Q&A: Ajit Niranjan Talks Climate Solutions and One ‘Incredibly Overlooked’ Tool for Journalists

We spoke with Ajit Niranjan, a British freelance climate correspondent, about improving journalism’s approach to climate solutions, simplifying how we communicate about climate change, and the untapped potential of YouTube.

Ajit Niranjan. Photo courtesy of subject.

Each month, Covering Climate Now speaks with different journalists about their experiences on the climate beat and their ideas for pushing our craft forward. This week, we spoke with Ajit Niranjan, a British freelance climate correspondent and frequent contributor to Germany’s Deutsche Welle. We talked about improving journalism’s approach to climate solutions, simplifying how we communicate about climate change, and the untapped potential of YouTube to reach scores of viewers with climate journalism. The conversation, between Niranjan and CCNow deputy director Andrew McCormick, has been edited for length and clarity. Follow Niranjan on Twitter.

How did you become interested in climate journalism? Was there a specific moment when you came to feel passionate about climate change?

I actually wasn’t always someone who clicked on climate stories. I was interested in politics and business, and until I became a climate journalist, I sort of had this mentality of, “Oh, well, I’m vegetarian, so I’m already doing my bit.”

I graduated from university in 2017, and afterwards, I took up a traineeship at Deutsche Welle, which is Germany’s international public broadcaster. In addition to writing, they taught me how to do TV and radio. When I finished as a trainee, I was thrown onto DW’s environment team. DW needed native English speakers to discuss climate on TV, and that led to me putting a lot of pressure on myself to really understand climate change; obviously, if I was going to be in front of a live camera I didn’t want to say anything stupid.

So, this was 2019. We’d had the big UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report in 2018 that warned how urgent the problem had become and how little time we had to limit heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. We’d had the school strike movement, and Greta Thunberg had become famous. And it was just before Covid-19 would hit. Within that world, the IPCC released another report that I’d say is the best example of a personal turning point for me, about how warming oceans and icy places were speeding up climate change. One fact that struck me was that, by the end of the century, the kind of extreme coastal floods that we’d previously see once every century would be hitting some coastal cities and small island countries every year.

The scale of the damage that will entail is terrifying beyond anything I can put into words about climate change. And, shockingly, the report didn’t get a lot of media attention. Maybe the end of the century is hard for people to wrap their heads around, but for me, that hundredfold increase blew everything else I knew about climate change out of the water.

You recently launched a personal YouTube channel, @ClimateSimple, pledging regular climate updates and explainers, focusing especially on solutions. Looking across the media, how do you feel journalists have done parsing the many proposed solutions out there and conveying them accurately to audiences?

Two things are going on, I think. If you look at the average climate reporter’s story about a given solution—carbon capture and storage, say, or a startup making low-emissions cement—they’re usually pretty good. There’s appropriate skepticism; there’s a variety of voices rather than just industry sources, and most importantly the solution is put up against the science. Some stories are overly optimistic and some are overly pessimistic, but still the stories fall within a spectrum that I don’t find too troubling and that I think is ultimately helpful.

What I do find troubling is that most of what the public consumes about climate solutions probably isn’t coming from those stories by climate reporters. It’s coming from stories by the tech reporter who’s just heard about this new thing and has written it up—or the breaking news reporter who’s repackaged a press release by some company promising to “go green.” This speaks to the need for entire newsrooms—not just climate reporters, but politics teams, business teams, and editorial staff and managers higher up the food chain—to boost their game on climate. We’re reaching a moment in the industry when more journalists seem to recognize the importance of climate change and are making an effort to learn about it, but that needs to speed up and be supported in every possible way.

In your introductory YouTube video, you characterize some climate solutions as “distractions.” As journalists, are we falling for some of those?

We often are, unfortunately. A good example is a story that caught on several months back that said, basically, if you feed cows seaweed they’ll burp less. [The burps and manure of both meat and dairy cows are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.] The study was debunked fairly quickly—it turned out seaweed might help reduce livestock emissions but only in very specific circumstances and not so much that it would negate the need for humans to cut down our burger consumption—but nevertheless it was widely and excitedly covered by the press.

