In the 18 months I’ve lived in America, as editor of the Guardian’s US edition, this country has been hit by a string of natural disasters.
Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, killing 3,057 people. The Camp fire, the most destructive wildfire in California’s history, leveled 18,000 buildings, displaced 50,000 people and left 86 dead. Since March, record floods in the midwest have swamped a million acres of farmland, threatening the nation’s grain supply.
In the White House there is a president who denies climate science even though Americans can see the climate is changing. In Iowa, in the heart of the midwest, farmers who have tended the land for centuries now openly talk about the impact of the climate crisis. They have no choice – it is threatening their livelihoods. In California, drought in recent years has been so severe that groundwater depletion means the land has sunk under their feet. Florida is planning to spend $4bn to counteract the effects of sea-level rise.
And yet the public debate about the climate crisis is much less evident here than in Europe. One of the most surprising observations of my first year in America is the gulf in coverage between the US and Europe. And not just climate, but a host of other environmental threats, from the scourge of ocean plastic to toxic chemicals in the US food supply. When the UN released a landmark report last October warning we have just 12 years left to radically slash global carbon emissions and stave off disaster, only 22 of the 50 biggest newspapers in America covered it.
The US media has some, in some cases, a lot of ground to make up. As Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope have noted, US news organizations fell for the fossil industry’s PR playbook in the 80s, 90s and into the 00s when they successfully repositioned “global warming as theory, not fact”. In his recent book Falter, Bill McKibben calls this “the most consequential cover-up in human history”.
Big money and Washington lobbying have negatively influenced policy debates in the US – and the way in which climate has been reported is one of the most egregious examples of that influence.
We need loud voices raised against falsehoods, special interests and the corrosive impact of big money.
At the Guardian, we have, for years, recognised that the escalating climate and environmental crisis is the defining issue of our lifetime. Today, we’re making a pledge to ourselves and our readers – journalistically and institutionally – on how to address the climate crisis we are facing.
This pledge is particularly crucial in the US, where the so-called science presented by the fossil-fuel industry helped drive a totally false debate on the nature of the crisis.
In the coming months, we will strengthen our climate coverage in significant ways, from being the lead partner in Covering Climate Now (an initiative to improve media coverage of climate to placing the climate crisis at the heart of our 2020 coverage). And next week, we launch “Our Unequal Earth” – a year-long project on environmental justice, exploring how poor and vulnerable communities are hardest hit by the climate crisis.
This expanded commitment to covering climate change is made possible with the continued support of our readers. This support has helped us to significantly strengthen our US environment team.
A few weeks ago I spoke at an event in Los Angeles about the role of journalism in pursuing social and environmental justice. It is absolutely central to what we do. I told the audience that without that purpose guiding our journalism there is little reason to come to work. Fighting for social and environmental justice – whether for overlooked, marginalised communities, or an ailing Earth – is at the core of what we have to do.
But we can only do that with your support. That’s what gives us the financial wherewithal and the motor energy to keep on fighting. After the event in LA I intended to slip away and get back to my hotel. But as it finished and we left the stage, I had a long line of people come to me and talk about why they value the Guardian. Perhaps none of those people realised how much I valued hearing them. These issues matter to me, but only because they matter to you.
Just as I was, finally, about to leave, an older woman approached me and said: “I’ve been waiting to speak to you, but I’m sure you had lots of important conversations to have before you met me. Well, I just wanted to say that I don’t know what I would do without the Guardian. You are needed so much more right now. Please keep doing what you are doing.”
That was the most important conversation I had that evening.