Things We’re Grateful for in 2021: Stellar Climate Journalism

See the groundbreaking climate reporting that a distinguished panel of international judges found to be the best of the best.

To live through 2021 was to witness some of the most extreme weather and climate events in recorded history, from destructive flooding to crippling heat waves to devastating wildfires. These extreme weather conditions are “the new norm,” according to a new report by the World Meteorological Organization, for a planet that is “changing before our eyes.” It follows a landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in August 2021, that urges “strong, rapid, and sustained reductions” of greenhouse gas emissions to stave off the most severe consequences of climate change.

To inform the public and meet the urgency of the moment, journalists around the world have stepped up their coverage in recent years with insightful reporting, innovative storytelling, and groundbreaking journalism. The inaugural Covering Climate Now Journalism awards recognized 22 outstanding journalism entries out of nearly 600 submissions from 38 countries. (Early next year, we’ll open submissions for the next round of awards; watch our Climate Beat newsletter for that announcement.) We used the winning reporting to produce a broadcast special that provided a snapshot of the climate crisis — and possible solutions. We’ve segmented the program along broad themes, which we encourage you to watch below.

Our Planet in Crisis

The stories featured here capture some of the impacts of climate change on our planet — one fromAntarctica, the other from California.

In “The Sound of Icebergs Melting: My Journey into the Antarctic” for the Guardian, Jonathan Watts takes audiences on a sensory journey to a frontline of the climate emergency, showing us stunning, up-close footage of chinstrap penguins, humpback whales, and other wildlife vulnerable to climate impacts. Watts’ storytelling includes evidence of glacial melt, as well as hopeful signs that concerted action can make a difference. “Climate change can feel really abstract and distant and this made it personal,” said Amy Westervelt, executive producer of Critical Frequency. His package, she said, includes “heartbreaking and weird and surprising” audio of icebergs melting. Hearing it “did something in seconds that the written word has not been able to accomplish.”

Josh Edelson’s photography for Agence France-Presse, Heart of Fire,  documents the relentless wildfires that pummeled Northern California in 2020. From orange skies blanketing San Francisco, to the moment when fire overtook homes and businesses, Edelson’s striking images captured the scale of the fires, as well as the human toll on both firefighters and the displaced. “We know that wildfires are an annual phenomenon and we know that they’re getting worse every year,” said Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson, senior editor of The Wider Image at Reuters. “When you look at these photos, you see what that means. You see what the numbers actually translate to, in terms of the destruction of people’s homes, their lives and the forests.”

The Big Picture

The climate change story looms large in our lives, as do its myriad threats. Stepping back to the big picture perspective reveals the connections between humans and ecosystems, and ensuing consequences.

Jeff Goodell’s Rolling Stone piece, “How Climate Change Is Ushering in a New Pandemic Era,” lays out how climate change is driving habitat destruction and species migration, leading to a new wave of pandemics. He connects the threat of insect-borne disease to our experience with the Covid-19 pandemic, creating an understanding about the magnitude of looming climate impacts, many yet unknown. “One of the powerful things that we have to do in journalism is tell the whole story,” said Fara Warner, business and sustainability initiative manager at Solutions Journalism Network. “What Jeff did here is he laid out a problem that maybe very few people outside of science, outside of virology, outside of science journalism really understood how profoundly frightening it is.”

In CNN’s “Road to Change: America’s Climate Crisis” host Bill Weir takes us on an epic road trip to tell the story of climate change from its beginnings through the present day, driving home that climate change impacts are happening now. The program introduces audiences to people whose lives have been forever changed by the climate crisis, from wealthy homeowners in Miami confronting sea-level rise to Iowa farmers battling unpredictable weather. “Bill Weir managed to take you through the entire history of this issue while also humanizing it, just a brilliant combination of visual storytelling and strong point of view that was never less than factually rigorous,” said CCNow’s Executive Director Mark Hertsgaard.

 Human Drama

The stories recognized in our human drama segment brought us up close to communities in Alaska, Bangladesh, and Central America, where people are struggling to adapt to relentless climate impacts in the form of melting sea ice, encroaching oceans, and a cocktail of climate-related forces that drive international migration.

