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“We in the Media Have Not Been Doing Our Job”: 250+ News Outlets Pledge to Focus on Climate Crisis

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A major new project from The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review hopes to improve global coverage of the climate crisis, with more than 250 media outlets around the world — including Democracy Now! — signing on to the effort to publish or broadcast stories on climate. Organizers say this is one of the most ambitious efforts ever to organize the world’s media around a single topic. The week of coverage, which leads up to next week’s U.N. Climate Action Summit, kicked off on Sunday. As part of the effort, CBS News released a new poll of over 2,000 U.S. residents that measured attitudes around climate change, which found that two-thirds of Americans believe climate change is either a crisis or a serious problem, and a majority want immediate action to address the Earth’s temperature rise. In San Francisco, we speak with Mark Hertsgaard, one of the co-founders of the project, called Covering Climate Now, and The Nation’s environment correspondent and investigative editor.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Covering Climate Now. That’s the name of a new global initiative by The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review to improve global coverage of the climate crisis. More than 250 media outlets around the world, including Democracy Now!, have signed on to the effort to focus on climate stories ahead of next week’s U.N. Climate Action Summit.

For years, the corporate media has been criticized for failing to connect the dots between climate change and extreme weather around the globe. A recent study by Public Citizen found the country’s leading print publications devoted 363 articles to Hurricane Dorian; only nine mentioned climate change. Another study, by Media Matters, in the first week after Dorian hit, from August 28th to September 5th, found, of the 216 segments aired on main television networks on Dorian, only one mentioned climate change.

We’re joined now by Mark Hertsgaard, one of the co-founders of Covering Climate Now. His new article, out today in The Nation, is headlined “A New Beginning for Climate Reporting.” He’s The Nation's environment correspondent, investigative editor. He's also author of seven books, including Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.

Mark Hertsgaard, welcome back to Democracy Now! Explain the scope of this project and what is coming out now around the world in the news media and how you put it together.

MARK HERTSGAARD: It’s great to be with you, Amy and everybody at Democracy Now! We’re so happy to have you as one of our partners in this project, Covering Climate Now, which has really taken off way beyond what we expected. As you mentioned, we have 250 news outlets from all around the world, across the U.S. and overseas, who have committed, in the following seven to eight days, to do serious climate coverage, leading up to the September 23rd United Nations Climate Action Summit there in New York at United Nations headquarters. And we calculated that if you put all these 250-plus news outlets together, our combined audience is over 1 billion people — with a B. And so, when we started this six months ago, we had no idea it would take off like this, but we’re very, very pleased that it has.

And I think it shows, actually, that — something that we suspected at the beginning of this, which is that we thought that a lot of our colleagues, including in the mainstream media, wanted to do more climate coverage, knew that this is the big story of our time, and just needed a little push, and that if there was a way for us to highlight this critical mass of journalists and news outlets that wanted to do more climate coverage, by highlighting that, we could grow that critical mass of coverage. And that’s exactly what’s happened. We thought that we’d have, you know, a couple dozen smaller outlets here in the U.S. joining us, and it’s just grown and grown and grown, as more and more journalists across the country and around the world have found out about this initiative. And now we’re up to 250 news outlets. And frankly, we’re hoping to make a little noise this week.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s very interesting when you look at these numbers on the coverage of Hurricane Dorian. You had massive, 24-hour-a-day, it almost seemed, certainly on the cable networks, coverage of the hurricane, as we should have seen it — you know, the slamming of the Bahamas and the devastation there — but almost no mention of climate crisis, of the climate change, of the —


AMY GOODMAN: — intensity of these hurricanes, the frequency of these hurricanes, caused by human — well, behind it, it’s human actions, human activities, human-fueled climate change.

MARK HERTSGAARD: Sure. Yeah, the science on this is pretty clear. And unfortunately, the U.S. media, in particular, has a long ways to go in its climate coverage. You know, we are trying, first of all, to break the climate silence that you’re talking about here, Amy, that has been the main problem with media coverage of this issue going back for more than 20 years now. You know, I’ve been reporting on climate change since the 1990s, and I spent a lot of that decade traveling around the world. And it’s been clear ever since then that the U.S. media is about 10 years behind the media in Europe and Asia in reporting the climate crisis. First of all, we don’t mention it, as you just talked about. And when we do do the climate story, we often get it wrong.

