Living Through the Climate Emergency

Here's an overview of story ideas across news desks to help reporters jumpstart brainstorming and find new story angles.

Science tells us the climate emergency is here now. From rising seas to raging wildfires, from sizzling heat to devastating storms and hurricanes, climate change is reshaping daily life in communities around the globe. If humanity doesn’t act, in a big way and soon, the future will be grim.

Many in our audiences know this. They want reporting, and they want action. Others continue to have a poor understanding of the scope and severity of the problem. In addition to reporting why scientists call today’s circumstances a climate emergency, journalists can help improve public understanding by running human-centered stories that explore both meanings of “living through” that emergency, the impacts and the solutions. That is: stories about how people and places experience the emergency and stories about how they, and all of us, can survive it. For political reporters, for example, the Biden administration’s climate agenda obviously deserves coverage, but audiences will likely be more engaged by stories that start with how the climate emergency is seen and felt by ordinary people — and then discuss how government policy can make a difference.

As described below, there are countless stories to be told about how the climate emergency is playing out in people’s daily lives, and what can be done about it. These stories should be told not only by journalists on the science and politics desks but also their colleagues covering business, housing, health, sports, food, and other beats. Threaded through all coverage should be a recognition that the climate emergency generally hits the poor and people of color hardest — the very people who’ve done the least to cause it. Solutions reporting is also critical and should highlight the many tools available for taming the climate emergency. That coverage shouldn’t be limited to changes in individual lifestyles; even more important are systemic actions by government and businesses to reduce emissions, as well as the civic actions — protesting, voting, lobbying public officials — needed to encourage such reforms. Remember that many solutions — such as a shift to clean energy and climate-friendly farming— will bring economic benefits, including new jobs and business opportunities, in addition to making communities healthier. Simply put, they will change life as we know it.

The suggestions below are by no means exhaustive — and our fellow journalists know perfectly well how to find and tell stories. Our intention is to jumpstart your brainstorming and help newsrooms everywhere get the climate story right.

Sections below include: Health, Food & Agriculture, Housing & Real Estate, Consumer Life, Culture & Society, Migration, Business & Finance, Politics & Government, Activism & Climate Advocacy, Social Justice, and Solutions


Health

The British Medical Association declared a climate emergency in 2019, calling climate change and air pollution “two of the biggest global public health challenges.” Roughly one in every five deaths globally is caused by the burning of fossil fuels, researchers from Harvard and Oxford universities have concluded. Communities of color and the poor are hit the hardest. News stories about the people and communities behind these statistics, and how to protect them going forward, are an excellent way to convey the urgency of the climate emergency.

  • Are there fossil fuel-based power plants, oil or gas wells, mining operations, or other fossil fuel infrastructure such as pipelines near you? Visit them, the folks living nearby, and local medical professionals, to tell stories about public health impacts of the climate emergency.
  • How are the health consequences of climate change experienced unequally as a matter of race, class, gender, or other social determinants? How has historical government funding affected the healthcare these communities can access?
  • How are hospitals and healthcare systems responding to the extra burdens of climate-related conditions, such as rampant heat exhaustion?
  • How is climate change affecting peoples’ mental health?
  • How will excess heat and extreme weather impact sports and outdoor recreation? What are the adverse effects on athletes, from the professional to peewee levels?
  • How do habitat destruction, especially deforestation and biodiversity loss, set the conditions for the spread of new viruses, such as Covid-19?
  • How is climate change affecting wildlife health and survivability? (Beyond pictures of emaciated polar bears, the effects of climate change on wildlife are visible on every continent; and, not for nothing, animal stories are often audience favorites.)

CCNow partner the Lancet Countdown has a wealth of information and resources to dig deeper into the health story. The Society of Environmental Journalists also has a useful tip sheet for covering health infrastructure as an environmental story.


