This November’s US midterm elections have enormous climate implications. Americans say they’ll be voting on the cost of living, abortion rights, and the future of democracy. What most of them don’t know is that they’re also voting on climate survival. Which party controls Congress will shape whether the Inflation Reduction Act is the high-water mark for US climate action or a first step towards the more ambitious measures scientists say are imperative.
At this Talking Shop, hear veteran journalists share tips for making climate change a core part of campaign coverage, avoiding partisanship, and highlighting where candidates stand on the defining issue of our time.
Mark Hertsgaard: Hello, and welcome to another Talking Shop with Covering Climate Now. I’m Mark Hertsgaard. I’m the executive director of Covering Climate Now, and also the environment correspondent for The Nation Magazine. Welcome to everybody who’s joining us here in the United States, around the world. Our subject today is making climate change part of elections reporting. I’m sure we’re all watching the hurricanes, going up the Florida coast now, and that we’ve seen in recent days these hurricanes have brought such terrible destruction to Puerto Rico, to Cuba, in the Pacific to the Philippines, it’s gotten much less coverage. And of course, Florida. All of these are reminders that climate change is getting worse. But how much worse climate change gets will depend largely on the actions that governments take. And that means that elections are inherently climate stories. From now on every election everywhere in the world is a de facto climate story.
That’s true of the United States midterms coming up in November. It was true last week in the elections in Italy, and it’s true this coming Sunday in Brazil, where two very important, different views of climate change will be in competition. Pollsters tell us that Americans say that this November, Americans think they are voting on cost of living, abortion rights, the future of democracy — and surely that is what they’re voting on, but they are also voting on climate survival. And from now on, that’s what voters everywhere are gonna be voting on. It’s our job as journalists to help them understand that and make wise choices. So today’s Talking Shop: we’re gonna be exploring how we as journalists can help the public see the connection between their vote and the climate emergency; between who they install or remove from office, and the amount of extreme weather that we all see going forward.
We are joined, I’m very proud to say by an extraordinary group, really, of journalists, three veteran journalists. They’re gonna help us talk and think through how to make climate a core theme of our elections coverage; how our coverage can connect the dots between extreme weather and the choices that voters make; and how to aggressively but fairly hold all candidates accountable for their positions on climate change. A quick word about Covering Climate Now, if you don’t know. We are a global collaboration of more than 500 news outlets that reach some 2 billion people around the world. We’re organized by journalists for journalists to help all of us do a better job of covering the defining story of our time. It costs nothing to join Covering Climate Now. There’s no editorial line except zero tolerance for climate denial.
And you can go to our website coveringclimatenow.org, and you’ll find a list of our partners. You can sign up for our weekly newsletter, The Climate Beat. You can join our Slack channel. And your newsroom, or you as an individual journalist, can apply to join Covering Climate Now. As I say, there’s no cost and we are building the community of climate journalists around the world. So come one, come all now.
I hope that you will all join me in giving a warm virtual welcome to our three panelists. First, Gabrielle Gurley. She is a senior editor at the American Prospect, where she covers, where she reports rather, and edits stories on climate, politics, civil rights, elections, and economic development and infrastructure. Previously, she covered state politics in Massachusetts for Commonwealth Magazine, and she’s based in Washington, DC.
Also joining us: Tracy Wolf. She’s the coordinating producer of the Climate Unit at ABC News, which launched last November. Previously, she was a producer and a reporter for ESPN’s investigative team, and before that, she worked with National Geographic at the climate series, Years of Living Dangerously.
And finally, Daniel Wiedemann. Daniel is a former, I wanna emphasize that, the former US Bureau Chief of Groupo Globo, that encompasses, that’s the big media colossus in Brazil. So Groupo Globo encompasses Brazil’s leading broadcast network, that’s Radio Global. Its leading cable news channel, Global News, and its leading news website, G1. Daniel has covered US politics and elections for Globo from 2002 all the way through to 2021. He is now a director at the Brunswick Group, and that is a global consultant company. I wanna thank all three of these colleagues so much for joining us and lending us your expertise and your time today. We are going to take questions, as you all know those of you who’ve been on Covering Climate Now talking shops before, the first half hour is me questioning the panelists, in the second half hour, your questions and, engaged conversation with everyone. You can tweet throughout the session and you are welcome to use the #ccnow.
All right, let’s get started. Since we’re moving on into the hour here, Tracy, I’d like to start with you, if I may. Covering Climate Now is about to publish a Q&A in Columbia Journalism Review and other partner outlets, either tomorrow or Friday. And in that Q&A, our colleague, Jonathan Watts of the Guardian, who is now based in Brazil, has an interesting quote about climate and elections. He says the following, “What’s missing in the coverage of the Brazilian election is what’s missing in coverage of elections all over the world, which is a sense of urgency about the climate crisis.” So my question to you is, what is your hope for how you and your colleagues at ABC News can convey that urgency in your coverage?
