Record-breaking heat has brutalized the world in recent years, providing a bitter taste of what’s to come as greenhouse gas emissions overheat the planet. India’s heatwave this spring was made 30 times more likely by climate change; the recent UK heatwave, 10 times more likely.
Extreme heat is made more frequent and more intense by climate change. Three journalists explore what it’s like to live through extreme heat, policy failures that make survival more difficult, if not impossible, and challenges they’ve faced in reporting these stories.
- Sofia Moutinho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; independent journalist
- Anna Phillips, Washington, DC; National Climate Reporter, The Washington Post
- Snigdha Poonam, Delhi, India; independent journalist
Mark Hertsgaard, CCNow’s Executive Director and Environment Correspondent at The Nation magazine, moderated the Talking Shop.
Your climate story is incomplete if it doesn’t cover human impacts.
- Searching for the human impacts of climate change events like extreme heat will allow you to cover climate change more holistically, explained our panelists.
Extreme heat is not experienced equally. Women, people of color, and low-income communities disproportionately bear the brunt.
- Sofia Moutinho’s reporting on the dangerous and unequal consequences of extreme heat made it clear that these disproportionate impacts are not coincidental. “It’s not by chance that these places are bearing the brunt, people there don’t have enough money to pay electricity bill, to have AC,” she said. “There are many factors that ultimately are linked to systematic poverty and systematic racial segregation in these places.”
- Snigdha Poonam focused her reporting for the MIT Technology Review on how heat is disproportionately felt by women in rural Indian villages without air-conditioning or other cooling technologies. “Every woman spoke about having to make roti,” she said. “For them to be sitting in front of that stove and making roti after roti, was just like, I couldn’t even bear to stand there for very long… But they have to make rotis every time anyone in the family is hungry.”
Asking questions “around the edges” of an issue can make it easier to gather information from hesitant communities.
- Moutinho faced backlash from communities in Arizona and Florida when she asked questions directly about the impacts of heat. “Even if I didn’t use the words climate change,” she said, “people came right away [with] ‘You’re a journalist, you have an agenda.’” Instead, she began asking questions about circumstantial factors that contribute to how community members experienced extreme heat, like, “Do people in your neighborhood have AC?”
- Anna Phillips recommended asking sources if they’d experienced heat-specific symptoms, rather than asking directly if they’d experienced heat stroke. “It’s good to ask people, not have you had heat stroke, or have you had heat illness, but have you felt cramps while working outside? Have you felt headaches? Have you felt dizziness? They’ll be able to associate that with experiences, but not the words necessarily.”
Connecting scientific data to human impacts is an effective way of getting across the severity and gravity of extreme heat.
- Moutinho, whose reporting relied heavily on the collection and use of data from hospitals and health departments, advised that journalists need to have an understanding that “everything’s connected… [combine] the data and the scientific evidence with the human stories when you think about climate change.”
Mark Hertsgaard: Hello, and welcome to another Talking Shop with Covering Climate Now. I’m Mark Hertsgaard, the executive director of Covering Climate Now and the environment correspondent for The Nation magazine. On today’s talking shop, our subject is covering extreme heat. First, for those who don’t know, Covering Climate Now is a global media collaboration of more than 500 news outlets, reaching a combined audience of some two billion people. We’re organized by journalists, for journalists to help all of us do a better job of covering the defining story of our time. You and your newsroom can join us for free and get lots of other benefits, background briefings and so forth, by coming to our website coveringclimatenow.org.
Now, to today’s topic. Record breaking heat has brutalized many parts of the world in recent years, and the past few months have been no exception. It’s a foreboding preview of what lies in store as greenhouse gas emissions continue to overheat the planet. Scientists, meanwhile, have made enormous strides in understanding this heat. They can now calculate how much responsibility global warming has for these high temperatures and how many people are dying from them. India’s scorching heat wave the spring, for example, that was made 30 times more likely by global climate change. The more recent heat wave in the United Kingdom, that was made 10 times more likely.
And it’s not just heat waves. Last Thursday, our lead media partner, The Guardian, published a stunning new analysis of hundreds of scientific studies. They found that, “These studies demonstrated that humanity’s vast carbon emissions are forcing the climate to disastrous new extremes. At least a dozen of the most serious events, from killer heat waves to broiling seas, would’ve been all but impossible without human caused global heating.” The science reviewed by our Guardian colleague Damian Carrington, suggests that excess heat alone has caused millions of deaths over the past 30 years. That’s millions, mostly among the global poor, who let’s remember, did nothing to cause this problem. A 15-year-old climate activist in Uganda named Jordan Mulinzi tweeted last week that half a million people across Uganda are now starving because of heat and extreme drought. He added, “I can’t even express how frustrating and terrifying it is to be a young activist witnessing this.”
To make these alarming developments land with our audiences, journalists should remember three guides to effective climate storytelling: humanize, localize, and solutionize. That is, talk about human beings, not just the abstract science. Second, locate that human story in a place that your audience knows and cares about. And third, don’t forget about solutions. Of course we report the problems, but don’t stop there. Tell the whole story, the problem, and potential ways to fix it.
