50th Anniversary Flashback: Reporting the World’s Biggest Environmental Stories
In September 2015, I spent more than an hour in an empty classroom in Alaska talking with President Barack Obama. We sat in blue plastic chairs, paper ice crystals made by elementary-school kids hanging from the ceiling above us, discussing melting glaciers, national security and the lobbying power of the fossil-fuel industry. It was, as far as I know, the only time a sitting president has talked about climate change in such depth with a journalist. And it didn’t happen because the president wanted backstage passes to a Kendrick Lamar show. As one of the president’s advisers told me earlier that day, “We have seen the impact of your work in Rolling Stone, and it’s been significant.”
Five decades ago, Rolling Stone and environmentalism were forged in the same crucible. Rivers were burning, the suburbs were sprawling, the Vietnam War was raging, hippies were tripping (“LSD made it possible to have a decent conversation with a tree,” a pair of historians quipped) and the electric guitar was emerging as a revolutionary force. The word “environmentalist” first appeared in the magazine in December 1969, in a story about Internet pioneer Stewart Brand, whose Whole Earth Catalog was written for people Brand described as “outlaws, dope fiends, and . . . hope freaks.” In other words, environmentalists. “Caring about the planet is part of the zeitgeist of our generation, part of where we came from,” says Rolling Stone founder and editor Jann Wenner. “We understood from the beginning that social justice is deeply linked with environmental justice.”
Rolling Stone‘s coverage acknowledged that building a better world would require waging war against corporate polluters and corrupt politicians. In the 1970s, one of the first big flashpoints was nukes. We covered protesters at the site of a proposed nuclear plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire, where demonstrators carried signs with slogans like split wood, not atoms, as well as a blockade of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant near Los Angeles that resulted in the arrest of 1,850 people. In 1977, Howard Kohn wrote “The Case of Karen Silkwood,” a 12,000-word investigation into the mysterious death of a plutonium worker killed in a car crash on her way to talk to a reporter and a union representative about safety lapses at her facility. Kohn’s story suggested Silkwood, who believed she was being deliberately poisoned by plutonium contamination, may have been murdered. The allegation has never been proved, but Kohn’s story helped make Silkwood’s death emblematic of the corruption and ruthlessness of the nuclear-
In 1989, one of America’s worst environmental catastrophes occurred when the Exxon Valdez plowed into a reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, ripping open the hull of the ship and dumping 11 million gallons of crude oil into the pristine waters. Tom Horton, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, arrived a few weeks later to cover the spill for Rolling Stone. “It was my first story for the magazine,” Horton recalls. “My editor just said, ‘Go to Alaska and write what you think should be written’ – so I did.” Horton spent a month flying through the fog in bush planes to visit native Alaskan communities and riding in oil tankers through Prince William Sound. Horton’s epic 27,000-word story, “Paradise Lost,” captured the full tragedy of the Exxon Valdez, from the still-inexplicable mistakes of the ship’s captain to the sorrow of the Alaskan villagers whose lives were upended by the spill.
The most consequential environmental story of our time, of course, is climate change. Rolling Stone was on it early. In 1983, five years before NASA scientist James Hansen’s famous congressional testimony that laid out the risks of rising CO2 pollution, Tim Cahill wrote a startlingly prescient story about the dangers of melting ice and sea-level rise on a rapidly heating planet. By 1988, William Greider was already shaming Congress for failing to take action to slow the warming. As Greider wrote, “Nothing illustrates the breakdown of American democracy more starkly than the refusal of the political system to respond . . . to an aroused public’s concerns about the environment.” In 2003, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. slammed the abuses and hypocrisy of George W. Bush’s environmental record in “Crimes Against Nature,” which may be one of the most nuanced and passionate takedowns of energy and environmental policy we’ve ever published.
Mother Nature delivered her own warning about climate change in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina spun into New Orleans. Al Gore’s post-storm story in Rolling Stone previewed many ideas he later expressed in his Academy Award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. “It is now clear that we face a deepening global climate crisis that requires us to act boldly, quickly and wisely,” he wrote. “ ’Global warming’ is the name it was given a long time ago. But it should be understood for what it is: a planetary emergency that now threatens human civilization on multiple fronts.” Gore, who is a longtime contributor to the magazine, notes the challenge of gaining coverage for the issue “in an era when Big Carbon polluters’ advertising dollars are important revenue streams for corporate media conglomerates.” He adds, “By its very nature, the climate crisis touches nearly every part of our lives, so it is fitting that an outlet known for melding pop culture, politics and news should delve into the wide-ranging implications of climate change. It’s critical to have independent voices like Rolling Stone to call climate deniers to task and disseminate the facts about the climate crisis.”
The 2008 election of Obama, who on the campaign trail repeatedly brought up climate change, looked like a major victory for the environmental movement. But during his first term, Obama kept his distance while a landmark bill that would have put restrictions on carbon pollution died a slow death in Congress. Our January 21st, 2010, cover summed it up in two words: you idiots! In the accompanying article, I wrote, “Climate activists like to talk about mobilizing all of America’s resources, as we did during World War II, to fight global warming. But as the failure to pass the climate bill reveals, it may be easier to defeat . . . Hitler than to overcome internal threats to our future as powerful as Big Coal and Big Oil.”
Just how difficult the war had become was underscored in Bill McKibben’s 2012 story “The Reckoning.” “When we think about global warming at all, the arguments tend to be ideological, theological and economic,” McKibben wrote. “But to grasp the seriousness of our predicament, you just need to do a little math.” McKibben reported that we can burn only 565 gigatons of carbon if we want to keep the Earth’s temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius, the internationally recognized limit for dangerous climate change; however, the world’s proven reserves of fossil fuels contain about 2,795 gigatons of carbon – if we burn it all, we’ll literally cook the planet. “That story was the foundation on which the divestment movement was built, a movement that’s now gone past $5.5 trillion in endowments and portfolios divested in part or in whole,” Mc-Kibben says.
The story of life on our superheated planet grew more urgent each year. In 2009, and again in 2016, I interviewed Hansen, the godfather of climate science, who laid out a grim future – including a sea-level rise of more than 10 feet by 2100 – if we did not dramatically reduce carbon pollution. I traveled to Greenland to write about melting ice sheets; to Australia to chronicle drought, flooding and dying coral reefs; to Beijing to cover a secret deal to bring China to the table in international climate negotiations; and to Miami to witness the slow drowning of a great American city. And I was in Paris in December 2015, when virtually every nation voted to adopt an agreement to reduce carbon pollution. “There are plenty of devils in the details,” I wrote, “but the larger message was unambiguous: After decades of arguing, fighting and betrayal, the people of the world stood together and said goodbye to fossil fuels.”
President Trump, of course, proved me (and everyone in Paris) wrong. We’re back in medieval times now, with a leader of the free world who openly disparages science and thinks the best way to create energy is by burning black rocks. At Rolling Stone, we have amped up the fight. In recent months, Tim Dickinson exposed the campaign to kill rooftop solar power in Florida; Mc-Kibben offered new strategies for resistance in the age of Trump; and I investigated EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, the fossil-fuel-industry stooge who masterminded Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris deal. “The environment really is a moral story,” Greider argues. “At first, only a few hippies and crackpots under- stood that. And it turned out some of the hippies and crackpots knew what they were talking about.” Still, despite all the progress over the past 50 years, the dream of a better world remains elusive. “The fight is not nearly over,” says Wenner. “Right now, the stakes are higher than ever.”
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