In April, the Guardian's outgoing editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, told us about the paper's campaign to push the world's two largest health charities, the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation, to divest from fossil fuels. But after eight months of campaigning, the foundations haven't budged. Now, the paper has moved on to what it calls Phase II - covering positive stories in the fight against climate change. Bob talks to James Randerson, the Guardian's assistant national news editor, about what the Guardian has learned while trying to reframe climate change coverage and keep readers interested.
BOB: This year, the Guardian’s outgoing editor Alan Rusbridger announced a major new initiative -- his last at the newspaper -- to put some heat into its climate coverage. He told us about it in April.
RUSBRIDGER: I think people feel helpless in the face of this story. they see governments finding it very hard to agree on action and I think they've stopped reading. So, one of the purposes starting the campaign was to give them something to do, and the reaction has been very very positive.
BOB: The Guardian focused its campaign, called “Keep It In the Ground,” explicitly on the world’s two largest charitable health organizations: the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation. The “something to do” was the agitation in the form of articles and a petition urging investors to pull their money from fossil fuel stocks, not only because it’s urgent environmentally but because the world’s oil reserves are declining in value on their way to being nearly worthless.
RUSBRIDGER: Otherwise we all have to sit back and wait for the political leaders to go to paris and do something, which they might or they might not, but i think they're unlikely to move unless they feel the hot wind of public interest on their necks.
BOB: That was eight months ago. Now, after Paris, we’re checking in on the Guardian’s efforts -- to push for divestment with their partners at 350 dot org, but also to re-shape climate change coverage. Rusbridger’s successors have since moved on to what they’re calling phase two of their climate change campaign: hope.
James Randerson is an editor at the Guardian, and he focuses on environment and science news. James, welcome to On the Media.
RANDERSON: Thank you for having me.
Before we get to the hope part, let's begin with the glory. Is there any so far? What did happen with the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation?
RANDERSON: We're still waiting for them to do the right thing, but I think there is some glory to go around. Organizations worth in total 3.4 billion dollars have now made a commitment of one kind or another to divest, that's over 500 organizations. I think that's a pretty amazing statement from civil society. Gates said that he thinks that divestment is quote a false solution. He takes I think quite a literal view. He's saying you know somebody buys the shares, somebody sells the shares, but nothing really changes in the real world.
BOB: If somebody divests them, someone else is purchasing them.
RANDERSON: Exactly. But we would say actually something quite profound is happening there, because it's about a political statement and the sum total of those political statements has been adding up. There is now a local campaign that sprung up in Seattle that is putting pressure locally on the Gates organization there. Gates, though, separately and interestingly back in the summer made a big announcement about putting two billion dollars into research in to renewable energy technologies. And now we'll never know, but I think that he was feeling the pressure of the campaign, and although he didn't agree with divestment that was his response.
BOB: Throwing you a 2 billion dollar bone.
RANDERSON: Yes. [Laughing] Exactly.
BOB: If I understand correctly, he also argued against the divestment campaign on sort of psychological grounds, that by focusing on divestment and not on pending catastrophe, you and other climate advocates were leaving, if you will, a lot of reserves of environmental passion in the ground untapped.
RANDERSON: Environmentalists have been talking about catastrophe for a long time and arguably it hasn't got very far. As a newspaper journalistically we've been talking about catastrophe a lot and as Alan said in that clip, a large group of people have stopped reading those kinds of stories. The argument that Gates is making that there's some kind of finite well of concern and by diverting the concern over here it means less gets done over there, I'm not sure it really works like that. What we've seen with this campaign is loads of organizations have made the decision to divest.
BOB: James, the original campaign was supposed to empower readers to make them feel that they weren't just hapless victims, but that they could participate in the solution. You have gone in and spoken to readers in focus groups. What did they tell you?
RANDERSON: So one of our fears was that people would react by saying, I don't trust the Guardian any more now because they've turned into an NGO. Nobody said that. The very clear message that we heard back from people was that we want to have a sense that this is possible. This big change that you're talking about in society and in the global economy is doable, because so much of what you read about climate change is about doom and gloom. How difficult it is. And frankly most sensible people reading those stories will want to just go curl up under their duvet and not think about it too hard. And also I think it made us realize how difficult actually divestment is as a concept to get across. but the biggest thing that came out for us was that people wanted hope.
BOB: Climate change isn't necessarily a subject that newspapers look to for feel good coverage. What has the Guardian found to give its readers hope?
RANDERSON: We wanted to make the point that there's a lot going on out there that shows us a way that we are gonna be able to change this economy or at least potentially we are. And in particular we wanted to highlight solar power because the cost of solar is just coming down so rapidly, and that is transforming the economics. Back in 2009 at the Copenhagen climate talks, the green economy more generally solar power in particular, it felt a bit like it was a powerpoint presentation that the politicians were being offered and was really a bit of an unknown. That's one of the reasons I think why the stars were just simply not aligned for some kind of agreement at Copenhagen. And the cost of solar has come down 70% since then and it's continuing to fall and it's falling faster than people predicted And that is gonna make the whole transition much easier, and is gonna mean that rather than this being about huge costs and government subsidies and taxes and all that kind of thing, if the right policy framers are put in place, it will happen.
BOB: You mentioned, as did Rusbridger, that climate journalism has become a kind of fearful background noise. Environmentalists say the sky is falling and the public just pulls up the covers. Now comes your "the sky can be propped up" message. I wonder if there's a risk to suddenly offering hope. Will hope be mistaken for an all clear?
RANDERSON: It's a very good point. I mean, I think it's more about turning the dial a bit. I think we realized that we were just under-doing the bit that people were actually most interested in, which is how we are gonna get to where we need to go. And so we've done a succession of stories and sending reporters out to Burundi, Rwanda, Chile, where there are some really groundbreaking renewable energy projects, but that doesn't mean that we're not doing the new bits of science that come out, we're not doing investigations into fossil fuel companies, and all the other things that we were doing before.
BOB: James, thank you very much.
RANDERSON: It's a pleasure, thank you.
BOB: James Randerson is an editor at the Guardian, and he focuses on environment and science coverage.
That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Kimmie Regler, Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess and Jesse Brenneman. We had more help from Alex Friedland and Dasha Lisitsina. And our show was edited by…Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Cayce Means.
BROOKE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for news. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB: And I’m Bob Garfield.