Alan Rusbridger (bottom right) and his staff at the Guardian discuss their “Keep it in the Ground” campaign. (Photo: The Guardian)
Before he retires this year, the Guardian Editor in Chief Alan Rusbridger wants this UK paper with a readership of more than 7 million to focus forcefully on climate change. Not only will the journalists cover from every angle, Rusbridger explains to host Steve Curwood the paper will advocate for climate activism, as this is the most vital story in the world and arguably the hardest of our time to convey.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston and PRI, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Alan Rusbridger has been the chief editor of the respected UK paper the Guardian since 1995, and last December as he considered his retirement at the end of 2015 he had a chance encounter with Bill McKibben. Bill McKibben, as you may have heard in our broadcast last week, is a writer who has also become a leading activist confronting society about climate change and the fossil fuel industry. In the 20 years that Alan Rusbridger has led the Guardian, the paper has established an impressive reputation for environmental coverage, but that meeting inspired Alan to dedicate his remaining time as top editor to covering and campaigning for the climate. So along with reporting on climate change the Guardian is sponsoring a petition that calls two of world’s richest foundations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust to divest their holdings in fossil fuels and that petition already has over 100,000 signatures. Alan joins us now on the line from London. Welcome to Living on Earth.
RUSBRIDGER: I’m pleased to be here.
CURWOOD: So, to start with, I understand that Bill McKibben is the one who maybe sparked the idea to devote your final year as editor to covering climate change. How did that happen?
RUSBRIDGER: Well, we both won an award in Sweden at the end of last year, and over lunch I was talking to him about his passion, which is the environment, and I said that I felt that we've never really quite cut through. We've got five environment correspondents so it's not like we haven't done justice to the subject, but I thought we were victim to the fact that people switch off I think when they read about the environment, it seems too dismal, too complicated, there's nothing they can do about it, and Bill told me about his campaign and the fact that the divestment movement in his mind was snowballing, was having the kind of cut through that traditional journalism wasn't happening, and that gave me the idea of combining the reporting with the campaigning to try and jolt people out of the complacency that I think they feel.
CURWOOD: Why do you think that journalists have struggled to tell the climate change story?
RUSBRIDGER: Well, I've been thinking about that and I think journalism, I think of it as a rearview mirror, that journalism works well with things that have happened that you can describe. It works less well with things that might happen, or things that move very slowly. So it's very difficult to describe the gentle melting of an iceberg or the change in the atmosphere, it's very difficult to definitely ascribe climate events - hurricanes, tornadoes, and rains - to climate change so journalism just struggles to describe what's going on and because nothing very dramatic happens from day to day, it slips off the front pages. I think readers have stopped reading about it because it feels in a way too frightening. I think psychologists have written entire books about this, and so somehow this story, which I think of as probably the most important story on Earth, is not being told by journalists.
CURWOOD: I have to tell you that on a personal level more than 20 years ago I came to the conclusion that human-induced climate change is the most important story of the day, started this program Living on Earth on public radio in the states and have been telling the story and I have to say it's very hard to keep the enthusiasm going on this story. How do you plan to tell the story differently to engage people?
RUSBRIDGER: Well, I've been editing for about 20 years, and I've been quite reluctant to do big campaigns because I think campaigns only really work to my mind where you've got something about which there is no reasonable doubt, and I there are not many stories which fall into that category. I think where there is reasonable doubt it's better to do reporting because then you report all sides of the argument. With climate change, I think most people, most reasonable people, accept that the science is pretty settled. There's something like a nine to one majority for scientists who think the same about the nature the risk and its causes, and so I think where you've got that I don't think there's any great obligation to bend over backwards to be balanced, and having decided that then I thought let's turn this into a campaign that involves reporting rather than simply reporting which for one reason or another isn't cutting through in the way that it has to. This is an urgent story. We can't afford to spend the next few years waiting for people to wake up to its seriousness.
CURWOOD: Now, what was the reaction of your colleagues there at the Guardian when you told them about your idea that you were going to spend these last few months of your leadership of the paper in this campaign on the climate?
RUSBRIDGER: I can't remember ever having such universal enthusiasm. What I did over Christmas was to e-mail a large number of people, not actually just in editorial but across the organization to say, look, we were thinking of doing this and who wanted to be involved, and about 45 people turned out to the first meeting. And I think what you realize is that it's not that people aren't interested, it's just that they can't find the vehicle to engage. And so once you say look we're going to do this and we want to harness the abilities of as many people as possible, there's tremendous enthusiasm because we're all people as well as reporters and workers here. We've all either got young relatives or children or grandchildren. People are on some level deeply engaged in this existential threat that could put all that in jeopardy. So, actually, there's been a fantastic internal and external response.
CURWOOD: Now as I understand it, The Guardian is launching what you're calling the "Keep it in the ground" campaign. Tell me about it.