Covering Climate Now chose the three journalists on today’s panel because each of them has done exceptional coverage of extreme heat that featured these qualities. Their journalism examined people’s lived realities in a specific place and the policy failures that contributed to those realities, and also illuminated solutions that could make a difference going forward. I’ll introduce all three panelists at once. We’ll hear from them during the first half hour. And then it will be your questions and answers in the second half hour. You’re welcome to tweet throughout the session using the @coveringclimatenow handle and a #CCNow.
And now, please join me in giving a warm virtual welcome to our three colleagues. First, Sofia Moutinho. She’s a Brazilian journalist based in Rio de Janeiro who has covered the environment, science, and health for the last 11 years. Her bylines include Science, Nature, The Guardian, and Scientific American. And joining us from Washington, Anna Phillips is a national reporter for the Washington Post, where she focuses on the Biden administration’s efforts to tackle climate change. She previously covered environmental policy for the Los Angeles Times and local government for the Tampa Bay Times.
And last but not least Snigdha Poonam is an independent journalist and writer based in Delhi. She’s written about Indian politics, culture, and society for publications, including The Financial Times, Foreign Policy, Rest of the World, and Bloomberg Business Week. And she’s also the author of the book, Dreamers: How Young Indians are Changing The World. Snigdha, I’d like to start with you and first, thank you so much for joining us all the way across the world at a very late hour for you. We very much appreciate it. Your piece, you did a piece for the MIT technology review, and again, I urge everyone on this call, you must read this piece. It is exemplary and it is heartbreaking. You went into a village in India where there is no electricity, and of course, therefore, no air conditioning, no fans, et cetera. Tell us about that story. How did you settle on it and how did you go about reporting it?
Snigdha Poonam: Thanks Mark. And thanks for having me. I’m really excited to be a part of the panel. Climate is not one of my beats, as you said, in my introduction, I write about a lot of things, and I haven’t done that much climate reporting in the past, but I find that increasingly when I am just out on a story, any story, it could be it could be an election, it could be a story of including some kind of violence, it could be a story of gender or crime. And I find that the people that I am talking to who happen to be often on the margins are also going through a crisis that is made worse by climate change. So we are talking about extreme heat, floods, cyclones, wildfires, that kind of stuff. And it shows up so much in my conversations that I’m trying to include it more and more in my reporting.
And with this story, it turned out that was something that just was the biggest story of the moment in India, because we saw record breaking heat. I think the maximum temperatures recorded ever since India started recording weather 122 years ago. So it was so alarming that I really wanted to write something about it, but I didn’t know where to look.
And then I remembered one day reading about this village in Uttarpradesh in Northern India where electricity hadn’t yet reached. And this was quite a thing to remember, because officially India has electrified most of its villages, even if you have power for say four hours or two hours, but this village in particular, somehow got left out of the last phase of electrification. And I had read stories about how difficult life is there of people, some 80 households who must live without any charging points. So I had read stories about how they have to go to the next village in order to charge their mobile phones, et cetera. And so I started to wonder what this heat wave must be like if we can’t bear it in Delhi with fully air conditioned houses, [with] fans, and coolers, and not having to leave our homes, what must it be like for them? So when Tech Review asked me to write something on heat waves, I proposed that I go to the village, and that’s how I showed up.
Mark Hertsgaard: I think it’s interesting that you say that the Indian government claims that it has now electrified virtually every village in India, even if only for a couple hours. Even if a village technically has electrification, as you say, it could be intermittent. It could be there for an hour, I assume therefore, but correct me if I’m wrong on this, that there are many villages across the country where the situation is not that different. If you only have electricity for an hour a day, that’s not going to really help in a heat wave.
Snigdha Poonam: Absolutely. Yes. There are several villages as investigations have shown where electricity has yet to reach, or it is so minimal that it makes no real difference to people’s lives.
Mark Hertsgaard: Yeah. And how did you go about doing the story? Because we like these talking shop sessions to really be practical in terms of how other reporters can learn from what you three have done, and how they can apply it in their own reporting going forward. So was it difficult to convince your editors? Was it difficult to find sources? Was it difficult physically and emotionally to do your reporting?
Snigdha Poonam: Yes. It was difficult in so many kinds of ways. Not to convince my editors at all, because I think the moment that I pitched this idea, a village without electricity, when we were talking about 110, 111 degrees Fahrenheit in India, it was like, they were immediately sold on it. But the problem was, it started after I got to the village, when I got to this part of India that is very hot on any average summer. And the temperatures in that part of Northern India this year, on several days they were five degrees higher than the previous years. So I knew that I was stepping into something that would be physically very challenging for me. And I remember that as soon as I got out of my car, I was unable to see anything in front of me because of the sweat just would pour down my face and was getting into my eyes.
Snigdha Poonam: My sinuses just exploded. So I was just not able to speak or see, and also on the verge of fainting. And then of course I have been in physically demanding situations before. So I thought it was just one of those. And I collected myself, but that really wasn’t the hardest part. The hardest part was to speak, to get the villagers to speak about what life is like in 100, 111 degrees Fahrenheit, from morning to night, everything that goes through their days. And not just to give me quotes or summarize it in a very rapid, send the media away kind of situation. And I realized that it was not easy. It’s so easy for me to show up in some of the same villages, as I often do, to talk about things that are issues.
