Bill Moyers on Covering Climate Now
photo by Dale Robbins
by Julie Marshall
Bill Moyers, an American icon of broadcast journalism, continues to inspire generations through his political commentary, documentaries and award-winning books, including the landmark 1988 PBS series Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth. Beginning his career at 16 as a cub reporter in Marshall, Texas, he went on to earn more than 30 television Emmys, as well as prestigious career awards in film and television.
Moyers announced his retirement in 2017 at the age of 83. However, this past spring, the journalist spoke at a Columbia Journalism Review conference, calling upon the nation’s reporters and news outlets to join the Covering Climate Now project in order to push a cohesive message of science and truth—that it’s not too late for our planet and all of its inhabitants, but first we all need to grasp what’s at stake.
When did you first hear of global warming?
Early in 1965. I was a special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson, and famous oceanographer Roger Revelle was a member of the White House science advisory committee. The scientific community had largely believed that we didn’t have to worry about carbon dioxide because the oceans would quickly absorb any excess. Revelle blew that consensus apart with his discovery that it was instead rising into the atmosphere—which meant slowly, then more swiftly turning up the temperature of the planet, as if the Earth was now a vast furnace; warming oceans, melting Antarctica, rising seas.
What was your response?
A twinge of disbelief, a little shock. But this was no wild alarmist sitting at that table. Well, LBJ took science seriously. As president, he gave the green light for the first official report on the potential threat to humanity from rising CO2 levels. Go online to “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment—1965,” and read Appendix Y4—Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide. He told us to distribute the report widely. One year later, his energy and attention and our resources were diverted to the war in Vietnam.
What prompted your sense of urgency now in taking the media specifically to task for its general lack of coverage of the climate crisis?
Reality. The hottest temperatures on record, fueled by greenhouse gas emissions. Hurricanes of extraordinary force and frequency. Floods, tornados, wildfires. Mass migration as a result of crop failures. A president who calls climate disruption a hoax. A cabinet and Congress protecting the profits of the fossil fuel industry. David Attenborough told the UN Climate Summit, in Poland, that we’re talking about “the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world.” But our corporate media was more obsessed with the new “royal” baby born in Britain.
What is the nature of the Covering Climate Now project?
Covering Climate Now is a big cooperative effort to tell the true story of what is happening and what we can do to change it—the story of fighting back against extinction, of coming to our senses. Our aim is to help beleaguered journalists and news organizations to abandon old habits, adopt best practices and overcome the usual obstacles—such as how to convince their own management to invest in better climate coverage and how to pay for it.
How crucial will the role of media be in influencing meaningful action on the most critical issue of our time?
Who else will sound the trumpet and be heard? We can take our readers, viewers and listeners to the ends of Earth, where oil palm growers and commodities companies are stripping away forests vital to carbon storage—and connect the dots. We can take them to the American Midwest, where this past spring’s crops brought despair and bankruptcy as farmers and their families were overwhelmed by floods—and connect the dots. And we can take them to Washington, D.C., and a government that scorns reality as fake news, denies the truths of nature and embraces a theocratic theology that welcomes catastrophe as a sign of the returning Messiah—and connect the dots.
What accounts for your own sense of urgency?
Photographs of my five grandchildren above my desk. Facts taped to the wall, like this one: The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—an essentially conservative body—gives us 12 years to make the massive changes to drastically reduce global greenhouse gas emissions
45 percent below 2010 levels. And something Roger Revelle said many years ago that is lodged in my head: “Earth’s our home. Let’s not burn it up.”
Julie Marshall is a Colorado-based journalist and author. Connect at [email protected].