Tracy Wholf: Oh, you know, I don’t, I feel like covering climate in the sense of urgency is ubiquitous regardless of whether elections are happening or not, right? Like, that’s part of our mission as journalists covering climate change. You know, I think the biggest challenge that we have especially at a national news outlet like ABC News, is every day we’re inundated by headlines and making sure that those climate headlines rise to the surface. Now, obviously, on a day like today where we have a Cat four, Cat five hurricane making landfall, some people would say, well, there’s climate coverage happening. And while I’m certainly happy that, you know, we’re going all in on that coverage, I think we need to continue to sustain the urgency beyond, the landfall, beyond the eye, you know, passing over Sarasota and Tampa Bay. And so we’re constantly trying to find those headlines, those stories, that we can elevate across all of our platforms, all of our shows, all of our entities, and make sure that people read them, watch them, digest them, process them, and resonate with them. But it’s, it’s difficult. There’s a lot of competition from a lot of other beats in the newsroom.
Mark Hertsgaard: You know, ABC News joined Covering Climate Now, I’m very happy to say, not that many months ago. And I know that you and others inside of ABC have been pushing for that for a while. Do you sense now with events like, this hurricane and, and others, you know, as the people say now you don’t need to be a scientist to know the climate change is happening, you just have to look out the window. Do you sense that there is more appetite among the sort of the gatekeepers at ABC News, the executive producers, et cetera, the people who actually decide which stories go on the air, which stories get assigned? Has that been increasing? Has that made it easier as you go into the midterms to get climate change part of the midterms coverage?
Tracy Wholf: Most definitely. I feel that everyone is interested in covering climate change at ABC. There’s definitely an emphasis on it. There have been mandates from top down about wanting more coverage. Again, the challenge is, I think, especially in broadcast news, everyone has a very short attention span. We get very distracted by the next shiny object. And so while today the emphasis is climate change, hurricanes, you know, we recently experienced the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi. Obviously, all of the extremes we’ve seen this summer with heat and wildfire. There have been multiple conversations about elevating that coverage, highlighting it, making it bigger. The problem is then the next day, another disaster strikes in another corner of the world, and you are seeing women protesting human rights in Iran, or, you know, we’re now talking about sabotage of pipelines in the Baltic. Of course, that’s also a climate story.
And so, you know, my job and my role is when I see those headlines of the next shiny object, how can I find a way to point people’s attention to, well, hey, what’s going on in the Baltic Sea could be, you know, environmental terrorism. That could be what we’re seeing. Can we start reaching out to resources? And, you know, unpacking that thread a little bit and elevating it to all of our news partners. Because I think at the end of the day too, I think news agencies are looking for ways to set themselves apart. And even with the death of the Queen, you know, we made sure that we were really highlighting, okay, what did she do on climate change? Because she was very vocal about it. So I’m constantly trying to find ways in today’s breaking news to find those climate and environment angles, that can change the conversation a little bit, but still be on topic and relevant for what are in rundowns for all of our news programs.
Mark Hertsgaard: So, speaking of breaking news, let me ask you one more question before I turn to Gabrielle. Let’s talk about Florida: Hurricane Ian. Only the latest example of just how vulnerable Florida is to climate change. Florida also, of course, is a battleground state where two prominent incumbents seeking reelection in November, Governor Ron DeSantis and Senator Marco Rubio, both have very poor climate records. Rubio in particular, has been a long time climate denier, voted against the federal infrastructure bill that included billions of dollars, $47 billion, to boost climate resilience in places like Florida. So that would seem to be the kind of information that voters in Florida deserve to know about as they cast their ballots in November. Is Florida a story that you could see ABC News doing as part of its midterms coverage with a climate angle? And if so, how would you go about doing that?
Tracy Wholf: Yeah, I think it’s a very easy climate angle, because I anticipate what you’re gonna see in the aftermath of this storm is gonna be pretty significant destruction and the need to rebuild. And so I think that’s your obvious entry point. You know, hospitals will be flooded, roads will be destroyed. These are all things that require resilience, adaptation, mitigation. These are some of the things that DeSantis actually has offices for that he hasn’t filled. Right? And so I think it’s important to point out some of the, you know, political decisions that have or haven’t been made over the past several years, and point those out to our viewers, and I’m sure that’s something that we’ll be doing in the next few weeks.
Mark Hertsgaard: That’s Tracy Wolf. She’s the coordinating producer for climate coverage at ABC News. Let me turn now to, Gabrielle Gurley of the American Prospect. Gabrielle, you said, that election coverage should be less about horse race — who’s ahead, who’s likely to win, all of that stuff — and more about the policies that various candidates support, and how those policies will affect ordinary people’s lives. That’s a song that I personally have been singing for many years about, you know, against horse race coverage. And I think there’s probably a lot of journalists out here, who on this call and elsewhere, who would agree with you in principle that really, we shouldn’t be doing so much horse race. But how do we turn that principle into practice? I assume that many assignment editors would say, hey, this is what the public wants. There has to be some reason that they’re doing that coverage. So, how would you suggest, can you tell us first a little bit about why that focus on polls is so destructive? And any ideas that you have for how all of us as journalists can try and push back against that kind of coverage?
