Controversial Newspaper Campaign Takes on Climate ‘Fatalism’

September 1, 2015



An extensive social media campaign was key to a newspaper's climate campaign; to date its divestiture petition has been signed by nearly 230,000.
               Photo montage: courtesy of James Randerson,
The Guardian

“We were tenacious, it’s true. When we started a campaign we would persist to the point that the issue became unignorable, and so became a problem, and so had to be resolved.” – Harold Evans, former editor of The Sunday Times, whose long-running campaign at that newspaper several decades ago eventually won compensation for the victims of thalidomide and their families.

It was Harold Evans that Alan Rusbridger — the editor-in-chief of The Guardian until June this year — had in mind when, in the run up to Christmas, he began musing on how the newspaper could embark on a truly impactful editorial push on climate change. That push was to become the paper’s Keep it in the Ground campaign.

It was now or never. In early December, the news had leaked that Rusbridger would end his tenure in charge of the paper after two decades. Now, at home and over a glass of Christmas Eve cheer, he emailed a group of journalists from across the organization with a challenge:

“Sometimes there’s a story so enormous that conventional journalism struggles to cope with it, never mind do justice. The imminent threat to the species is the most existentially important story any of us could imagine telling – for our sakes, for our children and for their children. But, as journalists, we also know that we sometimes tire of telling, and that people tire of reading.”

Despite the scale of resources that The Guardian has thrown at the environment beat — more specialist reporters and editors than any other mainstream newspaper in the world — Rusbridger could not help feeling a sense of regret that the paper had failed to really get to grips with the subject.

Partly as a result of the media’s failure, politicians around the world still don’t treat the subject with the seriousness it deserves and many readers have disengaged from the topic.

Rusbridger wanted to have one last crack at changing that. “[I] have an urge to do something powerful, focused and important with the Guardian while I’m still here. And it will be about climate change.”

Editors sought edge, direction for climate reporting

What followed were a series of meetings and discussions that cast a wide net across the editorial staff — not just environment reporters but the comment desk, designers, coders, the social media team, investigative reporters, business desk and many more.

Rusbridger wanted us to pool our skills and create new ways of telling the climate story that would engage readers afresh.

The direction of travel was clear but what would we actually do? An editorial campaign was one option but we knew it would be controversial. Would it be better to stick to what we are good at— reporting, revelation, uncovering and presenting new facts to the world?

The Guardian had recently seen great success with its international campaign against female genital mutilation. Just 19 days after it launched, the UK’s education minister had delivered on the campaign’s main ask — despite initial reluctance. Could we do something similar with climate?

We all knew that in the well-trodden territory of climate campaigning a win would not come so easily. But the consensus was that a campaign would give an edge to our reporting and provide a clear direction around which we could hang the broader editorial push.

Campaigning journalism is not unusual in the UK. The Times, for example, has campaigned for safer cycling provision in U.K. cities; the now-defunct News of the World campaigned for the introduction of “Sarah’s law” to allow parents to know the identity of convicted pedophiles; and the Daily Mirror has campaigned against the far-right British National Party.

But taking an overt stand on an issue is much more alien to the U.S. journalistic tradition, and it is here that the campaign encountered most raised eyebrows, bafflement and sometimes mild hostility. That exoticism, however, has worked to our advantage and helped to get The Guardian’s coverage noticed.

Zeroing in on divestment

The next question was what to campaign for.

There were many suggestions on the table: Some wanted to influence the agreement that governments would sign at the U.N.climate talks in Paris for example. Others wanted the paper to come out in favor of nuclear power.

After much discussion, we opted to back the global fossil fuel divestment movement — a rapidly-growing group of institutions that had taken the bold decision to move their investments out of fossil fuel companies.

The logic behind the cause was simple. The reserves of coal, oil and gas around the globe are already enough, if burned, to tip us far over the two degree centigrade threshold for “dangerous” climate change — in fact there’s three to five times more than would take us past the limit.

And yet, in a fit of collective madness, the fossil fuel industry is continuing to search for more coal, oil and gas. Shell’s push into the Arctic is just the most immediate and public form of this psychosis.

Divesting from these companies is a powerful signal that this state of affairs is unacceptable. It erodes their social license to operate and in the process harms their lobbying power with governments.

This is civil society putting its dollars where its mouth is and showing politicians that it wants radical action.

But there are self-interested reasons for divesting too. If the world gets to grips with climate change and keeps much of the oil, coal and gas under the ground then companies dedicated to extracting it will, all of a sudden, look severely over-valued. Many investors are already opting to get out of this “carbon bubble” before it bursts.