Food & Agriculture

Climate change is already having a massive impact on the food we eat. In some places, crops that once flourished now wither from excess heat and insufficient rain. Elsewhere, extreme weather flattens crops and sends food supply chains reeling. Food is also where we observe climate solutions, however, through efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of farming practices and food innovations, like the alt-meat movement, that replace fossil fuel-intensive agriculture and eating with climate-friendly—and tasty!—alternatives.

  • How is climate change threatening the foods and drinks that we need (and love)?
  • What new foods, including alternative proteins, are entering our diets? Some people have changed their diets to help mitigate climate change. What specifically drove them to make the switch?
  • How are farming and food production practices changing to cope with climate impacts on farmland, or to reduce their emissions?
  • How are industrial farming practices contributing to climate change? And how might farming technologies change to be more sustainable for the planet?
  • How are farming interest groups (think the American Farm Bureau Federation) and other stakeholders (think the sugar lobby) helping to lead farmers and other food workers into a more sustainable future, or are they opposing change?
  • How are stronger and more frequent extreme weather events affecting the well-being of subsistence farmers (a majority of the world’s population)?  For example, are there climate connections to the massive farmer strikes in rural India in early 2021?
  • How is climate change affecting fish populations, which many societies rely on as their foremost source of protein?

Housing & Real Estate

The climate emergency is increasingly affecting where and how people can live. Again, its effects are disproportionate, though they threaten rich and poor alike. Many disadvantaged communities occupy locations especially susceptible to storms and flooding, such as along rivers or coasts; as climate change drives more extreme weather, these people stand to suffer further if adaptation measures aren’t taken. And in places where wildfires or rising seas imperil housing, even folks wealthy enough to own their own homes are finding it much more difficult to obtain and afford insurance. Lack of insurance in turn makes it impossible to sell property, rendering many household’s single largest source of wealth all but worthless.

  • For homes and buildings in your region, how are natural disasters, including hurricanes and wildfires, affecting property owners’ ability to obtain and afford insurance, and what effect is this having on the housing market?
  • At a time of rising homelessness in some countries, including the US, how will climate change be experienced on the streets?
  • Are renters, landlords, and property owners climate-proofing buildings? Is the cost of climate-proofing subsidized by governments? And are long-term savings, in energy and utilities costs, passed on to renters?
  • How are people working to climate-proof their homes? Are governments working to climate-proof public housing? Proving subsidies to help low-income homeowners do the same?
  • How does wealth influence whose property is protected from climate impacts and whose is left vulnerable to damage?
  • How are construction-codes and architecture practices changing to support more sustainable buildings?

Consumer Life

People want to know how climate change and new, climate-friendly technologies will affect their daily lives. Corporate advertising that implies individuals bear primary responsibility for fixing climate change is wrong and self-serving, but the choices consumers make can help. Bringing the climate story into the home and people’s daily routines enables them to visualize what a greener future will look like.

  • How have corporations tried to convince consumers, falsely, that individual actions—as opposed to reform of far-reaching government and corporate practices—are paramount in countering climate change?
  • Are high-efficiency, low emissions appliances—refrigerators, dishwashers, washing and drying machines, etc.—widely available and affordable for consumers? How are governments and companies supporting their availability and adoption?
  • How will electric vehicles change life for consumers; and how are governments setting the conditions, or not, for their widespread adoption and use?
  • How are public utilities enabling or inhibiting a greener, more efficient electrical grid? Are they making it easy, for example, for property owners to install and reap the financial benefits of solar panels, or are they rigging the system against change?

Culture & Society

Climate change, especially climate anxiety, is already a common theme in new arts and media, and it’s also changing how people think about such basic aspects of the human experience as having children. At the same time, certain climate solutions are changing how people think about their relationships with the planet and each other, often for the better. As climate change intensifies, and as humanity ramps up efforts to combat it, what is changing in how humans think, feel, and live?