RUSBRIDGER: Well I think there's one very simple way of looking at this, and this is Bill McKibben's way of framing it, which is if you concentrate just on three facts, one is that we have to stay within two degrees of warming - and I think there's a universal consensus about that - even amongst people who disagree about how to do that. Civilization as we know it will begin to become very difficult to maintain about two degrees. The second fact is the amount of fossil fuels that people own and is in the ground, and the third fact is the amount of fossil fuels that can safely be burned to stay within two degrees. The amount of known reserves of fossil fuels is vastly greater, about four or five times greater, than the amount that can be safely burned, and so, therefore, it is not safe to dig up all the oil and the gas and coal that we know about, and once you agree on that, then you look at the companies and you say these companies cannot be valued right. They're putting all this stuff in their books, in fact, they're searching for more and yet they're never going to be allowed to use it for the sake of the species, and, therefore, it has to be kept in the ground.
CURWOOD: Well, there's one rather pressing factor though. If you think of the end of slavery, perhaps as an analogy to the campaign here about, the value of a slave for example in United States back in the day was equivalent to say a luxury car. If you tell these companies that they have to keep it in the ground they have billions upon billions of dollars predicated on that. They're not to go willingly are they?
RUSBRIDGER: No, they're not, and therefore you look at the levers that are going to change that, and there are two levers. Either some form or governmental regulation or rationing or pricing, and the second is the financial levers of people realizing that this is in a very real sense a carbon bubble. These are assets that are going to be stranded and that if you're a wise financial manager you want to get out of that before that bubble bursts. There's not much a newspaper can do about the first bit. Of course, we can lobby governments to bring in the regulations and the limits, and we look to Paris for that to happen in December, but we thought that's not going to be very engaging for readers - that feels like political wonkery. But the idea of trying to go for divestment, trying to persuade people all of the risk to their investments and for them either on moral grounds or probably more likely on their pure financial self-interest grounds to get that money out of fossil fuels before that bubble bursts. And again we're not naïve enough to think that if we rang up Shell or BP or Exxon and suggested that they keep the stuff in the ground that that was going to have much effect. But I think that all organizations like the Gates Foundation like the Wellcome Trust in the Britain which are devoted to science and medicine who are progressive in every way in terms of all of the good that they do to humanity and just say look, don't you think that you should be taking the lead in terms of not having money in these things which we know cause damage to the planet and to health.
CURWOOD: And it's kind of interesting that when you realized that your own portfolio at the Guardian had plenty of fossil fuel holdings, so what did you decide to do about that?
RUSBRIDGER: We were aware that the moment we started writing this, people would point the finger back at us. The Guardian is a company that is run by a trust. It's a not-for-profit company is the simplest way of thinking about it and we have about $8 billion dollars invested and we realized, well, people would say well it's all very well to wag your fingers at others, but what are you going to do yourselves? And I went to the GMG board, the Guardian Media Group board, and said, look this is an issue you don't have to be bound by The Guardian's reporting or campaigning but on the other hand people are going to draw attention to what you do, and actually the board went away and thought about it, board is very hard-nosed businesspeople so they weren't making a wooly-minded choice, but I think they hadn't concentrated on the issue before the moment they did they realized the sense in divesting and they came out last week and said they would be it divesting over a period two to five years from fossil fuels. So that was a commencing charging something that's the biggest fund so far that has divested.
CURWOOD: How will you measure the success of this campaign? You've decided that it's appropriate now to begin advocating up taking a position rather than just reporting on the news makes you a campaigning as well as a news organization. How will you measure the success of this decision and this campaign?
RUSBRIDGER: Well, to some extent I think we've succeeded in galvanizing an awful lot of people to sign with us. When I last looked at the petition, it had been signed by 170,000 people. The people who are running the Paris talks have been in touch saying this is a fantastically helpful thing in terms of getting it on the radar of politicians and the people who are going to be negotiating those talks. I think the fact that the Guardian Media Group has divested will make fund managers sit up and realize that there is an issue here they need to concentrate on. So I think we had a quite remarkable success already and obviously we're going to keep up our reporting, our campaigning, and I expect us to draw attention in a very stark way to the contradiction between these as I say admirable foundations, Gate's and Wellcome, who do so much good, but I think really shouldn't be having their money in things that have the potential to do unimaginable harm.
CURWOOD: Looking again at, say, if the analogy of ending slavery the kind of political and social movement that had huge economic implications in the United States that wound up in the Civil War, really bloody war. In the UK, you folks divested of slaves in fits and starts but there was not the kind of conflict. What's the difference there and how might that lesson be applied today?
RUSBRIDGER: Well I didn't know whether this is so much Britain versus the US. This is probably the biggest imaginable global threat and I think crosses all cultural national political boundaries and it's only going to be solved by and international will. You make analogy with slavery; other people are making an analogy with tobacco, or with apartheid South Africa. I think there's other kinds of moral comparisons, but I think in the end whether or not there is immediate political will I think this thing will be determined by people who realize that those three figures that we talked about earlier have a kind of logic of their own, and no one wants to be the person holding onto the pass the parcel when the bubble bursts so I would anticipate that the more you can get this into the heads of the people who have their money there, and it's not like these assets have been performing that well anyway there will be a flight from fossil fuels, and once you get to that tipping point then the whole economics of renewables versus fossil fuels changes and I think things could begin to change quite quickly.
CURWOOD: Alan Rusbridger is editor of the Guardian. Thanks so much.
RUSBRIDGER: Thank you, I enjoyed that.
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