The U.K. Guardian has launched a campaign of science and conscience to reverse humanity’s self-destructive pursuit of burning all of the world’s fossil fuels: #keepitintheground. Journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen labeled it “an old fashioned newspaper campaign.”
The Guardian starts by calling on Bill and Melinda Gates to divest their foundation from all investments in fossil fuels. Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger has also asked for help from whistleblowers in fossil fuel industries to help expose the industry.
The science is crystal clear that we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground unburnt if we are to have any realistic chance whatsoever of limiting total warming to non-catastrophic levels. The journal Nature spelled that out in a January study, “The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2 °C.”
The Guardian has posted a video on their website explaining why we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground and why that is the biggest story in the world:
Editor Rusbridger writes that the argument to divest from the biggest carbon polluters is “becoming an overwhelming one, on both moral and financial grounds.” He quotes Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.” He explains:
The usual rule of newspaper campaigns is that you don’t start one unless you know you’re going to win it. This one will almost certainly be won in time: the physics is unarguable. But we are launching our campaign today in the firm belief that it will force the issue now into the boardrooms and inboxes of people who have billions of dollars at their disposal.
Media campaigns for the public interest and against injustice are nothing new. And what greater public interest is there than not turning much of the planet’s most habitable and arable land into a near permanent dustbowl, sharply reducing humanity’s ability to feed what will then be 9 billion people?
Bill McKibben, one of the founders of the divestment movement whose organization 350.org is partnering with the Guardian, emailed me, “Alan Rusbridger is the finest newspaper editor of his era, and this caps his career — he’s the first editor, I think, that’s ever truly treated the greatest story of our time with the gravity it requires.”
I understand that some people in — and out — of journalism believe that the media’s job is simply to report the news without any judgment as to what truths are in the public interest to expose. That is an ahistorical view of the media. My father, who was editor of the Middletown (New York) Times Herald-Record for decades, certainly understood that a key mission of the paper was to advance the public interest. But then that view was quite noncontroversial in the 1960s and 1970s.
One of the greatest editors of his era, the late Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, took on the government over the paper’s right to publish the Pentagon papers. And he famously oversaw the paper’s relentless and ultimately triumphant expose of corruption in the Nixon White House.
And 61 years ago last week, the legendary Edward R. Murrow, another one of his my father’s heroes, hosted “A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy,” perhaps the most famous episode of his CBS show, See It Now. In this time of climate crisis and climate silence, Murrow is a reminder that at one time journalists spoke out on the greatest issues of the day:
This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent…. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities.
The New York Times has called Edward R. Murrow, “Perhaps the most esteemed American journalist since Ben Franklin.” But now his courage and moral outrage in the face of injustice and intimidation seem to be of a lost era.
Even back in 1990, the Times could write, “Since his day, commercial television has shown little enthusiasm for controversy of the sort that he courted; all the news divisions take chances from time to time, but the intervals seem long, and none of his successors conveys the passionate conviction that came so naturally to him.”
But we must remember that what Murrow did was itself nothing new. In the Progressive Era, “muckraking” journalists and newspapers routinely launched public interest campaigns to expose government corruption, abuse in industries like meat-packing, and child labor practices. Ida Tarbell famously took on robber baron John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil monopoly, with a 19-part (!) series that began in the November 1902 issue of McClure’s. A 2008 biography summarizes her story this way, “How a female investigative journalist brought down the world’s greatest tycoon and broke up the Standard Oil monopoly.”
The main difference between what Standard Oil did and what its descendants (such as Exxon and Mobil) are doing to harm the public interest is that Standard Oil was mostly harming the U.S. public economically through monopolistic practices, whereas today Exxon and other major fossil fuel companies are harming our children and countless future generations around the world through their myriad efforts to block climate action and spread disinformation.
Can journalistic muckrakers go too far exposing corrupt politicians and dangerous pollution? Of course. The great Republican progressive president and trust-buster Teddy Roosevelt, who coined the term muckraker in a 1906 speech, said “the men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck….”
Given that media has been far too silent on the biggest story of our time for too long, given that we are headed well past plausibly safe levels of warming and headed toward unimaginably catastrophic levels of warming, it is quite safe to say that the major media have not gone too far. Certainly if we leave future generations a ruined climate, they aren’t going to think the major U.S. media — or any of us — did enough.
There are, in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful.
Is there a greater evil than what we are doing now to the climate, which is likely irreversible for many centuries? Is there anything more immoral than what we are consciously doing to the next 40 generations to walk this planet?
Climate science tells us what the facts are. The rest is up to us. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result.