Another problem is that we tend to cover solutions out of context. We cover the technology, that is, but not how well the technology is being used or how widely it’s being implemented. In Germany, for instance, the car lobby is extremely powerful, and a lot of politicians are ideologically aligned with the car lobby. So, we’ll see journalists cover electric cars but ignore the fact that there’s a big political push against them. Or, we’ll credulously quote a politician who opposes electric cars saying about climate change that we need “all solutions on the table.”

I think part of the problem we have in journalism is that there’s a big push for climate solutions coverage coming from newsroom leaders who maybe just want more “good news” stories and don’t necessarily understand how to do solutions coverage well. At a critical juncture in the climate story, this presents a massive trap that we risk falling into in the coming couple of years. We do need more solutions coverage but we also need safeguards to ensure the quality of our solutions reporting.

What does better solutions coverage look like to you?

The key thing with solutions—and you’ll hear solutions journalism advocates and experts talk about this, too—is to be critical about them. Here’s what’s good about the solution; here’s what might be bad about it; and here’s how we could make it better. That’s a very easy framework to adopt for covering solutions.

And it’s one that audiences feel they can trust, in my experience. A couple years ago, I helped launch DW’s YouTube channel ‘Planet A,’ where we put out explainer-style videos breaking down climate problems and solutions. Typically, we’ll do a 30-second hook, then give a minute or two of background and theory to explain a problem at hand, and then for several minutes we dig into potential solutions. We tell people: Here’s what we could do to solve this; here are the time, cost, or scale challenges that we’d run into; and here’s what we might do to overcome those hurdles. The channel’s coming up on 400,000 subscribers and 50 million views, which makes us one of the most-watched climate channels on YouTube and tells me there’s a real appetite for this type of content.

On a similar note, we should allow for nuance in our stories. Take carbon capture and storage, for example. The IPCC is very clear that we need to develop and scale up this technology to help clean up industries like cement. We also know full well that fossil fuel companies are using the potential of the technology as an excuse to extract more from the ground. There should be room for this tension to exist in our stories, right? A technology can be very promising, and there can be a need to make it cheaper and more effective, and at the same time, there can be a risk of bad actors exploiting the technology.

Finally, we should be quoting more scientists. With a lot of solutions coverage, I think all the audience comes away understanding is that one party, maybe a politician, is arguing for a certain solution, while another party, maybe an activist, is arguing against it. Why do we spend so much time in our stories on this back-and-forth, when we could just call up a scientist? Now, say the politics reporter writing up the story doesn’t have a scientific source quick-at-hand. That’s where I’d love to see a shift in newsroom culture towards that reporter dropping a message to their colleagues on the climate desk saying, “Hey, this politician just said this. What’s the fact that supports or disproves them? Who else can I talk to?” Not every journalist needs to be a climate expert. We can help each other. So it’s increasingly difficult for me to understand, as some of these gigantic newspapers and other outlets devote more and more resources to climate change, how their climate and energy reporting can be so good and yet seemingly out of sync with much of their politics and business coverage.

How else can newsrooms benefit from cross-pollination between climate reporters and reporters on other beats?

The positive take on this is that there’s huge room for politics and business reporters to get punchier on climate, to put tougher climate questions to leaders and ultimately to get answers and scoops that we aren’t getting yet. Audiences love it when they see journalists fact-check leaders in real time—when leaders say something ridiculous and a journalist says, “That’s just not true.” I have every confidence that audiences would lap it up if this happened more often with climate change.

And all it would take is those politics and business reporters sitting down once in a while for coffee with their climate and energy colleagues. Or, we could see politics and business journalists teaming up for big interviews. Instead, we’re stuck with this weird status quo where climate reporters with deep knowledge on their subject aren’t prioritized by newsrooms for access to high-profile, big-name leaders. In October, Bloomberg Green’s Akshat Rathi interviewed Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, and it was maybe the first time I’ve ever seen a top politician grilled on climate by someone who truly knows what they’re talking about. I hope that wasn’t a one-off! Because it’s the leaders of rich, polluting countries who have promised to try to limit heating to 1.5 degrees C, and it’s their policies collectively that currently have us on track for double that. It’s such a clear hypocrisy that journalists can expose. So, the question is, when media outlets line up interviews with a head of state or minister, sure they’ll put the editor-in-chief or the politics editor on it, but do they also bring along a climate editor or reporter?