  • How are the climate emergency—and corresponding emotions of climate despair and fortitude—reflected in new art, literature, music, and film?
  • Are there examples of art that convey a sense of climate emergency and its solutions in ways that journalism and activism have not?
  • How is the climate emergency affecting would-be parents’ decisions to have children? For those who are already parents, how is it changing the act of parenting? How are parents talking to children about climate change?
  • How do different communities’ beliefs/ideas about health impact their understanding of the climate crisis and its solutions and vice versa?
  • As climate change causes people to come and go from various communities, what are the effects on culture, language, and other social institutions?
  • How is climate change disrupting or otherwise affecting outdoor pastimes like hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, and skiing?

Migration

Climate disasters are already driving migration within countries and across national borders. As disasters worsen, displacement will increase, radically altering both the places people leave and the places where they resettle. The Biden administration has announced it will seek to assist so-called “climate refugees—how will that work in practice? More broadly, how people and societies everywhere experience and prepare for these changes—and whether or not climate migrants are welcomed with compassion—will prove to be of world-defining importance.

  • How are climate effects driving migration at the local level, within countries, and across national boundaries? Within cities, how is climate change driving gentrification?
  • How are cities and regions that are relatively “climate safe” preparing to cope with population influx?
  • Do government entities recognize the existence of “climate refugees,” and what policies exist to aid the resettlement of climate migrants in societies around the world?
  • How will increased transnational migration stress already tense immigration debates, especially in wealthy countries, which are more likely to be the recipients of climate migrants?
  • In areas that people have fled for climate-related reasons, what does life look like for those who stay behind?
  • How and where are governments supporting moves to migrate (i.e. managed retreat)? What does that look like? Who is benefitting? Who is left behind?

Business & Finance

Too often in the media, we think of our business coverage as partitioned from the broader news of the day. But business as usual played a big role in creating the  current climate emergency. At a time when climate coverage is finally catching on with audiences, we should expect climate business stories to have wide appeal—whether they examine accountability for the fossil fuel industry or a rapidly shifting culture of investing, in which some of the world’s largest money managers are divesting of fossil fuels—all actions that will affect countless mom & pop businesses and employees across a wide range of economic sectors.

  • As documented by rigorous investigative reporting, fossil fuel companies knew as far back as the 1970s that their products threatened humanity’s future, but executives chose to lie about that to the public and policymakers. What do the people affected, from low level oil and gas workers to  communities ravaged by drilling and mining, think should happen now to the companies?
  • What is the status of the many lawsuits that governments and activists have filed against oil and gas companies, and what will the suits’ outcomes mean for the plaintiff communities?
  • What does a declining fossil fuel industry mean for investments and employee pension funds, across industries, and how might investment management companies and pension funds restructure to mitigate losses?
  • As renewable energy sources rise, how is their production and use changing communities?
  • As major financial stakeholders divest from fossil fuels, will money be reinvested towards climate-friendly innovations?
  • Are there small businesses and startups innovating for climate reasons and whose work is shaking up industries?
  • How are employees and shareholders pressuring specific companies to change their behavior related to climate change? What are companies doing in response?
  • How are businesses using advertising and other public relations strategies to shape views around climate change, fossil fuels, and renewable energy? What strategies are working to either mislead or educate the public?

Politics & Government

Climate change is deeply political, but it should not be partisan. That is, it will take strong policies to defuse the climate emergency, and those policies will be decided through political activities including elections, lawmaking, and public debate. But covering the politics of climate policy is not a partisan act, even if some try to frame it that way. Helping audiences comprehend climate change, and understand the necessity of climate-smart policies, is not partisan. It’s our responsibility as journalists.

