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“The overriding story of our time”: The Varsity’s pledge to cover the climate crisis

We are joining over 250 media outlets around the world in the Covering Climate Now initiative
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In 2015, governments around the world signed onto the Paris Agreement to address the climate crisis. They agreed to implement plans that cut greenhouse gas emissions such that the rise in global temperature this century remains below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  

But since then, governments and institutions continue to delay investing in a bold and sound climate strategy that significantly reduces emissions. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2014–2018 have been the five hottest years in recorded history. As of July, 2019 is set to take either the second or third spot. 

Canada is at particular risk: it is warming at twice the rate of the global average. A Council of Canadian Academies report from July indicates that the crisis poses major threats to Canada’s physical infrastructure, coastal and northern communities, human health and wellness, ecosystems, and fisheries. Extreme weather events, like the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires, are occurring more frequently and are more severe. In Canada, the economic cost of the crisis is measurable in the billions

That is why, this week, The Varsity has joined over 250 media organizations around the world in the Covering Climate Now initiative. A joint initiative of The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review, the campaign is intended to engage media outlets in a week of sustained climate coverage in the leadup to the crucial United Nations Climate Action Summit on September 23. At that summit, world leaders have been called on to submit “concrete, realistic plans” to cut greenhouse gas emissions. 

The crisis is closer to home than we may think. Institutions like U of T are complicit. In 2016, President Meric Gertler controversially decided to refuse divestment from the fossil fuel industry, the overwhelming contributor to the crisis, and yet continues to present U of T as a global leader on environmental sustainability. 

Emissions historically produced by the industrialized north are the major contributor to the current crisis, though the global south is now also producing considerable emissions.  Despite this historical imbalance, vulnerable populations in the global south and Indigenous people around the world, including in Canada, are the ones who are disproportionately impacted. 

The climate crisis is real, it is here, it is urgent, and human beings are culpable. If we cannot rely on our governments and institutions to take necessary action, then ordinary citizens must tell the truth and call them out, and we, the media, must lead this charge.

Covering Climate Now

We are one of only four newspapers in Canada to participate in the initiative. The Toronto Star, our Queen’s University peers at the Journal, and our Ryerson University peers at The Eyeopener will also engage in climate coverage this week. Other Canadian magazines, journals, and digital news sites also chose to participate.

At The Varsity, climate coverage is nothing new. However, to participate in an initiative that treats the climate crisis with the global, collaborative, large-scale attention that it deserves is unprecedented for us. 

Between September 16 and September 23, The Varsity will publish at least one article every day to draw attention to the crisis. This editorial is the introductory article to our series, and each day of the week will feature a different section’s coverage: News, Comment, Business, Arts & Culture, Features, Science, and Sports will all participate. 

Like The Nation, we hope to convey that the climate crisis “is not just one more story but the overriding story of our time.” With coverage from all seven of our sections, the climate crisis affects us in all facets of our lives.

Our commitment to climate journalism

This week will be the beginning of an expanded effort to cover the climate crisis, especially as it concerns the U of T community. We will continue to cover efforts made by student activist groups and youth climate activists, such as the Fridays for Future campaign and Leap UofT, and hold the U of T administration accountable to its complicity the crisis. 

U of T groups and students will participate in Global Climate Strikes scheduled to take place this month, in line with the UN summit. The Varsity will be there to tell those stories.

Our Science section has just launched a “Climate Crisis” subsection to consistently cover the issue. Our style guide is being updated to ensure that the passive language of ‘climate change’ is avoided. Instead, we will henceforth use ‘climate crisis’ or ‘climate emergency.’ After all, when the world falls into a recession, we call it an economic crisis; the troubling state of the planet ought to proportionately receive an alarm, too. 

Finally, we will also be dogged in correcting any form of false balance surrounding the climate crisis: for example, any form of skepticism or denial of the crisis will be contextualized as false. There is an overwhelming scientific consensus on the matter, and journalists must fairly attribute weight to sides in a given story on the basis of evidence. For this crisis, the facts cannot be debated, politicized, or treated as partisan. 

In sum, we hope that the Covering Climate Now initiative will inspire our editors and contributors this year, and for years to come.

Deciding the next four years 

The need for climate journalism is also crucial in the context of the upcoming Canadian federal election. Consider when, last month, Elections Canada (EC) warned environmental groups that advertising the legitimacy and severity of the climate crisis could be deemed partisan. Such ‘partisanship’ could require such environmental charities to register as a third party with EC, subject them to scrutiny from the Canada Revenue Agency, and potentially jeopardize their tax status. 

This ‘partisan’ ruling, and blatant suppression of climate speech, was a result of the position of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party, according to an EC official which espouses climate denialism among other far-right views. That is the unfortunate reality of climate discourse today. Whereas our leaders should be debating how to best tackle the problem, we are stuck at debating the reality of the issue itself. 

Inadequate approaches to the climate crisis are not exclusive to fringe politics. Our supposedly progressive prime minister, Justin Trudeau, offers voters a paradox: he believes that Canada can reduce emissions and address the crisis while it continues to invest in pipelines, extract Alberta’s tar sands, and empower the very cause — fossil fuels — which is responsible for the crisis.  

The climate crisis is not debatable, and it is certainly not resolvable through halfhearted policy. Furthermore, ‘the environment’ cannot just be another issue among the myriad of other issues in this upcoming election. Rather, the crisis is entangled with other concerns that voters may have — like economic growth and development — and, in fact, presents us with an opportunity to re-envision how we organize ourselves on this planet. Taking care of our environment is necessary to have a viable economy; economy and environment go hand in hand. 

Indeed, the crisis is not about economic sacrifice, but about transformation. It is about divesting from fossil fuels and using our technological ingenuity to immediately and fully transition into alternative sources of energy. It is about embracing the future, and restructuring our economy in a way that will create new, sustainable sources of livelihood. 

The role of media, then, is to cover these positive opportunities that the crisis provides and to challenge politicians who are impeding our progress. Ahead of this federal election, the crisis is a top concern for voters, and media must commensurately cover the issue. This is about deciding the next four years — and taking immediate action to mitigate and adapt to the crisis. 

As U of T students, we must recognize that we are the future. Soon, we will be graduates, workers, and leaders in our community, country, and the world. It is us who will inherit the planet, and it is up to us to create a sustainable planet for those that come after us. Let’s vote accordingly. 

And journalists, including student journalists, must be committed to responsibly telling the story of our lifetime. That is why we are dedicated to Covering Climate Now. 

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected]