Q&A: John Mecklin on Climate Change and Other Existential Threats

"I honestly believe that people can manage the things they create," said John Mecklin, editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Each month, Covering Climate Now speaks with a different journalist about their experiences on the climate beat, their reporting tips, and their ideas for pushing our profession and craft forward. This month, we spoke with John Mecklin, editor in chief of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The Bulletin, founded in 1945 to focus on the threat of nuclear weapons, has since given equal space to the climate emergency. At a time when Russia is threatening nuclear attacks amid its war in Ukraine, all against a background of ongoing climate change, Mecklin spoke to us about making existential issues accessible to audiences. The conversation has been edited for clarity. Follow Mecklin on Twitter.

Tell us a bit about your career and how you came to lead the Bulletin.

I’ve been in journalism since the dark ages, basically. Since the 1970s. And I’ve been lucky to pretty much always be working in the public interest. Early in my career, I was an investigative journalist for newspapers, focusing mostly on public integrity — white-collar crime and holding public officials accountable. I later edited a couple alt-weekly newspapers, in Phoenix and San Francisco; this was during the real heyday of alt weeklies, when those publications were more like longform magazines. One of the big stories we did in San Francisco, which won a George Polk Award, had to do with nuclear waste that a research laboratory was dumping into the ocean.

I wanted to get into more national and international coverage, so I went to some magazines trending in that direction — first High Country News, and then I was asked to start up the magazine that would become Pacific Standard. I joined the Bulletin, in the number-two spot, in 2011. And in 2014 I became editor in chief.

It sounds like you’ve been focused on climate and the environment longer than most.

I started looking closely at climate change in the mid-’90s. While at High Country News, which has a regional focus in the Mountain West and of course focuses heavily on the environment, I went out to the University of Rhode Island. The Metcalf Institute people there were doing these seminars, where for three or four days climate experts would teach journalists about climate change and why it’s important. That was the start of my deeper understanding of climate change as a big deal that, in the media, wasn’t getting anything like the coverage it needed.

It’s remarkable how long that went on — I think it’s only the last several years that most outlets have started paying attention. I remember other journalists arguing with me, saying, “Well gosh, John, what are we going to do, put climate on the front page every day?” Not a lot has changed. But of course there were always a million ways to address this story, because it’s part of nearly every other story out there. If you understand how important our climate is, you see that this problem wraps itself into almost all news coverage. If you don’t and you just treat it as one issue among a bunch of others — if you’re always worried about whatever has the biggest, grabbiest news hook today — you’re always going to undercover climate.

Did you find it difficult to transition to the Bulletin, with its more specific remit?

No, and there’s a reason for that. Pretty quickly after I came on, it became clear to me that what the Bulletin does matches exactly with my sensibility in regards to journalism: that we should cover the most important things first and most strongly. That we should try to make those stories interesting to people, not find what’s most interesting to people first and then give that a veneer of importance. Figure out what people really need to know and present it to them in a way that’s accessible, so they can then go and do good things in the world.

At the Bulletin, we cover what we call “existential threats,” things that could end civilization as we know it. If there’s a worldwide thermonuclear war, little else that we care about will matter. All those other issues that we pretend are important and fixate on — many of these issues are important, but if we don’t pay attention to the existential ones first, there won’t be a civilization for those issues to play themselves out in. If climate change goes unchecked, organized civilization will not exist in a way that anybody today would want to live in it.

The Bulletin was founded to cover nuclear issues, but it currently covers climate change as a matter of equal importance. Can you discuss the decision-making behind that?

If you go back to things written and said early in the Bulletin’s history, the people who founded the magazine knew that nuclear weapons were just the first of the scientific discoveries that would have existential possibilities — that there would be other technologies that also would threaten the future of humanity. The Bulletin actually started covering climate change late in the 1950s. It had its first climate change cover story in August of 1978. And it was in 2007 that climate was formally added to the magazine’s mission statement.

In 2020, you were quoted in CJR saying you hope for the Bulletin to be read both at the White House and the kitchen table. How do you and your team think about making these enormous and unwieldy scientific issues tangible and digestible for everyday audiences?

Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it? To make these issues salient, something that world leaders will do something about, you do need to appeal to the experts who inform the Bulletin and who contribute to our community. We look at the tools of narrative journalism — paying a lot of attention to the opening of a story, making sure the writing is clear and, to the extent that we can do this, that it also sings, and employing narrative tools like suspense. Don’t make the story dry as dust. Don’t be hectoring, saying “You must care about the climate!” Try to blow people’s socks off and give them something in the story that they can carry around with them.

In December, for example, there’s a writer for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Tristan Baurick, who did a freelance piece for us about the climate threat to industrial facilities on the Gulf Coast. The story involved getting data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the best data on flood risks, and then analyzing it together with some people at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We mapped all the industrial facilities and all the various toxic chemicals they each have and then presented it in the form of an interactive map. The story was well-written, the multimedia effects were wonderful. I thought, “This is the kind of stuff we want to do more of.”

Do you see a moral dimension to all of this—a kind of evil in that it’s a small, often wealthy few bringing both of these threats on the world?

I don’t think that solving threats to the whole of humanity is advanced by labeling particular interests as “evil.” The executives of oil companies don’t think of themselves as evil. Even somebody like Putin doesn’t think of himself as an evil person. In the height of the Cold War, the old men who ran the Soviet Union were doing horrible, repressive things. But to get to a less dangerous, less horrible world, you had to negotiate with them. And you couldn’t negotiate with them if you’re all the time screaming at the top of your lungs how evil they were.

So we’ll write about the facts of what fossil-fuel interests are doing, which is terrible. And we’ll write about what Putin is doing in Ukraine, which is absolutely indefensible. Those kinds of hard truths aren’t going to be avoided. But my focus as a journalist is, how are we going to make it better?

Both the nuclear threat and climate change are man-made problems that man isn’t doing a lot to solve.

I’ve long been a fan of Charlie Peters and Washington Monthly, which kind of founded the idea of always including a solution: If you’re going to write about a problem, you have to give some practical, reasonable way of dealing with it. When I first started what became Pacific Standard, the center of every story was a solution. And that mentality has kind of naturally carried over here — it’s part of the Bulletin’s DNA to not just run around tearing our hair out and screaming about these terrible problems but to focus instead on how we get control of them.

Over my time at the Bulletin, I’ve really been educated. I’ve come to understand and accept that in the real world there are these really “wicked problems” for which there may not always be a clear “solution.” The idea that world leaders aren’t doing anything about climate is not right. Things have been done. They’re not happening fast enough, and there’s a lot of blocking behavior by fossil-fuel interests and others. But, however you cut it, climate change is a really difficult problem. Same with the nuclear thing. In theory, yes, it would certainly be the goal to get rid of nuclear weapons, because they’re an extreme danger. But there’s a lot to think about from a practical perspective if we want countries to start giving the weapons up. Whether or not we could ever get countries to give them all up becomes really a philosophical question. So, what we’re really trying to do with these problems is manage them towards a reduced risk and an ever-smaller threat.

As you look out now at the broader media ecosystem — where climate reporting has improved a lot but where there’s nevertheless still room for improvement — are there lessons you’ve learned at the Bulletin that you would share with colleagues elsewhere?

Well, I’ve learned in my career that every outlet is different — people that run major newspapers and magazines have all sorts of constraints on their behavior, and trying to do what needs to be done is not always as simple as people on the outside might think.

The only advice I’d give anybody is: If you really want to cover climate and where you’re working doesn’t allow for that, find another job. I was speaking at an Investigative Reporters and Editors event — some people I’d edited had won an award — and I got all these questions from people working at small- to mid-sized papers saying, you know, “I want to do investigative journalism, and I’ve proposed this and that, but my editors are always figuring out ways not to do it or they always say the story isn’t ready, what can I do?” My advice was, “Quit.” Go somewhere that wants to do investigative journalism. There are some entities out there that are afraid of their own shadows and are just never going to do a lot of this. You can’t waste your time with that. When it comes to climate, there are now many outlets, both ones focused on climate specifically and larger outlets that have seen the light, who are hiring for climate.

Amid the unfolding war in Ukraine, some focus has been given to climate connections with the conflict. Are there climate aspects you wish you were seeing more of?

I think this is revealing the start of something bigger that I hope we get into at the Bulletin. You’ll notice that all the autocratic petrostates are lining up on one side of this. This is not often directly discussed, but if the world actually quickly deals with climate change, what countries are going to be really negatively impacted? Russia, for one, where fossil fuels are the country’s main source of revenue. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries also seem not willing to line up with the US right now; 10 or 15 years ago, Saudi Arabia not stepping out with the US would have been shocking, I think.

Sometimes when environmentalists talk about addressing climate change, I don’t think they acknowledge that there are going to be losers in the transition, who will lose a lot. You’re talking about the most radical energy revolution ever. And the losers in that change are going to lose a lot. When your national income and way of life are threatened, all sorts of things follow from that — including, possibly, violent provocations. Managing that is going to be a really big deal, and it’s something I think we’re going to see a lot, in different manifestations, in the coming decades.

Right now, the nuclear threat, which most people probably thought nothing about, is suddenly acutely apparent. Climate change marches on, and meanwhile fossil-fuel interests are taking the opportunity to double down. In dark times, what gives you hope? What keeps you working?

You know, I honestly believe that people can manage the things they create. Yes, the invasion of Ukraine is a terrible thing. So is the fact that some politicians are now saying, “Hey, forget about this climate change stuff — the price of gas is through the roof, and we need to drill more fossil fuels!” Yes, this all looks bad. But these kinds of long-term global problems are fixed by remaining constant, by doing what we need to do to minimize risk, and I still think we will. I go to parties, I tell people what I do, and they always say, “Gosh, isn’t that depressing?” I say, “No, it’s not. To get the chance to try to help save the planet? That’s the best job in the world.”