Snigdha Poonam: There could have been a communal violence. There could have been a situation with a custodial torture. There could be a rape. There could have been a communal riot. And in all of these situations, I go up and get the stories, then people will sit around me and talk, or I would just walk into a new home and be able to get what happened. But in this case, because people just think that, people in that village definitely thought that there was just something that was just happening to them that wasn’t exactly an issue that they were prepared to talk about.
Mark Hertsgaard: Did they connect it to a climate change?
Snigdha Poonam: No, not at all. Not at all. They had-
Mark Hertsgaard: Did you ask them that?
Snigdha Poonam: They were also dealing with… I’m sorry?
Mark Hertsgaard: Did you ask them about climate change?
Snigdha Poonam: Yes. Yes. I’ll come to that. I think that they believe that the heat is getting rapidly worse with every year, but they don’t think it is climate change specifically. Maybe a couple of younger men thought so, but not the women. They were also reading a lot of misinformation spreading over WhatsApp. Someone spoke to me about, or asked me whether it had something to do with the Russia, Ukraine war, with all those missiles being fired from across the borders. And maybe that is sending up something into the air that is causing this level of heat in India. So to tell them about the factors that may have caused it, and it wasn’t one of them.
Snigdha Poonam: But the bigger challenge was that they would just keep saying that it was hard for them. It was a really tough time for them, and not tell me what it meant at a daily level. And I thought that the only way for me to get that, get a sense of that would be to not ask them what life is like, but to just see them go through their day. So I spent a day with them in their homes, especially with the women. So I just saw them go through whatever that they do at home. And then it all just came out. They just wouldn’t stop. It just wouldn’t stop. Everything that they did, every second of the day was just loaded with this extreme heat that they were facing and had no control over, because they lived without ACs or fans. The fact that every woman was facing this problem of their children falling sick, that came up home after home.
This is very banal, but a very telling thing for me is that every woman spoke about having to make roti, which is something that you roll out dough and then you put it on a very hot stove that they put over a wood fire. And just visually for me to see that, for them to be sitting in front of that stove and making roti after roti, was just like, I couldn’t even bear to stand there for very long, because it was getting so hard. But they have to make rotis every time anyone in the family is hungry, and it’s something that they have to make while the person is eating, and not something that they can make at once, like make in the morning and keep in a keep in a box. And the fact that everyone spoke about it just was so revealing to me. So yeah, I think that that’s how I got over the difficulty of talking to people about what they were going through and not being able to get what I wanted, because they were giving me these quotes about life being very hard.
Mark Hertsgaard: It’s such an arresting image of making the roti there when it’s already 110 degrees Fahrenheit. And then you’re right there in front of a fire to be cooking. I would, again, commend to everybody, this piece and those kinds of images where the reader can see and empathize with the subject of the story, and imagine themselves being in that place, that is how we reach people about what this heat is doing to our fellow human beings.
Let me move on now and go to Sofia. Sofia, you did a piece with our colleagues at Columbia Journalism Investigations. Covering Climate Now, for the record, we are housed at the Columbia School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York. So Sofia, you did a lot of data reporting on this, and that’s something that we’ll talk about with Anna in a moment too, but tell us about how you got into your piece with the data set that you had access to, and how you decided again, that heat was a story that needed to be told.
Sofia Moutinho: Okay, thank you for having me here. Yeah, our story was born from data. So we started with the data to then find the characters and the human stories. And it was very challenging. We had this unusual data set from the health cost and utilization project. It’s federal data, patient level data. So we basically had everything about everyone who went to an emergency room or got hospitalization in both Florida and Arizona. And it was huge volume of data. My colleague Elizabeth works very well with that. So she crushed everything together. And right from the beginning, we knew that we wanted to write about heat, because the story was a part of a series called Hidden Epidemics, which was tackling how climate-
Mark Hertsgaard: Sorry. Sofia, can you repeat that again? The series was called heat and what?
Sofia Moutinho: No, it was part of a series called Hidden Epidemics.
Mark Hertsgaard: Hidden Epidemics.
Sofia Moutinho: Yeah, there were other stories. Some of them also focused on heat. And it was a heat story since the beginning. We had this data and we had to make sense of it. It was huge. So we find out that we could get zip code level information, which is pretty rare, not even researchers that we were talking with, I used to have access to this kind of data, this was a paid data set, and had a lot of privacy constraints to use it. You have to take a course, and yeah, you cannot share a lot of the details there are in the data that could identify people, for example. So we start with this big volume and we narrow down to the zip codes that have the highest rates of heat related illnesses.
And we end up with a list of top 10, we’re talking with epidemiologists, and researchers, and local governments, people on the ground to understand why these places were bearing the brunt of heat, why these places were being so affected. And the interesting thing was that we couldn’t find a commonality at first. It sounded like all the zip codes have a whole universe inside them. Some places it could be that it was an area that had a lot of retired people living in mobile homes and trailers without access to AC that could be driving these cases. In other places could be that everyone getting sick there were mostly young people, weekend athletes that went on a track and had a heat stroke. So we find out that the context varies a lot, but then when my colleague Elizabeth tried to correlate income with heat illnesses and we saw a clear connection, zip codes with lower income had more chance of having higher rates of heat related illnesses, that was clear.