For many years we had this false balance, where we felt that if we had on a real NASA scientist talking about climate science, that somehow, to be fair to the audience, we also had to have on somebody who said the climate science was bunk. And that person was usually just a paid propagandist for the fossil fuel industry. So, there is not a proud history here on the part of the media.

AMY GOODMAN: Be careful about mentioning that the world is round, Mark, because we’re going to have to bring on someone from the Flat Earth Society to counter what you say, just to give, you know, a fair and balanced approach to it.

MARK HERTSGAARD: Yeah, that has been just a disastrous point of view. And luckily, that is now fading, I think, this false balance. But still we have to break the silence. And I think this week is going to help do that.

We really — this consortium of Covering Climate Now is striking in many respects, in that we’ve got such a diversity. There’s very big outlets, like Bloomberg; like CBS News; like The Times of India, which alone has over 1 billion monthly unique visitors to its website; Asahi Shimbun, the biggest newspaper in Japan; La Repubblica, the biggest newspaper in Italy. And then, here in the U.S., we’ve got the San Francisco Chronicle, The Seattle Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, most of the major public radio stations in the country. So there’s a lot of participation, but also from some very small nonprofit outfits. I’m very proud to say that we’ve got participation from Togo, from Turkey, from Cambodia, from South Africa, from all over the world, from Portugal, Argentina, Chile. There are — many of our colleagues in the media know that the climate story is something that we have been, frankly, missing for too long. And we’re going to fix that.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark, one of the first big stories out this week, the CBS News poll, tell us what it found.

MARK HERTSGAARD: Sure. We worked closely with CBS on this. And they found that, essentially, most Americans understand that the climate crisis is serious, and they want action right now. And to me, the most interesting finding — well, there were two. One is that about 70%, 69%, of the American people expect that the next president takes serious climate action. There’s 56% of the public wants action right now, and another 13% want action in the next few years, meaning in the term of the incoming president. That is a very striking number that I think politicians in both parties need to be paying attention to.

But the second finding that is striking out of that CBS poll is that even though most Americans think climate crisis is serious and needs action, there is deep confusion about whether the scientists really believe this. Only about half of the country, 48%, understand the truth, which is that science is finished, is decided on this. Ninety-seven percent of the working climate scientists say that this is a serious problem, man-made, we have to do something about it. Forty-eight percent think that the scientists are not clear on this. That number, that 48 and 48%, the fact that people are confused about a basic fact about climate science, shows that we in the media have not been doing our job, and that for 20 years we have been taken in, really, by the propaganda of the fossil fuel industry, which has been saying, as you well know, Amy, and you’ve reported here on Democracy Now! numerous times — the fossil fuel industry has been saying for almost 30 years now, “Oh, the science isn’t clear.” They’ve been trying to muddy the waters with this false equivalence. And so, unfortunately, we’re still seeing the residue of that here in the public opinion. Now people can look out the window and see that climate science is real. Imagine, though, if we had had the proper coverage of climate science for these past 10, 20 years, what the poll data would be saying now and what the political candidates would be saying now, because there would be political awareness.

And that’s why we’re really doing this Covering Climate Now initiative, because, you know, last October, the IPCC scientists of the United Nations said we have 12 years in which to slash the emissions on this planet in half in order to basically retain a livable world. And they said — the scientists added that in order to do that, we need fundamental transformation in the economic sector, the energy sector, the transportation sector, construction, agriculture. But they left out one critical sector, which is the media sector. As you well know, Amy, the media is the key to political consciousness. And if you don’t have media coverage of the climate crisis, you will never have the public awareness and the public pressure that, frankly, is needed to get government and corporations to do what is required to face up to this climate crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the language that is used to describe the crisis. The Guardian recently wrote, “Instead of 'climate change' the preferred terms are 'climate emergency, crisis or breakdown' and 'global heating' is favoured over 'global warming', although the original terms are not banned.” But the significance of how this is described, Mark?