The podcast ‘Alaska Natives on the Frontlines’ by Alice Qannik Glenn and Jenna Kunze focuses on community adaptation in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, where early thaws disrupt traditional whaling practices and livelihoods premised on a dependable Arctic environment. Through intimate conversations with residents, they give a rare insider’s look into the struggles and resilience of this unique community. “A reality we often forget is that the climate crisis impacts communities of color first, and so that was what was particularly unique about this piece,” said Zinhle Essamuah, formerly with NowThis News and now a reporter for NBC News. “It not only told us the climate crisis is real, it’s coming, it’s here, but it showed us the communities who are feeling that day-to-day impact on their economy, on their food, on their livelihoods, on their safety.”

Breathtaking in its ambition and scope, “The Great Climate Migration: A Warming Planet and a Shifting Population” by a team of journalists at ProPublica, combined painstaking data journalism with absorbing storytelling and arresting visuals — attributing current migration trends to climate impacts and suggesting what the world might look like tomorrow. “What they did so very well was to humanize, to localize, to take it to the ground level, to take it into little towns, little farms, little communities and explain where this is happening and why,” said Dianna Hunt, senior editor at Indian Country Today.

Zakir Hossain Chowdhury’s photo essay “Bangladesh’s Hidden Climate Costs” for The New Humanitarian provides a compelling visual narrative of the aftermath of a cyclone that washed out protective embankments and triggered recurring high tides. The images show the resilience of the Bangladeshi people fighting an almost insurmountable task of keeping flood waters at bay.  “The entry really stood out to us because it offered a first-hand look and account of the impact of rising sea levels on a specific community,” said Essamuah.

 Holding Power to Account

The four pieces in this segment demonstrate that relentless research, in depth investigation, and reporting can lead to change.

The legislative amendment in the US that resulted from Peter Fairley’s “Who Killed the Supergrid?” shows the power of journalists to uncover important stories and bring public and political attention to them. The piece, produced for InvestigateWest and The Atlantic, took a technical and potentially tedious topic and recast it with clarity and accessibility. “This is another great example of holding power to account — of journalists who are digging into the weeds in these things, and uncovering details,” said Giles Trendle, managing director of Al Jazeera English. “There’s a lot of self-interest with a lot of big corporations, industries, lobby groups, power groups.”

Amy Westervelt’s ‘The Mad Men’ for the podcast Drilled by Critical Frequency investigates how the oil industry shaped modern marketing with misinformation and propaganda. “What Amy did was go back and find out the role of Big Oil over a hundred years, how it has tried to manipulate the public,” said Suzanne Levy, senior editor at KPCC. “She links all the way through the way Big Oil has hired people to lie.” This kind of thorough investigative work creates crucial context for the complexity of the climate change crisis and the role of powerful, unaccountable forces like the fossil fuel industry have played in getting us here.

Jake Spring’s breaking news coverage for Reuters about deforestation in Brazil revealed how the government of President Jair Bolsonaro used the pretext of Covid-19 safety measures to undermine inspection policies intended to protect the rainforest. Spring’s tenacious coverage demonstrates what a reporter who deeply understands his beat and stays on its cutting edge can bring to light. “What the series did also, it showed the implications for the rest of the world — the loss of biodiversity, the loss of a carbon sink, the extra emissions,” said Laura Helmuth, editor in chief of Scientific American. “The damage done by this huge scale of deforestation will echo in the climate signature for decades.” Spring’s coverage had ramifications within Brazil and internationally, showing the power of journalism to bring about real change.

Michelle García’s commentary for The Nation, “The Media Isn’t Ready to Cover Climate Apartheid,” asks journalists to examine their own biases and consider the limits of western perspectives. Garcia observed the media’s tendency in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic to focus on the experiences of mostly white and relatively affluent communities, while ignoring the inequalities faced by poorer groups and communities of colors. She questioned the media’s preparedness to use a more inclusive lens as it covers the climate crisis. “It was brilliant that she connected it to the way that the media had covered Covid and how much people just missed why communities of color were being impacted hardest by this virus,” said Westervelt.

 Emerging Journalists

Across the board we heard the same thing from our judges about young journalists: They inherently get it when it comes to the climate story. Their sense of urgency, as well as their commitment to the intersecting issues at play, position them well to contribute skilled reporting on the climate emergency. The 2021 CCNow Emerging Journalist is Egyptian freelance journalist Rahma Diaa, who exemplifies the outlook young reporters bring to the climate story. Diaa draws inspiration from being a parent and from developing deep trust between herself and the communities suffering climate change impacts in Egypt. “Covering climate in developing countries is really difficult. There’s not a whole lot of support,” said Neela Banerjee, supervising climate editor at NPR. “It’s often difficult to get access and information, and she’s done such a breadth of stories from writing about Egypt’s coral reefs to the plight of its farmers.”