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Vol. LVIII, No. 3
Emily Atkin is the author and
Lauren Markham has written
founder of HEATED, a daily
for Guernica, Harper’s, the New
newsletter dedicated to reporting
York Times, and the Virginia
and analysis on the climate crisis.
Quarterly Review, where she is
Previously, she was the climate
a contributing editor. Her book
staff writer at the New Republic.
The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an
Mary Cuddehe has written for Harper’s, Rolling Stone, The Atavist, and Vanity Fair, among other publications. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School. Betsy Hartmann is professor emerita of development studies at Hampshire College, in Amherst, Massachusetts,
American Life (2017) received the Northern California Book Award, the California Book Award Silver Medal, and the Ridenhour Prize.
Jenni Monet is an independent journalist and a tribal citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna who writes about Indigenous rights and injustice in the United States and around the world.
and author of The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War, and Our Call to Greatness (2017).
Eva Holland is a freelance writer based in Canada’s Yukon. Her first book, Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear, comes out in April.
Betsy Morais is CJR’s managing editor. An adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School, she also writes for The New Yorker and other magazines. Alexandria Neason is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte
E. Tammy Kim is a freelance
Fellow. Previously, she was a
reporter and essayist whose
reporter at the Village Voice.
writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, and many other publications. She coedited Punk Ethnography (2016).
Tom Kizzia, a longtime reporter
Michael Specter, a New Yorker staff writer since 1998, focuses on science and public health. He is an adjunct professor of bioengineering at Stanford University.
for the Anchorage Daily News, lives in Homer, Alaska. His New Yorker
Laura Thorne is a Canadian
article about climate change and
writer, artist, and oral historian
Alaska’s Arctic communities was
with a background in radical and
reprinted in The Best American
community-based publishing. She
Science and Nature Writing 2017.
lives in Brooklyn.
Table of Contents 6 Editor’s Note By Kyle Pope
Field Notes 10 Good Grief By Emily Atkin 13 On the Side of Facts By Michael Specter 15 The Biggest Emergency By Jenni Monet 18 The Ecofascists By Betsy Hartmann DATA
20 Falling Short 87 Exxon’s Snake Oil
“We are living in what to me feels like an emergency. We have to make stories that connect.” —From What’s Become of the Arctic page 90
54 The Marshall Islands 124 End Note
What We’re Reading We asked newsrooms which of their climate stories from the past year resonated with readers most.
31 WBUR (Boston) 40 The Miami Herald 52 The Guardian 74 The Los Angeles Times 82 CNN 85 BuzzFeed 94 HuffPost 120 NPR
Bear Witness The ubiquitous, imperfect signifier of climate change
By Eva Holland
Panic Time The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists may be the only outlet whose approach to climate change is explicitly existential.
By E. Tammy Kim
The Heat Reporter What you see in the aftermath of the California fires
By Lauren Markham
In the Air China’s environmental journalists must withstand an insidious system that is at once supportive and oppressive.
By Betsy Morais
Under the Weather The battle between meteorologists and 5G
By Mary Cuddehe
What’s Become of the Arctic Alaska is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the country. Will journalists tell the whole story?
By Tom Kizzia
“Always Looking for the Allegory” The director of Mad Max tells Kyle Pope how to make climate fear compelling.
Greetings from Hawai‘i How tourism drives climate change
By Alexandria Neason
Reporters covering the climate crisis must be more than stenographers of tragedy.