You also say in your YouTube introduction that you want “to make climate simple.” Can you explain why that’s an important goal for you?

On the whole, I think we climate journalists do a great job covering a complex subject, but we’re still a bit too jargony. It’s not like we’re better or worse than journalists on other beats. But I think making an effort to further simplify could expand the appeal of our work—and help us reach people who may be climate curious but who aren’t yet engaged or who’ve felt, for whatever reason, excluded from the conversation.

We say things like “the intensity and frequency of extreme heat,” when we mean “heat waves are getting hotter and more common.” That sort of simpler language is just waiting for us, but we’re not using it. I’m not immune to this tendency, to be sure. But maybe because I’m both a writer and spend a lot of time thinking about how I’m going to deliver information on TV, I’ve put a lot of effort into working out, “Okay, what’s the simplest way possible that I could say something?” Especially when there’s usually just 40 seconds to answer an anchor’s question, that’s encouraged me to be quite brutal in my self-editing.

A big problem that I think we can work to correct is the perception of climate change as a future-tense problem. In reality, the scale of damage we’ve already done is huge. Climate change isn’t just about our grandchildren or our retirement, it’s about my grandmother today. Language that takes this into better account is something I think journalists can adopt to clarify the urgency of climate change to audiences.

Stepping back, why did you choose to focus on YouTube?

YouTube is an incredibly overlooked platform. It should not have been the case that when DW launched ‘Planet A’ in 2020 that there were practically no competitors—nor should that remain the case, more or less, today. There was ‘Hot Mess’ from PBS News, but that hasn’t been active for at least a couple years. There’s ‘Our Changing Climate,’ which does video essays, and ‘Climate Town,’ which is more comic, but both of those fall more in the bucket of “climate communication” and aren’t affiliated with news outlets. And that’s basically it. DW isn’t fighting on YouTube with the BBC or CNN or The New York Times; all of these places have YouTube channels, of course, and they put out some climate content, but not as a dedicated effort. Given that YouTube is the second-most visited website in the world, I think that’s a bit of a dereliction of duty.

What’s more, we know that the YouTube algorithm recommends similar content to viewers, so our industry is really missing an opportunity. I did an experiment recently where I set up a new email address, opened a new browser and typed “climate” into the search bar. It was striking to see that if Google, which owns YouTube, doesn’t already have data about you that the climate content it shows you is not good. I got a lot of Fox News and Jordan Peterson. I don’t know whether the climate space on YouTube is dominated by these forces or if they’re just a strong part of the YouTube ecosystem more generally, but I saw this as a very strong case that journalists, particularly broadcasters, should be making a huge effort to flood YouTube with factually accurate climate information.

As we head into this new year, how would you like to see climate coverage evolve?

This is the year that journalists everywhere need to get smart on energy.

In Europe, certainly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year and skyrocketing fuel prices had an immediate and tangible impact on the energy conversation. Yet governments across the continent were quite slow to act, and throughout the year, there were major gaps between what experts were saying about the need to preserve energy, how journalists were covering the energy crisis, and ultimately what the public understood about it. In Germany, now, we have politicians loudly justifying new fossil gas infrastructure, and there’s a constant refrain about making Germany “hydrogen ready.” Are journalists ready with the scientific depth to smartly engage leaders on these subjects?

Broadly speaking, I feel journalists haven’t gotten the grip on energy science that we should. Given all the public commitments that outlets have made to cover climate solutions, we need to be prepared to integrate strong understandings of how both conventional and alternative energy sources work—and how well they work—into our coverage. We don’t want to find ourselves interviewing politicians, thinking we’re climate-smart and then realizing suddenly, “Oh shit, I do not have the depth of knowledge to respond in the way I should right now.”

Finally, I would love this year to be the one where we start holding fossil fuel interests and politicians more accountable for their hypocrisy. Because ultimately that’s what this story’s about. Leaders have said they’ll stop the planet from heating, and they’re not doing so. Every story we do takes place against that backdrop.