Gabrielle Gurley: The problem with polling is that, there’s a level of assumption that people understand the ins and outs of polling. Polling is a snapshot in time. It tells us who may or may not win on August 25th. When you get to September 15th, that picture may change. And with people, we don’t necessarily make those connections when we are discussing polling that, why did candidate X’s, ratings, polling go down in the month that passed? So I think that if there is going to be a certain reliance on polling, which obviously there is, we have to explain to readers and viewers what they, the information that they’re getting, why the poll has changed, what that means for the candidate. And oftentimes we don’t do that. We just say, Okay, the person was up in August and now they’re down. So it’s incumbent upon us to explain exactly what the polls can and cannot tell us about an election race.
I also wanna look at events and what they tell the average person. I am very focused on how can we make these very difficult concepts and very thorny political issues accessible to the average voter. I do a lot of talking to our audience at the American Prospect, it’s very heavily policymakers, journalists and whatnot, but at some point you have to stop talking amongst yourselves and talk to the average person. That’s why Hurricane Ian is going to be so important for this conversation. Hitting a state that many Americans are very familiar with. They have visited it. They obviously are familiar with landmarks in Florida. They have some knowledge of what’s going on there. And this is a catastrophic hurricane.
I don’t think those of us who don’t follow this closely, have no idea how bad this is going to be. It’s going to spark not only the weeks-long coverage of the effects, but decision making that Ron DeSantis and Charlie Christ should be talking about between now and the election. That is, we’ve been hit by category four or five hurricane. What does that mean about where Floridians can now live in the wake of this? That conversation has been accelerated in certain regions of Florida, Miami, for example, which is sinking as most of us are familiar with. But I think this is going to accelerate that conversation. It’s going to put pressure on the candidates to tell us what their plans are going forward for the state.
DeSantis, for example, has emphasized we need to build stronger, stronger infrastructure. Well, a category five hurricane really doesn’t care about your strong infrastructure. It can rearrange that pretty quickly. So it will give us an idea. And Charlie Christ on that side has had a significant record on environmental issues during his term as governor in the mid-2000s. So it will force policy makers to deploy their plans.
And I am always looking at, in these very vulnerable zones, can Americans continue to live in places? Are policymakers willing to have that different cult conversation? It’s, it’s what I call, or what the terminology is, “managed retreat” — are some people going to have to move? It’s a very difficult conversation to open with people. There’s a little bit of a debate night now, should we call it managed retreat, should we call it “resilient relocation?” Which sounds maybe a little bit more appealing, but what you’re asking people to do, what you’re asking businesses to do, is not to relocate in vulnerable areas where that conversation has been had after, after Katrina, after Hurricane Sandy. But I don’t think it’s really been driven home to people. It’s happened in wildfire zones. It’s even happened in river zones that are susceptible to flash flooding. There are areas of the country that, you know, you think about wildfires, you think about, hurricanes, but you don’t necessarily look at areas like Kentucky, or Vermont, that in the aftermath of hurricanes, and strong storms have flooding issues. So I think it’s going to accelerate those, conversations.
Mark Hertsgaard: One thing to just add on to what you said there about what’s gonna happen in the Gulf Coast of Florida in the coming hours, the National Weather Center is now projecting storm surge of 12 to 18 feet hitting Sarasota. That, we have to understand, that is a wall of water 12 to 18 feet tall. That’s almost two stories tall coming in. Nothing is going to be able to stop that wall of water. And we all need to remember also a little bit in our coverage of hurricanes when we say category four, category five, that measures the wind speed. And there’s actually been movement now within the profession over the last 10 years to say, you know, the category four, category five is a little misleading because it leaves out storm surge. And storm surge in the case of this one, Hurricane Ian, is going to be the probably the dominant destructive force. And it raises questions. I personally was able to do a lot of reporting in Tampa and that area some years ago, talking to emergency managers. And one of the stories is not gonna be, I agree totally, with you Gabrielle about the managed retreat. And a big good angle to look at that for our fellow journalists here is insurance.
After the previous storms, you would see the very same places being rebuilt and relying on federal insurance, disaster insurance. So that is a story, that is one of the sleeper stories, I call it, on climate change. If you wanna dig into something that is going to be huge and for years to come, look at the insurance and what’s happening to insurance, are you gonna be able to insure places like that in Florida?
Let me ask you one last question here, Gabrielle, on, on, on Florida. How, how would you see covering that? You’re based in Washington, DC, I assume the American prospect would probably not be sending you to Florida, to report on the ground. So how do, and just thinking of advice for our colleagues who are on this call, how do you cover a story like that with the insights you just gave us from afar?
Gabrielle Gurley: Well, let me just make this one point. It’s been 30 years since the last, if this maintains, its, you rightly point out the notes about wind speed, but it’s been, it’s been 30 years since the last category five, if I’m not mistaken, hurricane hit Florida, Hurricane Andrew, which is within the living memory of many Floridians. What’s changed? What’s changed in 30 years, what hasn’t changed? I think those are areas that are ripe to explore. I’ll be looking at the candidates, obviously, and what they’ve had to say about the storm as it comes ashore. I think the political angle of this is going to be played up significantly.
