Financial clients from banks, insurance firms, miners, agricultural giants to central banks and power generators want news on climate change impacts and policy. They want the best scientific analysis on future impacts on changes in weather patterns, sea level rise and impacts on crops – i.e., food security.
Climate change touches every facet of human life and every economy. It’s a massive business story. Yet some people seem to view it only as a debate between climate scientists and paid-for climate sceptics and oil-industry lobbyists trying to promote business as usual.
Reuters’ senior managers seem oblivious to the wider picture. Climate change reportage is vital to the public and Reuters’ clients, the very people editors should be doing everything to retain as revenues falter.
President Obama gets it. Just read his latest ■ climate action plan.
The scientific community gets it. Obama noted that 97 per cent of scientists agree that the planet is warming and humans are a driver of that change; and that scientific evidence, “accumulated and reviewed over decades” tells us that these changes will have profound impacts on all of humankind. The World Bank gets it, so does the IMF, IEA and the United Nations.
Obama doesn’t need to look far to see the threat from climate change. From deadly wildfires, massive storms such as Hurricane Sandy, to monster tornadoes and droughts and floods, the past couple of years has been a record-setter for the US for weather extremes. It’s the same picture in Australia and miners, farmers, city dwellers and insurers have all been hit. And then look at Europe, Pakistan and China.
From very early in 2012, I was repeatedly told that climate and environment stories were no longer a top priority for Reuters and I was asked to look at other areas. Being stubborn, and passionate about my climate change beat, I largely ignored the directive.
It was a strange repositioning of editorial focus for Asia, which has some of the world’s top polluters and some of the greatest environmental challenges taxing economies and governments.
In April last year, Paul Ingrassia (then deputy editor-in-chief) and I met and had a chat at a company function. He told me he was a climate change sceptic. Not a rabid sceptic, just someone who wanted to see more evidence mankind was changing the global climate.
Progressively, getting any climate change-themed story published got harder. It was a lottery. Some desk editors happily subbed and pushed the button. Others agonised and asked a million questions. Debate on some story ideas generated endless bureaucracy by editors frightened to take a decision, reflecting a different type of climate within Reuters – the climate of fear.
By mid-October, I was informed that climate change just wasn’t a big story for the present, but that it would be if there was a significant shift in global policy, such as the US introducing an emissions cap-and-trade system.
Very soon after that conversation I was told my climate change role was abolished. I was asked to take over the regional shipping role and that I had less than a week to decide.
I decided it was time to leave.
By far one of the most bizarre climate e-mail exchanges occurred on 30 October regarding Hurricane Sandy. I offered to kick-off a story from Asia leading on the storm’s impact on public opinion on climate change, given it occurred a week before presidential elections and was the type of storm climate scientists say we should expect as the planet warms. There was a huge amount of commentary to draw on from other media and commentators.
A senior Top News editor in Asia shot down the idea saying “climate change is one of those topics that can get people’s backs up”. Michael Stott, the Europe, Middle East and Africa regional editor in London, in turn, shot down that editor’s view and urged the story to be written, saying: “Many other media will follow this trail – it’s an obvious angle and one we should explore”.
Reuters in the US did the story, about 48 hours later than everyone else, despite reporters there itching to get a story out sooner.
Since I’ve left, I’ve lost count of the number of people who have asked me why Reuters’ climate change coverage has changed in tone and fallen in volume. That’s a good question for David Thomson, who is very keen to unlock value for his family’s acquisition of Reuters. He could do worse than restoring much needed resources to the climate and environment file to better serve clients and rebuild the Reuters brand. The Guardian and others have done well in this arena and capitalised on Reuters’ decision to abandon climate and environment reporting leadership.
One other thing. Climate change-linked issues can win Pulitzer Prizes. Just ask ■ InsideClimate News, three of whose reporters won a Pulitzer in April.