CLIMATE ROUNDUP: Bill Gates to back climate-focused media outlet dubbed 'Cipher'

Colin Sullivan

September 16, 2021

Bill Gates’ philanthropic energy arm Breakthrough Energy this week revealed plans to fund and launch a climate-only media outlet called “Cipher”.

The advocacy coalition created by Gates to promote clean energy and climate action has pledged to give the new outfit complete editorial independence, though it will apparently operate as a “not-for-profit” media source.

The announcement, revealed by Axios, continues a trend in the climate media space that has increasingly veered toward a non-profit model. Recent years have seen upstart news collaboratives and advocacy journalism flood the space, to include Canary Media, The Uproot, Floodlight News and Currently, adding to publications run by Grist, Inside Climate News and Climate Central.

Axios broke the news because a former employee, Amy Harder, has been hired by Gates to direct Cipher’s coverage from Seattle. Harder previously was an energy and climate reporter in Washington, D.C., with the Wall Street Journal and Axios.

Harder told Axios she plans to host a regular video series and intends to hire a full staff to launch a website next year. Breakthrough will fund the effort entirely and offer the outlet’s content for free with no ads.

Breakthrough’s stated mission is to take society from the 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases emitted per year today to zero by 2050. Harder said she intends to aid that mission with “objective journalism” about the climate criss.

Coincidentally or not, we’d point out that this newsletter is also funded by a philanthropic group, this one run by Tom and Theresa Preston-Werner. Like Gates, they made their wealth in the tech industry, so maybe great minds think alike after all.

One wonders, is funding climate journalism the new climate cool? How will that model affect balanced reporting? Does “objectivity” exist in the first place, in a media zone that’s often snared within a “he said, she said” dynamic that has historically given climate deniers and fossil-fuel producers more space than they deserve?

And does anyone care about these things besides climate reporters, many of whom have tacked between traditional business, politics and science “sections” for years? Is it or isn’t it our responsibility to speak truth to power when it comes to writing about this phenomenon, and shouldn’t for-profit news outlets stop accepting ad revenue from energy companies in the meantime?

If you ask Emily Atkin, the creator of the Substack newsletter Heated, the answers are clear: We need more climate desks in newsrooms, and we need to end fossil-fuel advertising alongside our reporting.

“These advertisements … routinely run on the paper’s website alongside its journalism,” wrote Atkin, in a recent Heated post about the New York Times. “They attempt to sell readers not on a product, but an idea: that fossil fuel companies are helping save the planet.”

“This idea is false, as repeatedly demonstrated by the Times’ own reporting," she said. “Fossil fuel ads are political propaganda, attempts by the industry to placate public outrage about climate change.”

We couldn’t agree more, for the record. Go, Atkin, go!

Over 200 million to be displaced by emerging hotspots

Meanwhile, CBS News reported that the climate crisis could uproot more than 200 million people from their homes in the next three decades.

Citing a World Bank report, CBS warned that the current emissions outlook and global development trends point to as many as 216 million people having to move in the next 30 years from Latin America; North Africa; Sub-Saharan Africa; Eastern Europe and Central Asia; South Asia; and East Asia and the Pacific.

The World Bank report examined water scarcity, decreasing crop productivity and rising sea levels. The analysis described several scenarios, the rosiest of which would still lead to as many as 44 million climate migrants on the move by 2050.

The findings "reaffirm the potency of climate to induce migration within countries," said Viviane Wei Chen Clement, a senior climate specialist at the World Bank and one of the report's authors, according to the CBS report.

Sub-Saharan Africa appears to be the most vulnerable region, due to desertification, fragile coastlines and the population's dependence on agriculture. As many as 86 million climate refugees are possible from Sub-Saharan Africa alone, the World Bank said.

The stark refugee predictions come as James Hansen, a well-known climate scientist, warned in a separate report that he expects the rate of global warming to double over the next two decades.

In a monthly temperature analysis published by Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Hansen explained that warming is likely to accelerate over the next twenty years because plunging sulfate aerosol emissions from industrial sources, particularly shipping, could cause global temperatures to spike.

Hansen added that carbon dioxide and methane are the main drivers of climate change, and mitigation of them remains essential, but he would also like to see “appropriate countermeasures” to address how the decline in industrial pollutants will affect the planet’s atmosphere.

Declining sulfate aerosols means some clouds become less reflective, allowing more solar radiation to reach and warm land and ocean surfaces. One of the techniques that could counter the effects is to seed clouds with aerosols to improve reflectivity.

The Hansen story was first reported by Inside Climate News.

All eyes on Congress

More optimistically, Congress is about to get down and dirty on what could be the most far-reaching package of climate measures ever passed if the body approves a $3.5 billion budget reconciliation bill offered by President Joe Biden.

The package “would bring extraordinary changes to the country's energy sector,” according to an NPR report this week. Chief among the proposals are a $150 billion Clean Electricity Performance Program, or CEPP, that would pay utilities to switch from greenhouse gas-emitting electricity sources, such as coal and natural gas, to non-emitting sources such as wind, solar, hydropower and nuclear.

The problem is going to be whether Democrats can stick together as Biden can’t afford to lose even a single vote in the Senate. The reason Democrats have decided to use the budget process is because that strategy eludes the Senate filibuster, meaning Dems need a simple majority to pass the bill, not 60 votes.

That means Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, will likely be the crucial vote. He has said he fears the package is too expensive as well as likely to hurt his state’s coal industry. Exactly how to pay for the legislation is also in the crosshairs, as Democrats try to fund it without raising taxes on the middle class.

One idea that’s emerged is a plan to target vaping and tobacco use with new taxes on an array of products. The Washington Post this week reported that Democrats are eyeing changes to tobacco levies that could raise $100 billion over the next decade.

Public health experts and activists have heralded those efforts, according to the Post, arguing that higher taxes on tobacco could help crack down on the United States’ roughly 34 million smokers. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids this week estimated the increases could reduce the total number of smokers by 1.1 million in the first year after the law is adopted, while deterring over half-a-million kids from becoming addicted.

Boston’s next mayor will be a woman

Farther north, news reports were focused on “a new era in Boston politics” given the city’s selection of two women to run in this year’s general election campaign for mayor.

The Boston Globe noted that victories by City Councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George mean “a city known for being parochial and slow to change will mark two firsts this November — electing a mayor who is both a woman and a person of color — after nearly 200 years of elevating exclusively white men to the office.”

Wu, seen as a rising star in progressive circles, won the most votes in a crowded field and will face the second-place finisher, Annissa Essaibi George. The Times reported that two leading Black candidates — Acting Mayor Kim Janey and City Councilor Andrea Campbell — essentially split the Black vote, and therefore did not qualify for the general election.

Former mayor Martin J. Walsh left the job in January when President Biden nominated him as as labor secretary.

The Times added this: “The Nov. 2 matchup is expected to test the consensus that emerged among many national Democrats after New York’s mayoral primaries: that moderate Black voters and older voters will tug the Democratic Party back toward its center, particularly around the issue of public safety.”

Should make for an interesting fall. Stay tuned.