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A couple react as they go through their destroyed mobile home following Hurricane Laura in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on August 27, 2020. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP / Getty Images

By Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope

In this autumn of horrific fires and deadly floods, it's easy to overlook one bit of promising news on the climate front: Some major U.S. media coverage of the crisis is finally getting better.

By Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope

In this autumn of horrific fires and deadly floods, it’s easy to overlook one bit of promising news on the climate front: Some major U.S. media coverage of the crisis is finally getting better.


We’re seeing the evidence this week as Covering Climate Now—a collaboration of four hundred-plus news outlets, with a combined audience of two billion people—publishes and broadcasts a profusion of stories about climate change and the 2020 U.S. elections. Climate change has been largely overlooked in general-election coverage to date, with one exception: September 14, when Donald Trump said of California’s record wildfires, inaccurately, that “science doesn’t know” whether the earth will keep getting hotter and his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, warned that re-electing a “climate arsonist” to the White House would ensure worse blazes in the future.

Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage, which runs September 21 through 28, aims to give climate change the attention it deserves. The collaborative, co-founded last year by CJR and The Nation in association with The Guardian, aims to help news organizations increase and improve coverage of the crisis as well as its solutions. Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the looming Supreme Court battle, and the other huge news stories of 2020, “the climate emergency remains the central question facing the world,” United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said in a September 8 interview with Covering Climate Now. As Justin Worland wrote in a landmark special issue of Time magazine on July 7, the U.S. elections will shape whether we “keep driving off the climate cliff or take the last exit.”

NBC News, which joined Covering Climate Now in April, kicked off this current week of joint coverage by launching a new series, Planet 2020. Al Roker, the network’s chief climate correspondent and long-time weather forecaster, has been talking about climate change on the Today show for months, describing its links to wildfires and hurricanes without wiggle words or alarmism. Now, Roker and cohost Savannah Sellers, the host of NBC’s daily digital news show Stay Tuned, are connecting the dots between extreme weather, climate change, and the 2020 elections where, as Sellers reported, “millennials and Gen-Z will make up 37 percent of eligible voters and concern over climate change is … shaping up to be more important to all voting blocs than ever before.” Also this week, our partners at Reuters and Agence France Presse delivered a story to their thousands of newsroom clients around the world that puts the Paris Agreement goals in a new light, reporting, “The richest one percent of people are responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the poorest half of the world’s population.”

Good climate coverage by Covering Climate Now partners is begetting good climate coverage among the media as a whole. More of America’s leading newspapers are speaking more loudly and plainly about climate change, notably The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Arizona Republic, and the Los Angeles Times. The latter headlined a September 14 story about the state’s wildfires “A Climate Apocalypse Now.” Among magazines, Bloomberg has launched a new digital outlet and accompanying print edition, Bloomberg Green, that is a must-read for the far-reaching economic aspects of the climate story.

On television, Covering Climate Now partner PBS NewsHour continues to set the pace for sustained, informed climate coverage. And on August 8, CNN rebroadcast climate correspondent Bill Weir’s “The Road to Change,” a documentary that we praised in April as perhaps the best piece of climate journalism ever done by a mainstream US news outlet.

The problem is, these and other examples of first-rate climate coverage remain the exception.

Despite recent orange skies over the West Coast and fearsome storm surges in the Gulf of Mexico, not to mention the 32 years since NASA scientist James Hansen’s U.S. Senate testimony that man-made global warming had begun, the climate crisis remains a marginal afterthought in most U.S. news coverage. Chris Wallace of Fox News has announced that he will not even raise the subject of climate change when moderating the first presidential debate between Trump and Biden next week.

And consider the scandalous absence of climate change from most coverage of the wildfires, Hurricane Laura, the Iowa derecho, and countless other extreme weather events of 2020. Only one of the ninety-three news segments that ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and MSNBC aired during the week after Laura slammed the Louisiana coast connected the storm to climate change, according to a study by the watchdog group Media Matters. Of forty-six segments ABC, NBC, and CBS aired on the California wildfires, only seven mentioned climate change.

This is media malpractice. It is also, from a business point of view, foolish: the public actually wants more, not less, climate coverage. According to a poll released today by our partners at The Guardian and VICE Media, 74 percent of likely voters want the moderators to ask climate questions at the upcoming presidential debates.

We are heartened by the progress Covering Climate Now has made in helping the media rise to the existential challenge of the climate crisis. Yet even as we celebrate that progress this week, we recognize how far there is to go, and how little time we have to get there. The first presidential debate takes place on September 29, and five weeks later is Election Day. Between now and then, newsrooms should follow the advice of Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan: “This subject must be kept front and center, with the pressure on and the stakes made abundantly clear at every turn.”

