The 2022 hurricane season got off to a late start, but it’s proving to be no less ferocious than the historic years that preceded it. Hundreds of thousands are still without power or clean water in Puerto Rico. Only 10% of Havana’s 2 million people had power two days after then-Category 3 Hurricane Ian swiped Cuba. As Florida clears the rubble from Ian — nearly a Category 5 when it hit — the storm could be the deadliest in the state’s history, with the death toll now reaching over 100.
It didn’t have to be this way. But this is the climate crisis.
It’s a world where the atmosphere has reached the highest levels of carbon dioxide it’s ever held since humans started walking the Earth. It’s a world where a third of Pakistan, which just buckled under temperatures hot enough to shut down the human body, is under water and suffering one of the worst refugee crises in history. It’s a world where our oceans, which have borne the brunt of 90% of global warming since modern record-keeping began, are hot enough to allow storms like Ida, Fiona, Ian and Noru to rapidly intensify, jumping from Category 1 to Category 4 or 5 overnight. It’s a world where terms like “record-breaking” and “500-year storm” have lost all meaning. It’s a world where all of these crises are playing out on top of so many others, but much of the media — and as a result, the public — still don’t know how to talk about that intersectionality.
While newsrooms are now expanding their climate coverage (from The Associated Press to The Washington Post to NPR), many of these outlets went far too long without a climate desk or section, instead sandwiching it into the “science” section — even though the crisis has been tangible for years, and the science has been clear for decades. But climate change is so much more than a science story. It’s an everything story — everything on Earth at least. If newsrooms hadn’t been so slow to explain how climate affects our everyday life, the public would know what climate change looks like, who’s responsible and who can do something about it.
In 2019, investigative journalist Amy Westervelt and I launched the Hot Take podcast to examine the discourse around climate change. In the years since, we’ve noticed some positive changes: Gone are the days of proving that it was real, for instance, or arguing that it’s a faraway problem for future generations. But so much remains to be done. Still, our media don’t know if we should focus on the science or the stories of the people behind — or underneath — the science. The media don’t know if we should write locally or think globally. There are still arguments about whether we should have a singular message or many voices with many perspectives. Those of us in the climate community have had these debates multiple times, but they keep coming back like boomerangs, especially as media make renewed promises to finally — finally — cover climate as the saga of our time.
One of the more bedeviling recurrences in the ”climate messaging wars” is the debate about problem-based and solutions-based storytelling. Lately, I’m hearing more and more arguments for solutions-based journalism. The thinking is that people tune out of climate stories if they’re too gloomy or scary, and that we need to celebrate the small victories to power ourselves through the long haul. Instead, writers should give their readers glimmers of hope to keep them engaged.
I have a few problems with that framing. First, I’ve actually never seen a climate story that only focused on the problem. Even the stories about active disasters — wildfires, floods, hurricanes — usually pay at least cursory attention to the solutions, when they mention climate change at all. Also, problems and solutions go together. In order for readers to understand the significance of a given solution, they need to understand the problem. We can actually do both. We have to.
Second, we have to ask ourselves: Who is served by a hyperfocus on solutions? If we agree that the problem is the fossil fuel industry, and the economic and political structure that enables them, I’m sure these entities would be quite happy to have us focus our attention anywhere but on them. We shouldn’t do them that favor.
But if the question is how do we keep people engaged with climate stories, that’s a bigger question and it deserves a bigger answer. I would argue that people don’t tune out of climate coverage because it’s too big of a problem, they tune out because it’s presented as yet another problem. But it’s not. The climate crisis is a deeply intersectional problem that is intertwined with every other big issue we face: at its roots, in its impacts today and in its future. That’s how we should be talking about it, and we can’t do it without a thorough analysis of the problem.
Every story is a climate story
The havoc in Florida isn’t the result of climate change alone. A lot of it has to do with risky real estate decisions that drove development right up the coastline and an exploding population, and a long streak of good luck that kept major hurricanes away from Florida’s west coast for more than a century. The blackout in Puerto Rico also has deep roots that predate 2017’s Hurricane Maria and are deeply intertwined with the island’s colonial history. It is climate change, but climate change doesn’t act alone. It acts on top of every other systemic injustice. And that’s exactly how it should be covered.
The most recent hurricanes really highlight this point. If we’d gotten regular climate coverage up until now, the public would have been better informed and perhaps would have protested against development that damaged their wetlands and put them at greater risk of storm surge. And if newsrooms, particularly cable news, did a better job of connecting extreme weather to climate change in the moment, it would signal to people in hurricane-prone areas that today’s storms are not like yesterday’s storms, and their conventional wisdom about how these storms behave is not as applicable. All of this goes to show that we need sustainable climate coverage — and intersectionality is the best way to do that.
If we want to keep readers engaged with climate stories, the best approach is to relate it to the issues they’re already engaged with. If we can do that for the economy, we can do it for the planet, because you can do a lot more without money than you can without an ecosystem. As Joshua Benton lays out in Nieman Lab, “To better match the needs of audience-citizens-consumers, news media should consider climate journalism not only as a specialist beat or a specific genre, but as a topic that is handled by both generalists and specialists, that is developed across news beats and editorial desks, and that serves many functions, not just as a watchdog, but also as a provider of tips, solutions and guidance to the public as to how the best can handle the climate crisis in their everyday life.”
Some argue that climate change — with all its big atmospheric changes that aren’t apparent for decades — is a difficult story to cover because it moves so slowly. But that’s only if you accept the status quo, if you separate the problem from the solution. There’s news in the oil industry all the time, from shareholder revolts to court cases to oil spills and fires. There’s climate news every time a new pipeline is proposed — not just when activists finally get one canceled. There’s climate news when a politician gets a donation from an oil company or when that same oil company gets a subsidy. And that doesn’t even get to the litany of extreme weather events and the predictably pitiful responses. We’re literally drowning in climate news. The problem is the connection to climate change is not always reported in these stories.
There isn’t an issue on Earth that doesn’t intersect with climate change because, well, every other issue is happening on our planet. Seen through that lens, there is a simple word for intersectional climate coverage: the truth.