Also, what are gonna be some of the effects of the surrounding states? South Georgia is also under a tropical storm watch. It’s a significant agricultural area for the United States for produce. Particularly when you look at what’s been going on in the west with drought and the problems that farmers have been having out there. What can the strong storms that, you know, the remnants hopefully, of a Hurricane Ian, going through South Georgia, what does that mean for produce prices going into the winter? As far as Florida recovery is concerned, it’s one of those things you will have to see what the extent of damage is. What kind of funds is Ron DeSantis going to be looking for, for the federal government. He has yet to, last I looked, he has yet to be on the phone with President Biden.
Mark Herstgaard: Just to update you there. That just broke this morning that Biden did speak at some level.
Gabrielle Gurley: He finally did speak to him. Okay, President of United States during a disaster is your best friend.s So I’m glad that conversation has happened. But what’s going on with getting resources? Is FEMA gonna step up? FEMA has come under a lot of criticism for its hurricane response in the past. You pick a storm, it’s been criticized. Have they come to a point where they are better able to organize a response to this than they have in the past? And let’s not forget Puerto Rico in all of this. Puerto Rico, it was a category one when it went through Puerto Rico, but the island is still suffering from that. And it’s important to realize, compare and contrast, how fast the power gets back on in sections of Florida, and that this island, a tiny island still has problems with power. Those are the things to be looking for.
Mark Hertsgaard: Yeah, let me give a shout out there on the Puerto Rico story to our colleague at HuffPost, Alexander Kaufman. He’s been following this very closely, and one of the things he pointed out just as the hurricane was coming into the island is that, you know, that electrical system on that island was privatized after Hurricane Maria against widespread opposition. And it went down, of course, after this last hurricane. So check out his ongoing reporting. Alexander Kaufman at the HuffPost digital site.
Speaking just now was Gabrielle Gurley. She’s with the American Prospect. And I’m going to turn now to our colleague from Brazil, although he is located in New York right now. Daniel Wiedemann.
Daniel was the Bureau Chief at Globo, the media colossus in Brazil. And you have covered many, many US elections here, Daniel, dating back to 2002, I believe. Can you talk a little bit about how, and just remembering that some of our colleagues on this call are not US based journalists. Can you talk a little bit about how US elections, why they’re so important to the rest of the world, especially on the question of climate? Why does the rest of the world’s media pay so much attention to the US midterms?
Daniel Wiedemann: Thank you, Mark, and thank you for having me here. Hi, everyone. I mean, there are several aspects of US elections which become crucial. And I’m gonna recite them not in order of importance, but in order of how they just reach my mind. I mean, one of them is simply, you know, it’s still seen as an example, as an influencer, so to speak, as a blueprint, you know, for a lot of democracies and a lot of countries out there. I mean, we have seen actually more recent, you know, political phenomenon, you know, that happened in the US be literally a playbook being copied, you know, in Brazil more recently. So that’s, it’s always something that catches people’s attention in the way of to see, like, just, people wanna know what happens in the United States. You know, we’re talking about the shiny thing, you know, Tracy was talking about. It’s, in a way, it’s still a shiny something to look at that catches people’s attentions and imagination.
The other side of it is, it is truly important and in US politics and how it relates to the rest of the world and how it makes decisions, with its purchasing power, with its diplomatic influence in which, and how it, with not only the multi-lateral organizations around the world, but sometimes even domestic policy and domestic consumption can influence greatly economies around the world. So it becomes very important, for the value of the currency. You know, whether you’re gonna be able to export or import. These are far reaching, very palpable impacts on people’s lives.
When it relates to climate, I would say the same thing and actually for both reasons. Again, on the example side and how it affects your life, on the example side, sadly enough, even though the US has this strange dichotomy in which you have some really leading technologies, leading companies, leading states, for example, as you would have in California, driving a lot of the conversation and goals. And at the same time, you have had over really quite ever a lack of commitment, right? From the US from for, not ratifying, let’s say, international treaties and international goals, even if they are non-binding, like the Paris Agreement. So that becomes important.
And in a way, it becomes an escape valve, no escape valve is not the word, like a scapegoat, I suppose, or like an excuse, like a cheap excuse for some countries not to act on climate because they can point a finger to the US, which of course, over many decades was the number one polluter, and say, “look, they are not committing to it either,” even though the conversation in reality in the US is a lot more nuanced than that. Because you have states, you have cities, you have companies actually really trying to do the right thing But it’s super easy to point at, you know, the Kyoto treaty not being ratified and hide yourself, you know, hide and hide behind that.
Mark Hertsgaard: And Daniel, let me just insert here. As a journalist who is not working for a US based news organization, how do you, what tips do you have for colleagues who find themselves in that same position: who know that the US midterm elections are really interesting to their viewers or listeners, or readers, and, you know, maybe they’re not even here in the United States. Can they cover the US elections well from remotely? And even if you are here and you’re on the campaign trail, you know, you are reporting to people who cannot vote for the candidates. So I’m assuming that, you know, when you were covering these elections for Globo, it was very hard to ever get an interview with even the candidate staff, much less the candidate, him or herself. So how did you approach that from a nuts and bolts, like working reporters approach, and what kind of advice can you give to our colleagues who are facing that situation over the coming months, between now and November?
