MATTHEW NISBET So urgent is the challenge of decarbonizing the world’s economy, almost nothing else matters in comparison, argued town hall co-organizers Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope in a Nation cover story outlining their vision for the initiative. “The US news media, to their great discredit, have played a big part in getting it wrong for many years,” they wrote. But now journalists “need to remember their Paul Revere responsibilities—to awaken, inform, and rouse the people to action.”To avoid climate change catastrophe, the world must rapidly transform its economy away from fossil fuels. But to achieve this historically unprecedented task, the news industry must also transform, urged the organizers of a town hall meeting at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, held on April 30, 2019. The meeting marked the start of Covering Climate Now, a multiyear initiative led by the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) and The Nation, in partnership with The Guardian, to create what they call a “new playbook for journalism that’s compatible with the 1.5-degree future that scientists say must be achieved.” Among the panelists at the event were journalists, including Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, Katrina vanden Heuvel, and Chris Hayes, who regularly contribute to the cosponsors’ publications. As a model for TV journalism, Hertsgaard and Pope pointed to a recent hour-long MSNBC program devoted entirely to the Green New Deal, in which Hayes, the show’s host, explained the details of the plan; interviewed its cosponsor Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) before a live audience; and led a panel discussion of experts who focused on the importance of covering the climate justice story to connect the climate crisis with broader audiences.
For legacy print publications, coverage at The Guardian sets the standard, according to Hertsgaard and Pope, with nine full-time reporters and editors dedicated to climate change. A few weeks after the Columbia event, TheGuardian issued a memo upping its commitment to the topic, detailing changes to its official style guide that “more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world.” Climate change as a term is too passive and gentle, said the paper’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, “when what scientists are talking about is catastrophe for humanity.” Moving ahead, climate change would be referred to exclusively as the “climate emergency, crisis, or breakdown.” Similarly, global warming would be referred to as “global heating,” and “climate sceptic” would be replaced by “climate science denier.”
At the close of the town hall, the former PBS broadcaster Bill Moyers announced that the Schumann Media Center, a philanthropy that he leads, would provide $1 million to the Columbia School of Journalism to finance the first year of the project. He urged the journalists assembled to cover the climate crisis in the manner of Edward R. Murrow, who at the start of World War II defied his CBS News bosses by reporting on the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, breaking US media silence about the existential threat of fascism. Like Murrow, journalists must not only document the truth of the climate crisis but also “report on the madness … of a US government that scorns reality as fake news, denies the truths of nature, and embraces a theocratic ideology that welcomes catastrophe as a sign of the returning Messiah,” Moyers argued.