2015‎ > ‎


Source: The Guardian
URL: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/audio/2015/mar/19/1
Date: 19/03/2015
Event: The Biggest Story: Episode 2: An Angle
Credit: The Guardian
Also see:

  • Alex Krotoski: Broadcaster, presenter of Guardian podcast Tech Weekly
  • Felicity Lawrence: Special correspondent, the Guardian
  • Bill McKibben: Environmentalist, author and journalist
  • George Monbiot: Environmental and political writer and activist
  • James Randerson: Assistant national news edior, the Guardian
  • Alan Rusbridger: Editor-in-chief, the Guardian
  • John Vidal: Environment editor, the Guardian

Aleks Krotoski: This is the biggest story in the world...

Alan Rusbridger: It's clearly the most important story...

Aleks Krotoski: ... from the Guardian.

Alan Rusbridger: And yet you scan the daily newspapers and it's almost absent.

Aleks Krotoski: It's defeated journalism for almost two decades.

George Monbiot: We carry on flogging a load of dead horses and flogging them in exactly same way, and it doesn't work.

Aleks Krotoski: And if we ignore this story...

Male voice: ... we are going to kill ourselves.

Aleks Krotoski: Last week, the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, laid out his legacy project - climate change.

Alan Rusbridger: What can you do that lifts this beyond something that people are bored with reading about or can't bear to read about? What can you do that will force them to sit up and pay attention?

Aleks Krotoski: With only six months, though, can the team step up to the challenge? This week, Alan gathers his team for a brain-storming session, on the lurid yellow sofas of the morning conference room - about 30 people, sitting awkwardly low. Hand-picked by Alan...

Alan Rusbridger: Thank you to those of you who did respond, over Christmas. I was literally sitting in an armchair on Christmas Eve and pinged out this email, and I wasn't necessarily expecting you all to respond over Christmas, but lots of you did, and thank you for doing that. So, what I want to talk about is not what kind of environmental coverage we can do, over the next two or three years. I'm being very selfish and just thinking about what kind of environmental coverage we can do in the next six months, in a highly intensive way, it would be sort of...

Male voice: We're very much in an exploratory meeting.

Male voice: You know - here's a bloody great big subject, which bit of it are we going to focus on...

Alan Rusbridger: Start this debate and you go into all kinds of interesting rabbit warrens...

Male voice: At that point, [inaudible] it's pretty broad.

Alan Rusbridger: ... in which X says Y and B says Z...

Male voice: At that point, it was kind of like, you know, anything's on the table.

Alan Rusbridger: ... and someone else says "You can't possibly consider Z without considering X..."

Male voice: Scoping, for want of a better word.

Alan Rusbridger: What is the most focussed proposition that we can develop, and what would we call it?

Aleks Krotoski: Alan explained how he got the idea when he met the US climate campaigner Bill McKibben in Sweden, and asked him the question -

Alan Rusbridger: What could we do most effectively? And he had a very clear and focussed idea.

Aleks Krotoski: We need to keep it in the ground. Because -

Bill McKibben: The fossil fuel companies of the world, the Exxons and the Shells, have, in their proven reserves, some place between three and five times as much carbon as scientists say will take us past the 2-degree mark the world's governments have agreed is the absolute, final, utter red line - don't cross this threshold for disastrous climate change.

Alan Rusbridger: And his urgent plea was: this stuff has to be kept in the ground.

Aleks Krotoski: Alan knew what he wanted to do. He just didn't know how.

Alan Rusbridger: As an editor, you sit in your office - you don't go out, you don't talk a lot to people, so you're very reliant on your team.

George Monbiot [talking to the team]: It's not just that the language is stultifying and technocratic and boring, it also completely fails to capture what we're looking at here, I mean...

Felicity Lawrence: George Monbiot is a brilliant polemicist...

George Monbiot: We need a new word [for?] climate change -

Felicity Lawrence: ... and activist...

George Monbiot: - it's a bit like calling a bomb an "unexpected delivery", or an invading army "unwanted visitors", you know, it's such a neutral, de-fanged term for what we're facing, which is climate breakdown, which is catastrophic failure of the system which has permitted civilisation to persist.

Male voice: He's always a grit in the oyster. He is not shy about taking difficult positions...

George Monbiot: ... it's alienating, it's cold, it's technological, it also has no emotional content - it doesn't really mobilise people...

Felicity Lawrence: ...he's a one-man powerhouse... [laughs].

Aleks Krotoski: Standing centre stage, with his colleagues before him, the giant video screen behind, George lays out the kernel of his argument, that we need to reconsider who is to blame.