Daniel Wiedemann: Sure. So yes, it is possible to cover, let’s say, not on the ground number one, especially because let’s say the, the bar, the expectation of the viewers abroad is to know what’s going on in the US but not necessarily be on the ground following candidates. I would say it’s a really big challenge actually, to cover midterms because, you know, again, coming back to the big shiny moment, that tends to be though, is the presidential elections, right? So midterms are one of those things that I think, as, you know, a foreign, as a representative here of foreign journalism, I think it’s a challenge for all of us to make sure folks back home and our markets and our viewers understand the importance that Congress really has in holding the purse, in deciding how to spend money or how to even staff important commissions.
And it’s important, you know, by having to approve, of course, those names, and the fact that you have 36 governors that also are going to be elected in, Texas, Florida, New York, California, that really, again, hold, you know, the power and the purchasing power and decision-making power for the bigger slice of the country. So I think that’s a recommendation that I have as a journalist, is: remind your viewers of that, remind your viewers of the relevance of those political bodies. When you are on the ground, I think interestingly enough, so when we cover the presidential elections in this case, so obviously, who do you wanna talk to? You wanna talk to the president, you want to talk to the candidate. It’s harder in the primaries because they don’t wanna talk to you, like you said, but it costs money. That’s one thing I have to say, it’s a lot of investment because it’s not only sending people to the ground if you wanna travel with the candidates on the plane, that costs a ton of money. The midterms, I would say the advantage is that you’re not dealing with these, you know, so for example, you have a story that you wanna cover in West Virginia or in another state. You may find that candidates are more prone to talking to you than, than not, because it’s, you know, they’re more approachable simply. Even though you can’t vote for them. If you literally are there and you have your mic out, they will start to talk to you, and you can ask a question that will revert back to your market, to your audience, to your interest back home.
So I would say don’t be discouraged. Like if you have a newsroom that is willing to invest. And the other thing is that it’s very, there is a certain level of pride in the audience, right? When your audience back home sees you there at the place covering with that microphone, you know, even if you’re not covering months and months, right? Even if it is, you went to one event here, one there. But it brings an enormous value also as a reaffirmation of your own, you know, journalism credentials. And, I mean, I could talk forever about the relationship with Brazil, of course, because Brazil is a protagonist in the climate conversation.
Mark Hertsgaard: We’re gonna get to that right now, Daniel, actually. But before I ask you my final question to you, let me just say to our colleagues online here, we are now gonna be going after this next comment from Daniel Wiedemann of Globo. We’re gonna be going to your questions. You can put them in the chat. We’ve got a couple of people in line already. We’ll get to as many as possible. So Daniel, yes, this Sunday, big election in Brazil, first round voting. With obviously enormous climate implications, Brazil being one of the world’s biggest economies, also one of its growing emitters of greenhouse gasses. It’s record on this has changed rather dramatically under the current presidency of Mr. Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro is facing the former president, Lula, and big big expectations on Sunday. What do the rest of us as journalists need to know about that election, again, as it relates to the global climate implications of it?
Daniel Wiedemann: Yeah, I think this time around it’s really quite stark. You know, the difference in the climate discussion. One Lula got to power back in 2002, then too, the emissions were record, but there was over the following, really, it was the following, 14 years, more or less of government of the party, of the workers’ party that he represents, it was a steady decline. And, by the way, the emissions in Brazil are really mostly from deforestation and the burning of the forest. So that’s why you see such variation, right? I mean, just the other day there was a 15 year record, unofficial, but still record in the deforestation of the rainforest of the Amazon. So yeah, that explains why emissions are going up. And it’s been stark.
The difference has been stark because the current president, you know, it’s not, I mean, he goes back and forth, of course, he doesn’t want to stay openly, that he supports deforestation or that he doesn’t support protecting the forest. But he, the fact that first of all he tends to support a lot of the agricultural interests. Not all agriculture and Brazil respects the rainforest first off, okay? But there is a slice of it, of course, that does. And, and it’s a slice of which Bolsonaro tends to talk to and talk about and show closeness to. But the other thing is that just the mere fact that you position yourself in not a very—when you are a little bit on, on top, on top of the wall, as we say, undefined, or you speak of both sides of your mouth, that’s enough for the criminals to act and think they’re not gonna be punished, right?
When you give mixed information and you say, Oh, no, I will protect the forest, but you kind of indicate that you’re not gonna really go in to police it, criminals do take advantage, and there are a lot of criminalsin the Amazon, you know, there’s criminal activity, it’s become a little bit of a lawless place, and it’s almost, it’s very hard to police. Not to say impossible. It’s almost three times the size of the Euro Zone. So of course, it’s, you know, the challenges are gigantic, but, and 30 million people live there. But I think that you need a strong commitment. You need to be very, you know, clear about how you’re gonna act as a government, at least, even if you don’t have the policing apparatus, at least to signal and signaling becomes really important in those, in those regions I believe.
