The biggest stories of our time

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.

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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:


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.

ICYMI: Why did Matt Drudge turn on Donald Trump?

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.