And then we narrowed down on the top two, because the top two zip codes in both these states, the numbers were very much ahead of any other place, like six, five times the rate of the other zip code. And when we started [inaudible 00:18:26] reporting, talking with people on the ground, grassroots associations, neighborhood associations, NGOs that act in those neighborhoods, we saw that they shared this huge pattern that they were both neighborhoods that were racially segregated for decades, these for neighborhoods that literally had avenues dividing them, dividing the white town from the colored town, and these racist policies like redlining that happened in Phoenix, Arizona, and things like racially restricted covenants that would not let colored people to buy houses in the white town, these things last. The impact is still there today, because these neighborhoods still lack investment.
So it’s not by chance that these places are bearing the brunt, people there don’t have enough money to pay electricity bill, to have AC. They don’t have good access to health care. So we saw, for example, in Florida, in this town Fort Pierce in the neighborhood called Lincoln Center, there was a huge rate of diabetes. When we looked at the patient data, people who are getting heat units also had a lot of diabetes. So there are many factors that ultimately are linked to systematic poverty and systematic racial segregation in these places. And I think that was our finding-
Mark Hertsgaard: So here again, we see how climate justice is as usual at the core of most of the impacts that are happening around the world, and that they tend to impact you very differently if you happen to be part of the comfortable, economically comfortable, global minority. Let’s remember the people who look like me, we are the global minority. Most people around this planet live a lot closer to what we’ve just been hearing about in India, and now in Arizona and Florida. Sofia, could you talk a little bit about the specific illnesses, you say heat related illnesses. What are the top four or five illnesses that other reporters should be looking for as they go out and do the heat related reporting?
Sofia Moutinho: Okay. So we use a specific code for diseases that would be in this group of heat related illnesses, and they include heat stroke, which would be the more severe form that you can really faint and even die of because of this. But they also include other things like dehydration because of exposure to high temperatures, or, let me remember some, even sunburns that can get very bad in your skin. It was not that usual in our dataset, but that was also there. So yeah, there was a lot of different things, but heat stroke is the most severe case, and we saw a lot of that.
Mark Hertsgaard: Also, and forgive me because I haven’t done as much reporting on this, but just from reading, it strikes me that one of the big things that happened, especially with elderly folks is a sense of disorientation and lackadaisical lack of energy. And this is how they end up dying if nobody checks on them, because they get confused, they lie down, and they never wake up. Have I got that right?
Sofia Moutinho: Yes. Yes. So when your body reaches a certain temperature, and everything starts shutting down, and your brain’s affected. So yeah, you can faint, and you can eventually die. And we saw, our story was focused. And the cases that didn’t go to death. But we saw cases in our data, a lot of cases of old men walking the street in the scorching sun, they would get dizzy and pass out, fell on the ground, bumped their head, and sometimes even burned the skin because the asphalt was too hot.
Mark Hertsgaard: We’ve had this, some of you may remember last week, there was briefly a surge of even U.S. TV interest in an episode like this, where a driver for UPS, the United Parcel Service, somehow somebody caught video of this driver literally fainting as they were getting out of the truck. And so this is something that, again, this deserves much more than a 20 second tell on television. Oh, look at that for UPS driver, we’ve got to do better, and deeper, more empathetic reporting than that.
Anna Phillips let’s talk to you because you were part of, you’re at the Washington Post now, but last year you were at the Los Angeles Times, and you were part of the team that did an absolutely stunning piece of investigative reporting that we’re proud to say, won the investigative award at the Covering Climate Now Journalism Awards for this year. And it looked at extreme heat in California, particularly in Southern California. So tell us, please, Anna, and I should tell you that I had dinner with Tony Barboza just last week when I was in Los Angeles, your colleague on that story, who just rhapsodizes about what a brilliant colleague you were. You were working out of the Washington office, though, of the LA Times. Tony was there in LA. Tell us how that story came about, and again, what other reporters can learn from how you did it, all of the step by step of the reporting.
Anna Phillips: Sure. And we thank you also for the recognition for that piece. That story began as a conversation between Tony and I, about how we were focusing a lot of our attention at the paper on wildfire and rising sea levels. And we felt that extreme heat just wasn’t getting an adequate amount of attention. And so the first step was to say, well, this is California. It’s a liberal state, cares about the environment. They must be keeping tabs on this. So we asked for the state data on heat related deaths and illnesses.
Mark Hertsgaard: And where from the state? Which part of the state, which department did you go to?
Anna Phillips: I believe it was the State Department of Health. Some of these requests crossed into a few other. It was vital statistics, which was underneath that department.
Mark Hertsgaard: Okay.
Anna Phillips: They did have data, but the numbers were very, very low. And when we talked to epidemiologists and to health experts, what they told us was there’s an incredible amount of under-reporting and misclassification that happens in hospitals and in clinics when it comes to heat related illnesses. The entire system relies on the doctor to identify that the person, for instance, doesn’t have air conditioning, or to know something about the circumstances in which they died. And the doctor often doesn’t have that information. So when they see a cardiac situation, or they see somebody who has respiratory problems, they classify it as a heart attack. They classify it as trouble breathing. They don’t associate it with heat.
And so we said to ourselves, well, we have this data, but it’s really not representative of what we know is happening, we need to go deeper. And at that point it was during COVID, and we were starting to see excess death calculations being used by other publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post. And an excess death calculation basically says, we know that there is a standard death rate for each community. What happens if we look at how many additional deaths are happening during a specific event? And if you take the difference between the deaths that are happening during a heat wave, and the deaths that are happening during a typical day, you can see the effect that heat is having on people’s health. And so that launched us into a whole project of trying to build a statistical model that would tell us how many people were actually dying in California from heat.
