Climate Overview: A Primer for the Perplexed
As part of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ new Climate Guide, we offer a primer to help reporters and editors not on the climate beat with the basic concepts that will help you not only cover a climate-related story, but to do it with real insight and thoughtful framing. For your consideration, six fundamental factors, from our Climate Overview “A Primer for the Perplexed.” — The Editors
By Katina Paron
➤Item No. 1: Climate change reporting isn’t just for the science enthusiasts in your newsroom.
Stories on sea level rise, extreme weather and ecosystem impacts are just as likely to be found in “Real Estate” as they are in “Dining.”
Think about how one story on recent climate-induced flooding near a local Superfund site can cross into residential and business development, human health, building codes, water pollution, tourism and coastal erosion.
A piece on a campaign to drill wells to address a climate-driven drought touches on advocacy, but it also may involve a look at property segregation, legal precedent, corporate tax breaks, access to fresh water, hydroelectric dams and United Nations sustainability goals.
Though it may be cross-cutting,
the topic of climate change is in
many ways pretty straightforward.
Though it may be cross-cutting, the topic of climate change is in many ways pretty straightforward. Society’s reliance on fossil fuels produces greenhouse gases that trap heat into the atmosphere, warming up the temperature of the Earth, changing ecosystems, weather patterns and human health (see our Climate Science 101 page for more).
The challenge comes in when reporting on the manifold web of the effects of climate change. Your climate change story may require a richer context, one that may be imperceptible to the audience but will be useful for you to consider as a journalist, especially one approaching this as an unfamiliar beat.
This framing involves considering how your specific piece fits into the overarching issue of climate change:
- Why is this happening (the climate science)?
- What specifically are the effects of climate change (the climate impact)?
- What is being done to slow down the effects (the climate mitigation)?
- What is being done to predict and respond to the changes (the climate adaptation or resilience)?
Also you’ll want to factor in perhaps less obvious, but no less important, considerations like:
- What populations are most affected by the issue (the climate justice)?
- And who has made an impact in addressing the problem (the climate solutions)?
➤ Item No. 2: Before we get deeper into ways to think about climate change stories, let’s cover the way not to think about it: as a debate.
There is no debate that climate change is happening or that humans are to blame. The overwhelming percentage of scientists (more than 97%) agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.
Bottom line: The Earth is at least 1.2 degrees F warmer now than it was 25 years ago, and this warming is affecting literally everything.
Legitimate discourse does come into play over what (if anything) should be done about it. The degree to which it is harmful is also a range that depends on whether the Earth is warmer by 3 degrees (as reported in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report) or closer to 5.6 degrees, which scientists currently predict is more accurate.
The original sin of climate change is the industrial economy. For centuries, the so-called “greenhouse effect” has trapped heat and protected Earth from the deathly cold and vacuum of deep space and provided the planet with mostly temperate weather.
Then people began growing crops, chopping down trees to harvest wood and transforming forests into farmland and cities. With the Industrial Revolution, people began burning fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas — to power manufacturing, transportation and the modern lifestyle.
Fossil fuels added more carbon dioxide, or CO2, to the air, along with methane and other rare gases (the rare gases are emitted in much smaller quantities than CO2, but are significantly faster acting and more harmful).
Trees and plants naturally take in CO2 and emit oxygen. That process — photosynthesis — is why humans can breathe on Earth. It’s also why radically altering the balance of carbon and oxygen in the atmosphere can be existentially threatening to life. Like other plants, trees store CO2, but unfortunately, when trees are cut or burned, they release CO2. That makes deforestation one major global climate change driver.
Science fundamentals can feel
intimidating, but remember it’s not about
what you know, it’s about what you find out.
As newbies on the climate beat, anything beyond science fundamentals can feel intimidating, but remember it’s not about what you know, it’s about what you find out.
Trust scientists to help you inform your audience on the core elements that you need for your story. They’ll likely tell you a lot more than you will ultimately include in your article, but many are used to explaining their areas of research to others.
In our Climate Guide, you’ll find list upon list of resources that take a deep dive on many of the issues you may be writing about — desalination, wildfire prevention, climate refugees and many more. The links will lead you to sources and the background information to write your piece. But you’ll want to keep reading to understand the subtext of climate change news.
[To give you a baseline of what you should be familiar with, go to the Guide’s page on Climate Science 101, Guides & Training].
But science does more than provide a technical explanation of climate change. It also helps the audience understand the mechanics of climate change impacts.
And remember, just like all other journalism, there is a human element to your story. What excites a scientist about a finding, for example, can give your piece just enough human voice to keep your audience engaged.
➤ Item No. 3: Consider impact — what are the effects of climate change on people, animals, the natural environment, industries, etc.?
Once your audience knows what is happening and why, you’ll want them to understand what it means for them. That’s where the question of impacts comes in.
Some broad categories of impact include harm to ecosystems and agriculture, heatwaves in urban centers, flooding of communities on coastlines, human health.
