Talking Shop: Heat, Fires, and the Climate Connection

In this Talking Shop we discussed how journalists can cover stories on heat, drought and wildfires in ways that connect with their audiences.

The wildfires forecast for summer 2021 in the American West could be the biggest climate story of the year (until November’s Glasgow summit). And the unprecedented heat waves scorching much of the American West are another painful sign that the climate emergency is here. Good journalism will not only inform people how to stay safe, but also make the climate connection to communicate what’s driving the dangers at hand.

To discuss the best way to do so, CCNow held a Talking Shop webinar to discuss the science of extreme weather and how journalists can cover these stories in ways that connect with their audiences.

Panelists

Mark Hertsgaard, CCNow’s executive director, and the environment correspondent for The Nation, moderated.

Related Resources

Recommended Reading

Transcript

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 at the Nation Magazine. Our subject today, Heat, Fires and the Climate Connection is shaping up as the biggest story, possibly the biggest climate story of 2021, at least until this November’s climate summit in Glasgow.

Mark Hertsgaard:

For those who don’t know, Covering Climate Now is a consortium of more than 400 news outlets with a combined audience of roughly 2 billion people. We’re organized by journalists, for journalists. We help newsrooms improve coverage, what we call the defining story of our time. It costs nothing to join Covering Climate Now, there’s no editorial line to follow, except you must respect science. And you can find out everything else you need at our website Covering Climate Now, our Slack channel, sign up for our weekly newsletter and make connections with your fellow reporters on the Climate Beat.

Mark Hertsgaard:

You’ll also find there the first story is published in a series we launched last week with The Guardian called Climate Crimes. The series highlights the fossil fuel industries’ 40 years of lies around climate change and giving that record of deception and delay its rightful place back in the public narrative as we go into the Glasgow summit in November. Now in today’s talking shop, we’re discussing how newsrooms can do a better job of covering this summer’s heat, drought and wildfires.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Sad to say, last year we really dropped the ball on this in the media, especially in the US, most of the coverage did not even mention climate change. Now, the science is clear on this connection, and it’s really not that difficult to report it in the coverage. In the RSVPs, many of you who wrote in said that one of the barriers to making the climate connection has been just a lack of time or a lack of space, but let us please show you just how simple it can be.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Al Roker, our colleague at NBC News on the TODAY Show needed just 30 seconds in his morning weather cast to make this point, helped of course, by some very plain-spoken graphics at the top of the screen. Take a look.

Al Roker:

I love when you get that. Anyway, we’re looking today, this is a climate change we talk about what’s been happening. Well, we’ve been seeing more and more of these big upper level high pressure ridges that cause more extreme temperatures likely. In fact, take a look. Seattle, since 1970, the summers on average up almost three degrees warmer. Portland summers, two and a half degrees warmer than average. And over the last several years, since the 1970s, 85 plus degree days in Seattle, eight more per year, 90 plus days, five more per year for Portland. So we’re watching climate change make things hotter in the Pacific Northwest.

Mark Hertsgaard:

There you have it, not that hard to do. So to help you make that climate connection in your reporting, there’s lots of background resources available. Come to our website at Covering Climate Now, we’ll also point you to terrific resources available from our colleagues at Climate Central and Climate Signals. We’ll put those links in the chat and also send them to you on a follow-up after this webinar.

Mark Hertsgaard:

These deadly extremes that are now punishing the American west and not only the American west, this is an instructive prelude, I think, to the COP summit in November. The past 10 days have seen absolutely staggering temperatures. In the Arctic, 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 38 degrees Celsius. Yes, that’s the Arctic, 50 degrees Celsius. 122 degrees Fahrenheit in Baghdad where it knocked out the electrical system, meaning no air conditioning even for the elites who could afford it.

Mark Hertsgaard:

This coming weekend in Death Valley, California, the National Weather Service is forecasting 130 degrees Fahrenheit, their highest forecast ever. The Met Office in the UK told CNN that these kinds of dangerous temperatures “would be almost impossible” rather without man-made global warming. And likewise, the amount of fire acreage burning in the American west over the past 40 years is twice as large as science would expect it without global warming. And people are dying.

Mark Hertsgaard:

We’re investigating now, the authorities are investigating some… Pardon me, not sure why that happened, I beg your apologies. In the Pacific Northwest, the authorities are investigating 580 deaths that are potentially linked to the heat wave there. And the important thing I think for journalists to remember here is that these numbers are almost certainly to increase probably exponentially as more investigation is done. For a little context here, go back to 2003.

Mark Hertsgaard:

The heat wave that hit Central Europe that year, the first extreme weather event that climate scientists were actually able to attribute to a climate fingerprint on there. The first casualty numbers that were reported at the end of that summer were 15,000 dead. That’s not a small number of people. By the end of the year, that number was 30,000 dead. But after proper epidemiological analysis had been done five years later, the real number was 71,000 people who died in the space of six weeks in France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, other European countries, 71,000 people. That’s well more than the total US war dead during Vietnam.

Mark Hertsgaard:

And of course, this is just the beginning. Because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for so long, these temperatures are certain to keep increasing for years to come. Again, Met Office said that that Pacific Northwest heatwave normally should happen once every 10,000 years. Now it’s happening every 15 years and if we stay on the current emissions trend, by the end of this century, that kind of heat will happen every other summer, which explains why, as Sarah Kaplan, our Washington Post panelist today reported recently the chief public health officer of Seattle said that his emergency rooms have been overrun with more heat stress victims than they treated during the COVID pandemic, COVID victims.