The divestment movement — driven to a great degree by the environmental group, which The Guardian is partnered with on the campaign — continues to gather considerable momentum. Over 220 organizations around the world have signed up including faith groups, universities, foundations and local authorities.

We decided to focus on the two largest health charities in the world, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust. Both of these organizations do vital work funding health research and treatment around the world and understand the threat posed by climate change — the biggest public health threat of the 21st century according to the UCL-Lancet commission.

Despite this good work their vast endowments (over $60 billion between them) are still invested in fossil fuels. Why, we asked, would they want to see their good work undone by their own investments contributing to the very health problems they are trying to solve?

Feedback ranges from glowing to skewering

The campaign struck a chord with readers.

Within a week, 100,000 people in 170 countries had signed the petition (there are now close to 230,000) and from the start we offered them meaningful ways to get involved. Supporters lobbied the Wellcome Trust board by writing letters, for example; medics around the world got together to demand change and petition-signers appeared in a video appeal to Bill Gates.

The feedback we’ve received from them has been at times moving and heartwarming. “Great stuff; [the campaign has] brought The Guardian much closer to me — and I’m sure helped many others gain an increased sense of community,” wrote one. “I was delighted when The Guardian threw itself into the fray,” responded another. “I joined the campaign to...give hope to the people of the world,” explained a third.

The campaign fired up supporters but it also kicked off a media debate. The Guardian itself became the story, with the campaign element of the project acting as a hook for dozens of TV and radio interviews and newspaper articles, including from CNN, BBC, The Hindu, NPR and Le Monde.

Many applauded the transparency and straightforwardness of our approach, but some argued we had fatally compromised the boundary between news and opinion.

Kevin Smith, a former president of the Society of Professional Journalists, told the web site he feared that one side of the argument would not be given a chance to respond.

“I get the sense that they’re pointing the fingers at the people they find to be culpable in this. And that’s fine,” said Smith. “But I think those culpable people at least deserve some sense of opportunity to defend themselves with some kind of evidence to suggest that everything else that’s been written or suggested is false.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Joe Mathewson, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, told EnergyWire. “It makes me wonder how they will handle business stories in the future dealing with the oil industry and with major companies in it. Will they get the same kind of straightforward coverage in the future, or will the business editor be constrained and play down the coverage of these huge, giant oil companies?”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, The Guardian is advocating fossil fuel divestment (and has also decided itself to divest its £800m fund from fossil fuel assets), but even on the central question of the campaign — whether divestment is effective — we have given voice to people who disagree with our approach.

What’s more, the campaign has opened up editorial opportunities with the oil majors that would not otherwise have happened. For example, a sit-down podcast interview of more than an hour with Shell boss Ben van Beurden.

Commitment to reporting, engagement

Divestment has been just one part of the editorial push that was born on Christmas Eve.

Alongside it has been a heightened commitment to a range of reporting, multimedia, interactives and investigations. And importantly, all of that journalism has been subject to the usual editorial standards that The Guardian applies to all our stories.

There was another part to Rusbridger’s challenge though. He wanted to engage new readers and those who have succumbed to climate fatalism. We knew that to do that we would have to approach the topic from new angles and do things differently.

Not all of this experimentation worked first time, but getting out of the usual mode of reporting has yielded some great successes.

Here’s some of what the team has produced:

All of this has been achieved under the intense and unusual scrutiny of a 12-part podcast series entitled “The Biggest Story in the World,” which gives a genuine, behind-the-scenes insight into the wider project and the decision-making around the campaign.

“Keep it in the Ground” also prompted the launch of the Climate Publishers Network, a content sharing agreement between 33 publishers around the world including Le Monde, El Pais, SeattleTimes, Huffington Post, Sydney Morning Herald, India Today and China Daily.

What has been achieved?

International coverage of fossil fuel divestment jumped by around a third in the first 10-week phase of the campaign, so it seems we have helped to spread the message.

The divestment movement itself has continued apace with several organizations — including the Church of England, Syracuse University and Norway’s $900 billion sovereign wealth fund —opting to divest from fossil fuels since the campaign began.

Unfortunately, the Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust are not among them yet. But there’s still time for them to change their minds.

At The Guardian, we have learned a lot by preventing climate change from being confined to an environment ghetto and engaging the talents and knowledge of journalists from across the organization.

In the process we’ve experimented with new ways to tackle the subject, which have brought in new readers.

Far from constraining us journalistically, the “Keep it in the Ground” campaign has felt liberating and provided a connection to readers that goes far beyond a click on a website.

The campaign’s next move? Sign the petition for updates and watch this space.

James Randerson is assistant national news editor at The Guardian, where he is leading the “Keep it in the Ground” campaign. The campaign can be found here.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer/Fall 2015. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

SEJ Publication Types: