Friday 7 May 2021
When it comes to the future, journalists tend to ignore the scope for exponential change. But in one area that’s set to define the 21st Century – climate science – that change may well happen
One way of looking at the world is to think that our lives over the next 30 years will be defined by how humans deal with three things: silicon, DNA and CO2. Tech, health and climate. Together, innovations and inventions in all three will redefine our lives. And, inevitably, politics and journalism too.
For much of my life, politics was largely economics by other means. And then, in this past noisy decade, politics has been overrun by culture, a polarised response to accelerating globalisation. But, in the decades to come, science is surely going to have its say: politics won’t just be local, it’ll be molecular.
I’m James Harding, Editor and Co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I wanted to take a moment to consider just one aspect of how this age of innovation presents a challenge to journalism. Not just the obvious, well-known lack of scientific skillsets in newsrooms. But a difference of mindset.
Generally, we’re sceptical. One thing that Nigel Topping, the High Level Champion for Climate Action, said at Tortoise’s Climate Summit last week has really been on my mind these past few days: it’s that journalists really struggle to see exponential change coming. He pointed to the take-up of electric vehicles, to the growth of ESG Investment – i.e. the hundreds of billions of investment now being driven by environmental, social and governance metrics. And, he pointed too to the moves to new energy sources, such as hydrogen. In other words, he was describing journalistic wariness of radical optimism.
This is not to give a free pass to the future. In fact, if there’s a lesson from the silicon revolution, it’s that we newsrooms didn’t appreciate how much we needed to understand the algorithms. We needed to learn the science. The read-across on ESG investment is we need to provide scientific scrutiny of those metrics.
But if you follow the Climate Action Tracker, for example, the journalistic instinct is to note that the world is still not doing nearly enough to tackle global warming. The Climate Action Tracker calculates that the impact of the latest Nationally Determined Contributions – AKA the commitments each country makes to hitting the Paris Agreement to limit warming to 1.5°C – is that the world is on track to see a 2.4C increase by the end of the century – and even their optimistic scenario still has a 2 degree increase, still well short of the promise that the world has made to itself.
But what if that journalistic reading misses the potential for exponential change? After all, the number of countries adopting or considering net zero targets is now 131; together, they cover 73 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. There’s clearly momentum. And if the climate activists’ cry is true that the most important measure of whether the world misses its net zero commitments by 2050 depends on promises made and kept between now and 2030, then surely it’s also conceivable that we could be witnessing the turnaround decade for climate in the 2020s. Our job – the job of journalists – is to work out which scenario is playing out. And, for that, journalism itself needs to become more scientific – a reading of the numbers, not the speeches. And, likewise, journalism needs to open up to the idea – at least the idea – that it’s possible.
This is, of course, not solid ground for a journalist. We are in our comfort zone when we’re sceptical and for some reason: politicians have reliably overpromised and underdelivered on so much before. But climate is not just politics. It’s as much, possibly more, in the hands of investors, engineers and consumers.
A few weeks ago, at the prompting of one of our members – the former chief executive of a big engineering company – we hosted a small conversation about the innovations that promise big changes afoot in business and society. And I found I’ve kept coming back to it; kept thinking about it. Because for the first time, I heard a theory, and it was this: that the climate crisis will prompt such a mammoth investment in renewable power supply that, in much the way that the investment in telecoms infrastructure enabled the marginal cost of data to fall to near zero, well, the marginal cost of energy will fall to near zero, too.
In other words, the response to climate change isn’t going to be energy constraint. It’s going to be energy abundance. Well that’s not the way a journalist would immediately think of it. It suggests an exponential change in the way we live. Silicon has surely shown how quickly that can happen. DNA – innovations in health and particularly genomics – might surely do the same. And so you have to ask: is it possible that our climate emergency doesn’t limit our use of energy, but make it almost limitless? Might it, in fact, energise the world? Well, that’s radically optimistic. And I suppose it’s possible.