Mark Hertsgaard: There’s, I wanna commend a piece that is published by one of our new partners, a startup site in the Amazon called Sumaúma, I’m probably not pronouncing that correctly, but that is apparently a very important tree inside of the Amazon. And this outlet is founded by Jonathan Watts, formerly of The Guardian, and a number of other colleagues in Brazil. They just ran a piece that we highlighted in our previous Climate Beat. You can go back and look at it, and I’m sure my colleague will put it in chat here in a moment. That pointed out that the number of fires in the Amazon today, as in September of 2022, are the highest on record. And the speculation of the experts quoted in the story is that the fires are increasing precisely because the criminals that Daniel Wiedemann just referred to are looking at the polls, and the polls show that Lula is likely to win, Bolsonaro, the incumbent is likely to lose, and the criminals wanna burn down as much of that forest as they can before election day. So have a look at that: Sumaúma, if you are interested in what’s going on in the Amazon on the ground reporting there, they are an excellent source. And because they’re a partner of Covering Climate Now, you, if you are a partner as well, your outlet can co-publish their work, with credit, of course. So have a look at that Sumaúma, about the Amazon. And one more note, as you look at the election coverage on Sunday, it is, and correct me if I’m wrong here, Daniel, but I believe this is the first round of votes. So if either candidate wins 50% plus one, the election is decided, there is no second round. But if no candidate gets 50% plus one of the vote, then we go into a second round. Is that right, Daniel?
Daniel Wiedemann: That’s correct. And the second round would be four weeks from next Sunday. So that would be October 30th.
Mark Hertsgaard: Very close to the US midterms election.
Daniel Wiedemann: Exactly. I mean, right now, you know, you can’t say, well, which way it’s gonna go, but let’s say it is completely possible, there is a real likelihood or potential for it not going into the second round. I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s close enough to 50 plus one in the polls even though polls have varied depending on the poll, a lot, we’ll only really know, you know, the day of the election and results come very quickly in Brazil.
Mark Hertsgaard: So we’ll look on Sunday. Now, I want to go quickly to questions since we overshot a little bit on our opening discussion, but it was very interesting material. We’re gonna go first to our colleague Larry Moffett. He’s with Press Club Brussels in Europe, and we’re gonna be talking about coverage of the US midterms. Larry, if you’re there, please go ahead, you can unmute and then we should all be able to hear you.
Larry Moffett: Yes. Good afternoon from Brussels. Can you hear me okay?
Mark Hertsgaard: Yes, go ahead, please.
Larry Moffett: My question is phrased in the US context, but I think you can apply to Brazil and other countries as well. How do you strike a balance between the responsibilities of journalists on one hand to inform the public about the scientifically proven facts of climate change, and on the other to be perceived and judged as nonpartisan, given that many of the candidates of one political party oppose policies to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Thanks.
Mark Hertsgaard: So how do you look like you’re not putting your thumb on the scale when the fact is that in this country, the Republican party is pretty much entirely against any kind of climate action. How do you still look fair and accurate as a journalist? Tracy, would you like to start with that?
Tracy Wholf: Yeah, well, it’s a great question, Larry. Actually, one story that we’re specifically working on at ABC that we anticipate will be published in the next couple of weeks is actually looking at what is the climate change movement, right of center? Who are those people? And we actually interviewed quite a few Republican, you know, members of Congress who have publicly come out, you know, I wouldn’t say in support of climate change, but have said that they acknowledge climate change and are interested in doing something about it. So that’s a very direct short answer to your question. I think other ways to do it actually relates to a comment I saw in the chat about making sure that when we do our reporting more broadly speaking so that we aren’t looking partisan, is making sure that when we’re covering, you know, extreme weather events, for example, that we’re using attribution studies, coming from, you know, scientific basis and knowledge as evidence of climate change, making sure that, you know, we’re saying this event has been attributed to climate change, so that we’re constantly backing up those things with facts. In terms of, you know, when we’re going to political leaders and asking these questions, I think we’re always trying to arm ourselves with the scientific facts, so that it’s not coming from a political perspective.
Mark Hertsgaard: Gabrielle, do you wanna chime in on that? I think you might have some thoughts. You’re still muted though. Unmute yourself, please.
Gabrielle Gurley: The American Prospect is a progressive magazine, so we are less bound by that. That said, I think on the scientific front, I’ve seen more and more outlets very strongly say the science proves fill in the blank. I think like the discussions that happened around in the early days of Covid, it’s very difficult to argue as far as people who are anti-vax or whatever, to argue against the science. Similarly, on climate, it’s very difficult to argue against the science. So I think the science is helping to propel and the effects which are obvious to everyone, even if you are not going to say that I accept scientific fact, or if you are a conservative Republican on, you know, on the other side of the issue, people are increasingly on both sides of the aisle coming to a consensus that things have changed, that there have been very definite negative effects on climate. So I think that is going to be less and less and less of an issue, particularly as the strong storm, stronger storms, increased drought, more violent rainstorms continue.
Mark Hertsgaard: Let me also chime in here. This is something that we’ve worked on quite a bit in, in answering to Larry Moffett’s question at Covering ClimateNow. It is not our job as journalists to make excuses for a political party or for a politician who has chosen to take a certain position on climate change. It’s our job to report that and to report as both Gabrielle and Tracy have been saying that that does not accord, does not correspond to the science. If we bend over too far backwards and say, Oh, well, we can’t look partisan. What you get is what we saw in the United States in recent months around the, what now became the climate bill. A lot of attention given to Joe Manchin and almost no mention of the reason that Joe Mansion’s opinion even mattered is because all 50 Republican senators refused to take any action on climate change.
