'Everybody has something to lose': the exciting, depressing life of a climate writer
Some days, I am filled with dread. Some nights, I have trouble sleeping. But I would not swap my job for any other.
As global environment editor for the Guardian, I report from the Amazon to the Arctic on the disappearing wonders of a rapidly deteriorating world. Along with a growing number of colleagues, I investigate who is affected, who is to blame and who is fighting back.
This is both depressing and exciting. The trends for the climate, the oceans, the forests and the soil are unrelentingly frightening. Humanity has never faced a more wicked problem than the collapse of these natural life support systems. Nobody is free of responsibility. Everybody has something to lose, especially those with the most power. The challenge is huge, urgent and beset with opponents. But change is happening nonetheless.
The primary challenge for a journalist is to make it feel personal. Without that, the science becomes abstract, global issues seem too huge to grasp, and it becomes difficult to relate to far off places and other species. Without that, the “environment” slips too easily into an elite pigeonhole for academics, policymakers and middle-class white people, when it should be recognised as the main driver of inequality, conflict and injustice. This is not just another subject; it is a prism through which to see the world.
I came to this view reluctantly. Starting as a cub reporter in Asia in the 1990s, I initially wrote about politics, finance and sport – issues that are traditionally considered newsworthy because they are fast moving, human-focussed and marketable. But the more I travelled as a foreign correspondent, the harder it became to ignore how the degradation of the air, water, soil and climate was threatening people, other species and future generations. These themes rarely made front-page news, but they were often the underlying cause of political tension, economic instability and psychological unease.
In the noughties I visited Tibet to look at a new railway development, but discovered greater concerns about denuded grasslands, desertification and melting glaciers. In Xinjiang and Mongolia, I went to report on ethnic tensions but came to realise how they were heightened by a massive expansion of mining operations and an influx of construction workers. On the Yangtze, I joined an expedition of marine biologists that declared the extinction of the Baiji dolphin due to pollution, river traffic and hydroelectric dams. In 2012, I moved to Latin America, hoping to find a less destructive model of development, but found similar tensions in the Amazon, Patagonia and Atlantic. If anything, there were even greater levels of corruption and political instability connected to resource extraction and infrastructure projects.
Media organisations tend to focus on the local sparks of protests, scandals and bankruptcies, but viewed together from a global environmental perspective, it is possible to make out a broader pattern of exploitation and increasing evidence of a systemic breakdown. Single articles do not easily capture this so it is sometimes important to gather material together and collaborate with other organisations in bigger journalistic projects such as the Polluters, Green Blood, Wave of Extinction and Defenders.
More important still is to take the “environment” out of a media ghetto, in which it is treated as a separate and somewhat fringe subject with a specialist vocabulary that can create even greater distance.
In English, the word “environment” is uneasy on the ear and stiffly at odds with the vibrant orgy of life it represents. This reflects the word’s hodgepodge Victorian origins. The first use of “environment” in its modern sense was in 1828 by the Scottish thinker Thomas Carlyle, who borrowed the French “environ” (surrounding) to express the German term “umgebung” in a controversial translation of Goethe.
In that era, the word denoted – as now – a flux of landscape, spirit and culture that shaped humanity more naturally than the mechanistic drives of the Industrial Revolution. But it was also wrapped up inside a western Enlightenment duality of self and “other”. The environment became something to exploit, rather than something that humanity was part of. As Albert Einstein later put it: “The environment is everything that isn’t me.”
This was a brilliantly simple way of describing how every individual feels themselves to be the centre of their own universe, but it also suggested nature is something separate that we can affect without being affected: that we can run down without paying a price.
Carlyle and Einstein would probably be horrified at how far this duality has gone. Over the past 50 years, the natural environment has been treated as an antonym of the human economy. The greater the gap between them, the more peripheral and frightening the environment seems. This is evident in politics, business and the media.
Every major country now has an environment ministry, though they are almost always are the weakest parts of the government. Every major corporation has a sustainability officer, though only rarely do they make important decisions. Almost every newspaper and TV station has an environment desk, but in most organisations they are neglected ghettoes outside the more prestigious political and economic teams. People might criticise this state of affairs, but politicians, executives and editors could counter that they are simply responding to the public mood. Voters, consumers and readers might have the occasional pang of conscience about the environment, but very few treated it as a priority. Until recently, it was psychologically easier to push the issue to the margins.
That has changed dramatically over the past year. The peripheral issue has moved front and centre. This is partly thanks to long campaigns by climate campaigners, given new life by Greta Thunberg, school strikers, Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement. It is because persistent warnings from scientists are so much starker in the wake of the IPCC’s 1.5C report last October. And most of all, it is because record heat, fires, storms, droughts and species decline show we are hitting ecological limits. There is no margin left.
To accurately reflect the disruption caused by the crisis, we have to disrupt our normal forms of reporting. The Guardian has responded by changing the language of our styleguide to reflect the urgency expressed by scientists, by giving more prominence to the climate and nature crises, and by focussing attention on areas where change is needed – including fossil fuel corporations and the financial, legal and political systems that support them. I believe this will be just the start, and not just for the Guardian. In future, I hope journalists in all organisations and fields will question their role, put more priority on humankind’s relationship with nature, and re-imagine what coverage should be.
That does not mean following the populists in tearing up the foundations of knowledge and sinking into the mire of relativity and fake news. The battle for ideas is best fought in peer-reviewed journals rather than gladiatorial-style TV talkshows where loud voices drown out strong principles. Science remains paramount. Accuracy must always be the goal. But truth is more than datasets. It has to resonate on an emotional level. And it has to apply as much to the periphery as to the centre.
Bringing together the personal and the global is easier said than done, but that is the task ahead. In one way it has always been the job of journalists to make this connection. After all, that is what “media” means. But this work as a go-between feels particularly urgent now that our environment is breaking down and our politics is splintering into nationalist tribes. Addressing that is a responsibility. That is what keeps me from sleeping sometimes. It’s also what keeps me alive.