Mark Hertsgaard:

And he added, “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is literally a matter of life and death.” So at this point, leaving the climate connection out of our reporting is nothing less than media malpractice. We’re talking today about how to get it right. I’m going to introduce our panelists in a moment. We’ll hear from each of them during the first half hour, second half hour as always is Q&A with your questions. We’ve already received some excellent questions in your RSVPs, but please add more in the chat as we go along.

Mark Hertsgaard:

You’re also welcome to tweet while we’re on the air here at using at Covering Climate Now and hashtag CCNow. So please now give a warm virtual welcome to our panelists. First Sarah Kaplan, who I just mentioned. She’s a reporter at the Washington Post where she writes about climate science and humanities’ response to our warming world. She’s a native of Brooklyn and she credits a lifelong love of the New York Mets with preparing her somewhat for the frustration and occasional bursts of hope that come with covering the climate story.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Second, Sammy Roth. He covers energy for the Los Angeles Times where he writes the Boiling Point newsletter on climate change in the environment in California and the American West. He grew up in LA, cheering for the Dodgers, and he’s been fascinated to see solar panel manufacturers join oil companies among the Dodgers advertisers. You all may be seeing a theme here as I go through these introductions. Finally, Adriene Hill. She’s the managing editor of the California Newsroom. That’s a collaboration of California’s public radio stations currently focused on wildfires and climate change.

Mark Hertsgaard:

She’s the daughter of Californians, but she grew up in Western North Carolina, sadly far away from any major league baseball team. So you can applaud virtually for all of these folks, give them a nice, warm welcome. And I want to thank each of them personally myself for making time to do this. We really couldn’t have a better panel here today. If you’re wondering how to do these, this story, you’re talking today with some of the journalists who are really the best in the world on this. So we’re very happy at Covering Climate Now to have them with us.

Mark Hertsgaard:

We’re going to begin with Sarah Kaplan. Sarah, you’ve been reporting from Portland on the record heat and the connection to climate change. And your stories state very plainly that climate changes is driving these extreme events. And that connection is pretty intuitive actually, that if you’re going to warm up the planet, you’re going to have a lot more extra heat. But could you just briefly explain the underlying science and how journalists can make the connection between climate and extreme heat in their own stories?

Sarah Kaplan:

Yeah. I mean, I think you’re right that it is pretty intuitive and there’s lots of research showing or polls that show that readers or sort of the general public most easily connect extreme heat with climate change, that experiencing extreme heat is one of the things that helps kind of like boost understanding and appreciation for climate science. But I think one way that it was explained to me by the folks that I talked to when I was covering the heat wave last week is, I mean, you think of the climate as a bell curve, right? And with sort of distribution of temperatures that you would expect to see over the course of a year.

Sarah Kaplan:

And a lot of temperatures will be in the middle kind of average and moderate, but there are these sort of extreme tails. And if you just move the bell curve a little bit further along that temperature gradient and make it, we’re about a little more than one degrees Celsius on average warmer than in the pre-industrial era, that tail, the extreme and also moves and then you have a lot more high temperatures, really high temperatures underneath the bell curve.

Sarah Kaplan:

It’s easier to visualize actually than I think it is to explain in words. And I think that Climate Central actually has a pretty powerful visual that I could probably link to after we finish chatting. But that’s sort of very one straightforward way of thinking about it, is we’ve just shifted the bell curve. And even if it’s a seemingly incremental shift, I mean, people hear one degree Celsius and they’re like, “Oh, that’s not so bad.” It means that the extremes become much more frequent and potentially much more severe.

Sarah Kaplan:

I think the other thing to understand is that it’s not just a matter… climate change has basically raised the baseline temperature against which all of these extreme events unfold where if things are two degrees Fahrenheit warmer then you can expect every heat wave to just sort of like have that baseline be two degrees warmer. But then on top of that, you have these feedback mechanisms that can make things even more intense.

Sarah Kaplan:

And so one of the most straightforward ones is that during a heat wave when water is able to evaporate from the soil in front of vegetation, that helps cool things down. That evaporative cooling is why things… it’s why sweat helps cool you down on a hot day. And because climate change is also making the west much drier, it means that there’s less moisture in the soil and the vegetation to cool, and so to evaporate, which takes energy and help to cool down. So you get this feedback mechanism where it’s drier and so the sun’s radiation comes down and all of that heat goes into warming up the landscape instead of some of it getting used to evaporate water.

Sarah Kaplan:

And then that makes things even drier, which makes things even hotter and you get this feedback loop where in the heat wave that occurred in the Northwest last week, there were temperatures that were 11 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the previous record for those locations. And so that’s not just like one C might not sound that bad, but it can lead you to these really, really intense extremes that are much higher than what had previously been experienced.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Yes. And that’s something that’s really changed in recent years with the science attribution too. We’re now at a point where as one scientist was saying on Twitter earlier this week, that it’s no longer a question, or at least it shouldn’t be, did climate change caused this heat wave? Did climate change cause this drought? It’s rather climate change is affecting weather throughout the planet now. And so it is the proper question is how much of a role did climate change have on this? And that indeed anyone who says that climate change plays no role, the burden of proof is on them at this point. That’s where the science is.

Mark Hertsgaard:

I want to talk Sarah also about frankly, a very heartrending piece that you wrote based on visits to the hospital there in Portland and looking at the people dealing with heat stress. The headline on that piece was really quite remarkable, I think a headline that you would have never seen in a U S newspaper five years ago. And it went like this, “Climate change has gotten deadly. It will get worse.” Pretty straightforward, pretty harsh. So can you take us through the process of how that story and the others that you’ve been doing, how did you and your colleagues conceive that coverage, how was that headline chosen? How did you report the story, everything from sort of conception to getting it actually in the paper?