Impact is the aspect of climate change that delivers a varied audience. As the most important issue of our time, climate change is also the most interconnected. In the Climate Guide, you can begin to explore everything from air to security, with categories such as relocation of indigenous peoples, mental health, sustainable transportation, subsistence cultures, insect vectors, food allergies and more.
It's important to keep in mind that
you're likely reporting just a slice of a
much larger, more interconnected topic.
The story you’re reporting won’t cover all of these intersections, of course. But it's important to keep in mind that you're likely reporting just a slice of a much larger, more interconnected topic.
You should also know that the impacts of climate change are constantly being studied, modelled, predicted and examined. New studies are being released daily in journals and through academic institutions. So in addition to asking during your reporting why a finding is new or important, also be sure to ask about how it adds to the body of already available knowledge.
➤ Item No. 4: Consider mitigation — what are humans doing to change their actions to lessen the impact of climate change?
Mitigation gets to the “what now” part of journalism.
Once it’s clear what is happening and what the impact will be, our journalism can help the world figure out how to reduce greenhouse gases and slow climate change.
Mitigation pieces are often policy stories.
Through laws, taxes, bans, incentives and regulations, officials try to make up for the damage done by CO2 build-up. On federal, state and local levels, those officials explore climate-friendly policies on increasing energy efficiency, reducing emissions and protecting natural environments like forests and wetlands, all to help reduce global warming.
The inherent opposing pressures
built into mitigation stories can
make for good journalism.
The inherent opposing pressures built into mitigation stories can make for good journalism. The human effort of trying to protect both the physical health and the economic health of a community creates friction and various perspectives that it is the journalist’s responsibility to give space to.
➤ Item No. 5: Consider adaptation, or resilience — what does the new normal look like?
How are communities/industries/species/ecosystems changing in response to climate change? What is the ability of a community or natural system to predict, lessen and recover from a major climate change-driven event?
A community’s actions toward climate change are tied directly to its exposure to climate change factors and its capacity to adapt. But what are the specific exposures a community has to climate change? Coastal communities clearly have different battles than landlocked locations.
But geography isn’t the only factor to consider. Exposure to extreme weather also plays a part, as does a community’s ability to adapt.
There is a myriad of factors
to consider when looking
at a place’s capacity to adapt.
There is a myriad of factors to consider when looking at a place’s capacity to adapt: wealth, education, cultural norms, stability of government, engagement of its people, etc. These factors combine to shape the vulnerabilities that affect how adaptation stories should be approached.
Covering stories about resilience involves looking forward and backward at the same time. You’ll be reporting on responses to extreme weather events, for instance, as well as forecasts on future disasters.
➤ Item No. 6: There are two additional lenses through which you should consider climate change stories — environmental justice and solution-based approaches.
The voices you choose to include tell as much of the story as what the sources say. Low-income populations and people of color have the most to lose with climate change. The air they breathe is more polluted and they spend a higher proportion of their income on basic needs, including food — two things that will get worse with climate change.
For instance, in Los Angeles, Black residents are twice as likely to die during a heatwave than other residents. They are most likely to live in “heat islands” — cities with few trees and plenty of cement — without air conditioners. This increases their risk for heat-related deaths, the number one extreme weather killer in the world, beating out hurricanes and tornadoes.
We have the responsibility to report the stories of
climate racism from a position that understands
disenfranchisement and systematic oppression.
As journalists, we have the responsibility to report the stories of climate racism from a position that understands disenfranchisement and systematic oppression. We report these stories because they are humanizing and complicated, revealing power struggles, injustice and activism.
What’s the degree of separation between the people making decisions and the people being affected? Who stands to gain and who will lose? Who is responsible for resolving issues facing communities and countries that lack the infrastructure to address climate impacts because of richer communities or a nation’s historical intervention? There is a lot to dig through here.
In addition to providing historical context, journalists should include reporting on effective solutions in their work: Who is effective at addressing this issue and how are they doing it? The biggest question here is: Why is it working? What are the resources and institutional support that make this approach work?
Looking at the solutions in this way allows room for the most impact and frames the issue as a solvable problem versus an unavoidable outcome.
Climate change journalism is an exciting topic but it can feel overwhelming. The good news is you can quickly learn the basics and then the rest relies on your journalism training (i.e., what is happening now that wasn’t happening before and how will it affect my audience?).
Rely on your sources more than ever, not only to help you get the news but to help you explain what it means and why it matters.
So to get you started, SEJ has put together this guide to leading resources, experts, documents and organizations, sorted by category. Dive in and good luck.
Additional reporting by Christy George.
Katina Paron is a journalism educator, editor and bread baker based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She was the lead researcher on the Climate Guide and directs the Institute of Environmental Journalism, a summer teen program, for Inside Climate News. Her comic-book-style resource, “A NewsHound’s Guide to Student Journalism,” is used in high school and college newsrooms and classrooms throughout the country. Paron teaches journalism at the City University of New York and creates opportunities for young people to earn bylines. She was the senior project editor on The Trace’s award-winning gun violence series, “Since Parkland,” and produces “The Future is Ms.” column for Ms. magazine. She’s on Twitter (@katinaparon) and Instagram (@DearTeenJournalist).