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COVID-19 has lessons for journalists covering the climate crisis

With tomorrow (Wednesday 22 April) designated as Earth Day, global media outlets have kicked off a week of climate solutions coverage, part of the growing #CoveringClimateNow collaboration that was launched last year in the lead up to the UN Climate Action Summit. Croakey is a proud partner of the collaboration: see our #CoveringClimateNow archive and a broader collection of climate health stories.

In the opening article this week, Covering Climate Now co-founders Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope write in the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation that the coronavirus pandemic is a reminder for journalists of the importance of reporting with rigor and clarity during times of crisis. They say:

As awful as the coronavirus is, it is something of a test run for the challenges of a climate crisis that continues to accelerate.”

In both cases, they write, journalists must report with compassion and courage, guided by the science and  remembering that they work for the public, not governments or the powerful.


Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope write:

The coronavirus pandemic is a tragic reminder of just how essential fact-based, outspoken journalism is, especially in times of crisis.  Without it, people die.

In China, the lack of an independent press made it easier for the government to hide the danger of the virus, putting many more people, especially health care workers, at risk.

In the United States, Donald Trump likewise downplayed the threat, calling it a “hoax,” but faced pushback from much of the media. By highlighting what science and medical experts say, rather than the fake controversies around it, such reporting is helping to push the US death toll lower than it otherwise would be.

Now it’s time for the same journalistic rigor and urgency around the other great crisis of our time.

The overlaps between the coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis are many, and the same best practices when it comes to reporting are needed.

Here, too, newsrooms must let facts, especially scientific facts, be our guide. We must stand up to the powerful, remembering that journalists work for the public, not for governments. We must report with compassion, candor, and courage, not only chronicling the ongoing devastation, as important as that is, but also illuminating credible remedies and reasons for hope.

Towards that end, the global journalistic collaboration Covering Climate Now, founded a year ago by CJR and The Nation, has launched a week of coverage coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and focusing on climate solutions.

Comprised of more than 400 TV, radio, wire service, digital and print news outlets with a combined audience approaching 2 billion people, Covering Climate Now organized a similar week of joint coverage in September around the UN Climate Action Summit that helped drive a massive increase in overall media coverage of climate change.

Going ahead with this week of climate solutions coverage even as the coronavirus continues to ravage communities around the world is not an easy call. We know from conversations with colleagues throughout the media that most newsrooms are already working overtime to cover this pandemic, and that audiences crave that in-depth, 24/7 coverage.

Nevertheless, there is an opportunity for all of us here.  As awful as the coronavirus is, it is something of a test run for the challenges of a climate crisis that continues to accelerate. 

Our job, as journalists, is to extract lessons from the COVID-19 crisis that we can apply to covering the climate crisis.  It is, as author and activist Bill McKibben recently wrote in The New Yorker, a daunting task. The edifice (of contemporary society) seems so shiny and substantial, a world of silver jets stitching together cities of towering skyscrapers, a globe of soaring markets and smartphone connectivity,” McKibben wrote.  “But a couple of months into this disease and it’s all tottering….”

An “eerie” resonance

It is notable, and encouraging, that even as people understandably obsess about the coronavirus, they remain interested in climate stories.

The similarities between the causes of and solutions to the coronavirus and the climate crisis are nothing short of eerie.  In both cases, it is imperative to respect science, intervene early to flatten the curve, and prepare for impacts that can’t be avoided.  The coronavirus shows what horrors can result when governments, often abetted by propaganda organs masquerading as news organizations, scorn science, shun early action, and fail to fortify their societies against the predicted results.  It is precisely now, in this moment of rawness around the coronavirus, that we can most ably draw lessons to help us do better against the onrushing climate crisis.

It is notable, and encouraging, that even as people understandably obsess about the coronavirus, they remain interested in climate stories.

“We’ve found that there is an audience; a lot of people want to hear about climate change,” Justin Worland, the climate correspondent for Time, said during a “Talking Shop” conference organized by Covering Climate Now on April 16.

So during this week of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, look for an abundance of first-class reporting and analysis of climate solutions by the news outlets of Covering Climate Now. 

We define solutions broadly, to include not only technical fixes such as solar panels and sea walls but also policy reforms such as pricing carbon and ending fossil fuel subsidies as well as civic actions to advance these reforms, including voting, protesting, and, yes, better journalism.  To reach the broadest possible audience, some of Covering Climate Now’s partners—including The Guardian, Reuters, CBS News, WNYC public radio, HuffPost, The Asahi Shimbun, and CJR—will make their coverage available free of charge for all partners to republish or rebroadcast.

We are also excited that on Earth Day itself, this Wednesday, a number of the biggest names in news will announce that they are joining Covering Climate Now, expanding our collaboration’s reach and ability to keep the climate story at the top of the public agenda.

Optimism does not come easy at this moment in our history.  But we can draw hope from the fact that we can learn from the coronavirus crisis, and that it can provide a roadmap for stories that will matter about the climate crisis and, crucially, its solutions.

Mark Hertsgaard is the executive director of Covering Climate Now, the environment correspondent for The Nation and the author of HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. Kyle Pope is the editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.


This article is published as part of the Covering Climate Now initiative, an unprecedented global media collaboration launched last year to put the spotlight on the climate crisis in the leadup to a Climate Action Summit at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on 23 September. It is co-founded by The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), in partnership with The Guardian. Croakey invites our readers, contributors and social media followers to engage with these critical discussions, using the hashtag #CoveringClimateNow. See Croakey’s archive of climate and health coverage.If you value Croakey’s coverage of climate and health, please consider supporting our Patreon fundraising campaign, so we can provide regular, in-depth coverage of the health impacts of the climate crisis, taking a local, national and global approach. All funds raised will go to a dedicated fund to pay writers and editors to put a sustained focus on the health impacts of climate change. Please help us to produce stories that will inform the health sector, policy makers, communities, families and others about how best to respond to this public health crisis.