Reporting on Climate and the 2024 US Elections

As Earth approaches critical tipping points, climate has become a key election issue. Here’s a short guide for connecting climate to your election coverage.

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Climate is on the ballot this election year. Scientists agree that Earth is close to reaching a number of tipping points as a result of human-caused global heating, and the actions taken — or not taken — over the next few years will play a critical role in determining the future for life on Earth. The climate story is urgent, and journalists can convey that urgency by objectively reporting the facts, questioning candidates about their proposed policies, and correcting the record by dispelling misinformation.

A Quick Climate 101

Climate change is primarily caused by burning fossil fuels that are heating the planet at an alarming rate. Earth has already warmed 1.2 degrees Celsius since the start of the Industrial Revolution, leading to more frequent and severe weather events, sea-level rise, biodiversity loss, and more. The global climate science body, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warns that exceeding 1.5 degrees C of warming will have exponentially more severe consequences, ushering in changes that will be impossible to stop, let alone reverse. See CCNow’s “Climate Science 101” this NDTV video explainer to learn more.

A Key Election Issue

Voters Perspectives

A majority of Americans, 56% according to a recent study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC), are either “concerned” or “alarmed” about climate change. They favor elected officials who will prioritize climate solutions and support measures to reduce planet-heating carbon emissions and promote clean energy, including tax incentives for purchasing energy-efficient appliances, vehicles, and more. Sixty-four percent prioritize transitioning to clean energy. (See their polling data by state, congressional district, or county.)

The polling illustrates that the tendency to frame the climate debate along a simple red-blue divide does not hold up to scrutiny. Many people hold nuanced views on climate change that go beyond traditional political affiliations. They may identify as conservative yet are concerned about how a warming planet impacts everything from their livelihoods and housing to health and national security. They also want solutions. (These people can make great stories. As an example, see this New York Times mini-doc on a New Hampshire fisherman, who votes Republican, but is seeing his livelihood change as a result of climate change.)

Climate denialists represent a small, and dwindling, part of the population. Some 80% of the American public say they “want to learn more” about climate change, according to YPCCC director Anthony Leiserowitz. If they come to our newsrooms to understand what’s happening, and we’re not reporting on it, trust in what we do declines.

It’s Journalism, Not Activism

It’s not partisanship, or activism, to cover climate change. Climate change, and the need to act on it, is grounded in scientific consensus. Yet some newsrooms hesitate to cover climate and politics, fearing accusations of activism. This reluctance is misguided, and is fueled in part by campaigns and organizations funded by fossil fuel interests, which have either downplayed or denied climate change. By sowing doubt about the scientific consensus, these efforts reinforce the misconception that climate coverage is activist-driven.

The pushback should be familiar to journalists. In pivotal moments throughout history, newsrooms have faced scrutiny for reporting uncomfortable truths, such as revealing government lies about troop deaths in Vietnam, documenting the Civil Rights struggle, or uncovering the Watergate scandal. This reporting wasn’t popular at the time, but they are held up in retrospect as some of journalism’s greatest moments.

Covering activists, critically and fairly, is part of covering the climate story. Resist the temptation to focus on the drama and the atmospherics. Engage instead in what the activists are saying, and what the people attending the protests are asking for. (For a good example on how to do that, see this piece from NBC’s Chase Cain in which he covers a climate protest in New York City.)

On the campaign trail

Engaging Candidates

Federal, state, and local politicians are taking action, now, on legislation that promises to speed the transition to green energy, curb emissions, and bolster community resilience against climate impacts. When interviewing candidates for city council, mayor, state legislature, and Congress, ask them what they’re doing — or not doing — to stop climate change.

Don’t ask them if they believe in climate change; that question is settled. And don’t wait for candidates to bring up the topic. Given the urgent need for action, it’s the obligation of the press to broach the topic proactively. If a candidate downplays the existence of climate change, ask how they plan to explain that to voters, who overwhelmingly understand that climate change is happening and are eager to hear about solutions.

Ask Candidates:

  • What will you do about the climate crisis? On what time horizon?
  • What’s your plan to phase out fossil fuels as fast as science demands?
  • Do you support the government’s current climate policies, including the Inflation Reduction Act? Why or why not?
  • How will you protect people and communities from climate impacts, including the most vulnerable groups?
  • How will you enhance the resilience of critical infrastructure, such as energy grids, water systems, transportation, and telecommunications networks, in the face of climate-fueled threats?
  • How do you plan to address an increasingly vulnerable housing stock? What about rising insurance premiums resulting from climate change?
  • What will you do to promote sustainable agriculture and land use?

Call Out Misinformation

Climate change is poised to be  a defining issue of the 2024 election, making it a lightning rod for dis- and misinformation. The oil and gas industry has for decades intentionally spread climate misinformation to maintain their vested interest in continued fossil fuel use. Politicians, lobbying groups, social media influencers, media organizations, and others with an interest in the status quo do so too.

Climate misinformation is often aimed at creating doubt and confusion about the existence of climate change and potential solutions. Some common climate myths include:

  • Myth: Scientists don’t agree about climate change. Truth: More than 99% of climate scientists agree that human activity is overheating the planet. Climate change is not in doubt, nor is it a political hoax.
  • Myth: We can’t know that human activity is the cause. Truth: Global temperature rise has closely paralleled rising CO2 levels since humans began burning large amounts of fossil fuels during the Industrial Revolution.​ Top scientific institutions, including NASA, have compiled these records.
  • Myth: The climate has always changed like it is today. Truth: While the climate has changed over time, it has never changed so quickly. Today’s human-induced rate of carbon release is “unprecedented during the past 66 million years,” according to a 2016 Nature study.

