What if we covered the climate crisis like we did the start of the second world war?
In the war, the purpose of journalism was to awaken the world to the catastrophe looming ahead of it. We must approach our climate crisis the same way
By Bill Moyers
May 22 2019
Today marks the official launch of Covering Climate Now, a project co-sponsored by The Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation. Joined by The Guardian and others partners to be announced, Covering Climate Now will bring journalists and news outlets together to dramatically improve how the media as a whole covers the climate crisis and its solutions.
The following is an abridged version of the conference keynote speech by iconic TV newsman Bill Moyers, as prepared for delivery. A video version of the speech is available here. See here for more about the Covering Climate Now project.
I have been asked to bring this gathering to a close by summing up how we can do better at covering the possible “collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world,” to quote the noted environmentalist David Attenborough, speaking at the recent United Nations climate summit in Poland.
I don’t come with a silver bullet. And I’m no expert on the topic. Like you, I am just a journalist whose craft calls for us to explain things we don’t understand. There’s so much I don’t understand that journalism became my continuing course in adult education. The subjects were so fascinating, and the work so fulfilling, that I kept at it “full speed ahead” for half a century, until two years ago, at the age of 83, I yielded finally to the side effects of a long life and retired (more or less). This is the first opportunity I have had since then to be with so many kindred spirits of journalism, and the camaraderie reminds me how much I have missed your company.
Many of us have recognized that our coverage of global warming has fallen short. There’s been some excellent reporting by independent journalists and by enterprising reporters and photographers from legacy newspapers and other news outlets. But the Goliaths of the US news media, those with the biggest amplifiers—the corporate broadcast networks—have been shamelessly AWOL, despite their extraordinary profits. The combined coverage of climate change by the three major networks and Fox fell from just 260 minutes in 2017 to a mere 142 minutes in 2018—a drop of 45%, reported the watchdog group Media Matters.
Meanwhile, about 1,300 communities across the United States have totally lost news coverage, many from newspaper mergers and closures, according to the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism. Hundreds of others are still standing only as “ghost newspapers.” They no longer have resources for even local reporting, much less for climate change. “Online news sites, as well as some TV newsrooms, are working hard to keep local reporting alive, but these are taking root far more slowly than newspapers are dying,” observes Tom Stites of Poynter in a report about the study. And, alas, many of the news outlets that are still around have ignored or misreported the climate story and failed to counter the tsunami of deceptive propaganda unleashed by fossil-fuel companies and the mercenaries, ideologues, and politicians who do their bidding.
But events educate, experience instructs, and so much destructive behavior has been caused by climate disruption that more Americans today than ever seem hungry to know what’s causing it, what’s coming and what can be done about it. We journalists have perhaps our last chance to help people grasp the magnitude of the threat. My friend and journalist-turned-citizen-activist Bill McKibben told me last week that because of the looming possibility of extinction, and in response to it from the emerging leadership among young people, we have reached a ‘climate moment’ with real momentum, and our challenge as we go forward is to dramatically change the zeitgeist—“to lock in and consolidate public opinion that’s finally beginning to come into focus.”
So, while I did not come with a silver bullet—there’s no such thing—I do want to share a couple of stories that might help us respond to this daunting task.
I’ll begin with how I first heard of global warming—before many of you in this room were born. It was 54 years ago, early in 1965, at the White House. Before I became President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary (“over my dead body,” I might add,) I was his special assistant coordinating domestic policy. One day, two members of the president’s science-advisory committee came by the office. One of them was the famous oceanographer, Roger Revelle. Famous because only a few years earlier he had shaken up the prevailing consensus that the oceans were massive enough to soak up any amount of excess of carbon released on earth. Not so, Revelle discovered; the peculiar chemistry of sea water actually prevents this from happening.
Now, he said, humans have begun a “vast geophysical experiment.” We were about to burn, within a few generations, the fossil fuels that had slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years. Burning so much oil, gas, and coal would release massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it would trap heat that otherwise would escape into space. Earth’s temperature could rise, causing polar ice to melt and sea levels to rise, flooding the earth’s coastal regions.
President Johnson took scientists seriously; as vice president, he had been chosen by President Kennedy to chair the intergovernmental committee overseeing NASA’s charge to put a man on the moon. So Revelle and his colleagues got the green light, and by the fall of 1965 they produced the first official report to any government anywhere on the possible threat to humanity from rising CO2 levels. On November 6, Lyndon Johnson became the first president to mention the threat in a message to Congress.