Sarah Kaplan:

Yeah, so that originally last week on, I think it was Thursday morning. I had been covering, I’m here in Portland I’ve been covering the heat wave as it unfolded. And towards the end of the week, my editor asked if we could write a story that just explained how climate change contributes to a heat wave like this. And I felt like that story, I mean, we had been embedded in our coverage of the heat wave all along and what really felt… and personally just what really felt so striking and just really hard to swallow about this heat wave was the death toll.

Sarah Kaplan:

I mean, it’s I think between Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, it’s upwards of 800 deaths now being investigated linked to this heat event. And I thought instead of just looking at, okay, how did climate change contribute to this heat event? Think about the consequences of the heat event, right? Heat is not this abstract thing, it’s actually being the reality of heat is deadly.

Sarah Kaplan:

And I think that really driving that home to people that a temperature increase sounds abstract, but somebody dying in their apartment because they don’t have air conditioning and it’s literally it’s their body is breaking down under those extreme temperatures, that is not abstract. That is the most visceral, physical possible consequence of climate change that you could think of. And so I really wanted to do a story that both looks at that consequence and also explains how that’s because of climate change.

Sarah Kaplan:

And so I got in touch with some emergency room doctors in the Northwest in Portland and in Seattle and just talked with them about what they saw. And like you mentioned earlier, they both told me that it was more intense than it was during the peak of the COVID surge. Because the COVID surge, that was something that they were prepared for, right? Whereas, I mean, to the extent that you could be prepared for anything like that and this heat wave like Portland and Seattle are not supposed to experience temperatures like this.

Sarah Kaplan:

I mean, Portland broke its previous temperature by eight or nine degrees and was 116 degrees here on Monday. So I think that that was just really striking and honestly really sad talking to them about the people who came in just desperate because they didn’t have the resources to cope. And then-

Mark Hertsgaard:

Sarah, let me interrupt here for a second. I want to encourage everybody on this call, read Sarah’s story. It’s a perfect example of what we often say at Covering Climate Now, when you’re trying to cover the story always try to humanize the science of it. And Sarah did such a literally heart-rending story. Have your tissues ready when you read that one. Let me switch over now please, to Sammy, Sammy Roth of the Los Angeles Times.

Mark Hertsgaard:

You grew up in LA Sammy. For those of us who aren’t there, we sometimes see these quite extraordinary images during wildfire season of there’ll be a fire burning right above the freeways and there’ll be thousands of cars driving back and forth right beneath it. so can you just give us a sense as an LA native, how do the fires now compare to what they were when you were a kid 20 years ago?

Sammy Roth:

Yeah, that’s a really good question. With the caveat that my childhood memories may be a little bit faulty, but I did go and look back at records of largest fires in LA County. It’s definitely worse now. I mean, it seems like just about every year now we have a fire burning in the hills, in and around Los Angeles and the larger LA County. I mean, throughout history, there have been large fires on occasion in this region. I mean, California is a place that has always burned but they’ve been relatively few and far between. It wasn’t a year in year out event. And now it seems like at some point every summer, every fall we’ve got smoke wafting over city.

Sammy Roth:

I mean, my parents who still live in West LA where I grew up, they were within half a mile of an evacuation zone just a couple of years ago. I forget if it was the Getty or Sepulveda fire, but that was something that I never have any recollection of as a kid. It never would’ve occurred to me that we were living in a place where we’d have to worry about getting out in case there is a wildfire.

Sammy Roth:

And you’re seeing it with heat as well. You look at, I mean, NOAA has these datasets, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. You can find this wherever you are, wherever you live. It’s not that hard to look up how have mean temperatures, max temps, mean temps changed over time. And it’s going up, up, up and that matches what my experience has been. We had temperatures in the low 90s on Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, which is something that it felt totally stunning and I never would have conceived of happening before.

Sammy Roth:

We had a record temperature reading in LA County, in the San Fernando Valley last summer of 121 degrees, which you live out here, you associate 120 with going out to the desert for a weekend. But here it was right in the LA basin. So things are definitely getting worse and it’s not that hard to feel it.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Sammy, does this change how your audience relates to these kinds of stories and indeed your colleagues? Is this making an impression on your fellow journalists at the LA Times to where they’re saying, “Hey, we really need to pay more attention to the climate story.”

Sammy Roth:

I think it is. I mean, there’s been a lot of focus on it internally for us. Of course, that reaches its height when the fires are at their worst, but it’s definitely become a year round story, not just for the handful of us who focus specifically on climate or environment. I mean, I have lots of colleagues who are writing about this stuff all the time. One of our award-winning and best-known columnists, Steve Lopez is probably one of the five highest profile journalists on our staff has been doing a series of stories about how climate change is affecting the desert and wine regions and other parts of the state. It’s something that’s on everybody’s mind. It’s something that I’ve definitely personally seen a really powerful reader response to, especially when I write about it in a way that’s straightforward and brings myself into it as a person.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Again, I want to commend to everyone Sammy Roth’s Boiling Point newsletter, which correct me if I’m wrong Sammy, I believe that comes out every Wednesday, right?

Sammy Roth:

Thursday mornings.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Thursday mornings, you write it on Wednesday. One of your recent pieces, I thought I really admired because you kind of broadened out the climate story to talk about, well, what does this mean for the government officials providing essential public services, in particular water, which of course is always the issue in California. And at the same time you were also giving very practical information to your readers like, “Here’s what you do, make sure that you turn down your air conditioning to the level that you can. If you need to get to a cooling center.”

