Welcome to the Future of Climate Coverage, Where the Journalists Are the Activists

Covering Climate Now sells top journalists on plan to 'transform media' in response to climate 'emergency'

Covering Climate Now Conference (Screenshot/YouTube)
November 24, 2023

In late September, with hundreds of journalists watching, Covering Climate Now co-founder Mark Hertsgaard began a two-day media conference with a call to arms.

Climate change, he told attendees at Columbia Journalism School, isn't just a "problem" or "crisis." It's an emergency—one that requires breathless, around-the-clock coverage. Think COVID, Hertsgaard said, except it's the planet that's sick.

"We know how to cover emergencies—we cover them a lot. … We saw that during COVID, right?" Hertsgaard said in a session titled, "The State of Climate Journalism: Issuing a Call to Action."

It’s an interesting comparison. During COVID, the press, at the direction of various "experts," ruthlessly policed its own coverage. The possibility that the virus leaked from a lab, now considered the most likely scenario for its emergence, was roundly derided as a conspiracy theory. Those who questioned the utility of paper masks and the costs of remote learning were scorned. And in a cautionary tale about the mainstream media’s approach to "the science," the University of Pennsylvania scientist who pioneered mRNA vaccines spent years in the scientific wilderness, enduring sneers and abuse from the scientific establishment. She just won the Nobel Prize in medicine.

For most people, this isn’t a story of journalistic triumph. For Hertsgaard, a journalist and the author of Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, it is a template, and he now spends his time telling other journalists exactly how to cover global warming. Some might say that is not very journalistic, but nobody seems to be complaining.

Covering Climate Now presses media organizations to "make climate a part of every beat in the newsroom." Its partners include top TV networks and print publications, such as ABC and CBS News, MSNBC, Time, HuffPost, and Vox, and its money comes from the nation's wealthiest liberal foundations, including the Rockefeller Family Fund and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

And the conference was held at the Columbia Journalism School. Days later, the former Columbia Journalism Review editor and publisher, Kyle Pope, left the publication to join Covering Climate Now full time, but not before plugging the conference. "We are fast approaching the moment when every reporter is going to have to be a climate reporter," Pope said in a Sept. 18 press release. Columbia Journalism School, the release continued, "is leading the charge and challenging the way our climate is currently covered."

Today, the journalists are the activists, and the conference itself reflected the blurred line between climate journalism and climate activism. Covering Climate Now's conference featured two interviews with climate activists, but the rest of the gathering’s roughly 20 panels and speeches were led by journalists from the nation’s most prominent outlets, from NBC to CBS to Time. Those journalists—such as CBS national environmental correspondent David Schechter and Time senior correspondent Justin Worland—echoed Hertsgaard's rallying cry, portraying climate change as a do-or-die issue that transcends industry norms and standard practices.

Pope and others stressed the need to weave climate coverage into "every other story." Perhaps they haven’t been reading the New York Times, which raised the alarm this summer about the impact of climate change on summer camps and linked it to a rise in mental health disorders. CNN warned it may cause a tequila shortage.

On a panel about "Climate Change And The 2024 Elections," journalists from Time, Telemundo, and CBS News worked to swat down the notion that media outlets should present facts for viewers to consider as they "make up their own minds." Instead, former CBS News vice president Al Ortiz said, the press should "get over" their fears of advocating for one political party over another. Climate change is too urgent, he suggested, for Republicans to win another election.

"I think it's unrealistic to think that you can just approach it from a clinical, scientific point of view—here are the facts, everybody's going to make up their own minds," Ortiz said. "The fact is that if you have the Republican Party take over both the executive branch and legislative branches of governments, you're going to stop climate change policy in the government for five years."

"And we don't have five years," Ortiz continued. "We're way past that. And I think it's important to remind people of that. … It's not something that can be depoliticized."

At other points in the conference, panelists condemned the Republican Party for engaging in climate "misinformation and disinformation." In some cases, the panelists themselves marshaled misinformation to defend the pitfalls of green energy and other climate-focused solutions.

Time's Worland, for example, said it is "misinformation" to allege that green energy leads to higher prices for American families. But President Joe Biden's Energy Department has acknowledged that so-called clean electricity is roughly four-and-a-half times more expensive than natural gas, and offshore wind and other green developments in New Jersey are expected to increase energy rates by 10 to 20 percent.

The conference also included an interview with former United Nations climate official Christiana Figueres, who downplayed the amount of minerals required to produce green energy in comparison to oil and gas production. An electric vehicle requires six times more minerals than a gas-powered car, and an onshore wind plant requires nine times more minerals than a gas-fired plant.

Readers shouldn't expect Covering Climate Now's media partners to report those facts. Under the group's blueprint, green energy's shortcomings—and the policy experts who highlight them—are not to be platformed. Climate change is too important an issue, CBS's Schechter said during a conference panel, to leave the audience "thinking that there are two sides to this story" or a subject of "meaningful scientific debate." Instead, those who argue in favor of oil and gas should be ignored.

Worland, Figueres, and Schechter did not return requests for comment.

Covering Climate Now lauded the event as a "roaring success on all levels," noting that "hundreds of journalists" flocked to New York City to attend. Those who didn't can still incorporate the group's practices into their coverage. The Covering Climate Now website includes "reporting guides" complete with story ideas, questions to ask local politicians and companies, and language for journalists to echo in their pieces. One such guide says there is "simply no good-faith argument" against the "need for rapid, forceful action" to fight climate change, while another contends that an "extreme weather story that doesn't mention climate change is incomplete and potentially even inaccurate."

Judging by Covering Climate Now's member roster and speaker lineup, most of the mainstream media are on board with the group's climate coverage revolution. Journalists who aren't should take heed from Democracy Now! founder Amy Goodman, who used the conference to send a message to any detractors: Watch out.

"We have to make it unacceptable for journalists—even general political journalists—to not ask these questions," she said.