The Guardian’s editor on his climate change crusade
At the end of May 2015, the editor-in-chief of The Guardian newspaper, Alan Rusbridger, will step down after 20 years in the post. The Guardian is a UK daily newspaper that has published continuously since it was founded, in Manchester, in 1821. It enjoys a daily print circulation of just under 200,000 and a monthly online readership of 36 million unique users.
Under Alan Rusbridger’s editorship, it has built an online environment section that attracts millions of readers from around the world every month, and, in late December 2014, Rusbridger decided to devote much of his last six months in the job to a campaign on climate change. In addition to publishing extensively on climate change in the newspaper and online,The Guardian has launched a campaign to persuade two of the world’s biggest charitable foundations, the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation to move their investments out of fossil fuels.
Neither foundation has – so far – agreed to withdraw from fossil fuel investments, but The Guardian’s campaign has gathered 200,000 supporters so far and tapped into the burgeoning global movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground. The paper is also publishing podcasts about its internal discussions that seek to explain why these targets were chosen and what the campaign hopes to achieve.
Alan Rusbridger sat down recently with chinadialogue to reflect on why he chose climate change and this divestment campaign as his legacy.
“It has always nagged away in the back of my mind that although we have an incredibly good environment team and a fantastic website, if this is the most important story, then no journalist on earth is doing justice to it. I didn’t want to stop being editor feeling that the proverbial grandchildren might sit on my knee and say, you used to edit an important newspaper, you knew this was important, what did you do? I didn’t want to look back and think that I should have done more, but I just didn’t,” he said.
When the US climate campaigner Bill McKibben told him that this was no longer a story about environment, but one about politics and economics, Rusbridger’s thoughts crystallised around one last campaign. The newspaper’s staff debated which issue should be at the heart of it, in the year of the Paris climate summit. It needed to be engaging and easy to understand. They settled on divestment, for the clarity of the message.
Rusbridger agrees that the research on divestment shows, at best, mixed economic results, but he believes, nevertheless, that the case for divestment is more than a moral argument.
“I began by thinking it was a moral campaign, but actually I think it’s better than that, in terms of what it changes,” he explained. The first thing he had to change was the investment policy of his own organisation, the Guardian Media Group (GMG).
“We talked to the GMG board: they are a bunch of business people who haven’t really thought about this. They called their investment advisors in, and everyone sucked their teeth, then went away to look at it.”
When the discussion resumed, it was the pragmatic financial arguments that proved persuasive: fossil fuel companies had not been giving great returns, and the investment advisers found the stranded assets argument convincing: this says that if the rise in global average temperatures is to be kept to 2C, most of the fossil reserves owned by major oil, gas and coal companies cannot be used. Their reserves, which are listed on their balance sheets as assets, are therefore effectively worthless. The GMG’s investment advisers did not want to be left holding assets that were losing their value.
“Lots of central bankers, including Mark Carney, (the governor of the Bank of England) are already concerned about stranded assets,” said Rusbridger. “You could argue that none of the organisations that have announced divestment – Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Stamford University, Harvard University or The Guardian – is particularly significant. But if people realise that this is like sub-prime, the argument about the money begins to shift. If people decided that 80% of the coal, for instance, can never be burned, that’s a huge bubble that you don’t want to be in.”
Although The Guardian’s campaign makes no distinction between fossil fuels, Rusbridger argues that it has been successful in bringing climate change back into public debate.
“I have lost count of the number of interviews I have done in the US,” he said. “They say this is the most interesting thing they have seen. They are interested that a newspaper would take sides. I can see all the possible criticisms, but it is doing something that lots of other journalists have not managed to do.”
Journalism, he believes, has failed to cover climate change engagingly. “There is huge interest. But there is something about the way that journalism is doing it that hasn’t succeeded.” The campaign evoked enthusiasm in the newspaper and among the readers, but the history of climate coverage is not, Rusbridger says, “journalism’s finest hour.”
“People are terribly passionate about this, but the way we were doing it was not quite clicking,” he said. Of the hundreds of thousands who have signed a petition, some have volunteered to be more active, writing letters to the two organisations and sharing their concerns. Rusbridger has had private discussions with both the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation, but does not anticipate an early divestment from either.
“Most places have governance committees and finance committees and endowment committees and they will all have to go through the cogs.” There are counter arguments to deal with – that more is achieved by engagement, and that although fossil fuels are bad, the revenue the investments produce is put to good use. Rusbridger is sceptical about both.
“Jonathon Porritt (a prominent British environmentalist) has been engaging with fossil fuel companies for 40 years and he says he has nothing to show for it. And any philanthropic foundation must think about whether the good they do is being undermined by the impact of the fossil fuels that they invest in.”
Signs of success?
But if organisations don’t invest, what is the measure of success?
“In a way we have succeeded already,” Rusbridger says, and lists a series of high level responses:
“Al Gore thinks this is achieving something not seen so far. I am meeting the Archbishop of Canterbury to discuss church divestment and the Pope may well say something about divestment in addition to his climate encyclical. Desmond Tutu is comparing it to (the campaign against) apartheid. Nick Stern (a leading climate economist) thinks it plays right into the issues of the subsidies.” The issue, he believes, could snowball and help political leaders to come up with effective policy.
Cumulatively, he believes, these various developments could mean the push for fossil fuel divestment reaches a tipping point.
Already, some high profile funds have ditched coal investments, including Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, built with profits from the Standard Oil fortune. Pressure is also ramping up on private sector financial institutions to cut the cord.
“Success,” says Rusbridger, “would look like that, and this would be one element in it.”