Mark Hertsgaard:

But at the same time, you were quite clear and emphasizing that the only real solution to this is to stop putting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So you managed to cram a lot of information into one story. Again, like I asked Sarah, can you take us through how you and your editors decided on that approach? Did you get push back from the editors and how did your readers respond as well?

Sammy Roth:

Well, I guess a couple of things there. On the point about incorporating climate change until you mentioned I was doing some coverage of local water agencies and their leadership recently. I mean, my approach, and I think anyone can take this approach across almost any beat is the climate change should be a part of any story. I mean, you should go in thinking… and this is… it’s easy for me because I’m an energy reporter where there’s an obvious connection.

Sammy Roth:

But whether it’s sort of traditional environmental topics like water, public lands, or whether you’re writing about housing and the importance of affordable housing, or whether you’re writing about fires or whether you’re writing about politics and elections in general, I go into it thinking, “What is the climate angle on this story?” And again, I’ve felt rewarded for that from our readers because I see people respond to it. I mean, I get much more engagement when I pursue that strategy.

Sammy Roth:

With regards to your question about just being straightforward in the writing in terms of practical advice and just sort of stating the reality of what needs to happen, this may be a somewhat unsatisfying answer, but in a lot of ways, it’s just sort of something that I’ve decided to do and have been fortunate in that I’ve not received pushback to. I think that probably a lot of folks have a concern or a fear that this is something that if you get into it, it becomes politically controversial or your editor might have a problem with it or maybe I talked to one of my colleagues recently and told me that she was writing about heat and didn’t mention climate explicitly because she just kind of thought, “Well, people, don’t people understand that already?”

Sammy Roth:

So I think there are a lot of reasons why you might hesitate as a journalist or might think, “Gee, this is something that I don’t have to spend a lot of time on, or it might be too challenging to spend a lot of time on.” But as Sarah was saying, and as Mark was saying, the information is out there. There are lots of resources that make it really easy to find how climate change is affecting your area, what the science says, what scientists say need to be done.

Sammy Roth:

It’s really not something that takes years and years or even weeks and weeks of work to build up a baseline knowledge. So if you go and you look for that and you get basic familiarity with it and you make a decision of this is something that I think people need to know which it is, and if you’re willing to just be straightforward about it and not worry too much about, “Oh no, what if some people react to this badly?” I think that a lot of folks will find it’s actually not hard to do and not something you’re going to get a lot of pushback on, and frankly, something that your readers are really going to appreciate it. At least that’s been my experience.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Thanks. That’s Sammy Roth of the Los Angeles Times. I’m going to switch now to Adriene Hill. Adriene, I know that you guys are planning a lot of fire coverage. But first just take us through what exactly is the California Newsroom reporting collaborative within NPR, what drove you guys to establish it? How does it work? And then we’ll talk about your fire coverage upcoming.

Adriene Hill:

Great. So the California Newsroom is part of a relatively new initiative from NPR to establish regional newsrooms around the country. So the first I think was in Texas, they’re starting one in the Midwest, there’s one now in the Gulf states and we have California. And the idea here is to look at what stations can do better together, where we have shared overlapping interests, where we can lean in to make journalism stronger at all the public radio stations. And with that, as we were thinking through our mission, we came to climate change, looking at the wildfires, looking at the droughts as really a place of overlapping interest up and down the state of California where we could do a lot to help sort of lift the level of journalism that was happening.

Mark Hertsgaard:

So let’s talk about the fire coverage, because I saw you in LA a couple of weeks ago and I was really impressed by the ambition that you have on it and the pulling it together and how are you going to get that buy-in frankly, from the network back in Washington? How does all that work? And to the extent that you can tell us the stories that are upcoming, I was struck by one story that you all did in June 11. So we’ll have that in the chat. You all can look at this. June 11, NPR was making it very clear to our colleagues and the rest of the media what the summer was going to bring in terms of fire. So, Adriene, can you just tell us, what are you going to be doing now and how can other newsrooms learn from what you’re doing?

Adriene Hill:

So we’re in this lucky position of we get to work with journalists around the state of California. We do have touch points with the national desk and with NPR’s climate desk. But our focus in the California hub is really three things. We have breaking news, we focus on trainings and we have a strong investigative element of what we’re doing, and climate touches all of those. So for something as simple as breaking news, we know we’re headed into one of the worst, what is likely to be one of the worst fire records on season here in California.

Adriene Hill:

And we brought in Lauren Sommer from NPR, she’s a reporter there really to talk over how people can do breaking news in a way that also reflects the role that climate is playing in this. And so that means that when people are doing 60-second news spots for their newscasts or for the national newscast, we’re encouraging people to put in a line about climate change and the way it is exacerbating these conditions that create these extreme fires.

Adriene Hill:

So even in a very short 60-second breaking news story, we’re sort of encouraging people and the national network is encouraging people to put that mention even if it’s just a sentence of climate change into those breaking news stories. We’re also doing a lot of training because I think the more training you can do around climate change, wildfires, drought, the more you sort of raise everybody’s comfort talking about these things and willingness to talk about these things.

Adriene Hill:

So we’ve had journalists come in and talk to the hub members. We had CAL FIRE come in and talk about covering fires. We’ve had climate journalists, I mean, climate experts come in and really talk about, we had one last week about the drought and how journalists in California might consider covering the drought and what was happening in the north and what was happening in the south. And I think stories will come from those trainings, but so will just a shared level of expertise building that I think is so important. And then on the investigative front here, I work with a very talented investigative editor named Aaron Glantz.

