Covering the Climate Crisis? Here’s What to Know

By: Devin Windelspecht | 01/24/2022

From international migration and geopolitics to natural disasters and more, today’s climate crisis will undoubtedly impact the work of journalists around the world covering all varieties of beats. For many, it has already.

The International Center for Journalists this week kicked off the Pamela Howard Forum on Global Crisis Reporting with a discussion focused on helping reporters better understand the growing impacts of climate change. In the inaugural panel, ICFJ President Sharon Moshavi sat down with a distinguished group of journalists from The Washington Post, Bloomberg, NPR and Atmos to discuss their reporting on the climate crisis, and what fellow journalists need to know to cover one of the most urgent issues of our time. 

Here are some of the highlights:

Conveying urgency vs. engaging audiences

The climate crisis is a pressing issue: meeting global emission targets set for 2030 and 2050 will mean the difference between the world’s temperature rising by only 1.5°C, or suffering the more catastrophic results of warming 2°C or more. Finding the balance between conveying this urgency and ensuring that audiences aren’t driven away is a challenge for any journalist covering the issue.

For Lauren Sommer, a correspondent at NPR’s Science Desk, connecting the effects of climate change to real life stories can help break through to readers. “There is no shortage of people making really hard decisions that climate change is making worse,” she said. “Who is the person we are connecting to in this story to understand its stakes? What is the personal story that is going to draw people in?”

Yessenia Funes, the climate director at Atmos, agreed. “Reminding readers of how people today are experiencing those impacts and whose lives are devastated by it is a really important part of the story — stepping away from just numbers and facts and really trying to tug at people’s heartstrings,” she said. Centering stories on the human toll in addition to the economic costs enables journalists to bring the urgency of the climate emergency home, while also portraying a crisis that might seem abstract or far away as immediate and demanding action.
 

The role of journalism in fighting climate change 

When covering the climate crisis, journalists can have a real impact beyond just informing readers. One role they can play, explained Bloomberg Green editor and climate reporter Eric Roston, is to pay attention to what is influencing actions taken to combat climate change — especially at a government or intergovernmental level. 

“As climate change has emerged in every country, keeping an eye on who is making decisions, who is spending money and how that money is being used to influence decisions — we can’t forget that basic oversight,” he said. 

Climate reporting can also lead to real, meaningful changes on a local level, said Sommers. “As much as we have data and information on what is happening with climate change, it’s still challenging for communities to integrate that information into the decisions they’re making every day,” she said. “A lot of local communities are trying to do this at their own pace with the money they have or don’t have. Part of our job is figuring out who is doing this well, how are they protecting people and at what cost, and who is being left behind.”

Finally, journalism can communicate the impact of climate change action or inaction, and allow people to better understand how certain policies affect the economy or business. “The amount of money that is going to be required to make a transition to a different kind of economy is mind-blowing,” said Steven Mufson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter covering the business of climate change. “If the president’s goal is to cut emissions by 52%, what does this mean in dollars?” 
 

Bringing global issues back home

Reporting relatable, tangible developments around climate change can help the issues better resonate with readers. “Bringing the story to people and to things that they can recognize and imagine is important,” Mufson said. “You want to be able to show things that might not have been associated with climate change, but are — and you’re going to show how.”

In Mufson’s reporting, stories that showed how U.S. states like Rhode Island and New Jersey were among the fastest warming in the country — or even how Qatar has begun installing outside air conditioning in preparation for the 2022 World Cup — have driven readers to rethink the climate crisis as an issue that could impact their own lives. 

Funes similarly strives to make her coverage relatable to her readers. “When I do international reporting, I try to bring it home and make sure to make connections to people in the United States,” she said. Stories such as how climate change affects indigenous communities in Nicaragua can connect to coverage of migration from Central America to the U.S., for instance. “Immigration in particular is such a big theme in climate reporting that [it] will become an even bigger story than it has been,” she said.

Climate action also has strong connections to democracy both locally and around the world, Funes continued. “It’s clear that democracy is a foundation to achieving action on climate policy,” she said. “There [are] some concerning patterns globally on dictatorships and white supremacists seizing power, and there’s a lot on how that impacts climate decisions.” As global democracy continues to be a major story, connecting climate policy to local and national elections can be a way to center the crisis on the choices voters make every time they go to the ballot box.

While the climate emergency may seem like a topic that requires training and expertise to understand, reporters of all beats have the ability to report on the crisis and communicate its impact to readers. “All the disinformation that has been going on for 20 or 30 years has succeeded in telling people that this is a complex topic,” Roston said. For him, journalists need to demystify and push back on the idea that it is a complicated issue. “There’s one number that matters – how much we emit every year – and if that goes down, the thermostat goes down.” 

A version of this article was first published on IJNet.org.

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