MARK HERTSGAARD: Sure. We’re very happy to have The Guardian as our lead media partner in Covering Climate Now. They’ve been with us from the beginning. And we chose them because they are the gold standard in climate coverage. If you are looking for good coverage, that’s the place to go. They have it on their front page every day. It’s solid reporting. It’s good analysis.

And, you know, they’ve been criticized at The Guardian, by some of our colleagues in the media, for using these terms, Amy, of “emergency” and “crisis,” as if this is somehow activist language. Follow the science. If you follow the science, those terms are not activism. If you think that having 12 years to turn around the entire world economy, to get it off of fossil fuels and to put it onto a climate-smart basis of solar, wind and efficiency, if that isn’t an emergency, I don’t know what is. The scientists said in that report that the kinds of changes we need over the next 12 years are without precedent in human history, meaning we’ve never made this big of a change this fast. If that isn’t a crisis, if that isn’t an emergency, I don’t know what is. That’s why the United Nations secretary-general, Mr. Guterres, has consistently said that we face a climate emergency. So, we feel, as journalists, our job is to be honest and straightforward about the facts. And the scientific facts here are very clear: This is a crisis situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about some of the leading stories that are coming out, the first exposés during this Covering Climate Now week, and why you feel — you just put out a piece today, “A New Beginning for Climate Reporting” — this U.N. summit, that’s taking place before Santiago, where Democracy Now! and hopefully all these news organizations will be, in Chile, in December — why this September 23rd Climate Action Summit at the U.N., you feel, is so important.

MARK HERTSGAARD: Sure. You know, Secretary-General Guterres called this summit precisely because governments around the world are not living up to the pledges that they made in Paris in December 2015, the very famous Paris Agreement, which is the high point of climate diplomacy. And we have an agreement among virtually every government on Earth that they would keep the temperature rise to, quote-unquote, “well below 2 degrees Celsius” and to try to get to 1.5 degrees. And that would require, as the scientists have said, dramatic shifts between now and 2030. And the secretary-general has called this summit next Monday, September 23, because the governments around the world are not living up to what they promised to do.

We are still on track to way over 2 degrees, probably somewhere between 3 and 5 degrees of temperature rise, which would be an absolute catastrophe. So, Secretary-General Guterres is summoning the world leaders to New York a day before the General Assembly meeting of the United Nations to say, “Look, you’ve got to increase your ambition. You’ve got to raise your game. We need to go faster and farther. The science is more serious than we thought.”

And I think, frankly, that he is trying to — the secretary-general is hoping that this summit, because of media coverage and because of pressure from the youth activists, will force governments to do a better job of living up to their pledges. And he’s famously told the heads of state, “Don’t bring a speech to the summit. Bring a plan.” In other words, no blah-blah-blah, that we usually have at U.N. meetings. Show us what you’re doing. Show us the concrete examples of cutting emissions that can be replicable around the world.

And that’s the good side of this, is that there are so many solutions out there now that make economic sense. California, where I’m talking to you from right now, fifth biggest economy in the world, California is on track to meet these targets. It can be done. But it’s going to take a push, and it really requires public pressure.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re speaking to us from San Francisco, Mark. As we wrap up, President Trump is expected to be out in California in these next days, doing his fundraisers, a proud climate change denier. Your message for him as he comes to San Francisco and Los Angeles?

MARK HERTSGAARD: I wish that President Trump would remember that I have a daughter, he has daughters. He has, presumably, grandchildren, as well, I think. And we owe it to them to do better than this. And I would just remind everyone that Donald Trump said that he pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. He has not. He cannot yet. That decision is for the next president. By the agreement itself, the U.S. cannot leave until one day after the 2020 presidential election. So, whoever Americans elect on November 3rd, 2020, that president will make the decision about whether the U.S. stays in the Paris Agreement or not.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Hertsgaard, I want to thank you for being with us and for this tremendous global effort to focus on the climate crisis. Mark is The Nation’s environment correspondent, investigative editor, author of seven books, including Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.

As we continue our climate coverage through the week, tomorrow we’ll spend the hour with Naomi Klein. It’s publication day for her. She has a new book out. It’s called On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we head north to Alaska, to President Trump’s efforts to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and what this means to the people and the environment of the area. Stay with us.

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