This story originally appeared in Columbia Journalism Review and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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Ventura, California, residents demonstrate on Earth Day against President Trump's environmental policies in 2017. Joe Sohm / Visions of America / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

By Andrew McCormick

Every presidential election is critical in its way. Even so, 2020 manages to feel unique. With a deadly virus stalking the land and crashing the economy and political polarization so high that the truth itself is often in question, this November will certainly mark a turning point in American history.

By Andrew McCormick

Every presidential election is critical in its way. Even so, 2020 manages to feel unique. With a deadly virus stalking the land and crashing the economy and political polarization so high that the truth itself is often in question, this November will certainly mark a turning point in American history.


The election is also pivotal for the climate emergency—and its solutions.

Science shows that humanity is careering toward a point of no return. To meet the Paris Agreement’s preferred goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius—essential to saving millions of lives outright, not to mention avoiding “tipping points” that would bring ever more hurricanes, floods, droughts, wildfires, and heat waves in the years ahead—humanity must cut global emissions in half by 2030. Doing this, scientists say, will require economic transformation at a speed and scale unprecedented in human history. It will take deliberate, aggressive action across industries and at all levels of government, foremost from the world’s top emitters, including the US. Simply put, we need action and we need it fast. (Latest projections routinely suggest we are farther down the road to disaster than we think.)

As Justin Worland wrote in the cover story for a tour de force Time magazine special issue last week, “In the future, we may look back at 2020 as the year we decided to keep driving off the climate cliff—or to take the last exit.” A serious response to the threat, he said, means spending on green energy, restricting emissions for companies that receive government bailouts, and bolstering green transportation in cities. Entrenchment in fossil fuels will instead spell climate catastrophe. “What we do now,” Worland wrote, “will define the fate of the planet—and human life on it—for decades.”

In any election year, it is journalists’ job to inform the public and convey the full measure of what’s at stake. That’s why, even as the coronavirus outbreak rages—a tragic case study in ignoring science—and activists fight to topple long-standing systems of inequality, the climate crisis must be a priority for newsrooms this campaign season.

This responsibility puts journalists in a potentially tricky spot, however. If the public deserves a fair-minded accounting of candidates’ positions, what’s to be done when one party, broadly speaking, denies the reality of climate change or favors only weak policies to address it? Here, journalists must make a vital but nuanced point: what a society does about climate change is inherently political, but clarifying that something must be done—and that it must square with the science—is not partisan.

Climate change is political insofar as strong policies are necessary to answer its challenges. That’s a plain fact of governance, not partisan opinion. Yet, for too long, journalism has tended to view climate policy through the lens of horse race politics: One candidate favors action. The other doesn’t. Who will prevail? This tendency has to go. If one party or candidate offers credible policies on climate and the other does not, it’s up to the other party or candidate to catch up. It’s not journalists’ job to wait for them in the name of false equivalence.

Donald Trump, who has falsely called climate change “a hoax,” claims he has made America an environmental leader even as his administration has slashed environmental regulations and propped up flagging fossil fuel companies. Trump’s campaign website makes no mention of climate change, other than to call America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement a “promise kept.” Meanwhile, former vice president Joe Biden, Trump’s presumptive opponent in the fall, has committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement and proposed an ambitious trillion plan to combat climate change, drawn up cooperatively with his top challenger during the Democratic primaries, US senator Bernie Sanders. Biden’s plan does not explicitly back a Green New Deal, but it favors many of its components, including a transition to zero-carbon electricity nationwide by 2035, economic protections for workers in the fossil fuel industry, and well-funded commitments to environmental justice.

The two candidates’ plans are, self-evidently, not equal. In the virtual absence of a plan from Trump, Biden’s plan gives the country and the planet a much better shot at pulling back from the brink. And it’s no endorsement of Biden to say so. It’s a scientific and political judgment, not a partisan one. For the sake of humanity now and in the future, Trump and his team are welcome to catch up.

But it would be a shame if climate-related election coverage was all about Trump and Biden. State and local leaders can also do a lot to curb emissions and make communities resilient. And the issues candidates are pushed on during campaigns drive the commitments and promises they are judged against in office. So where do candidates for city council, mayor, state legislatures, and Congress stand? And what might contributions to their campaigns say about their environmental allegiances?