Mark Hertsgaard: This reminds me of the 2003 heat wave in Europe, and folks, if you aren’t familiar with that, that is the very first event that climate scientists have been able to do, were able to do climate attribution for. I happened to be interviewing the UK government science advisors for David King at that point a couple years after that. The early numbers that were coming out of that heat wave in Europe didn’t get much attention in the U.S — there was literally only one New York Times story — said that 15,000 people had died across Europe in the space of six weeks. But as years went by and the epidemiologist did the kind of analysis that Anna Phillips was just describing. And of course, this is over 15 years ago, the number changed dramatically. It was no longer 15,000, actually 71,000 people died in the space of six weeks in one of the richest parts of the world, 71,000 people.
Mark Hertsgaard: That’s one and a half times the U.S. war dead in Vietnam in the space of six weeks. So as we live through these excess heat waves now, remember, most people who are felled by this, it doesn’t say climate change on the death certificate. That doesn’t mean that climate change didn’t kill them. So Anna, say a little bit more about, as you did this reporting, what was the reaction of people in the field? What was the reaction of the California government, and what finally came about after the piece was published? And of course, how did readers react?
Anna Phillips: Sure. So I would say, as we launched ourselves into this excess death calculation, we consulted with a lot of epidemiologists and health experts. And I think initially there was some skepticism among them that we would have the sophistication or the data access to be able to do a calculation like this. I think they worried about our ability to account for a number of external factors that can affect death. Such as deaths are higher on the weekends, they’re higher on holidays. How are you going to factor that into your model? We had a fantastically talented data reporter named Sean Green, who worked for months on this. And I think we won people over by the time the story was published. We took our results. We showed everything, all of the modeling, all of the data to a number of epidemiologists that we consulted. And we made sure that they were comfortable with what we had done before we published.
We are not epidemiologists. This is not our background. We had to have some security in knowing that we were doing something responsible. And I think the numbers really surprised people in California. This is not something that was on their radar. I think that heat was seen as something tied in with drought, was tied in with agriculture, but the individual suffering that was caused by heat waves was not something that the state was talking about very much, and they certainly weren’t paying attention to the numbers. And so after the story ran, we started seeing interest in Los Angeles, from the city council in doing much better data collection and putting together a heat response plan at the city level. And then the following, several months later, we started seeing action at the state level and bills being introduced, and the governor coming out with a plan that was going to devote a lot more funding towards cooling centers and other sorts of response measures.
Mark Hertsgaard: Anna, we’re going to go to Q&A now, but I’m going to ask one more question to you directly first, Anna, but folks, if you do want to ask, if you want to pose a question, we’ve got a lot over the RSVPs, but you can put them in the chat. We’ll get to as many as we can.
Tough question, maybe Anna, but you’re now at the Washington Post, you did that incredible investigation at the Los Angeles Times. What about our colleagues who are working in newsrooms that frankly do not have the resources that you enjoyed at those places, who do not have months to work on a story? How can they do the best job they possibly can illuminating these same realities?
Anna Phillips: Sure. Yeah, I’ve been in much smaller newsrooms that would not have been capable of doing a story like this. So I’ve been in that spot. And what I would say is that local health officials are beginning to take much more interest in this. And so if you are not able to do an excess death calculation on your own, which is in all likelihood, that would be very difficult. Some states, some county health departments, some city health departments are beginning to do these calculations on their own. And they would probably be happy to talk to you about these numbers because they’re probably not getting a lot of requests to talk about this. And so you should begin by talking to your local health officials to see what are they tracking, what can they share with you? What can they share with you without any identifying information? Make it a conversation that explains what you’re trying to do, so they understand that you are aware of the privacy concerns around any medical data.
Mark Hertsgaard: Yeah. Get that in right at the top so that you can build some trust with the source. So I’ve got questions for both Sofia and Snigdha. Let me start with Snigdha. We talk a lot about solutions. Your piece was, as I say, it was heartbreaking. It was so revealing. I really felt like I was there in that village with you. What about solutions? I mean, are you able to, what can a village like that do? And what can a piece of reporting like yours contribute to that conversation? And along with that, I know it was published in the MIT Technology Review. Did your piece run in India?
Snigdha Poonam: Yeah, it didn’t. It didn’t. But it had this amazingly unexpected response. And I don’t mean to say that this can be the general result of a story like this, I’m sure it wouldn’t. But because I was a Delhi journalist writing for an American publication in a very poor remote village, a lot of the local journalists accompanied me, and many followed up, and came to the village after I had left. And because of the just hyper local, television centric, journalism that happened around the same village, it turns out that the political representative was under so much press pressure that he had to shoot off a letter to the electricity department saying that funds should be withdrawn from his personal, not his personal, but whatever his political account, and electricity should be brought to the village.