George Monbiot: Well, I'm very strongly of the opinion that the great and obvious gap here is the producer side of the equation. And it's an amazing thing that in almost every other aspect, every other environmental crisis we face, governments try to deal with both the production and the consumption of the good which is in the frame. So, for instance, if you're trying to protect rhinos, you don't just go after the people who are consuming the rhino horn, you actually try to stop the poaching as well. If you try to protect fish stocks, you don't just try to persuade consumers to eat less fish, you set a quota for the amount of fish that can be taken...

[Speaking in a one-to-one interview.] There's no other international issue where we try to affect it only at the demand end. And it's uniquely crazy to take that position, where fossil fuels are concerned, because that means you have to affect the consumer behaviour of seven billion people, rather than just the operations of a few thousand corporations which are taking the stuff out of the ground.

Female voice: ... and I think the parallel is a fair one with the tobacco industry, where it knew for a long time - the science became very, very clear that tobacco caused cancer and people should not smoke. And they fought to keep that from the public, to sow doubt and confusion over it for as long as possible, to protect their profits. I think that's where the fossil fuel companies are, now.

John Vidal [sighing]: Ahh... Oil firms have to be made the pariahs of the world. They have to be stigmatised. They have to be reduced in their stature.

Aleks Krotoski: So they've got their bad guys. Now what do they do with them?

Male voice: That's a very big question, and one that's taxed finer minds than mine, but I'll give it a go. Erm...

Aleks Krotoski: To the rescue, the fine mind of George Monbiot. He suggests a global political solution.

George Monbiot: First, there has to be a global recognition of the issue.

Aleks Krotoski: Then...

George Monbiot: You have to have a global agreement that we will decide to leave two thirds or more...

Aleks Krotoski: ... in the ground. So, for George, in practice that means we need to -

George Monbiot: - set up, probably, a global auction system, which would reflect the carbon density of those fuels...

Male voice: ... so you'd allow however many millions of tons of fossil fuels to be extracted, and then auction those off.

Aleks Krotoski: An auction system that will hit the wallets of the producers. And that's a free-market economic solution. Limit what's coming out, and let the producers fight with cold, hard cash over what's left.

George Monbiot: It should appeal to the right-wing capitalists as much as it does to the left-wing greens like myself.

Aleks Krotoski: It's an idea which needs political consensus and global action.

George Monbiot [talking to the team]: If we want to change the world, and I think this is why Alan has brought us together today, then we've got to actually deploy the measures which are going to change the world. And that's only going to happen through acting at the political level, to lay down regulations which say those fossil fuels are going to stay in the ground. Everything else is prodding around at the edges of the problem and not actually grasping that problem.

Aleks Krotoski: A global political solution makes intellectual sense. But it's not a done deal. Some people would say it's optimistic, for the Guardian, possibly even a tad arrogant, to think they can enact this kind of change in just six months. Think about what they're up against. There are at least three obstacles. First...

Male voice: The fossil fuel lobby is very big, very rich, very well-connected and very determined to carry on, in the way that it has, for the last 150 years.

Male voice: Especially in the US, where there's both a lot of carbon and also a great deal of corporate lobbying. The oil and gas sector alone donated 70 million to US candidates and political parties in 2012, and then you've got 13 million in donations from the coal mining, another 18 million in lobbying from the coal-mining sector. So, you've got hundreds of millions of dollars, probably about a billion a year, overall, on US companies trying to persuade policy makers not to act in a way that would signficantly harm fossil fuel interests.

Aleks Krotoski: That's one billion dollars a year that the fossil fuel industry spends to protect their interests. And that's just in the US. On top of all that, this isn't just a question of getting the big companies like Exxon, BP and Shell to sign up to a global agreement. Because, second...

Male voice: The majority are actually owned by states.

Alan Rusbridger: Um, Andrew, James, Stuart, Ann...

Male voice: Quite a lot of the - there's quite a lot of crossover between ownership and governments, I mean, Russia owns most of the resources that are underground - changing Putin's view in the next 12 months is going to be a bit of a hard one.

Male voice: Something in the region of 90% of all the oil and gas is owned by countries, not by companies.

Male voice: You know, how does one persuade Saudi Arabia to change its policy on oil? This is a very difficult question.

Aleks Krotoski: A mammoth task, politically. And we don't have a Saudi Arabia office yet. Now these kinds of agreements are usually forged at international summits, in places like Kyoto or Copenhagen, and at the end of this year - more talking, in Paris. Which George thinks is a good target for the Guardian to pick.

George Monbiot: So it seems clear that an effective and simple demand, of the kind that the Guardian could make, gets into the Paris agreement. That there is at least an outline agreement to start looking at keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

Aleks Krotoski: Makes sense, but here's our third problem. The likelihood of making any progress at any international summit is...

John Vidal: Minimal. Minimal. We will not get any agreement which gives us any hope of globally reducing emissions by more than a percent or two, over the next decade. We have to understand the summits are rigged, and it's a fiendishly complex process.

