Ellen Dorsey, executive director of the Wallace Global Fund and another key figure . . . :
“I think at pivotal moments in history we have seen editors and media outlets stand up and take unprecedented action. One could think of the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement in the US and I liken the Guardian’s campaign to that kind of courageous action. I hope it will bring other institutions along to follow suit . . .”
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As global warming argument moves on to politics and business, Alan Rusbridger explains the thinking behind our major series on the climate crisis
Connection by Antony Gormley. Illustration: Antony Gormley
Journalism tends to be a rear-view mirror. We prefer to deal with what has happened, not what lies ahead. We favour what is exceptional and in full view over what is ordinary and hidden.
Famously, as a tribe, we are more interested in the man who bites a dog than the other way round. But even when a dog does plant its teeth in a man, there is at least something new to report, even if it is not very remarkable or important.
There may be other extraordinary and significant things happening – but they may be occurring too slowly or invisibly for the impatient tick-tock of the newsroom or to snatch the attention of a harassed reader on the way to work.
What is even more complex: there may be things that have yet to happen – stuff that cannot even be described as news on the grounds that news is stuff that has already happened. If it is not yet news – if it is in the realm of prediction, speculation and uncertainty – it is difficult for a news editor to cope with. Not her job.
For these, and other, reasons changes to the Earth’s climate rarely make it to the top of the news list. The changes may be happening too fast for human comfort, but they happen too slowly for the newsmakers – and, to be fair, for most readers.
These events that have yet to materialise may dwarf anything journalists have had to cover over the past troubled century. There may be untold catastrophes, famines, floods, droughts, wars, migrations and sufferings just around the corner. But that is futurology, not news, so it is not going to force itself on any front page any time soon.
Even when the overwhelming majority of scientists wave a big red flag in the air, they tend to be ignored. Is this new warning too similar to the last? Is it all too frightening to contemplate? Is a collective shrug of fatalism the only rational response?
The climate threat features very prominently on the home page of the Guardian on Friday even though nothing exceptional happened on this day. It will be there again next week and the week after. You will, I hope, be reading a lot about our climate over the coming weeks.
One reason for this is personal. This summer I am stepping down after 20 years of editing the Guardian. Over Christmas I tried to anticipate whether I would have any regrets once I no longer had the leadership of this extraordinary agent of reporting, argument, investigation, questioning and advocacy.
Very few regrets, I thought, except this one: that we had not done justice to this huge, overshadowing, overwhelming issue of how climate change will probably, within the lifetime of our children, cause untold havoc and stress to our species.
So, in the time left to me as editor, I thought I would try to harness the Guardian’s best resources to describe what is happening and what – if we do nothing – is almost certain to occur, a future that one distinguished scientist has termed as “incompatible with any reasonable characterisation of an organised, equitable and civilised global community”.
It is not that the Guardian has not ploughed considerable time, effort, knowledge, talent and money into reporting this story over many years. Four million unique visitors a month now come to the Guardian for our environmental coverage – provided, at its peak, by a team including seven environmental correspondents and editors as well as a team of 28 external specialists.
They, along with our science team, have done a wonderful job of writing about the changes to our atmosphere, oceans, ice caps, forests, food, coral reefs and species.
For the purposes of our coming coverage, we will assume that the scientific consensus about man-made climate change and its likely effects is overwhelming. We will leave the sceptics and deniers to waste their time challenging the science. The mainstream argument has moved on to the politics and economics.
The coming debate is about two things: what governments can do to attempt to regulate, or otherwise stave off, the now predictably terrifying consequences of global warming beyond 2C by the end of the century. And how we can prevent the states and corporations which own the planet’s remaining reserves of coal, gas and oil from ever being allowed to dig most of it up. We need to keep them in the ground.