UPDATED Monday, September 23: Click here to view the latest features from Covering Climate Now.
Mark Hertsgaard, environmental reporter for The Nation, grew up with a news anchor father but didn’t intend to go into journalism. He did, however, have an innate understanding of and respect for the environment.
“The environment is a theme I keep coming back to,” he says. “At a fairly young age, I realized if you don’t get that issue right, none of the other issues are going to matter. If we don’t have a livable planet with drinkable water and breathable air and healthy soil, it doesn’t matter what we do about health care or incarceration policies because there won’t be a society to sustain it.”
The United States media has been a decade behind in climate coverage since at least the 1990s.
Considering Al Gore’s work on sounding the alarm about our rapidly heating planet, and that he was vice president of the U.S. at the time, that’s a grave assessment.
But the confusion between talking about the science of climate and taking a political stance when reporting about climate issues has made the topic difficult or scary for some reporters and made news organizations hesitant to write even basic stories about climate-based research.
For one week, starting September 16, that will change.
The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review are spearheading Covering Climate Now, an international push and emphasis on covering climate, leading up to a meeting of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in New York.
The American press “tends to reflect the discussion going on with political elites” when it comes to climate, he says. “In the United States, unlike in Europe, the political elites have essentially tried to ignore or outright deny the science around climate change. This has been evident for many years.”
Even in the ‘90s, with Gore in the White House, the discussion in the American press was about whether climate change was real. In Europe, even in countries whose leaders were “right-of-center,” the argument wasn’t whether climate change was real but what was to be done about it and who would pay for it, Hertsgaard says. Unfortunately, not much has changed in the past 20 years.
Last October, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a concerning report saying the world as a whole has 12 years to become carbon neutral and slash heat-trapping gas emissions. It was a report that should have caused a greater stir in the media, but it didn’t.
Hertsgaard points to Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist at the The Washington Post, who said this should be the number one issue in American media and should be front-page news every day. Of course, that hasn’t been the case, because some outlets still believe reporting or discussing climate science is taking a political stance, something he vows is not true.
After many emails and months of discussion, news outlets around the world have signed on to devote time and space — online, in print, on broadcast, etc., — to covering the current state of the climate and the dangers therein, leading up to this year’s UN environmental conference.
In all, more than 160 outlets will dedicate a week to climate coverage, outlets ranging from tiny websites in Togo and Rhode Island to the Guardian and Bloomberg News and the Times of India.