  • Some countries and communities have declared a climate emergency. What did that mean practically for people there, and what happened after the formal declaration?
  • Some countries (and companies) have targets to reach net zero emissions in the next few decades. What’s the status of those plans, and how will they reshape daily life?
  • As fossil fuel production slows, how are governments enabling or inhibiting a transition to greener sources of energy?
  • Are government leaders responsible for disinformation in the climate space?
  • How are governments supporting a just transition for workers historically employed in fossil fuel-related jobs, including with new training and employment opportunities?
  • How are national and local climate policies synchronized, and how is their alignment or misalignment experienced by communities?

See CCNow’s Politics Reporting Guide for more. The Society of Environmental Journalists offers significant political insight in its 2021 Journalists’ Guide to the Energy & Environment.


Activism & Climate Advocacy

For decades, climate activists have pressed for action, even as most governments and companies have resisted change. In recent years, younger climate activists in particular have set the pace for climate debate and action, prioritizing racial, gender, and economic justice in the name of fighting the climate emergency. How will these groups affect events going forward, including by holding political and business leaders accountable?

  • In Georgia and other key states, young climate activists had a decisive effect on the US 2020 elections by mobilizing substantial numbers of younger voters, especially people of color. How are they leveraging that achievement with the officials they helped elect, and can they build on it for additional gains in 2022 and beyond?
  • On a person-to-person level, how are activists seeking to change minds, in communities, on campuses, and online?
  • What issues are climate and environmental activists tackling on a daily basis in their own communities? What stories are they paying attention to that nobody else is?
  • How are the climate and environmental movements intersecting with other social movements, especially including racial equality? And how are climate and environmental groups righting the exclusionary wrongs of the past?
  • What is life like for climate activists in places where the majority opposes climate action, leaving the activists going it alone?

Social Justice

Environmental problems are often worse in places predominantly populated by people of color, Indigenous people, and the poor. This is true at the global, national and local levels, where these same groups also often bear the earliest and harshest burdens of the climate emergency. A complete telling of the climate story includes the people affected by it and the people trying to solve it — and often that means people and communities of color or limited means.

  • How is climate change experienced differently by different communities at the local level and in larger municipalities?
  • As governments move to mitigate climate change, are people of color and other groups that experience disproportionate climate impacts given a seat at the table, and are they included as a part of the solution?
  • When extreme weather hits, how are recovery funds doled out between wealthier and poorer neighborhoods and communities?
  • How has the exploitation of natural resources endangered Indigenous communities?
  • What solutions have Indigenous communities and people of color pioneered that should be adapted at scale to aid humanity’s climate fight?

See CCNow’s Climate Justice Reporting Guide for more. The Solutions Project also has a comprehensive resource on covering climate equitably. And the group Reporting in Indigenous Communities has a Reporter’s Checklist to consult.


Solutions

Climate coverage dominated by doom and gloom can give audiences the mistaken sense that the future is already lost. But in fact many of the solutions needed to reign in emissions and reverse damage to the planet already exist. The question is whether societies will commit to using them with haste and at scale; as journalists, it’s critical that we convey the message that success in the climate fight is indeed possible.

  • Some countries and communities have declared a climate emergency. What did that mean practically for people there, and what happened after the formal declaration?
  • How are governments setting the conditions for private entities to make their own green transitions? For example, are they subsidizing or otherwise facilitating the adoption of green building materials for homes and businesses?
  • As renewable energy sources rise, how is their production and use changing communities?
  • How are hospitals and health systems responding to climate-related conditions, such as rampant heat exhaustion?
  • How are construction-codes and architecture practices changing to support more sustainable buildings?
  • What new foods, including alternative proteins, are entering our diets? Some people have changed their diets to help mitigate climate change. What specifically drove them to make the switch?
  • How are farming and food production practices changing to cope with climate impacts on farmland, or to reduce their emissions?
  • Are high-efficiency, low emissions appliances — refrigerators, dishwashers, washing and drying machines, etc. — widely available and affordable for consumers? How are governments and companies supporting their availability and adoption?

For more, see CCNow’s Solutions Reporting Guide. Project Drawdown maintains a thorough and exceptional catalogue of climate solutions.