I mean, I don’t know if it’ll happen immediately, but I’ve seen that letter, it’s in action right now. So I would be very keen to see if things change around next summer. But yes, I mean, it gave me a lot of hope. I think that one of the things to do, as journalists, is to put the pressure on, because if everything else fails, at least this is something that has some chance of working. But otherwise, it was really revealing for me to speak to climate scientists, and they had so many really easy, really applicable solutions. And there was so many that I couldn’t include them all in the piece, but I included many. And amazing, amazing individuals. And not just the two scientists that I quote in the piece, but I see that so many institutions in India are now working on intersectional response to heat, extreme climate events, and are coming up with solutions at a very regional level that local governments or local groups, non-governmental groups can implement.
So someone just told me that if the government were just to set up a community center, like they do in the case of floods, where people could go in, if they were feeling like they were going to faint, or if they wanted water, or if they just wanted respite from the sun, or just where they could just even have access to fans or something, they could put up a generator. And it just seemed that the government only has to listen to those people. And yeah, it doesn’t really have to overhaul the infrastructure of these places. They’re just saying, have a very basic health center come up just for the duration of the summer. So yeah, stuff like that.
Mark Hertsgaard: So here’s one of the rules again, of the press in every part of the world, we are a solution in a way, because we can force governments to have to face what is going on in front of their own noses that they might not prefer to face. And a side note, Snigdha. Next time you have a piece like that, one of the things that Covering Climate Now does is that we help different outlets, partner outlets to co-publish one another’s work. And one of our key partners is the Times of India. And so perhaps next time we could do that together.
Sofia, I’d like to ask you again, a very practical question here for our colleagues on the call. How do you find sources? How did you find sources in both Arizona and Florida for this story? My understanding is that in some places, people were a little perhaps reluctant to talk, almost embarrassed that they were in the situation they were in with heat.
I think for me, this was the biggest challenge with this piece. And I had an extra layer of challenge that was, I was reporting remotely. We were reporting during COVID, the peak of COVID, so it was all doing remotely. I wasn’t in those places, many people were staying at home, so that was very hard. And my strategy was to cast this wild net. So I started talking with everyone. I coached local churches. I called NGOs, grassroot organizations, neighborhood associations, local department of health. I even called soccer teams, just to find something, because my data was showing these people exist. They are having heat stroke under these circumstances, so this is real. But it’s not like the victims will have a support group on Facebook because they don’t even acknowledge this is a problem. So the lack of acknowledgement was really difficult for me.
And at the beginning of the story I did, as I think many people do, I went to social media, to local Facebook groups, and asking people if they had experienced things like that. And it was terrible. It didn’t work. I got so many hate messages, because even if I didn’t use the words climate change, I was just asking if people had experienced such circumstances like heat stroke, if they had fainted because it was so hot. But people came right away, you’re a journalist, you have an agenda. It’s climate change. It has always been hot here in Florida. What are you talking about? Why don’t you go write about heat stroke in Antarctica? So yeah, social media was not the way.
And then I find out that I should go by the edges, and ask people, do people in your neighborhood have AC? How are the houses there? And then spoke with the NGO where they said, oh, we have huge problem that people cannot pay the utility bills and we have a program to help them to pay. So you go on these circumstantial factors, and not directly on the spot to find these people. Yeah, it was very hard.
Mark Hertsgaard: Yeah. I personally have found often that NGOs are the best way into a story, because they are, in a way, almost reporters on the ground in their communities. And of course we can’t simply channel what they say. You always have to independently report it out, but they know what’s going on down on the ground. And then you can get started, they can connect you with people. And then you go to the government officials and get their responses and so forth. I’ve got a couple of questions here. One is from our colleague with the Associated Press in the deep south, Rebecca Santana. And I’m not sure who to put this to, but maybe Anna, you will be able to speak to this quote. Can you talk about what happens to one’s body physically when one is experiencing extreme heat? And are there any places, states, workplaces, et cetera, that have successfully implemented guidelines to deal with extreme heat that are considered to be effective?
Anna Phillips: Sure. Well, there’s a cascading series of things that happens. The first thing that your body starts to do is sweat, obviously. And that is how you begin to release heat in the form of energy and evaporating water off of your skin. If you’re in a situation where the temperature is so high or so humid that it’s difficult for you to sweat, or you become so dehydrated, that you can no longer sweat, you begin to progress through a series of steps that start with heat illness or what someone would call heat exhaustion. They’re interchangeable. And then you are on a continuum toward heat stroke, where your heart is beating faster. All of your organs are under stress, because your entire body is marshaling its resources to keep your temperature down. You will hit a limit at which your body can no longer do that. And that’s the point at which you’re at heat stroke.
And you stop sweating. You become disoriented often. You may already, before this point have cramps, headache, dizziness. These are all the things, like when Sofia was saying go around the edges. It’s good to ask people, not have you had heat stroke or have you had heat illness, but have you felt cramps while working outside? Have you felt headaches? Have you felt dizziness? They’ll be able to associate that with experiences, but not the words necessarily.
And the second question was about workplaces. There are four states right now that have very broad workplace protections regarding heat illness. That’s California, Washington, Oregon, and Minnesota. They all cover different things. Some only cover outdoor workers, some cover indoor and outdoor workers, but they usually incorporate the same three things that health experts say are just essential, which is access to drinking water, access to shade, and access to paid rest breaks. And the rest breaks usually kick in at different temperature triggers for each of these regulations. I have a story in paper today about how difficult it’s been for other states to copy these types of protections, because there’s a lot of pushback from corporations.