Questions like these should be the norm in the coming months. “It’s not enough to do one story on one candidate’s position on climate change and be done with it,” Covering Climate Now’s cofounders Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope argued recently in The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review. “The word ‘climate’ should be included in headlines and broadcast scripts often enough that the public can’t miss it.” Nor should climate change be siloed on the science beat. Political reporters and newsroom leaders must make it central to the campaign narrative, giving it equal prominence as electoral mainstays like the economy and national security. (Indeed, climate change cuts across and binds these issues; if we do not adapt, it will cripple economies and make us all less secure.)

The good news is that audiences care. Climate action is a leading issue for young voters, and an April poll by Yale and George Mason Universities found that two-thirds of all registered voters are worried about global warming; four in ten said candidates’ positions on climate change will be “very important” in how they vote this fall.

Still, doing justice to the climate story will take leadership and discipline from newsrooms. Reporters and editors must step back from ephemeral shifts in the polls and all the nitnoid controversies of campaign overload. Decades from now, most of us will have forgotten the names and deeds of Donald Trump’s various associates. But we will surely take note of unlivable heat and flood waters lapping at our feet if we ignore the climate crisis this campaign season. Will journalists count the 2020 election a missed opportunity, or will it be the breakthrough moment when they got the climate story right—and helped America do the same?

This story originally appeared in Columbia Journalism Review and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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A child stands in what is left of his house in Utuado, Puerto Rico, which was almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Maria, on Oct. 12, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Jon-Paul Rios. Flickr, CC by 2.0

Journalism is now engaged in explaining and contextualizing this moment, a frenzy of feature writing prompted by the filling of morgues and the throngs of people in the streets. Some of these pieces will be impressive; a few will win our most prestigious journalism prizes. We'll look back at the spring of 2020 and congratulate ourselves on the central role played by professional reporters, who helped the nation navigate these crises.

But let's save the self-congratulations. While it is true that the virus and the uprising in the streets have exposed deep injustices and inequities in our nation, none of them are new.

By Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope

To hear many journalists tell it, the spring of 2020 has brought a series of extraordinary revelations. Look at what the nation has learned: That our health-care system was not remotely up to the challenge of a deadly pandemic. That our economic safety net was largely nonexistent. That our vulnerability to disease and death was directly tied to our race and where we live. That our political leadership sowed misinformation that left people dead. That systemic racism and the killing of Black people by police is undiminished, despite decades of protest and so many Black lives lost.


Journalism is now engaged in explaining and contextualizing this moment, a frenzy of feature writing prompted by the filling of morgues and the throngs of people in the streets. Some of these pieces will be impressive; a few will win our most prestigious journalism prizes. We’ll look back at the spring of 2020 and congratulate ourselves on the central role played by professional reporters, who helped the nation navigate these crises.

But let’s save the self-congratulations. While it is true that the virus and the uprising in the streets have exposed deep injustices and inequities in our nation, none of them are new.

This summer and fall, all of these stories will crash together as Americans vote in an election that is also a decisive turning point in the overarching story of our time—the onrushing climate emergency. This summer, scientists say, will bring heat waves, wildfires, and “one of the most active” hurricane seasons on records. Protests against racial injustice may well rise along with temperatures, no doubt fueled by more videos of pain and death. In the fall, our health crisis may well increase, as the COVID-19 pandemic collides with the seasonal flu, all while the US economy continues to experience Great Depression levels of unemployment. It is to the shame of journalism if we don’t get to the root of why all of this is happening so that voters can make informed choices in November.

It’s worth remembering the media hand-wringing that followed the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Mainstream news outlets, out of touch and understaffed, reported largely from inside their own establishment bubbles, and few in those confined spaces believed Trump had a shot at winning the presidency. So the press missed the story. It didn’t understand the stirring of disaffection in the country; it underestimated the racism and economic fear that would drive white people to support Trump; it misread polling and cherry-picked data to convince itself that a Trump loss was inevitable.

In a presidential election, the media’s job is to understand the electorate, not predict the outcome before voters have cast ballots. Four years ago, reporters and editors became too obsessed with political gamesmanship, personality, and trivia to do the media’s primary job. The result was a humiliating defeat for journalism and an acceleration of the mistrust of the press that already existed.

At the start of the 2020 election year, despite pledges by newsroom leaders to do better, the same tendencies showed. Trump was defining the narrative. Structural chasms in the country were ignored. The Democratic field was reduced to caricature.