Adriene Hill:

And he is really going big on sort of where we can find accountability around some of these issues in California, specifically at this point, related to mitigation and looking at are our government officials doing all they could to mitigate some of the effects of climate in California? Are corporate leaders doing all they can and living up to their promises to sort of do this mitigation work? And so we’ve seen some really great success just in the last couple of weeks on some of that accountability journalism, again, tying it all back to climate change and really holding people in charge accountable for what they’re doing to address this threat that is up and down the state.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Thanks. That’s Adriene Hill with the California Newsroom of NPR. So important to hear what you’re doing there, Adriene, especially the stuff on the breaking news. As we saw at the top of the hour, it does not take more than a sentence. If you put it in a 60-second news story, it doesn’t take more than five to 10 seconds to say that. Al Roker put it there and graphics obviously help if you’re on television. This is really, really critical. This is what we as a profession did not do in 2020. We covered the extreme weather 24/7 and usually we left out those two words, climate change. Let’s hope that that’s not going to happen again this year.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Now I want to turn to some other questions coming in from both here in the chat and in the RSVPs. And one of them, Sarah, I’d like to throw at you. It, again, relates back to science and we touched on this earlier, but it’s the whole question of attribution. Someone writes in and says, well, I heard that scientists can never attribute one particular weather event to climate change. Is that no longer the case and how do we do attribution authoritatively and responsibly now?

Sarah Kaplan:

I mean, I think that saying… I mean, part of the problem is that the framing climate change caused X, heat wave or fire or drought or something is not really quite the right framing because that’s not the way scientists go about investigating these things. The question is how much more likely did climate change make this event? How much more severe did climate change make this event. And that is something that scientists are able to do. They do do with attribution science all the time, and they can do it quite rapidly now.

Sarah Kaplan:

I mean, we saw the attribution study for last week’s heat wave in the Pacific Northwest just came out yesterday and found that climate change, basically this event would have been virtually impossible without climate change. It made the heat wave 150 times more likely. So that’s, I think the way you would want to frame it, and the way I often say it, is that we know that climate change makes heat waves more frequent and more extreme.

Sarah Kaplan:

This is an example of exactly the kind of events science’s effects have happened more often as the planet continues to warm. And if the research, the peer reviewed research is not out yet, you can say scientists anticipate that they’re doing this research and they expect the study to come out and find a very close climate connection. And that’s very easy to do. And like you said, scientists themselves say you don’t need to wait for the rapid attribution study to know that, just be able to say climate change made this more likely, it made this more extreme and more of these things are going to happen in the future.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Again, one of the things we do at Covering Climate Now, we try and build your climate confidence as journalists. So don’t be intimidated either by some person who’s writing in a letter to the editor, or even by colleagues in your own newsroom who say, “Well, how do we know that?” At this point, the science is pretty clear. Anyone who says that climate change is not involved, the burden of proof is on them, not on you. Let me take another question here.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Very interesting question, and I’m not sure maybe we’ll start with Adriene, but you others can also pipe in on this because it’s really a national question. The question goes that, drought, rising seas, extreme heat, all the stuff that’s happening in the west, they are not yet, the questioner says, they’re not yet affecting much of middle America in such dramatically noticeable way. So how do we, as journalists in the middle of the country make climate change effects relevant to readers, say in the Ohio Valley? Adriene, do you want to start with that? And you others can chime in if you wish.

Adriene Hill:

Yeah. I mean, first I would point to this amazing article in the New York Times today about climate change in Chicago. I don’t know if everyone has seen that, but it is just a phenomenal long form piece of journalism about climate change and how it’s affecting the levels in Lake Michigan. I think I’d already sort of thought Chicago was fairly insulated from climate change. Now you look naively because it’s not on the coast and it’s no. So I think that one it’s really understanding and talking to the scientists in your region and asking them those questions.

Adriene Hill:

Maybe it is not the same story of fire that it is in California, maybe it is not that story of drought that it is in lots of parts of the country right now. But what are the ways that you’re seeing it? And I think tying it back to local community, I was once doing some reporting a long time ago, and somebody said, “Reporting on climate change, you just have to open enough doors for people and find the door they want to go through to get there.” And I think it’s like opening those doors and letting them see the impacts on their community and the impacts on the things that your community cares about and really making that connection if it is not as clear as it is in some other parts of the country.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Sammy or Sarah, do you want to pipe in on this?

Sammy Roth:

Well, maybe the only other quick thing I would add to, I think Adriene really covered it there in terms of talking to your local researchers and experts, but someone who covers energy, the fossil fuel power plants and oil and gas extraction type things that are causing the climate problem are mostly causing the climate problem also generate significant amounts of very hazardous air pollution in communities all over the country.

Sammy Roth:

And I think there’s been, especially as environmental justice and equity has become more of a focus, there’s been this shift in thinking of, “Well, we shouldn’t just be talking about greenhouse gases. We’ve also got to be talking about hazardous air pollutants, criteria pollutants, NOCs, ozone, particulates, et cetera, which are coming from all of these same sources.” And that’s absolutely a story everywhere in the country. I mean, that’s a story, especially, I think in the Midwest and parts of the south and the Great Plains where they have still tons of coal and petrochemicals and all sorts of polluting stuff that’s affecting people on the ground.

Mark Hertsgaard:

This actually relates to another question, I’ll tie it in here. Question, is it sufficient for journalists to say climate change is involved in these events, or is it necessary to specifically mention the burning of fossil fuels? I’m biased, the questioner says, I’m biased towards the latter since I believe that the burning of fossil fuels is what connects the disasters to policy choices in a way that readers can have a direct understanding of. Is that what you’re driving on Sammy?

