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The Unlikely Activist

Updated: Feb 8, 2019

How Alan Rusbridger launched a global divestment campaign by Sofia Blanchard

Alan Rusbridger is no climate expert. Soft-spoken, mellow, and reserved, he is quick to admit that he is not a specialist on climate change activism, science, or writing. But in 2015, before stepping down as editor of the Guardian, he took the paper in a rare political direction, spearheading a push for fossil fuel divestment that he called #keepitintheground. The campaign is at the head of a wider divestment movement which has led over 700 companies to divest approximately $5 trillion from fossil fuel investments – and it continues to snowball. Rusbridger has somehow become an activist.

At the helm of Guardian coverage during the Edward Snowden and Julian Assange data leaks, the News of the World phone hacking scandal, and arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Rusbridger has seen his fair share of controversy. After landing his first job writing what he now calls ‘pointless think pieces’ for the local paper, he had a series of short stints writing and editing for the Guardian, the Observer, and the now-defunct London Daily News. Rusbridger was assigned head of the Guardian in 1995, and under two decades of his editorship the newspaper grew into one of the world’s leading news outlets, with branches in the US and Australia, and an online presence that now reaches 4.5 million people per day.

By 2005, Rusbridger had already begun to think that climate change was ‘the most important subject.’ He established a new ‘Environmental’ branch of the newspaper, separate from other ‘Science’ coverage, hoping to improve the way the Guardian dealt with climate stories. Despite this, the Guardian’s most important climate action under his leadership only came right at the end of his time as editor. Having given himself six months notice before stepping down, in December of 2014 Rusbridger asked himself, ‘what do I regret?’ ‘It wasn’t that we had done the environment badly,’ he told us. ‘We had done really well, but I was conscious that there’s frustration with a lot of journalists that they can’t cut through on this subject.’

A meeting with Bill McKibben, the award-winning journalist and leader of environmental organisation, shook him into action. Rusbridger recalls: ‘He said, “You’re making a big mistake. You’re making it an environment story and it’s not an environment story – it’s a security story, it’s an economic story, it’s an immigration story, it’s a food story. And you keep it in the ghetto. No wonder nobody’s reading it.”’ 

With the time he had left, Rusbridger decided to make an open call for specialists across the newspaper to come together, ‘change the debate, wake people up, and tilt the axis.’ A team of 20 gathered to decide what the shape and focus of this project should be. George Monbiot, a veteran environmental columnist, believed that pushing for specific language to be put into the upcoming Paris climate agreement would ‘help change the course of history.’ Rusbridger thought the idea was good – but that it wouldn’t be enough.

‘It was great, but nobody’s going to read it. You can’t put it on a T-shirt. Monbiot’s right to say, “You need intergovernmental action,” but unless you have the pressure on the politicians, unless there is an atmosphere in which these things are being talked about, it happens in a complete vacuum, where nobody is feeling any pressure.’ So the team went in a different direction. They decided to target specifically selected ‘enlightened organisations’ — the Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — and encourage the public to campaign for fossil fuel divestment, launching #keepitintheground.

It was an overt political act. Rusbridger still believes that this type of political campaigning should ‘have a limited role in news media’ – but that climate change, along with issues of freedom of speech, is the exception. To compensate for this, Rusbridger and his team made the unusual decision to keep the whole process entirely transparent, launching a weekly documentary-podcast series that recorded internal meetings behind mobilising the project.

Consistent with the McKibben approach, the campaign also pushed journalists out of their normal reporting limitations. ‘There’s a funny way in which journalists are almost never invited to think as human beings,’ Rusbridger says, ‘but if you think what human beings are proud of or scared for or terrified by… people do say that they have a great underlying fear for the future of our species, or what the future is going to be like for their children.’ The science was settled. This was now a story that needed to be told by every sphere of the Guardian, and reporters stepped up to the challenge. There's an ‘incredible energy that happens when you invite reporters to do something out of personal conviction,’ Rusbridger told us.

Outside the Guardian, the picture has not always been so bright. A great deal of research has shown that news outlets are failing to adequately report climate change issues in relation to other stories. In the wake of the most recent – and serious – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, most UK newspapers led with a story on a drunken kiss shared by two Strictly Come Dancing stars. 

Rusbridger’s following Twitter rant berated the mainstream media for ‘patronising’ readers by assuming they were ‘not concerned with droughts, floods, extreme heat and poverty for millions. Not to mention knock-on effects on immigration, security, food, health and economic stability for the UK.’ His biggest concern: how a lack of proper climate coverage is crippling our democratic systems, leaving the public uninformed and unable to push the government towards urgent action. 

'People are trying to cling onto a model of rewards, attention, eyeballs.'

The Guardian has always been leaps and bounds in front of other news outlets on this issue. Rusbridger believes that, ‘if you get a subject where the science is overly on one side, then… you’re not doing a service to the readers by pretending that this is a balanced argument.’ This is in stark contrast to other leading media giants like the BBC, which has been heavily criticised for giving disproportionate screen time to debunked climate change deniers such as Nigel Lawson.

In his recent book Breaking News, published this September, Rusbridger calls the news ‘broken.’ ‘People are trying to cling onto a model of rewards, attention, eyeballs,’ he says. ‘The average scientist is a bit boring, and [the papers] like provoking people.’ He writes how as a publisher, you could be fairly certain that bleak reports on climate change won’t attract the same amount of attention as other stories. ‘If you want eyeballs, you’re going to put the “Strictly Snog” on the front page, not the IPCC report,’ he told us.

If climate change isn’t sexy enough to merit mainstream media coverage, how, then, should it be framed for people to pay enough attention? ‘People close down if they’re frightened, when they get bad messages,’ Rusbridger argued. ‘I was listening to [the IPCC proceedings], and they were all people working in climate change, but I noticed they were all being very optimistic. It wasn’t ‘we’re all doomed’ but it was ‘we just need to do this, and do that, and there’s a bit of technology there.’ I found myself not closed, as I sometimes am, but actually quite engaged.’ 

Positivity and optimism, it seems, are the best way to get people to keep reading. Rusbridger’s own #keepitintheground campaign did well to distance itself from bleak narratives of the future – instead, mobilising people around the potential of what they could collectively achieve. Sadly, the mainstream media still have a long way to go.

Since stepping down from the Guardian in 2015, Rusbridger has become President of Lady Margaret Hall, one of Oxford University’s many colleges. While he has taken a liberal approach to his new position – he recently appointed a gay college chaplain and established the university’s first ‘foundation year’ course for underprivileged students –  the college is still tied to dirty investments. Despite LMH’s students starting an ‘active conversation’ on the topic, the board is yet to divest. As per typical Oxford convention, it looks like this will take time. ‘Most financial advisors haven’t quite got their heads around it yet.’

His advice to young people? Putting pen to paper – writing to representatives, company board members, and others in positions of power.  ‘If you can engage with somebody and write to them beautifully, I think that will have an effect. It’s very difficult to ignore a very sincerely composed message.’

Interview conducted by Shannon Osaka and Sofia Blanchard.

Sofia Blanchard reads for an MPhil in archaeology at St John's College, University of Oxford. She is thinking of ways to apply archaeology to climate change issues.


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