They, those republicans, they get a pass from our coverage because we feel like we can’t mention that, that it’s somehow partisan.T hat I submit to you, that’s not journalism. That’s letting our fear of how we’re gonna look, dictate what we report. And, you know, look, it’s their option as a political party. They can decide to do what they want, sure, but if they don’t want to vote for a given, you know, whether it be Build Back Better or what eventually became the Inflation Reduction Act, we should be pointing that out. And I’m happy to see that in the months, I should say in the weeks leading up to that vote, the New York Times, the Washington Post, they were beginning to get this into their coverage. They were not just talking about ad nauseum about Joe Manchin, Joe Manchin, Joe Manchin. They were talking about how all 50 Republicans are opposed to any kind of climate action. That is a fact, and we should be reporting that fact going forward. Let me turn to our next question here, and let me see if he’s here and wants to ask it himself. And if not, I will for him. Our colleague Dennis Moynihan at Democracy now, Dennis, if you have the desire, you can unmute. But if I don’t hear from you in two seconds, I’m gonna ask your question for you.
So, all right. Your question is how are the issues of the climate emergency and the democracy emergency linked, and how do we link them in our coverage? I will just add in while our panelists think of that, Covering Climate Now did a whole theme on this back in February. You can go back and look at our coverage. We did a Newsmaker interview with Representative Jamie Raskin in the Congress, who of course, led the second impeachment hearing into our President Trump talking about and Jamie Raskin said, “we cannot defend the planet if we don’t first defend democracy.” Bill McKibbon also wrote an excellent piece in the Guardian and the Nation as part of that, talking about that theme, climate emergency, democracy emergency.
I’m gonna start with you Daniel because many people would say that there’s a democracy emergency in Brazil, just like in the US and that Bolsonaro is very much following a Trump kind of playbook, threatening violence, saying that if he loses, it’s only because the election was stolen. How do, and I know you’re the former bureau chief, so I’m not asking you to speak for Globo, but how can reporters, whether in Brazil or the United States or elsewhere, how do you link the climate emergency with democracy?
Daniel Wiedemann: I mean, the only way we’re gonna be able to uphold laws, you know, and the only way that we are going to be able, as countries and governments and civil society, in other words, that puts these governments into power, you know, have them respect our, our will is through the democratic process. So yes, I think protecting democracy is protecting the climate in that sense, because when you have anti-democratic governments, they tend to be, you know, in general a lot more prone to acting in self-interest and trying to perpetuate themselves, trying to make friends wherever they can. Andthat usually is in detriment to rules which are usually for the greater good of us who want to vote and put them in power. I don’t know if I answered your question.
Mark Hertsgaard: How do you make that clear in the coverage, Daniel?
Daniel Wiedemann: Well, you know, I don’t think that, so I haven’t seen in the coverage that I have, and I’ve been following very closely, for example, obviously the coverage of the political coverage in Brazil, and whereas the climate conversation is very prominent, and the stance of both candidates have been you know, they’ve been asked very clearly about what the stance is, they’ve been talked about. In Bolsonaro we have seen the track record over the past four years. We have seen what has, how the ministry of environment was first. They were trying to have completely end it, and then they kept it, but then the minister spoke openly about taking advantage of the pandemic to pass laws stuff like, so we, the people have, this has been discussions that have been, you know, it has been reported on widely, I believe, I don’t know.
But not in conjunction necessarily as, and then separately you have a very big coverage of, you know, defense, of democracy, of challenging results of the upcoming elections. All of this is widely reported. Is it in conjunction together with each other? I personally don’t recall seeing it like that, but I think that absolutely it’s something that as climate reporters in being in the climate beat is, is something to explore more and make the connection because, in the case of the Amazon, for example, one of the big problems right now, is the rule of law. It’s simply the rule of law is not there. And if you don’t have a strong democracy, a strong acting government that has, you know, the backing of the democratic institutions, it becomes, if it becomes impractical, you don’t have the support you need. You don’t have the money coming in from investments, which really, frankly, the Amazon does. I don’t wanna, you know, only talk about the Amazon here, but it’s a place that for the forest to be protected, it does not mean, and I don’t know if you know, it does not mean it, it’s, it, at least that’s, you know, how we see it in Brazil, it does not mean it’s, it’s untouched. It means it needs to be protected sustainably, you know and somehow continue to be integrated without being deforested so to speak. And that takes very, I mean, it takes technology, it takes investment, it takes coordination, it takes a strong government really to be acting there.
Mark Hertsgaard: Let me just also mention, the problem of, in the Amazon, our colleague Dom Phillips, a journalist who was murdered in the Amazon, precisely because there’s not proper law enforcement there. It’s a real issue. So first, Gabrielle and then Tracy about how we link climate emergency and democracy emergency.
Gabrielle Gurley: What we’re gonna do, what journalists should be looking at, in Florida and to a lesser degree in Georgia, depending on how severe the effects are there, is election administration. Can Florida and Georgia conduct their midterm elections in a fair, and let’s say free way? Voter suppression and election subversion are real problems in the United States now. We’ve always focused on voter suppression, but now election subversion.
Mark Hertsgaard: What do you mean by election subversion?