Sammy Roth:

Well, it wasn’t… I mean, it’s a related point, but yeah, absolutely. It’s something I try to do in my stories all the time. And if you want to be careful about it, which it’s good to be and you want to be comprehensive. It’s not just fossil fuels. I mean, it’s deforestation and land use change and feedback loops like melting permafrost. But fossil fuel extraction, consumption is the largest cause by a long shot. So yeah, I mean, if you want these stories to be relevant to decisions that people make in their everyday life like who they vote for and what kinds of conversations they have with their friends and families and what types of businesses they might want to be customers of, I think you have to do that.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Let me go to another question here. This relates a little bit to something you said, Adriene, so you might want to give an answer, but I’d like to put it to Sarah first. This is kind of a question of how various news organizations internally decide to grapple with the climate story. They say, what do newsrooms need to do in order to get climate properly portrayed in stories across the newsroom? For example, do they need to update their internal style guides? Do they need to do more training? Do they need to provide suggested wording for including these kinds of things? Has that happened at the New York… at the New York Times? I beg your pardon. Has that happened at the Washington Post?

Sarah Kaplan:

Yeah, I mean, I would say yes. There’s definitely more that newsrooms need to do. There’s more that the Washington Post is working on. I mean, anytime there is a climate impact story, even if I’m not on it, I will often offer to send two paragraphs about climate science to the reporter to just plug into their story quite easy for me to write because I do it frequently. But I think that, I mean, at the Post we hold brown bags with the climate team to help other folks around the newsroom to sort of understand to become more confident in their ability to incorporate climate change into their own reporting.

Sarah Kaplan:

And yeah, I mean, I think that like the… I forget. It was when Brian Stelter interviewed Emily Atkin and David Wallace-Wells last weekend. And I forgot who said it, but somebody said like basically every reporter is a climate change reporter now because climate change touches every single aspect of what we write about from policy to sports. I mean, the Olympic trials were in Eugene during the heat wave, everything else. And so we all need to have a basic understanding of climate science and just the stakes of it, not just like climate change is contributing to X also.

Sarah Kaplan:

Like scientists say, we need to have emissions by the end of the decade, have a shot of limiting warming to what has been loosely considered tolerable, 1.5 degrees Celsius. But even now we see that 1.5 still be quite bad. And yeah, I think every reporter needs to be prepared for it. And we’re working on at the Post definitely, we’re trying to think about more ways in which to make sure that everyone approaches their reporting with that framing.

Mark Hertsgaard:

That Brian Stelter interview that Sarah Kaplan just mentioned, we’ll put that in the chat. And another line from that, I think is very related to what you just said, Sarah, I think came from Emily Atkin who said that, “At this point, there is no excuse for any journalist, whatever your beat. Just like you have to have a basic understanding of the science of COVID-19 now in order to be a responsible journalist over the last year and a half, you also need to have a basic understanding of climate science at this point in order to be a responsible journalist in the 21st century.” Adriene, were you going to offer something more there?

Adriene Hill:

Yeah. I just wanted to say one, the NPR’s guide for reporting on climate change, Karen put over in the side, which is really excellent so thank you for sharing that with the group. I also wanted to say, I do think there is a lot of value especially if you’re doing short form breaking news kind of things and having some sort of template for what that sentence or those two sentences might be. Lauren Sommer again, did a training for us. She’s a reporter at NPR and her suggestion was just acknowledge the role.

Adriene Hill:

So climate change doesn’t cause wildfires, but it creates the conditions for more extreme fires. Temperatures are hotter, especially at night and fuels are dried out earlier in the season. Again, it’s 10 seconds, eight seconds. It’s very little time, but it just helps, I think, especially for reporters in smaller newsrooms who are on tight deadlines just to have something they can turn to and be like, “Wait, what is that I need to throw in this story to make it a more complete story?”

Mark Hertsgaard:

So please, everyone come to Covering Climate Now, the website we’ve had the NPR style guide there for quite a while, and there’s a lot of resources that enable you, empower you really to do this story well. We also have… smiled a little bit when Sarah talked about the brown bags that they’re doing at the Washington Post, Covering Climate Now also provides brown bag discussions with your newsroom. And the people that we really need to reach, it’s not so much those of us who are on this call.

Mark Hertsgaard:

The people who are on the Climate Beat already are doing the science reporting or the energy reporting. It’s the other people in the newsrooms, the television news, the executive producers and the show producers who decide what goes on the air and whether that one sentence attribution of climate change is part of the script or not and likewise their counterparts in print and digital outlets.

Mark Hertsgaard:

So when you can, please spread the news that these resources are available and that Covering Climate Now can connect you with them. Let me go to another question here. I’m not quite sure, any of the three of you can speak up on this one. How do you look for uplifting narratives in your coverage without sugarcoating the bad stuff or diminishing the seriousness of the climate emergency?

Sammy Roth:

I can start to take a stab at that. I mean, especially being on the energy beat, there’s a lot of reasonably hopeful stuff happening with regards to solar power getting so much cheaper and wind power and renewables and other zero carbon energy sources beginning to out-compete fossil fuels in different places. It’s like on the one hand it’s not my job to be a booster for any particular industry, and I think that’s important and there are serious questions that I’ve covered and will continue to cover about can these energy sources really pick up all of the slack from fossil fuels and if not what else is needed to supplement them?

Sammy Roth:

But you’ve seen in the energy sector emissions go down in a lot of places and there’s a reason to believe that they will continue to go down. A response that I sometimes get from people or a question I get asked is, “Well, doesn’t it not matter because we’re still so screwed anyway because it’s not happening fast enough and it’s going to be a drop in the bucket? And my response to that is typically, well, five degrees of warming is better than six and four degrees is better than five and three degrees is better than four, et cetera.

