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Climate Changes Everything. And Climate Journalism Creates Change.
A climate journalism conference in New York coincides with a monumental climate journalism win back home in Ontario. It’s always an honour to do this work. This week, it was also a joy.
Every so often, the joy of working in climate journalism stops me in my tracks.
That may be hard to swallow after a summer that brought record heat, devastating wildfires, and killer storms and floods to every part of Canada and most of the world. But when I signed up for Climate Changes Everything, a 1½-day conference at the Columbia School of Journalism, I couldn’t have known that I would be attending a climate journalism event in New York even as a spectacular climate journalism win was playing out at home.
I had spent most of Thursday immersed in sessions and meeting colleagues in the Covering Climate Now global news collaborative, one of the conference’s five host organizations. So at first I missed the news that Premier Doug Ford had backed down from plans to hand over land in the environmentally sensitive Ontario Greenbelt to a small group of politically connected developers.
Ford’s blockbuster announcement was largely the result of a months-long organizing effort that brought together urban planners, affordable housing groups, tenants, farmers, nature advocates, labour, health professionals, climate and environment hawks, and many other groups and communities that don’t always work side by side. But what turned an unspeakable travesty into an unquenchable political scandal was a brilliant round of intrepid investigative journalism by our friends at The Narwhal and their partners at The Toronto Star.
In the end, smart, persistent, shoe leather journalism helped protect 3,000 hectares of land from being permanently torn up, part of a beloved and essential protected area that delivers clean air, fresh water, climate resilience, and reliable, local food supplies in a place that would otherwise be a magnet for carbon-intensive urban sprawl.
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This is What Journalism Does
The Narwhal and the Star were practicing the same principles that have guided Covering Climate Now in the four years since it launched, from the same room in Columbia’s Pulitzer Hall where this week’s conference took place.
To deliver smart climate journalism on a scale that matches the climate emergency itself.
To tell the story so that public audiences “get it”.
To connect climate to every other story a newsroom touches.
To focus on the often marginalized people and communities most affected by climate impacts.
And to balance reporting on an accelerating, global emergency with stories about the surge in climate solutions that are practical, affordable, and ready for prime time.
By the time the Greenbelt news investigation was done and the dust had settled, two cabinet ministers, one chief of staff, and a director in Ford’s office had all resigned, and a famously unrepentant provincial premier had apologized and reversed course.
“It was a mistake to open the Greenbelt,” Ford admitted, in a statement that dovetailed precisely with the second anniversary of The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau. “I made a promise to you that I wouldn’t touch the Greenbelt. I broke that promise. And for that I am very, very sorry.”
In a hugely well-deserved victory email (and membership appeal) after Ford’s announcement, The Narwhal’s Ontario Bureau Chief Denise Balkissoon noted that “a political reversal of this magnitude doesn’t just happen out of nowhere.” And “we wouldn’t have arrived at this moment—four high-level political resignations and now a full reversal of the Greenbelt decision—without independent, investigative journalism.”
Reporter Emma McIntosh remembered digging through property records to track down the story. “Back then, we were working long into the night, figuring out how to best serve this critical information to the public—and to do it quickly, before the decision was final,” she said. “I never could have imagined where this reporting would take us.”
Imagining where that kind of reporting can take us—then delivering on the promise—is exactly what this week’s climate journalism conference was about.
With Great Luck Comes Great Responsibility
Covering Climate Now Executive Director Mark Hertsgaard opened the conference with a call to action that spoke for just about everyone who’s ever worked at The Energy Mix.
“We are so lucky to be journalists,” Hertsgaard told participants. “We are so lucky to have this role. And with that luck comes responsibility.”
Climate journalism “is in itself an essential climate solution,” he stressed. “We work for the public. And unless the general public, and not just in the global North, understands that this planet is on fire, understands why it is on fire, and understands that we can fix this… there will simply not be strong enough public pressure on governments and businesses around the world to do what science demands.”
Along with other panelists, Hertsgaard said climate news coverage has improved over the last few years. But it’s “still way too calm and quiet”—especially compared to the way news organizations responded to another emergency that swept the world at the beginning of this decade.
“We played COVID big because we recognized that it was an emergency, because the scientists told us it was emergency, it was killing people all over the world,” he said. “And by the way, climate change is killing people all over the world today.”
In addition to reporting on the progression of COVID itself, media delivered lifesaving Information on masking, social distancing, and vaccines—an approach to solutions journalism that was at the centre of the discussion throughout the conference.
“This is not activism,” Hertsgaard stressed. “This is not advocacy. This is telling the whole story. The problem, yes, but also the solutions. That’s where we need to go, and solutions include justice.”
That’s exactly the kind of fearless, incisive reporting we heard about—from journalists in Mumbai, Nairobi, Samoa, and San Juan, Puerto Rico; from a TV meteorologist in South Florida who’s now on the air with climate stories every single day; and from a reporter with a Fox News affiliate (yes, you read that right) collaborating with three other news outlets to delve into the rapid drying of the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
Taking the Wins
Everyone in the room was seized with the urgency of telling the climate story and getting the story right. Which includes building hope and understanding around climate solutions.
It's in every news agency’s DNA to report breaking news, said Sophie Huet, global editor-in-chief at Agence France-Presse, and news desks know that climate disaster stories land powerfully with audiences. But “every time there is a story, we can connect the dots”—to intersecting issues like food security, precarious incomes, safety, and injustice, and to the solutions and changemakers that can turn the tide on this crisis.
That shifting balance—between news that is horrific or hopeful, between necessarily, continuously bashing away at the problem while taking the wins when they happen—is one of the basic essentials that will get us through the climate emergency. It’s what will keep people engaged, bring more public voices onboard, and pull a growing number of our friends and family, neighbours and colleagues back from staggering levels of climate grief and despair.
Beyond Doom and Fear
For many climate journalists and communicators, it’s become an ingrained habit to lead with doom and fear. Understandably so, and not only because breaking news is in our DNA. For far too long, there was no editorial or cognitive space to move beyond the storylines that climate change is real, it’s happening, and it’s driven primarily by fossil fuels. Because $200 million in fossil industry funding can buy a lot of confusion, disinformation, and outright denial around those basic, factual statements.
But a big takeaway from Climate Changes Everything was that we don’t get to just tell that story and call it a day. As climate journalists, we aren’t doing the job until we’ve read in on the intricacies of different climate solutions, learned to separate the real deal from shameless, self-serving greenwash, and made those stories compelling for harried, overstressed audiences. (How to get that last part right is something we grapple with at The Mix every single day.)
That message, coming in tandem with The Narwhal’s monumental win for climate journalism, brought me about as much joy as I could handle this week. We have a lot of work to do. But the fundamental understanding that climate journalism, as Mark Hertsgaard said, “is in itself an essential climate solution”, is something we can’t repeat often enough.
And it’s more than enough inspiration to carry us through the good news and bad until the next time we get to connect with our courageous, determined colleagues at Covering Climate Now.
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Mitchell Beer traces his background in renewable energy and energy efficiency back to 1977, in climate change to 1997. Now he and the rest of the Energy Mix team scan 1,200 news headlines a week to pull together The Energy Mix, The Energy Mix Weekender, and our newest weekly e-digest, Cities & Communities.
You can also bookmark our website for the latest news throughout the week.
Chart of the Week
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