In a warming world, the poor and marginalized of every race and sector are living with the most extreme climatic scenarios: Indigenous people losing their home islands in Louisiana, people living in trailer parks in the incinerated town of Paradise, California, and families living in compact housing in Southern California’s Inland Empire right next to freeways where big rigs pass by on the regular. Reporting on the communities most impacted by climate change is about showcasing the realities of what scientists have modeled for decades and how this will continue to worsen.
If you’re going to report on climate justice, you need to have care in your eyes and your heart when you’re interviewing and when you’re writing. Climate justice acknowledges that climate change is tied to existing inequities.
Reporting on climate justice isn’t advocacy — although you may tell stories about community advocates — it’s basic human respect. The people you interview are going through the worst effects of what a warming world is creating — the results of conscious choices of companies, government and individuals — and they don’t have the means to get out of it. Your reporting could be key for helping these communities thrive. Journalism has the power to change laws, creates pressure to reinvent environmental standards and empowers communities who feel they are not being understood.
Reporting on climate justice is mostly about listening. This is not about reporting on “xyz poor people’s plight.” While they may be bearing the brunt of climate change, they have rich, complex lives that embody struggle, financial problems, health concerns, but also joy.
Make sure your story exudes their humanity, not just the negative. The reason we report on climate justice is because preventing the increase of warming temperatures is about returning people’s joy, and for many, thriving amidst the climate crisis.
Reporting on climate justice isn’t easy
Check your ego at the start of your reporting. This is not about you. This is about telling people’s stories, connecting science to their lives and pressing leaders on solutions. This can be local, like helping get water for people living in drought. It can also be regional, like how to make systems more effective at helping cities, counties and rural areas. These stories can also have state and national ramifications.
People’s climate change experiences are not just singular, and can be representative of what others are dealing with around the world. So, if you choose, the narratives you tell can weave together the lives of people going through similar circumstances across city, county, state or even national borders.
One more note: As a writer, you are not a community’s savior. Your job is to tell their stories in a way that captures empathy, feelings and how their daily lives are altered by the climate emergency. You take their stories, connect them to what scientists are modeling and find out what decision makers are doing or not doing about it.
You have a climate justice story, what next?
Anytime I have a story about a group or individual that is connected to warming temperatures, I first turn to scientists studying these very impacts. I do a deep internet search, read studies and set up informational interviews on the latest science. I give myself the understanding needed to connect the dots.
I also make sure my sources are diverse by making sure to showcase experts who are women, people of color and LGBTQ+ voices. Climate justice doesn’t just include the communities you are reporting on, but the experts you interview as well. There is a very diverse range of experts out there, so take the time to showcase their work. It’s often focused on the very communities or topics you are reporting on.
Secondly, I meet with the community over and over again. Part of understanding is spending time with your sources. These interviews are not quick 20-minute conversations. They are spent over tea, walks, Zoom calls and community meetings. Sometimes this work seems tedious and is often joined by boredom, tears with family members and laughter over the joy they are experiencing despite the climate crisis. My goal in every interview — whether with a scientist, community member, advocate or elected official — is to connect. Successful reporting on climate justice is based on connected conversation.
For example, in an interview with a woman for a story on rising seas in the Bay Area community of East Palo Alto, she started off the interview by telling me she doesn’t trust the media. She felt her story had been mutilated in past pieces. In response, I took off my reporter hat and talked to her as if I were talking to a good friend. I learned about her fears, her history and her desires. For her, taking a stance on climate change was about making sure her community could thrive as the impacts of warming temperatures increase. To do that takes understanding there are systems in place — racism, redlining and bias against immigrants — that can prevent people from understanding climate change and seeing what a better life looks like. It also took me sharing my story, how I got into journalism, my goals and my motives for telling her story. After we connected, she opened up about her work and desires and then we had a story.
How to exercise care in your journalism
Human-caused climate change is the result of systems — private companies like big oil, commerce, government and white supremacy — that fundamentally devalue earth and its inhabitants. Telling climate justice stories means writing in the face of those values and a commitment to changing society through care.
I encourage you not to write about climate justice if you are in a rush or don’t have adequate time to learn from the community and scientists you are reporting on.
There is a balance of working on a story on deadline. My suggestion is to make stories on climate justice the ones you work on over time, unless they are hinged to a particular date like a climate march or wildfire. I always have two or three long-form stories going in the background of stories assigned daily.
Exercising care in your writing, photography, video and editing also takes time. It takes time to foster relationships with people, press leaders on why policies have not changed and build a deeper understanding of why the climate crisis is happening in the first place.
At the end of your reporting I encourage you to ask yourself a few simple questions: Have I cared for the people I am writing about in the process? Am I using them for a story? Will this story make a difference for lives, policy or solutions? And lastly, take a moment and ask yourself how you’ve changed in this reporting process. Have you begun to care about the climate emergency in a new way by getting to know the people most affected by it?
Author’s Note: I am not the end-all on how to cover climate justice. This is a window into my process of reporting and it may vary for each journalist. But what I have found is that I am the most proud of my journalism when I slow down, value people and write from that place. After listening to communities, scientists and leaders I usually go for a long walk, still myself, see some natural beauty and then the storyline becomes apparent.