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Can the Guardian’s Climate Campaign Effect Real Political Change?

Alexis Petru headshotWords by Alexis Petru
Leadership & Transparency
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The early 20th century muckraking journalists criticized the meat-packing industry and child labor practices, Woodward and Bernstein exposed Nixon’s Watergate scandal, and Northwestern University journalism students helped to overturn wrongful death-row convictions. These are just a few examples of the power investigative journalism has to make a lasting impact on politics and society at large.

But there’s one important issue that journalism has consistently failed to cover properly: climate change. And now, a new campaign from the United Kingdom’s Guardian aims to change that. The publication is putting the debate on climate science to bed and wants to not only educate the public on climate change, but also inspire individuals, governments and companies to take action on the issue.

Why has the media done such a poor job reporting on our changing climate?

“The problem with this story [climate change] is – which is why journalism has, if we’re honest about it, failed -- it’s so big, and it doesn’t change much from day to day,” said Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s outgoing editor-in-chief, on the first episode of a podcast series about the climate project. “Journalism is brilliant at capturing momentum or changes or things that are unusual. If it’s basically the same every day, every week, every year, I think journalists lose heart.”

Rusbridger came up with the idea for the initiative on Christmas Eve, as he reflected on his legacy and embarked on his last year at the Guardian’s helm, he said. Sitting next to a crackling fire burning carbon in his fireplace, Rusbridger thought about his meeting earlier that year with climate activist and 350.org founder Bill McKibben. And just as so many British prime ministers become environmentalists in the last year of their terms, he said, Rusbridger decided that his last hurrah at the paper would be this climate campaign.

But Rusbridger didn’t want the Guardian’s new climate coverage to simply be more articles on the topic. He is challenging his staff to find a new way to tell the story of climate change, he said: one that forces readers to sit up and pay attention, rather than leaving them bored or hopeless and depressed.

Rusbridger gave a preview of the paper’s upcoming reporting in a recent column:

“We will look at who is getting the subsidies and who is doing the lobbying. We will name the worst polluters and find out who still funds them. We will urge enlightened trusts, investment specialists, universities, pension funds and businesses to take their money away from the companies posing the biggest risk to us. And, because people are rightly bound to ask, we will report on how the Guardian Media Group itself is getting to grips with the issues.”

Indeed, the Guardian’s climate campaign has kicked off with a bang – with a call on The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust to divest from fossil fuels, including a petition that has already gathered 60,000 signatures. The publication has released several editorials about what McKibben thinks is our best bet to prevent global temperatures from increasing more than 2 degrees Celsius – the threshold at which scientists agree the most catastrophic effects of climate change can be avoided: not extracting and burning up the reserves of fossil fuels that companies have yet to exploit. McKibben summed up his recommendations with these clever catchphrases that the Guardian echoed: “Leave it in the ground." "Keep oil in the soil." "Keep coal in the hole.”

While journalism criticizing the status-quo is hardly a new phenomenon, the Guardian’s specific calls to action, its use of online engagement tools like petitions and its behind-the-scenes podcast series providing transparency on the climate project is both groundbreaking and exciting. As the narrator of the first podcast episode points out, if the Guardian does this campaign right, it could change the world. If it doesn’t, it could take down its editor, reputation and the whole paper. But whatever the result, at least the Guardian staff tried to make a difference on what is – as the podcast series’ title reiterates – “the biggest story in the world.”

Image credit: Flickr/Richard Dawson

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru

Alexis Petru headshotAlexis Petru

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.

Read more stories by Alexis Petru