Alan Rusbridger: making a positive impact on climate change

Alan Rusbridger: making a positive impact on climate change

To fix climate change compassionate leadership is needed. The Guardian’s “Keep it in the Ground” campaign leads the way.

3 mins to read

We’re all looking for inspiration about the best path to take. Successful people seem to have very clear priorities. They’ve recognised the best use of their skills and talents and they’re going for it. And as they achieve success, overcome difficulties and grow, they keep asking “have I done it all?”

It’s fascinating to observe The Guardian editor of the last 20 years, Alan Rusbridger, and his continuous transformation. At the age of 56 he decided to learn an incredibly challenging piece of music, Chopin’s first Ballade, Op 23. Having restarted piano lessons in his 40s, he wondered whether he could still learn it. The piece is too complex to read and play simultaneously, so a lot of technique is required to play it well enough for an audience.

The year of the challenge, Rusbridger committed to daily practice, with five different teachers. A small audience watched him play the piece a little over a year later. To record the challenges he faced, he published a book, and also a series of interviews with great contemporary pianists.

This was the same year of Wikileaks, Assange’s arrest, a Guardian correspondent’s kidnapping in Libya, and the News of the World’s phone hacking. Rusbridger’s daily piano practice was, however, sacrosanct, even once in a deserted hotel ballroom in Libya while negotiating the release of his colleague. He said: “I did want to prove that you could do it if you tried, just nibble away say 20 minutes a day.”

Having decided to retire as editor, however, Rusbridger began to wonder if there might still be more for him to do. As editor he has received accolades like a Pulitzer Prize and the Stockholm Right Livelihood award for The Guardian’s Snowden coverage. He decided to dedicate himself with greater vigour to the climate change cause.

Rusbridger had caught a case of “climatitis” from one of the original green environmentalists, Bill McKibben, of, whilst in Stockholm at the alternative Nobel Prize giving in 2014.

McKibben had explained the discussion around climate change was developing as the data was no longer in doubt so “it’s now all about politics and economics”.

Rusbridger was convinced that there wasn’t a bigger story on the planet. This could be our final century as a species, depending on our responses. The Guardian was not denying climate change, having covered UN Climate talks, protests and environmental disasters. But Rusbridger realised this story is what we need to focus on, “we will look back at these times and we will think “what on earth were we doing?”.

Rusbridger defined a narrative, The Guardian campaign “Keep it in the ground”, around three numbers McKibben highlighted to him:

  • 2 degrees – the maximum temperature increase science thinks we can stand – if we go over, we risk civilisation.
  • 565 gigatons – the carbon emissions budget which, released into the atmosphere,  will push up global temperatures 2 degrees. This is the maximum CO2 we can release!
  • 2,795 gigatons – if all identified fossil fuel reserves are burned, emissions of this amount will result. Therefore, much of this has to stay underground.

As with the Chopin piece, Rusbridger has dedicated his immense energy and attention to this campaign. A key part of the narrative is the Disinvestment campaign. After last year’s People’s Climate march, the Rockefeller Foundation announced they would disinvest from fossil fuel and move to renewables. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” said Margaret Mead.

Rusbridger asked The Guardian’s fund management to divest too, which they’ve agreed to do. Now he’s asking the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Wellcome Trust to disinvest. While disinvestment may not stop fossil fuel extraction, the loss of reputation forces reviews, and regulators feel pressured to cut government subsidies, which does add pressure.

Rusbridger is committed to this even if he is going against the grain in the media as a whole. While too early to gauge the impact of the campaign, the UN Climate Change conference COP21 in Paris in December this year is a key focus.

As Ellen Dorsey, executive director of the Wallace Global Fund and a key figure in the Divestment Movement, has said: “I think at pivotal moments in history we have seen editors and media outlets stand up and take unprecedented action. One could think of the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement in the US and I liken The Guardian’s campaign to that kind of courageous action. I hope it will bring other institutions along to follow suit.”

Join the Guardian Divestment campaign now:

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