The Planet After Trump, part 2
The second half of my interview with award-winning editor and environmental writer Charles Alexander
In the second part of this interview, I ask Charles Alexander about the impact of climate denial in the media, the risk of “climate complacency” in this year’s election, his thoughts on the global youth movement for action on climate—and the prospects for the planet his grandchildren will inherit.
Yesterday’s issue of Unprecedented featured the first part of my Q&A with Charles Alexander, who for 23 years was a reporter, writer and editor at Time magazine. During his tenure he became Business Editor, then Science Editor and finally International Editor. Over his last 13 years at Time, he was best known for directing the magazine’s environmental reporting, including numerous major stories on climate change. In 1989, he edited a historic special report: instead of naming a Person of the Year, Time published “Planet of the Year: Endangered Earth.” In 2000 he edited Time’s first globally distributed special issue, which was devoted entirely to climate change and other environmental concerns. Over the years, he edited articles by, among many others, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Mikhail Gorbachev, Jane Goodall, Edward O. Wilson, Jon Krakauer, Richard Leakey, Felix Rohatyn, Paul Krugman, Salmon Rushdie, Jared Diamond and Leonardo DiCaprio. Among his awards for stories written or edited are the Page One Award for Excellence in Journalism from the Newspaper Guild of New York, the John Hancock Award for Excellence in Business and Financial Journalism, the National Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation and the Bassow Award from the Overseas Press Club for Best Reporting on Environmental Issues. After leaving Time in 2001, Alexander continued to freelance for the magazine and authored Time Inc.’s first two Sustainability Reports. Since then he has written for such publications as The Nation, Conservation and E Magazine and for many years was a blogger for The Huffington Post. He has been a guest lecturer at Columbia, NYU, Michigan State, Hawaii-Manoa and the New School.
Q&A with Charles Alexander (Part Two)
Fox News and other conservative media have spent decades promoting climate change denial. Should the mainstream media have done more sooner to insist the climate debate was over?
Over the years there have been countless excellent books and newspaper and magazine articles laying out the facts of climate change while demolishing the deniers. Alarming government reports have regularly generated front-page headlines. Every angle has been covered. The accurate story was there long ago for anyone who cared. But the story didn’t change fast, and unless it’s a shooting war, a pandemic or a Presidential election, you can’t expect the print media to cover it every day. Coverage on TV, the No. 1 source of news for millions of people before the Internet arrived, has been much spottier. Back in 2002 I went to see Andrew Heyward, a college classmate of mine who happened to be President of CBS News at the time. I suggested that 60 Minutes devote a whole hour to global warming. He said the show would never do that because that’s not what its audience wanted. Only CNN, among the networks, has a long history of usually giving the environment the high priority it deserves. Last year CNN hosted a town hall in New York City in which 10 Democratic Presidential hopefuls talked about nothing but climate change. The real problem now, though, is that people live in their own news bubbles, consuming only stories that support their preconceived notions. Those who rely on Fox News, One America News Network, Rush Limbaugh and what their conservative friends are sharing on Facebook, are not going to know the truth about climate change.
The coronavirus pandemic has made the deadly consequences of science-denial even more obvious. Yet in some ways COVID-19 has made climate change seem less urgent. Lockdowns led to cleaner air over some cities. Does the virus increase the risk of climate complacency?
If the pandemic doesn’t convince voters to believe scientists, nothing will. And anyone who votes for Trump despite his horrible mishandling of the pandemic response is not going to be bothered by his climate denialism either. It’s the job of leaders to anticipate potential crises that most people don’t think about and prepare our governments to handle the challenges. “Remember COVID-19” will be a good slogan that scientists can use to put leaders on notice about the climate.
I predict a prolonged economic slowdown. It will be a while before some people have enough confidence in any of the many vaccines being worked on to resume normal activity. Lots of folks will work from home, shop more online and travel less for a long time to come. This reduction in economic activity will shift the timetable of climate change a little bit farther into the future. We need every month of reprieve we can get, and we need to use that time wisely, in hopes that when the global economic machine gets back up to speed, a Green New Deal will have begun to spur a kind of growth more compatible with preserving the planet.
30 years after “Planet of the Year,” teen climate activist Greta Thunberg of Sweden was named TIME’s “Person of the Year.” How hopeful are you that the global youth movement will spur real change?
The youngest of the world’s citizens will bear the brunt of global warming, and so their climate movement could be similar in significance and power to the Black Lives Matter movement. But both movements have to be translated into votes. Those as young as Greta won’t be able to vote this year, but they can sure lobby their parents and older brothers and sisters.
What information sources or organizations do you recommend for people looking for the most current and reliable information on climate issues?
Searching the archives of the New York Times will tell you all you need to know about climate change, if you don’t mind enduring some sleepless nights. If you want to dig deeper and follow every development closely, I recommend Yale Climate Connections and Climate Central. For activism, I suggest 350.org.
You are now a grandfather. How optimistic are you that your grandchildren will inherit a livable world?
I worry about the future of my family every single day. My greatest regret in an otherwise very enjoyable life is that I may go to my grave leaving a total mess for my two sons and two grandsons. But, strangely, the pandemic, as tragic and terrifying as it is, has made me more optimistic than I’ve been in a long time. I think this year could be the equivalent of 1932. I think we could see so big a rout of the Republican Party that it won’t come back for a generation, if ever. I think Joe Biden could be as transformational a President as Franklin Roosevelt. Sure, his age and the 22nd Amendment preclude his being elected four times, but Kamala Harris could be a worthy successor. Yes, I know the Republicans, with their Russian allies on the Internet, will try every dirty trick to suppress the Democratic vote, and that Trump appears to be crippling the Postal Service in a blatant effort to reduce voting by mail during a pandemic. He is trying to rig and contest the election before even one vote is counted. I’m scared of course, but I haven’t lost so much faith in the American people that I think Trump can get away with destroying our democracy. And I have faith in Joe and Kamala. World history shows that dark times can bring fundamental change. This year could finally be the turning point in the all-important fight against climate change—the sharp pivot that insures a livable planet for my sons, my grandsons, their families and all the world’s families to come.
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