Mark Hertsgaard: Shocking, about the pushback. So there everybody, there’re stories for all of us to be doing at the local level. Only four states in the United States have these kinds of protections. So if you happen to be in one of the other 46 states where our territories elsewhere, that is a story to be asking your local officials about. And likewise for our colleagues outside of the United States, we’re not sure how many places have those kinds of protections, but that too is a story that you can be following up on. It is not that hard for local governments to be setting up as Snigdha said, community centers, cooling centers, disaster centers. We’ve just heard how quickly the body can deteriorate, but that’s why cooling centers are so important. If you get the body into a place where it is cooler, we can stop a lot of this sickness and illness.
Here’s another question. And this comes from, let me find it here. This is from Anne Kelly Costello. She is a writer on climate change and disability for Disability Debrief. She says, quote, I worry about coverage gravitating to the shorter, more intensely unusual heat waves in the global north, which of course is important. But what strategies can we use to make the brutal ongoing day to day impacts of heat in the mostly global south, get better coverage? How do we do that? I’m going to first turn to Sofia and then to Snigdha on that. What can we do to make this not just one story and then we drop it, but a continuing story that really lands with audiences and with public officials? Sofia, why don’t you begin?
Sofia Moutinho: Yeah, I don’t know if I have an answer for that, but it’s surely something that we thought about a lot while writing the story, because we tend to focus on the heat wave and then we forget about it. But the changes and the actions that the government needs to do should be consistent. Our story was published in the winter. So we had to explain why we were talking about heat when no one was thinking about it anymore, but cooling centers, you don’t need to build them suddenly in the summer. You have to have it all over, during the whole year. So these programs and policies, they should not be focused only when we have heat waves. I think that’s important to highlight when you’re writing about it. What else can I say?
Mark Hertsgaard: Snigdha, do you want to chime in here?
Snigdha Poonam: Yeah, sure. I have a very simple answer to that, which is that more journalists should be talking about or writing about the effects of climate change. And I don’t mean to say that every journalist is equipped to, I’m not, or I mean that I’m not, as I’ve said earlier, I’m not on the climate beat so a lot of times I have, it takes me longer than it would take Anna or Sofia to just go on the ground and just put up a story. But I spoke to so many people, I read so many papers in order to report on heat waves. And I think that, and Anna, the other Anna, and I were talking about this earlier, which is that if more journalists who, just on the ground, are seeing people deal with effects of climate change, whatever they may be, because I’m seeing floods come up in so many scenarios where I’m just doing my reporting, that it’s something that I want to include in those stories.
If it’s not a flood story, the floods will be a part of my telling the story of people. And so you either include that more and more in your publish, or you pick up like in the case of this heat wave, that is a big story then. Then I suppose more journalists can step in to tell, at least the human stories, if not the science and data stories, because those stories make a difference as this one did. Yeah. I was keen to ask Sofia more about when you are on the beat or let’s say you probably will report several stories on the heat wave during the summer. How do you find the ideas and how do you make sure that each one of them would be interesting to your readers? Yeah.
Mark Hertsgaard: Sofia, go ahead.
Sofia Moutinho: Okay. So interestingly enough, I haven’t write about heat a lot after this story, I am from Brazil, and I’m sorry that I have not written about the toll of heat in my country, which I know is huge, but we don’t have as good as data as in the U.S., so it’s in my plans to do that, but I haven’t done it yet. But I think the key is to localize. We talk to epidemiologists and scientists, and we know the trends. We know the risk groups, we know how it happens, we know it will be increasing. So we have to find examples in the communities that we care about in our places. So I think the key is to localize. Once you understand the huge picture, you can apply that to anywhere and you will find interesting human stories everywhere.
Mark Hertsgaard: One of the things Covering Climate Now always says is that climate change is a story for every beat in the newsroom. So when you do a story about climate, your colleagues see that and that will encourage them to be doing it. And our role is to just amplify to talk and talk and talk, and bring our audiences to this understanding. And hopefully that will lead to some changes here.
We have a couple more questions, we have about eight minutes to go, so I’m going to ask the panelists to be concise in your answers. Here’s a question. It says, you panelists are focusing mainly on extreme heat causing human heat stroke and other effects. But what about how extreme heat is affecting people in relatively cooler places that may not even connect with the climate crisis, per se, for example, how the diseases are carried by insects and waterborne diarrhea type diseases. I work in the Pacific Northwest where we experienced a heat dome pattern of weird weather, but that weather didn’t last. What are the other health impacts of higher heat, and how do we cover those? Anna, can you jump in on that please?
Anna Phillips: Yeah. I mean, the first thing I would say is that even if you are living in a relatively cool part of the country, heat deaths are happening around you. You’re just not necessarily aware of them. I spoke to an epidemiologist last week who said that he had worked on cases in New Hampshire. This is not a story about the American south, it’s the entire country and the entire globe. And it’s not just about heat waves. Although heat waves do make it more likely for people to hit their breaking point. But if you have a couple, one day of intense temperatures, you can start seeing vulnerable people getting sick. On the disease and other aspects, those are parts of heat that I haven’t actually done much work on. And part of that is because I’ve focused on the risks to workers and people who are outside, and are most directly exposed, and are showing up in hospitals. So someone else is probably better equipped to talk about those parts of the problem.