Sammy Roth:

So even if it’s not a story about here’s how we’re going to solve the whole problem and keep emissions below two degrees Celsius or below 1.5, the fact that there is progress happening in different places and technologies that are helping and at least giving us a route to get the whole way there, if we want to, I find that to be a hopeful story that can be told.

Mark Hertsgaard:

So, go ahead.

Sarah Kaplan:

I was just going to say that the Post has a climate solutions vertical that I contribute to quite a lot. And we’re looking, we try to do lots of big stories that both incorporate the nuance and complexity of like there is no one solution, this is not the solution but also show that there are paths to making a difference. I mean, I think that part of the problem with a lot of sort of the way we’ve traditionally covered climate change is because journalists have been biased towards negative stories and stories about what’s happening as opposed to what’s possible.

Sarah Kaplan:

We often don’t do a good job of helping people imagine what it could be like if we do fix some of these things. And the reality is, I mean, I think about I was listening to a podcast about electrification of homes and having heat pumps and electric stoves and things, and it talked about how it’s not just like that’s good for climate, but also indoor air is much cleaner because you’re not breathing carcinogens from your gas stove and you’re less likely to have allergies and asthma because traditional forced air furnaces cause a lot of dust and stuff in the air.

Sarah Kaplan:

And I was like, “That’s great. I want to live in that house.” And I think that helping people, again, like Sammy said, we’re not going to be boosters for a particular industry, but there’s science and data and evidence. It is stating the truth to say a home that has some of these electrified more climate friendly systems also could be more comfortable to live in and safer to live in.

Sarah Kaplan:

It helps people to imagine like, “Oh actually tackling climate change isn’t just about deprivation, and also there are options out there. I know what policies I need to vote for. I know what businesses I need to support.” Part of being a responsible climate reporter is not just framing the problem, but also helping people understand what needs to be done and what can be done and I think that writing about solutions is also a way to do that.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Our very last talking shop was on solutions journalism. In fact, we co-sponsored with the Solutions Journalism Network and one of the messages that came out from their research, they’ve been around now I think about eight to 10 years at least, is that actually our readers, our listeners, our viewers want that. They are tired of the negative focus that as Sarah just said, so often pervades media coverage. In local TV in particular, there’s now very detailed data measuring.

Mark Hertsgaard:

The old standard of if it bleeds, it leads is turning people off. What turns people on apparently is to say, “Okay, here’s the problem. But here are people who are working on the solutions.” Again, not boosterism, not pollyannaish kind of, “Oh, we can all sit around and sing Kum ba yah.” Not that. It’s still rigorous reporting, but you’re actually Solutions Journalism Network argues you’re actually doing the whole story. You’re not just doing the first half of the story about, “Oh, here’s a big problem.”

Mark Hertsgaard:

40 years into the climate crisis, it’s pretty clear it’s a big problem. The big place where journalists can now make a real mark is by going into solutions direction. So have a look at our website under the events tab and you’ll find that last talking shop. You can either watch the whole thing or read the transcript. Adriene I see you nodding your head, did you want to add something to that or should I go on to the next question?

Adriene Hill:

Oh please go on, yes.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Great. One quick thing though. Sarah, someone asked in the chat, what was the podcast? Do you remember the name of the podcast that you just referenced?

Sarah Kaplan:

Yeah, I posted it in the chat. It was Saul Griffith who is the head of Electrify America talking to Ezra Klein.

Mark Hertsgaard:

And Saul Griffith, by the way, also has a new book coming out, I just got the advanced readers copy sent to me the other day. I think it’s called Electrify or Electrify this, something like that. Anyway, look it up. He’s one of many scientists now who are pointing out, look, we have the technology, we know the practices that need to be done so try my friends, not to fall into the cynical easy mindset that so often pervades newsrooms that, “Oh, there’s nothing to be done about this.” There is something to be done about it.

Mark Hertsgaard:

One more question here. This is directed to Sammy, but others can chime in on it. What are your thoughts on trying to persuade climate deniers in your stories? Should your audience be people who already believe the connection or are you trying to convince people that climate change is connected to these extreme weather events?

Sammy Roth:

I’m sure Sarah and Adriene might have some thoughts on this too. I don’t spend too much time really anytime thinking about climate deniers these days. I mean, one, there’s polling showing that it’s just a relatively small number of people. You’ve got like something in the order of 10% of the US population that’s hardcore climate denial at this point. And I think it’s both in intuitive and there’s a lot of social science research around the fact that it’s not that they haven’t been properly introduced to the facts.

Sammy Roth:

It’s the reason that they deny the science. So I just don’t see that as an area where it makes a lot of sense for me to get bogged down trying to convince people who really don’t want to be convinced. I mean, what I think about mostly is people who are aware that climate change is real, aware that the planet is getting hotter and that it’s caused by human activities, which is most people. And there’s a small segment of that group that’s probably reading all of our stories on this that’s super engaged and motivated and trying to do something about it.

Sammy Roth:

But then there’s a much, much, much bigger group that’s aware of it, but it’s either not at the forefront of their mind most of the time, or it’s not a big priority, or they might not quite realize either how it’s affecting their own life or community or that there are things that they can be doing about it or that they’re political or policy choices that they may want to think about that could really be helpful. I mean, I’m thinking about that really big group of people who get it but aren’t focused on it and that’s where I sort of think about being able to make a difference as a journalist in this area.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Sarah or Adriene, do you want to answer that?

