Alan Rusbridger, Retiring Editor of The Guardian, on his decision to put Climate Change front and center.

One Editor of a large, distinguished newspaper signals his intent. Otherwise, he says, he would live with regret. Will Rusbergher’s example be emulated? Might his decision signal a shift in the wind of major media?

Oops! In low-lying Florida, no doubt one of the first coasts to be inundated by rising seas, officials have now banned the term “climate change.”

Climate change: why the Guardian is putting threat to Earth front and centre

As global warming argument moves on to politics and business, Alan Rusbridger explains the thinking behind our major series on the climate crisis

Journalism tends to be a rear-view mirror. We prefer to deal with what has happened, not what lies ahead. We favour what is exceptional and in full view over what is ordinary and hidden.

Famously, as a tribe, we are more interested in the man who bites a dog than the other way round. But even when a dog does plant its teeth in a man, there is at least something new to report, even if it is not very remarkable or important.

There may be other extraordinary and significant things happening – but they may be occurring too slowly or invisibly for the impatient tick-tock of the newsroom or to snatch the attention of a harassed reader on the way to work.

What is even more complex: there may be things that have yet to happen – stuff that cannot even be described as news on the grounds that news is stuff that has already happened. If it is not yet news – if it is in the realm of prediction, speculation and uncertainty – it is difficult for a news editor to cope with. Not her job.

For these, and other, reasons changes to the Earth’s climate rarely make it to the top of the news list. The changes may be happening too fast for human comfort, but they happen too slowly for the newsmakers – and, to be fair, for most readers.

These events that have yet to materialise may dwarf anything journalists have had to cover over the past troubled century. There may be untold catastrophes, famines, floods, droughts, wars, migrations and sufferings just around the corner. But that is futurology, not news, so it is not going to force itself on any front page any time soon.

Even when the overwhelming majority of scientists wave a big red flag in the air, they tend to be ignored. Is this new warning too similar to the last? Is it all too frightening to contemplate? Is a collective shrug of fatalism the only rational response?

The climate threat features very prominently on the home page of the Guardian on Friday even though nothing exceptional happened on this day. It will be there again next week and the week after. You will, I hope, be reading a lot about our climate over the coming weeks.

One reason for this is personal. This summer I am stepping down after 20 years of editing the Guardian. Over Christmas I tried to anticipate whether I would have any regrets once I no longer had the leadership of this extraordinary agent of reporting, argument, investigation, questioning and advocacy.

Very few regrets, I thought, except this one: that we had not done justice to this huge, overshadowing, overwhelming issue of how climate change will probably, within the lifetime of our children, cause untold havoc and stress to our species.

So, in the time left to me as editor, I thought I would try to harness the Guardian’s best resources to describe what is happening and what – if we do nothing – is almost certain to occur, a future that one distinguished scientist has termed as “incompatible with any reasonable characterisation of an organised, equitable and civilised global community”.

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