to digital subscriptions all figured out, most other outlets do not—and the pandemic has dealt a fresh, sharp blow to advertising revenue, leading to cuts. Lauren Harris reports, for CJR and the Tow Center’s Journalism Crisis Project, that more than a hundred outlets, including The Guardian and the Casper Star-Tribune, have cut back on print production in recent weeks.
  • Katie Robertson and Ben Smith, of the Times, report on allegations of harassment, bullying, and sexism by Troy Young, the president of Hearst Magazines, as well as a culture of racism at the company. Young said the allegations are either untrue or lack context, adding, “The pace of evolving our business and the strength of my commitment is ambitious, and I sincerely regret the toll it has taken on some in our organization.”
  • Amid an ongoing advertiser boycott in protest of Facebook’s hate-speech policies, the company is assembling teams, at both Facebook and Instagram, that will examine racial bias in the platforms’ algorithms, the Journal’s Deepa Seetharaman and Jeff Horwitz report. Studies have repeatedly shown racial bias to exist in algorithms across society, yet Facebook has previously been slow to investigate the effects within its products.
  • CJR’s Alexandria Neason profiles James Hamblin, a doctor and writer for The Atlantic, and his new book, Clean, in which he explores the scientific and cultural components of hygiene. Hamblin wrote the book—which warns, in part, about the excessive use of soap—prior to the pandemic. “I don’t think we’ve written dangerous things in there that don’t stand up,” he says, of the new context. “But it just seems weirdly conspicuous.”
  • Jefferson Hughes III, a justice on Louisiana’s Supreme Court, is suing the Baton Rouge Advocate over an editorial criticizing his alleged conduct in a child-custody case. The Advocate previously alleged, as part of a series exploring secrecy in judicial discipline in the state, that Hughes had a romantic relationship with an attorney in the case.
  • John Ware, an investigative reporter, is suing Jeremy Corbyn, the recently ousted leader of Britain’s Labour Party, over criticisms he made of a BBC documentary in which Ware explored claims of anti-Semitism on Corbyn’s watch. Yesterday, the party’s new leadership apologized to Ware and agreed to pay him “substantial damages.”
  • Yesterday, a court in Russia convicted Yuri Dmitriev, an amateur historian who unearthed the graves of hundreds of Stalin’s victims, of child sex abuse charges that Dmitriev’s supporters—including prominent intellectuals, human rights groups, and the European Union—say were fabricated for political reasons. The Times has more.
  • And an investigation by Politico’s Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan found that a private company built a TV studio in pro-Trump congressman Matt Gaetz’s father’s home and now bills TV networks whenever Gaetz uses the studio for an appearance. Per Politico, Gaetz rents a camera for the studio using taxpayer funds.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.