Doing the Climate Emergency Story

“Follow the money” is a journalistic cliché but one that particularly applies to the climate story. The fight over the climate emergency is often a fight over money, but most news coverage has yet to illuminate the true dimensions and drama of this battle.

Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images News / Getty Images

The Climate Beat

Welcome to the second issue of The Climate Beat, the weekly newsletter of Covering Climate Now. Special greetings to the 390-plus news outlets worldwide that have formally signed on to this collaboration; we’re grateful to be working with you. We also invite our colleagues in the rest of the media to join us: all we ask is a commitment to improving the coverage of the climate story. Write us at

Every Wednesday, The Climate Beat spotlights a handful of the week’s best climate stories, including some that CCNow partners are allowed to republish or rebroadcast free of charge. Send us your suggestions! You’ll find this week’s offerings below. But first…

Events of the past week, and of the coming two weeks, all but shout the need for what we in the CCNow collaboration want to see: better coverage of the climate story, by our own newsrooms and our profession in general. Science has always been the foundation of the climate story (the great mistake of the American press over the past 30 years has been to regard climate change as fundamentally a politics story), and The Climate Beat’s first item this week underscores the point:

  • The big climate news of the past week is that more and more scientists are now using the word “emergency” to describe the circumstances facing humanity. It’s not too late for your newsroom to cover this landmark development, if you haven’t already. The team at CCNow is here to help, aided by the fact that this break in the story came from Nature, arguably the world’s pre-eminent scientific journal and one of the first outlets to join CCNow last summer.
  • On November 27, a week before the United Nations climate summit opened in Madrid, seven of the world’s most distinguished climate scientists published a commentary in Nature that repeatedly used the term “emergency” to describe the current situation. The entire article is essential reading, but the central point is that rising temperatures are pushing some of the Earth’s natural systems toward tipping points that, if crossed, could trigger irreversible climate disruptions that civilization might not survive. (Rapidly melting polar ice and dying forests are two such tipping points.) To have a chance of avoiding this outcome, the authors write, “warming must be limited to 1.5 degrees C. This requires an emergency response.”
  • The authors of this commentary, including Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber, a former top climate adviser to the German and British governments, are not outliers. On November 5, more than 11,000 scientists signed a statement in the journal Bio-Science declaring “clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.” Also citing tipping points, the 11,000 scientists warned that such “climate chain reactions could … [make] large areas of Earth uninhabitable.”
  • To date, most news outlets, especially in the US, have chosen not to use the term “climate emergency.” When The Guardian, CCNow’s lead partner, announced last May that it would start using the term, it got some criticism from other journalists. “It’s so activist-y,” said a senior journalist at one of America’s most influential news organizations. But is it? Greta Thunberg and other activists do call for action against the “climate emergency.” But they do so, as Thunberg repeatedly explains, because that’s what the science says.
  • Journalists should not be afraid to follow the same reasoning, and the Nature article and the UN summit provide ideal news pegs. In the spirit of CCNow’s mission statement—to strengthen news coverage of the climate story—we stand ready to help CCNow partners, and any other news outlet, tell this story. The Nature article may not be republished, but we encourage CCNow partners to draw upon it in your own coverage. CCNow can consult with you privately on possible approaches. We can connect you with our Nature colleagues and the article’s co-authors, advise you on their backgrounds and questions to ask them, and suggest how to integrate all this into coverage of the UN summit, which continues through December 13.

Now, turning to climate stories available for repurposing by CCNow outlets:

  • The cheekiest climate coverage of last week came from Britain’s Channel 4 News, whose chief correspondent, Alex Thomson, also was among the first to join CCNow last summer. In advance of the December 12 general elections, Channel 4 invited the leaders of Britain’s main political parties to a live televised debate on what the channel called “the emergency on planet Earth.” When the leaders of the Tory and Brexit parties declined to attend, Channel 4 placed ice sculptures in their places on stage, sparking accusations of bias and abundant knock-on coverage by TV networks the world over. The YouTube version of that debate is here.
  • See also Alex Thomson’s dispatch from the opening day of the Madrid summit reporting that the fossil fuel industry receives taxpayer subsidies equal to 5 percent of the global GDP, an amount that could solve the climate crisis, according to the World Meteorological Association. CCNow partners are invited to re-broadcast all or parts of both Channel 4 reports; please attach the CCNow logo and the following tagline: This report originally appeared on Channel 4 News and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
  • An article in The Nation last week highlighted the gender divide between authors and victims of the climate emergency. In “Meet the Men Fueling the Climate Crisis” (and they are mostly men), The Nation’s Ben Ehrenreich advocated public naming and shaming of fossil fuel titans including “Michael K. Wirth, CEO and chairman of Chevon, which is responsible for more carbon emissions than any other private entity.” To republish The Nation’s piece, please attach the CCNow logo and the following tagline: This story originally appeared in The Nation and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration to strengthen coverage of the climate story. (In a similar story, for Time, which is not a CCNow partner, former US president Jimmy Carter and Karin D. Ryan described last week how women suffer most from heat waves, droughts, and other manifestations of the climate crisis yet are “largely excluded from … efforts to respond to this challenge.”)

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Thanks, and see you next week!