Gabrielle Gurley: Obstructions that are put into place to hamper counting of ballots. What happens after the polls close? How do election officials handle potential problems with provisional ballots or what have you? So it’s interference with counting, interference with the actual results. And Florida, can the state get their infrastructure up and running? I know less about Florida than I do about Georgia as far as what they’ve done since 2020, but Florida is actually in a good position because their election officials actually have a very good national reputation for running elections. So how far, how fast can they get back up? And to the degree that there are people who want to interfere with that, what, what should you look for? The same in probably South Georgia, again, depending on what effects the hurricane has, Georgia has reduced the number of drop offs after the 2020 election and has put in a significant number of obstacles to the voters. So those are two things. Those are two states to watch, as we move to November.
Mark Hertsgaard: Perfect example of accountability journalism going forward, looking at how they carry out these elections. And let’s remember the hurricane season is not over. Hurricane season is gonna run into November. So we could very easily have more hurricanes before election day. Tracy Wolf, if you wanted to chime in on this, and then we’re gonna go round Robin really quick because we’re four minutes from the end. Go ahead.
Tracy Wholf: Yeah, just very, very quickly, you know, we participated in that particular democracy and climate reporting project with Covering Climate Now. And you know, one of the things that we really looked at ABC News was, okay, who is sponsoring certain legislation? Where’s the money going? And so I think in terms of connecting climate change to democracy and threats against democracy, you know, we looked at national security. One of the stories, and I’m actually gonna pop it in the chat here that we just updated yesterday, which was part of this project, was looking at how environmental activists are prosecuted and how terrorism enhancements are being slapped on these activists, people that are trying to damage infrastructure. Well, when we really went back and looked at it, this was a blueprint by the fossil fuel industry and its connected interests to try to protect their, you know, their resources, right?
And so it really came back to, you know, climate change is connected to democracy because they’re, you know, in our story we showed that activists who are targeting pipelines are getting slapped with terrorism enhancements, but rioters from January 6th are not getting those same enhancements. So why is that? Where does that come from? And so I think there’s a lot of different ways that you can follow the money. You can look, well, how come the state of Texas wants to boycott financial institutions that are talking about decarbonizing and now no longer investing in fossil fuel interests? Where is that coming from? Why is that now happening in West Virginia? Why is that now going to Idaho? Why is that becoming, you know, a trend? Look at who’s sponsoring that trend. That’s how climate change is impacting democracy. And there’s a lot of stories like that.
Mark Hertsgaard: Again, accountability journalism and the old journalism 101: follow the money. All right, I’m gonna give each of you literally 30 seconds. I want you to give me one or maximum two very concrete, any suggestions you have for integrating climate into elections coverage that we haven’t already covered. Daniel, you’re up: 30 seconds.
Daniel Wiedemann: I’m gonna go back to the basics. You know, do, like, don’t assume we don’t know everything. And as a journalist, it’s our job to ask questions and go back to perhaps those who know more. So y you know, do talk to, I think you have to engage in your talking now from a foreign perspective with the, let’s say, think tanks specialized in climate policy in your region with even, you know, with business interests, with what your, you know, foreign policy government is interested in and try to find, you know, going back to the midterms, the stories, the topics, the interests that they have as well that you think, you know, will give you ideas of, okay, now I can marry this, that you know, what’s happening in the US and how you cover what the importance of a midterm elections into my climate story that interests my audience back home. Get them interested in it by educating yourself also a little bit more in branching out.
Mark Hertsgaard: Good idea. Gabrielle.
Gabrielle Gurley: I would say in, in the wake of these storms, look to youth. Look to your college students, look to your high school students. These are groups that are very energized about the climate emergency. And I would say that with the high profile storms, they’ll be even more energized. The, this period has the potential to nudge abortion, a little bit. Young people are worried about climate in a way that we can’t even imagine. And I think this period of storms will heighten that anxiety. And so I would urge reporters to talk to college students, talk to high school students and see where, you know, particularly, you know, people of voting age obviously, see where their thinking is now that climate is back on the front pages.
Mark Hertsgaard: Another good idea. Talk to the kids. Talk to the kids. Tracy Wolf, take us out. I’ll give you 20 seconds.
Tracy Wholf: Well, I’m gonna steal a line from Mark that there’s climate in every story. And so whatever that shiny object is of the day, there’s a climate angle in it. And if the shiny object is Latino voters in Arizona, I can guarantee you there are green groups. There is money being funneled to those groups from a climate perspective. So find that most popular, interesting subject that, you know, don’t try to, don’t try to fight the popularity. Find that topic and then find your climate angle and you’ll get noticed.
Mark Hertsgaard: Excellent, excellent, excellent stuff. I’m so grateful to all three of our colleagues here today. That was just Tracy Wolf, coordinating producer of the climate unit at ABC News. We’ve also been joined by Gabrielle Gurley. She is the senior editor at the American Prospect Magazine. Check that out online. And finally, last but certainly not least, Daniel Wiedemann. He is the former bureau chief at Globo, and now with the Brunswick Group in New York City. We thank all of them for lending us their time and their expertise today. And now, on behalf of Covering Climate Now, I’m Mark Hertsgaard. Thank you all for joining us, and we wish you a very pleasant day.