Female voice: We have been discussing our global agreements on climate change for more than 20 years now, and so far the progress has been limited. However, there are reasons to be cheerful about Paris, because three of the world's largest emitting blocs have now agreed to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. These commitments are not, in themselves, enough to put the world on a pathway to 2 degrees. However, they are a start.

Aleks Krotoski: The summits are fiendishly complex. The majority of the world's fossil fuel is held by states, and the companies that own the rest hold enormous political sway. Is there any hope for the political solution? Or do we need another angle? What does the gaffer think?

Alan Rusbridger: George's point, that real action is going to come about through governments and through treaties - that may be right. But it may simultaneously be right that, in order to get anybody in the world interested in this, you have to do something more out of the ordinary.

Aleks Krotoski: Time to take stock. This meeting was meant to find a new way of telling the story, and the biggest question Alan's team need to answer is -

Alan Rusbridger: What can you do that will force them to sit up and pay attention?

Aleks Krotoski: For perhaps the first time. Global agreements, carbon auctions, summits - none of these sound very new. Outside the glass walls of the Guardian meeting room, across the pond to the States, Alan's climate guru, Bill McKibben, has been thinking about this, too.

Bill McKibben: A generation ago, when the biggest moral issue in the world was apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu suggested this tactic, that it was time for the great institutions of the west to cut their economic ties with companies that propped up the apartheid regime. If there's ever going to be any kind of international agreement, it'll only be because our political and business leaders are feeling unrelenting pressure from all over the world. This is not a normal movement - there are no great leaders, there's no Dr. King of the climate movement, or whatever. The fossil fuel industry is sprawling, it's protean. And so the resistance to it needs to be the same way, it needs to be like the French Resistance during the war, you know, springing up from every corner. And that's why we organise, all over the world. We've organised, at 350.org, about 20,000 different demonstrations, in every country save North Korea.

Aleks Krotoski: Some of the staff agree.

Male voice: Um, the campaign element of it gives people some agency and gives people some ownership, and they can sort of touch...

Aleks Krotoski: In the corner of the room, arguing for a popular people's movement, stands James Randerson.

James Randerson: I like to try and make things work.

Alan Rusbridger: James Randerson has a doctorate in physics, I think.

Aleks Krotoski: Evolutionary genetics actually, Alan. But never mind.

Male voice: He's a very thoughtful, conscientious journalist, I think, who cares about getting things right.

James Randerson: If I'm honest, I prefer practical solutions over pie-in-the-sky ideology, if you like. Um, I mean, actually, in six months, we can ask for something to happen at Paris but we won't see a result. My worry about having an ask which is along the lines of: at Paris, they should set up an auction scheme that will do X, Y and Z - I think that rapidly gets quite, kind of, distant and complicated. And while something like that probably has to happen, in terms of a tangible campaign that people can feel part of and can sign up to and want to, you know, want to support, I'm not sure that, that it's sexy enough.

Aleks Krotoski: This popular people's movement, that both Bill and Jame are talking about, is sexily called "divestment".

Male voice: Divestment is a, is a very simple idea.

Female voice: The idea that...

Male voice: ... you just take your money away from companies that are involved in extracting fossil fuels.

Female voice: You do that by refusing to buy their shares.

Male voice: It says "We do not accept your premise. We do not like what you're doing".

Female voice: It's a way of applying pressure...

Male voice: ... for moral and economic reasons.

Male voice: If it turns out that the world decides, collectively, that we are going to stick to the 2 degrees, and we're going to leave all of that carbon in the ground, that presents a major issue for companies like Shell, BP and so on, because the market is implicitly assuming that they're going to dig up and sell, then their valuation now is much higher than it should be.

Male voice: It's a risky investment, because we know, if we do solve climate change, those assets will be worthless.

Female voice: Hold on... Don't know about you, but I don't really have any shares.

Female voice: Neither do I, but...

Female voice: We all have stakes in pension funds and various forms of investment, through our lives. And those investments will almost certainly include shares in fossil fuel companies.

John Vidal: That's the exciting part - the change isn't a technological change, it's not scientific change we need, it is now social change.

Alan Rusbridger: Right, so let's just discuss that, for a bit...

Aleks Krotoski: One by one, voices join James's divestment movement.

Male voice: So, in my mind, the powerful thing about divestment is that it is about de-legitimising these businesses. You know, you cycle though London and you see posters for Shell with sleeping children, saying "power the world", you know, and I think the fossil fuel subsidies, I mean 700 billion a year subsidising consumption - 90 billion subsidising exploration. So 90 billion dollars a year of taxpayers' money is looking for fossil fuels we can't have. And that's so obvious, and makes people - should make people so angry. It feels like we've identified the baddies, but I don't think they've been de-legitimised.

