A New Beginning for Climate Reporting
By Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope
It's been 30 years since Bill McKibben rang the warning bells about the threat of man-made climate change — first in a piece in The New Yorker, and then in his book, The End of Nature.
For most of that time, the response from most quarters of the media, especially in the U.S., has been either silence or, worse, getting the story wrong. Reporters and their news organizations sidelined climate stories as too technical or too political or too depressing. Spun by the fossil fuel industry and vexed by their own business problems, media outlets often leaned on a false balance between the views of genuine scientists and those of paid corporate mouthpieces. The media's minimization of the looming disaster is one of our great journalistic failures.
It is heartening, then, to report that the press may at last be waking up to the defining story of our time. At the end of April, Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation launched Covering Climate Now, a project aimed at encouraging news organizations, here and abroad, to raise their game when it comes to climate coverage. We weren't going to tell people what to write or broadcast; we just wanted them to do more coverage, and to do it better. Close the gap, we urged them, between the size of the story and the ambition of your efforts. Try it for a week, then report back on what you learned.
We had a hunch that there was a critical mass of reporters and news outlets that wanted to do more climate coverage, and hoped that by highlighting that critical mass, we could also help to grow it. That's exactly what has happened. Our initiative has been embraced by more than 250 news outlets from across the U.S. and around the world — big outlets and small, print and digital, TV and radio — with a combined audience of well over 1 billion people. Their response has been amazing, and gratifying.
We believe that Covering Climate Now is the biggest effort ever undertaken to organize the world's press around a single topic. (You'll find a list of partners here, and you can follow all of us on Twitter at #CoveringClimateNow.)
Our week of focused climate coverage began Sunday and will continue through next Monday, Sept. 23, the day of the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York. And there's more to come after this week is over; the climate story is not going away, so neither are we. We'll be talking to our newsroom partners about what they learned this week, what they need to continue the momentum, what they can learn from one another, and where we go from here.
We are thrilled that Covering Climate Now has flourished. Yet what has also become clear in the five months since we began this effort is the enormous amount of work that remains to be done in order for the media to get this story right. In talking with dozens of reporters, producers and editors, we've learned a lot about the ambitions that newsrooms have for improving their climate coverage, but we've also seen where roadblocks remain.
As the scientists have been telling us with increasing urgency, humanity's window to transform our world is shrinking fast. Transforming the news media is fundamental to achieving that goal.
What misconceptions remain? What's keeping newsrooms from doing more? Here are some roadblocks that stood out in our conversations.
We don't know where to start.
One of our most sobering conversations came during a meeting inside one of the world's biggest news organizations, with a group of people asked by their boss to improve their climate coverage. These people were eager to embrace our project and had the resources to do it. But they had no idea how to begin:
Where do we come up with story ideas? Who should our sources be? Can you help us think this through? Their response stunned us, given the size of the newsroom around us, but it reminded us early on in this process that in many cases, we're starting from scratch. We've written before, critically, about why this should not be the case, about how the media's avoidance of the climate story has been an epic fail. Going forward, our focus will be on helping this newsroom, and others like it, get better.
Our viewers will think we're activists.
Many journalists and news executives continue to see climate coverage as political and worry that more coverage will be seen as activism.
We heard it from numerous newsrooms, and not just in those places where climate-denying politicians still hold sway. We think this concern distorts what newsgathering is about. Journalism has always been about righting wrongs, holding the powerful to account, calling out lies. It is in our best traditions to shine a light on our most vexing problems, in order to help fix them.
It's too late; the problem is too big for us to make any difference.
Good journalism often makes things happen, though not always on the timeline we'd like — if at all. The public doesn't respond; readers feel powerless; entrenched players outmaneuver reporters. That is part of how it works, too. But few reporters would still do the work if they believed it made no difference. It's our journalistic responsibility to convey what is happening and why, as well as who is trying to fix it, and how. That's our job as storytellers.
Readers will find this depressing and tune out.
News organizations that have embraced climate coverage find that audiences — particularly younger viewers, listeners, and readers — are, in fact, enormously engaged in the coverage. They may get angry or energized or organized by climate stories, but they don't tune them out. It is a strange time when journalism's leaders argue against covering a subject that's undeniably important simply because they're worried their audience may find it challenging. Is this really where you want your newsroom to be?
We're already pulling our weight.
There are a number of media outlets — not enough, but a number — that already are producing excellent climate coverage. (Our lead media partner, The Guardian, is at the top of that list.) But others declined to join this effort because they didn't see how it would help them; they already know the climate story, and believe they are covering it aggressively. We found those responses disappointing.
This is a chance for big media organizations to lead, and to help others along. The climate story stretches across all journalistic beats; it demands that we dismantle the usual silos. Covering it well may require a bit of cooperation and collaboration that is antithetical to how we usually work. Take this on as a problem that is bigger than your own newsroom.
All of these challenges are surmountable. Throughout this week, you'll hear from hundreds of newsrooms that have overcome them. Two hundred and fifty media organizations, more than 1 billion people. Those are big numbers. And they are just the beginning.
Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation's environment correspondent, has covered climate change since 1989.
Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.
This story originally appeared in The Nation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
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By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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By Stuart Braun
"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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