Then came the coronavirus and the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among too many others. Exactly none of what we as journalists learned about our nation in the past three months should have come as a surprise. We have known, or should have known, that the public health system in the US is overpriced and unequal. We have known, or should have known, that Americans are not equipped to withstand an economic downturn. We have known, or should have known, that racial injustice is pervasive in our country (and in our media) and that Black people continue to die, be incarcerated, and suffer economically at tragically disproportionate rates.

The fact that it took a pandemic, police killings, and mass protests to focus mainstream journalistic attention on these issues is damning, and must prompt a reappraisal of how we work. Why weren’t newsrooms obsessing about these issues before the world imploded this spring? Why must we always be reactive to injustice, instead of proactively highlighting it? Isn’t it the job of journalism to ferret out wrongdoing even if people in power want it to remain hidden? Why aren’t we advocating for our audiences and their lives?

Which brings us to the climate crisis. This summer, wildfires will ravage the American west. Deadly heat will pound the global south. Hurricanes will march up the Atlantic coast. Homes, and perhaps whole communities, will be lost. Crops and people will die.

If the journalistic status quo holds, news organizations will respond by going into disaster-coverage mode, mobilizing their dwindling staffs to cover the crisis as it unfolds. They’ll take astonishing pictures of the destruction and hear heroic stories from survivors and rescue workers. They’ll tally up the economic costs and run heartbreaking profiles of families who died in their swimming pools while trying to escape the fire or children who were washed out to sea. And then, only after the work of covering the disaster is done, will they perhaps take a moment to examine why all this is happening—why these disasters are occurring, again and again, all over the world, with increased frequency and ferocity.

There’s a pattern here. The news business waits for news to happen when, in fact, we shouldn’t need another Black person to be shot to start reporting on racism in the police force. Nor should we need yet another Category Five hurricane to flatten yet another community before we sound the alarm that the planet is on the brink of climate collapse.

These are deep, structural stories that are all linked. Novel viruses like COVID-19 often begin in wild animals, many of which are coming into closer contact with humans because their habitats are being destroyed by deforestation, mining, and other extractive activities. The first line of infection is often among disadvantaged communities. The heat waves, droughts, storms, and other effects of rising temperatures almost always punish the poor and people of color first and worst.

Where we are in covering the climate-emergency story? Not remotely close to where we should be. The Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation, in partnership with the Guardian, co-founded Covering Climate Now a year ago because we were convinced that most newsrooms were not doing enough to tell the climate story. Over the past year, we have made impressive progress. Our partners now include more than 400 news outlets representing more than 50 countries, with a combined audience of roughly 2 billion people. Our collaboration has done weeks of joint coverage that yielded thousands of additional climate stories. During our first week of joint coverage, last September, Google searches for the term “climate change” were the highest in history. And some news outlets that are not Covering Climate Now partners also have upped their game, hiring dedicated climate editors, adding and deepening climate coverage, and including climate among the key issues in the 2020 elections.

And yet. And yet. And yet.

While we have been heartened (and grateful) to see so many of our colleagues join this effort, we still don’t sense the urgency that the climate emergency demands, especially as the 2020 election approaches. Our window to prevent catastrophe is closing fast. In some respects, it has already shut: at least three feet of sea level rise is inevitable by 2100, and possibly much sooner, scientists say, compelling the relocation of millions of people and trillions of dollars worth of coastal infrastructure around the world.

The public sees the urgency and actually wants more climate news. Even during the peak of coronavirus coverage in April, some of the world’s biggest news organizations told us that their audiences had little appetite for stories that weren’t about the virus, with one exception: climate change, which continued to generate significant traffic.

Journalism now has a window of opportunity to get these interconnected stories right. Editorially, we are urging our partners—and journalists everywhere—to play the climate story bigger. It’s not enough to do one story on one candidate’s position on climate change and be done with it. Climate change should be a continuing part of the narrative about any candidate’s campaign, just as the candidate’s positions on COVID-19, the economy, and health care are. The word “climate” should be included in headlines and broadcast scripts often enough that the public can’t miss it.

Above all, we hope newsrooms will remember the big picture and cover the real horserace. It’s easy for campaign coverage to get mired in minutia. The contest between Republicans and Democrats is of great interest, of course, and the outcome couldn’t matter more. But the horserace that matters most is humanity’s collective race to defuse the climate emergency, which means strong action must begin now, not four years from now. What’s ultimately being decided in these elections is nothing less than whether all of us are going to have a livable planet 20 years from now and beyond. If the press is most comfortable chasing fires and sending reporters into disaster zones, so be it. But newsrooms should know: the disaster is here. It is raging now. Our job is to cover it with the urgency it deserves.

This story originally appeared in Columbia Journalism Review and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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