Alan Rusbridger: One of you, make your mind up...

Felicity Lawrence: Well, I suppose it's [inaudible] bit [?] who we're aiming at. And I think one of the things that we have the power to do, with our readers, is to sound the wake-up call for all the people who haven't woken up or who feel fatalistic about it.

Aleks Krotoski: Felicity Lawrence pipes up from the yellow sofa. She's well-known for her writing on food.

Alan Rusbridger: But has a very interesting take on corporate responsibility and sustainability.

Felicity Lawrence: The thing about divestment is that it provides a really powerful moral framework that people can get behind. And it's a way of applying pressure to where the power resides. And with all these campaigning kinds of journalism, your role, as a journalist, is to try and hold power to account. So how do you make things uncomfortable for them? And you need some sort of locus for that. And I think the divestment idea provides that way of prodding, in a very uncomfortable way, that makes a difference.

Aleks Krotoski: But not all in the room agree. Is campaigning what journalism does best? Should promoting divestment be the Guardian's role?

Alan Rusbridger: Jonathan's got his hand up, at the back, so let's just...

Male voice: Well, I think that our power, as an institution, when it comes to changing the shape of some discourse, is the questions we ask and not the answers we provide.

Male voice: Pragmatically, if we want to do a classic newspaper campaign, where we wave around, make people feel good, and get something that looks quite concrete, divestment is great.

Male voice: It doesn't actually change the balance sheets of the companies and it doesn't really - it will do very little, even if it's unimaginably successful, to keep it in the ground. If we had a big success in divestment, we might knock down the price of a couple of oil companies, at which point, for any fund which isn't making our moral choice, they'll get a better return by buying it. So, we actually - we make ourselves poorer.

[Various voices are heard, arguing.]

Male voice: ... this is what I mean, it doesn't do any financial - it doesn't change the value of what's in the ground, it doesn't stop them extracting oil, and it means amoral investors get richer and moral investors get poorer.

Alan Rusbridger: Er, I'm just going to get George to say something, then I'm going to see whether we can just sum up.

George Monbiot: I think it comes down to whether we intend to change things or whether we intend to be seen to change things. And I completely take the point that Damian and others have made, about removing the moral legitimacy from companies and that the divestment plans help that. But you know you're being affected when you get these governments saying "Absolutely not - you total bastards, you are the people who try to stop us obtaining our objectives". They're not saying that about divestment, because divestment is not that politically scary, because it's not actually going to change anything. In the long run, it's not, as James says, going to leave fossil fuels in the ground. It's just going to bring in a whole new lot of amoral investors who are going to fill the gap which has been left. Who else is going to do what the Guardian is perhaps uniquely equipped to do? Who else is going to not let the politicians off the hook? Who else is going to make this a political, democratic issue, as opposed to a consumerist issue? If we want to actually stop climate breakdown, rather than just do something symbolic and showy and demonstrates that the Guardian are really good eggs and that they're people with the right values, if we want to actually change the world, that surely has got to be the focus.

Aleks Krotoski: The journalists stream out of the morning conference room, leaving two options on the table. Does the Guardian go for the big global picture, as George proposes, try and intervene in politics and influence international policy? Or does it go for James and Bill's divestment idea and become a campaigner? A paper with an agenda.

Alan Rusbridger: Well, I've always been slightly nervous about campaigning. We have done some campaigns, on the Guardian, but generally, in the past, I've wanted to reserve campaigns for things where there is no legitimate cause for discussion.

Felicity Lawrence: I'm really nervous about the idea of us having a campaign in which we write all the answers or produce the solutions. Because I don't think we can, and I'm not sure that's even our role. Our campaigning role is to report in a way that shocks people, wakes them up, tells them things they don't know.

Aleks Krotoski: The staff are divided, and someone needs to pick.

Male voice: Um... I mean, there was a point at which I felt that Alan had basically decided on something and was - you know, my feeling was: perhaps we're going to have a discussion that will be, kind of, window-dressing. Or he would basically persuade us all that - why we're wrong. But actually it didn't happen like that.

Alan Rusbridger: I don't know... We didn't have a vote on whether this was going to be a campaign or not... My sense of the people who were in the room - there was a majority for having a campaign, I mean, it was an interesting, really interesting discussion.

Felicity Lawrence: One of the things I said back to Alan is "Are we brave enough?"

Aleks Krotoski: So, will Alan let the team decide, on whether to become a campaigning organisation, or will he make a dictatorial call? Next week, we'll find out. The biggest story in the world is narrated by me, Aleks Krotoski. It's produced by Alannah Chance, Lindsay Poulton, Matt Hill, Nabeelah Shabbir and Lucy Greenwell. Head of Audio is Jason Phipps, and the executive producer is Francesca Panetta. We'll be back next week - subscribe!