The Climate Emergency Goes Mainstream

NBC, one of the big names in US news, asks if Biden will declare a climate emergency

A bookseller in Rome displays a copy of Pope Francis' latest statement, ‘Laudate Deum,’ in which he criticizes climate change deniers. (Photo by Riccardo De Luca via Getty Images)

Something remarkable happened on NBC television stations the other day. NBC local affiliates across the country aired a story that explicitly named the climate emergency as a scientific reality, not just an activist demand. And from that foundation, Chase Cain, a national climate reporter for the NBC Owned Television Station Group, then explored what government officials — specifically, US president Joe Biden — might do about that emergency.

As news organizations ramp up their 2024 election coverage, in the US and elsewhere, this NBC piece is a salutary reminder that we should ground our reporting in the actual facts of the situation, not in what big name candidates, political insiders, voting blocs, and other partisan interests acknowledge the facts to be.

Climate change is, fundamentally, a science story. Many news organizations have instead treated it primarily as a politics story. But what politics says about climate change is secondary; the laws of physics do not compromise or care whether politicians believe in them. Giving the politics side of the story precedence over the science side is the tail wagging the dog; it leads to coverage that often misses the point, fails to convey the full truth of the situation, and thus leaves the public misinformed.

In a briskly told 2 minutes 8 seconds, Cain’s NBC piece shows how easy it is to do better. The piece opens conventionally with interviews of young protesters at September 17’s March to End Fossil Fuels in New York who say they’re scared for their future and want US president Joe Biden to declare a climate emergency.

The key pivot comes 35 seconds in, when Cain, in a stand-up, makes it clear that it’s not only activists who call climate change an emergency: It is scientists, thousands of them. Cain holds up a copy of a peer-reviewed article signed by more than 11,000 scientists who, he reports, agree “clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency” as those same words appear on the screen.

The rest of the piece summarizes how the Biden administration is responding, including the president’s claim in August that he had “practically” declared a climate emergency, a statement Cain quickly counters: “But he actually hasn’t.” The strength of the piece is that these political responses are reported in a context where the climate emergency has already been stated as a scientific fact, one whose handling could affect Biden’s re-election chances.

Left unmentioned — and thus a good opportunity for follow-up coverage — is how the climate views of Biden’s Republican opponents might affect their electoral chances. Cain did report that 57% of Americans favor declaring a climate emergency. But none of the declared Republican presidential candidates accepts that human-caused climate change even exists, much less that it qualifies as an emergency. As soaring global temperatures smashed yet another heat record in September, which one scientist characterized as “gobsmackingly bananas,” will these and other Republican candidates pay a price in 2024 for their refusal to acknowledge climate reality?

That’s a story waiting to be reported, and not only by climate specialists like Cain. Political reporters, take note: Climate change is a 2024 campaign story. Ground your coverage in what science says: Humanity faces an emergency that requires rapidly phasing out oil, gas, and coal. Voters deserve to know what their elected representatives will do about that emergency.

From Us

Congratulating two additional CCNow winners! Peter Yeung’s vivid stories from Sierra Leone and Liberia and a collaborative series from the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk and Harvest Public Media that explored the diverse impacts of regional flooding are belatedly announced as the winners in the Short-form Writing category. CCNow sincerely apologizes for inadvertently omitting this terrific journalism from our September 18 winners announcement. Check out their award-winning work here.

Expanding team. Kyle Pope, a co-founder of CCNow as editor and publisher of Columbia Journalism Review, will join our expanding leadership team as the accelerating urgency of the climate crisis calls on newsrooms everywhere to improve their coverage of the defining story of our time. Read on CCNow.

Noteworthy Stories

Fossil fuel phase-out. Spain’s energy minister and the International Energy Agency’s head are backing the Netherland’s call to build an international coalition to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks. The coalition, which the Dutch climate minister is working to build in advance of COP28, would commit to keeping the 2015 Paris Agreement goals alive. By Pietro Lombardi for Reuters…

Heat resilience. In this robust feature that pictures what climate-smart cities could be and do in the years ahead, Grist designs a city that could manage rising temperatures while limiting cooling-related emissions. By Jake Bittle and Naveena Sadasivam for Grist…

Tipping point? The monsoon system which determines the climate of much of South America is nearing a “critical destabilization point,” according to a new Science Advances study. Rising global temperatures combined with deforestation and other environmental plunder is diminishing rainfall in the Amazon, an ecosystem critical to maintaining a habitable planet. By Jonathan Watts for the Guardian…

Climate hits home. When public housing is damaged by climate-driven extreme weather, vulnerable communities suffer the consequences — and women of color are hit the hardest. Two years after Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana, some local residents are still struggling to find secure housing. By Jessica Kutz for The 19th…

Pope’s declaration. The world “may be nearing a breaking point,” Pope Francis wrote in what CNN called a “blistering” statement on the climate crisis. In the 7,000-word exhortation, a follow-up to the Pope’s “Laudato Si” encyclical in 2015, the pontiff criticized climate deniers, delayers, and wealthy countries, and called for action and justice. By Philip Pullella for Reuters…

Reports & Events

Global stocktake. The UN’s new synthesis report is designed to provide governments with a “blueprint” for the global stocktake at COP28. The synthesis follows up on the technical report, released in September, which found that most governments are failing to meet their Paris agreement goals. Read the synthesis report.

Climate anxiety. Join the University of Queensland for “Climate anxiety and the media: how do we change the story?” a webinar discussion about engaging with community, nature, and creativity to lessen climate anxiety. October 10. RSVP.

Solutions 101. Join the Solutions Journalism Network’s monthly “Solutions Journalism 101 Webinar” to explore how to report on solutions effectively, why this coverage is critical for audiences, and resources available through SJN to help fortify your reporting. October 10. RSVP.

Industry News

NPR’s solutions week. This week, NPR is shining a spotlight on climate solutions, exploring how one remote village in the Himalayan foothills is learning to “recharge their springs,” sitting down with students who are fighting back against polluting companies, and helping readers understand, “It’s not all bad news.” Check out NPR’s reporting.

Via Twitter (aka X)

Carbon Brief’s excellent animation shows how various countries’ CO2 emissions, on a cumulative basis, have grown and changed over time. Although China has, in recent years, become the biggest annual emitter, the US remains far ahead on a cumulative basis — and the atmosphere cares most about cumulative emissions.

Jobs, Etc.

Jobs. The Boston Globe is recruiting a climate change reporter. Gannett is seeking an agriculture & water reporter, based in Phoenix, Ariz. Quanta Magazine is hiring an editor-in-chief. And Floodlight is recruiting an editor-in-chief.

Internships & fellowships. The Texas Tribune is seeking summer fellows. The Star Tribune (Minneapolis) are hiring summer interns for a variety of positions. CNN is searching for a weather intern for spring 2024.

Mentorship. The International Women’s Media Foundation is taking applications from women and nonbinary journalists for the Gwen Ifill Mentorship Program.