There are many more climate myths circulating. For example, as climate action ramps up, more misinformation is spreading around climate solutions such windmills, solar panels, and electric cars. See CCNow’s guide “10 Climate Change Myths Debunked” for more common myths and how to refute them.

Given the prevalence of climate misinformation, fact checking is key.

Climate misinformers use a variety of tactics to confuse the public. This includes cherry-picking data or citing studies out of context to support their argument; presenting fringe opinions as scientific expertise; and, on the flip side, attacking prominent climate scientists to discredit their work. See CCNow’s guide “Don’t Get Duped!” for more tricks used to spread lies and tools to fight against them.

When politicians or other actors spread mis- or disinformation, reporters have an obligation to hold them accountable by stating the truth, debunking myths, and ensuring accuracy prevails. If needed, talk to vetted climate experts to check candidates’ plans against what science says is necessary.

A Local Story

Addressing extreme weather events, sea-level rise, shifts in agriculture, and more requires proactive local climate action, and many local institutions are starting to test solutions to boost community adaptation and resilience. There’s also a range of actions that local politicians can take to transition to green energy and reduce emissions. As such, there are plenty of local reporting angles to explore that will help inform voters. For example, while hundreds of billions of dollars are being pumped into communities across the US to accelerate the clean energy transition through the Inflation Reduction Act, most Americans don’t even know about it, presenting a huge opportunity for local news.

Here’s some local reporting areas to consider, along with sample stories:

Clean energy transition. Report on local clean energy projects, including wind, solar, battery production, and more. Ask local residents about the clean energy switches they’re making in their lives, for example, by purchasing heat pumps or electric cars.

  • The New York Times and Spectrum News talk to people adopting heat pumps in Maine.
  • WUWM reports on local leaders implementing clean energy projects in Milwaukee, Wisc.
  • NBC News shows how authorities in Florida, Texas, and California are installing solar panels along highways, above canals, and in unused public spaces (Starts at 3:28.).

Business and jobs. Explore the impacts of climate policies on businesses, their employees, and the wider local community.

  • Philadelphia’s WHYY reports on a new green job program that trains future workers to weatherize homes and to install, maintain, and fix heat pumps.
  • WWNO, New Orleans Public Radio talks to Louisiana farmers about their climate challenges and CBS News talks to peach farmers suffering climate impacts.
  • WRAL in Raleigh, N.C., and Forbes look at how North Carolina has become a major clean energy investment hub.

Infrastructure. Investigate how climate considerations factor into the planning and construction of new and existing infrastructure, such as highways and airports, as well as water supply resilience.

  • CBS affiliate WCCO in Minneapolis, Minn., reports on how climate is impacting the walking path along Lake Superior and infrastructure development in Duluth.
  • The Arizona Republic reports on how local tribal communities are using new climate funding to rehabilitate areas along the Colorado River.
  • Next 9NEWS in Denver, Colo., looks at how climate is impacting local roads and how climate is being considered in their infrastructure plans.

Housing. Examine the effects of climate change on housing availability and affordability, including challenges stemming from higher-priced or canceled home insurance policies.

  • NBC10 in Boston, Mass., examines how public housing is integrating carbon-free building practices.
  • NBC2 in Fort Myers, Fla., reports on how climate is driving skyrocketing homeowner insurance rates.
  • NPR explores how communities in Arizona, California, and New Jersey are considering building bans in areas threatened by climate.

Recreation. Report on how climate is affecting recreational activities and tourism.

  • USA Today digs into how climate is changing the iconic cherry blossom festival in Washington, DC.
  • VTDigger reports on how Vermont ski resorts are adapting to reduced snowpack.
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer looks at how climate is impacting baseball players.

Reporting Resources

Climate on the Ballot. Sign up for CCNow’s new weekly elections newsletter, Climate on the Ballot. Every Monday morning, we offer up a fresh climate-related topic, with story ideas and examples of outstanding coverage, for integrating climate into local, state, and national reporting.

Climate & elections calendar. Subscribe to our climate & elections calendar featuring over 100 entries, including key election dates, climate conferences, international summits, and more.

Data & visualizations. Climate Central produces a variety of data-driven resources for local reporters:

Definitions. The Climate Dictionary, produced by the United Nations Development Programme, defines key climate change terms and concepts.

Local climate initiatives. Climate Herald follows government actions, meeting agendas, and press releases to track local climate policy in the US. See their local climate policy database.

Misinformation. Climate Action Against Disinformation’s guide “Navigating Climate Disinformation” helps journalists identify and counter mis- and disinformation.

Newsrooms and journalists to follow. There are many US news organizations that connect climate and politics. Here are some newsrooms and journalists to follow to get up to speed:

Polling. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication’s climate opinion maps report US public opinion on climate at the state, congressional district, and county levels.

Resource hub. CCNow’s climate hub offers resources, tips, tools, and more for journalists and newsrooms. It includes US local and regional resources for reporters to better understand climate locally, find reporting sources, and dig deeper into topics.