Adriene Hill:

No, I think it’s the right approach, is just not to worry about the deniers and really focus on that big group of people like Sammy said who care but don’t really know what they can do, where their role is in any of this because it does seem like such a giant problem.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Our colleagues at Climate Central in particular, Bernadette Woods Placky points out when you look at the actual social science research as Sammy said, the deniers, they’re now down between 7 and 9% of the population. So if you are actually thinking too much about them in your coverage, you’re missing and not addressing what 90% of your audience wants to hear about. And by the way, also relatively new Social Science Research, this is especially important for those of you who are in broadcasting in TV news.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Right now, if you’re under the age of 40 in the United States, it almost doesn’t matter what your political persuasion is, you want more climate news. If you’re a registered Democrat, 93% or something above 90% says that. You’re an independent, it’s up in the upper 70s. Even if you are a young Republican under the age of 35, most young Republicans want to hear more news about climate change for obvious reasons. They’re the ones who are going to be living through it the longest.

Mark Hertsgaard:

So again, don’t be intimidated by these climate deniers. I’ll just note too, that our weekly newsletter today at the Climate Beat, we talk about climate deniers under the headline, Do They Really Believe This Nonsense? We had a different word for nonsense, but we decided we couldn’t use it. So anyway let’s see here. What’s the next question? Oh, what about all three of you maybe can chime in on this, what about for those who are relatively new to climate reporting who maybe aren’t as fully climate confident as the three of you are?

Mark Hertsgaard:

If you could give them two or three tips on how to make that connection in their stories, how to win the argument in the newsroom at the 10:00 AM story meeting, but also how to do it in their stories that would be really great. So why don’t we start with, let’s see, I think we’ve… how about Sarah. We’ll go in the same order that we started the hour. This will be our wrap up. So Sarah and then Sammy and then Adriene.

Sarah Kaplan:

Yeah, I mean, I think that just in terms of improving your own understanding, reading other climate coverage, reading, looking at things. Like there’s resources on Yale’s… I forget exactly but the Yale’s program on communicating climate change, Covering Climate Now, Climate Central. There are a lot of websites where you can kind of plug in your region and it’ll tell you sort of like, “Here’s how climate change is playing out and here are what their projections are for 2050, 2100.” That can kind of give you the basics of like, “Here’s how to talk about climate change in a way that’s relevant to my community.”

Sarah Kaplan:

And then as far as the in newsroom conversations go, I mean, I think the case that poll after poll shows its readers want, or listeners or viewers want climate change reporting is a pretty good one, right? Like this is going to… Having the climate change connection is going make my story more relevant. It’s going to make my story more widely read. That’s what editors like to hear. And I think that the more confident you are in your ability to frame that science, the more easy it will be to convince your editor to let you do so. And so devoting the time and it really doesn’t take that long because the science is so clear and has been so thoroughly reported for so long now. Yeah, so I think it’s definitely… it makes good journalism sense in addition to being true.

Mark Hertsgaard:

Sammy Roth.

Sammy Roth:

Gosh that was such a good answer, Sarah. I don’t know that I have that much to add on top of that, those are all points that would have hit on. I guess the one thing that you said that I would just add double emphasis for is you talked about being able to look up here’s how it’s affecting us now in our community or our state and here’s what it’s going to look like in 2050 and 2100. I would just say if you’re thinking about winning an argument with an editor and making your case to really focus on the now.

Sammy Roth:

I mean, to me, that would be one of the things that’s likely out there that’s in editors’ heads because this is an idea that has been around for a while that was maybe true at some point, but is no longer true, that this is a problem of the future and saving the world for our children and grandchildren type things. Like, no. I think as a reporter, what you want to bring too is here’s what’s happening now, it’s already affecting us.

Sammy Roth:

And especially if you’re a young person, a young reporter, to be able to say like, “Look, I’m concerned about this because this is a problem that if we’re seeing it this bad now, how bad is it going to be in my lifetime?” I think that that’s a personal case that you can bring with a focus on the fact that it’s already happening,

Mark Hertsgaard:

Adriene, 30 seconds.

Adriene Hill:

30 seconds, I’ll just restate what they’ve already stated. Which one, I do think like Sarah said, take the time to understand what it means to your community, take the time to do those trainings in your newsroom for your editors, for your reporters. Really have those brown bag lunches, have big conversations around it. And I think to Sammy’s point, connecting it as much as we can to what’s happening now is not that hard these days. It is everywhere. Climate is, like Sarah said, part of everyone’s beat. And I just think reminding people over and over, these are climate stories too, whether it’s the big climate story or a line or a paragraph, just keep sort of getting that in there.

Mark Hertsgaard:

So well said. I’ll just add in one final note, remember solutions, remember solutions as you’re doing this. That’s always a crowd pleaser and it just happens to also be true as Sarah Kaplan said. I hope that all of you enjoyed this hour. I think you see why, and now that you’ve listened, why I said at the top of the hour, these are through the absolute best journalists in the world on this question. We are honored at Covering Climate Now to have had with us Sarah Kaplan of the Washington Post, Sammy Roth of the Los Angeles Times, Adriene Hill of National Public Radio’s California Newsroom.

Mark Hertsgaard:

I’m Mark Hertsgaard with Covering Climate Now, and we invite you to come to our website. We’ll send you a follow-up with all the resources after this and we are here at your disposal. We’ll keep this line open for a few minutes for anybody who wants to keep asking questions in the chat. But now I ask you to please give a warm virtual thank you to our three panelists today, and we will leave it at that and wish you a very pleasant day. I’m Mark Hertsgaard with Covering Climate Now.