John Vidal

The Guardian

Long before climate justice became a campaign slogan, John Vidal pursued this ideal in his reporting because it was the right thing to do. As Guardian environment editor for 28 years, he attended every UN climate conference to make sure he could amplify the voices of small, poorer countries. The apogee of this was the 2008 Copenhagen Cop when Vidal scooped hundreds of other journalists to reveal a secret plan by powerful countries to stitch up the negotiating process. His report almost collapsed the conference and forced a rethink of what would have been a deeply disadvantageous deal for global south countries.

This was typical of his focus on the underdog, includeing people vulnerable to the climate crisis, smallholders fighting multinational farming conglomerates, environmental activists up against state security, and nature itself, which John showed was all too neglected. Ebullient and energetic, his reporting took him from the Arctic to the Amazon, from war-torn Sudan to cyclone-hit Bangladesh, and from Himalayan Mountains to the forests of Congo. His journalism was also compassionate: after reporting on a devastating flood in Malawi in 2002, he set up the Gumbi Education Charity, which has since put hundreds of children through school and introduced solar power to the village.

That the Guardian has become such a powerful voice in the global climate and nature debates is largely thanks to John. His unorthodox style and aim to stir up “good trouble” set the tone for decades to follow. He went undercover as a security guard at the Newbury Bypass protests, was imprisoned in the Faroe Islands while reporting on whaling, and jokingly revealed that Michael Heseltine sports lavender pyjamas while covering a dawn-dig in the former minister’s backyard by mining activists. He won multiple awards and his constant flow of stories kept readers abreast of the battle for the planet and its people against the profits of fossil-fuel companies and government backsliding.

Despite retiring in 2017, John continued to file trenchant copy for the Guardian until a few months before his death from prostate cancer in October 2023. The three pieces selected here highlight the clarity of his voice, depth of his knowledge and prescience. “There’s no such thing as ‘freak’ weather any more – and 2023 already looks like a disaster movie” predicted the climate catastrophes that have struck the world this year. “It should not be controversial to say a population of 8 billion will have a grave impact on the climate” showed his intellectual courage in broaching a subject that is often taboo on the left. “Another deadly pandemic seems inevitable – but there is a way to avoid it” reveals John’s pioneering spirit and perspicacity in digging into the link between zoonotic diseases and the destruction of nature, a subject he had broached from the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic. Typically, this story - the last he wrote for the Guardian - ended with a list of possible solutions. Another reason John was so well-loved was that he never lost hope.