Mark Hertsgaard: Let me recommend a piece that just ran yesterday in the Guardian, by our colleague Oliver Millman, looking at a new study that came out in the journal, Nature, Nature Climate Change I believe it was, talking about how, because of climate change, they did a meta study looking at about a thousand different scientific findings, and the climate change, because it is going to change the ranges where mosquitoes can operate, is dramatically increasing humans, vulnerability to serious, serious illnesses, like COVID of course, but also dengue fever, and malaria, and cholera and so forth. Look at that story. It is very, very sobering. And one other point in my own reporting again about colder places, one of the heat experts that I interviewed said, actually that they are more worried about heat deaths in relatively cooler places like say San Francisco. And I said, well, why is that?
Or Seattle was actually the city we were talking about. And this person said, because those places are not used to heat. And if it goes to 80 degrees in San Francisco or Seattle, that is completely out of the norm and the same thing you see, that was what happened in 2003 in Europe, there was no air conditioning and old people died rapidly. Another question here from our colleague, Logan, I hope I’m pronouncing this correctly. Logan Roode of WISC TV. How do we give readers and viewers a sense of agency when covering heat and the climate crisis, because it can feel so daunting. How do we convey a sense of hope for individuals, and what they can do beyond just making sure that they check on their elderly neighbors during a heat wave? Who wants to volunteer for that? Raise your finger if you do. Go ahead, Anna.
Sure. Heat is actually one of those astonishing subjects where the interventions are very clear. Epidemiologists and health experts have said these deaths and these injuries don’t need to happen. There are very basic interventions that have to happen to prevent them, getting people to cooler places, making sure that they can pay their electricity bills so they do have air conditioning. Changing the way that cities plant trees, there’re building codes that require air conditioning or require tighter buildings that keep in cool air and don’t leak it as much. There are a ton of solutions in this area.
For outdoor workers, like I mentioned, water, rest, shade. It’s not complicated. What I would say to all reporters who cover these and want to focus on the solutions. I think it is your responsibility to also look at what are the people and institutions who are standing in the way of those solutions being widely adopted. It’s not enough to just say, here’s what we can all do about this. I don’t think you can leave people with that open ended resolution. There are very specific actors who are saying, we don’t want to spend money on this. We’re not interested in pursuing this. It’s not in our face right now. And I think that can give readers and viewers a real sense of agency because those actors are often very local. They’re local businesses. They’re local politicians.
Excellent. Excellent advice. And I assume Anna, I beg your pardon. I have not been able to reach a piece yet in today’s paper, but do you name some of those institutions who are foot draggers in your story? Okay. So we’ll make sure to put that in the chat please before we wrap up here, which we need to do imminently, because we try to close these on the hour. One last quick question and 30 seconds from each one of you, this comes from a journalism student at DePaul University. Let me just read this correctly. What do we, as journalism students, need to learn in order to more fully cover extreme weather and climate change, beyond what we’ve discussed today. If there’s one or two things that you could tell your younger self as a younger journalist, what you could have used to get to where you are today. We’ll go in the same order that we began today, Snigdha first, then Sofia, then Anna, very briefly.
Yeah. I’m going to slightly repeat myself, but if I could talk to my younger self who was just out across the country, writing about all sorts of things. And if I had just looked at people’s lives in a more comprehensive way to connect these dots. And if someone was talking about a crime, it was a crime story, but if there were also other things going on in their lives, like say, I remember reporting a story when I went to a village to do a story. And the next time I went there, the whole village had moved because of the floods. And then today I would put that in the story, but earlier I didn’t used to. So I think that’s something that I would recommend to younger journalists to keep in mind.
So context. Sofia.
Okay. I would say that it’s important to have, I would like to have this understanding that everything’s connected. So you’re not talking about the science bit about heat, temperature, and climate. You’re talking about human lives. And when you talk about climate change and inequality, like how most of our stories here, you have to tackle this, the inequality aspect, the poverty, everything that is fueling this problem, and not only talk about the science. So I think I’m talking, I chose this because I come from a science reporting background, maybe so I’m biased. But I would say that combining the data and the scientific evidence with the human stories, when you think about climate change.
In a way, context, again, connecting the dots. Anna Phillips.
I would say don’t hesitate to reach out to people in academia, particularly graduate students. If you feel like you have access to data, and you don’t have the skills in your newsroom or yourself to really work with it, to produce the kind of story that you want to do. When I was younger, I think I was more hesitant. And I thought, well, what would they want partnering with me? But they will actually, in many cases, be very excited to work with you. And I think more partnerships along those lines can really expand what a small newsroom can do.
Such great advice. Thank you all three. This has been such an illuminating and important hour. We will be wrapping it up here. I want to give my profound thanks to all three of our excellent panelists today. Snigdha Poonam who’s joined us from Delhi. Thank you for staying up late. Anna Phillips with the Washington Post. Sofia Moutinho, who is in Rio de Janeiro. Thank you all again. If you missed, if a colleague of yours missed this session, we’ll be issuing a recording and a rough transcript of it later today. And of course, come to our website, CoveringClimateNow.org for more updates on talking shops to come and all of our other activities, including background materials on the very things that we’re talking about today, extreme heat and so forth. We welcome all of you back next time, and until then, I’m Mark Hertsgaard, and we wish you a very pleasant day.