OURNALISM HAS ALWAYS BEEN good at fast. The home team won. An old woman was shot. A president was elected. The quicker a story moves, the more compressed the drama, the better we are at reporting it. Slow is harder. Stories that contain subtlety, that evolve, that don’t have an ending—those aren’t our strength. Racism, systemic poverty, the long-term effects of outdated policy—these are subjects that we’ve consistently failed to get our arms around. We chase the immediate, the ephemeral, and ignore the seismic, the fundamental. The reasons are understandable. Reporting on an event is easier than becoming deeply immersed, over time, in complex characters and bureaucracies. On television, time is tight; in print, space is limited. The gratification in quick hits is shallow but fast. Over the past decade, the encroachment of social media has caused newsroom budgets and attention spans to shrink. Often, clicks replace our consciences as the arbiters of news. That’s also inexcusable. No longer is the value of news in saying what happened yesterday. (We’ve got Twitter for that.) The task at hand is to examine events carefully and deeply—to think of a moment not in isolation, but as part of a broader context. When, last year, California was overwhelmed by wildfires, only 3 percent of TV news reports mentioned that climate change might have had something to do with the intensity of the damage. For the most part, reporters were mere stenographers of tragedy. I am convinced that journalism’s failure to properly report the climate story will be recorded as one of its great humiliations. Since 1988, when James Hansen, a scientist at nasa, sat before Congress and warned the United States of the effects of a warming planet, news organizations have dithered and delayed and put off critical reporting
on what’s happening to the earth. They have allowed themselves to be spun by oil industry PR campaigns, convinced themselves that the science is complicated and contested (it’s not), and rested on the idea that the subject is too abstract and depressing for their audiences to handle (again, false). The result has been a massive media fail: In 2012, researchers at Media Matters found that US news organizations gave forty times more coverage to the Kardashians than to rising sea levels. During the 2016 campaign, reporters neglected to ask a single climate question in the three presidential debates. In 2018, broadcast news outlets gave more airtime to the royal baby than to the warming earth. In the fall of 2019, however, we began to see things shift. The climate story seemed to be moving from slow to fast, as the effects of the crisis were becoming impossible for even the most stubborn newsrooms to ignore. Floods in Venice and droughts in India were ready-made for the evening news. Devastating fires in California and Australia led news broadcasts around the world. Mass protests and their student leaders adorned magazine covers. By the time Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old climate activist, faced the United Nations at its Climate Action Summit, in New York City, and
asked “How dare you?” the world, and its news media, were listening. At this late hour there has, finally, been an awakening in journalism to the grim reality of climate change. The question now is how to tell the story. Can we ensure that the disasters we watch unfold are contextualized and explained? Will we hold the villains of the crisis accountable? Are we able to write about solutions to problems without trivializing them? How can we be fast and slow? The matter of whether or not the climate story should be told is settled: we must. This issue of CJR is focused on ways of doing the job.
year ago, frustrated by journalism’s persistent silence on the fate of the natural world, CJR teamed up with The Nation to launch Covering Climate Now, an initiative to encourage more and better climate coverage. The Guardian quickly signed up as our first media partner. Together, we set out to understand why news outlets weren’t doing more—and to help them improve. We tried to keep our initial request modest. We knew that few newsrooms had money in the budget to add climate reporters, and we understood that the complexity of the story— slow versus fast—was working against us. So our ask was simple: we wanted newsrooms to commit to upping their game for a week, stretching themselves to do more climate reporting than they would normally, and then report back to us on what they learned. We debuted in April, led by Mark Hertsgaard, my partner on the initiative and now Covering Climate Now’s executive director. We targeted the second week of September, during the UN Climate Action Summit, for the coverage experiment. Over the spring and summer, we talked to editors and reporters representing newsrooms from around the world. We learned that there was a wide consensus that more coverage was needed— few journalists (outside the right-wing echo chamber) were in denial about the importance of the climate story. Staffers, young ones in particular, had long been pushing their organizations to do more. But news outlets still held back, for three main reasons. First, there was a pernicious view, particularly in television, that reporting on the climate story was a political act that
could turn off conservative audiences. Second, newsrooms were convinced that they simply didn’t have the staff to do more climate coverage at a time when core beats—police, courts, city hall—go uncovered. And third, reporters simply did not know where to start: they lacked training that would help them interpret climate science, they struggled to find local angles to global narratives, or they didn’t see how to connect climate change to the stories they already follow every day. On the first point, we hoped that CJR’s endorsement—and the fact that mainstream organizations like CBS News were involved in the effort—could provide cover for newsroom managers worried about how their climate reporting would be perceived. On the resource question, we never asked anyone to add to their payroll. Instead, we encouraged them to rethink their existing beats, to make everyone in the newsroom a climate journalist—from those on the news desk to sports to business to culture. The last concern—that news organizations, even large ones, didn’t know where to begin—seemed at first depressing, but then gave us hope. If they were ill-equipped to tell the most important story of our time, we would provide them with tools. Our modest start—a plea for attention— yielded astonishing results. On the appointed week in September, more than three hundred news organizations participated in Covering Climate Now, including some of the most widely read in the world. Together, they published or broadcast more than 3,600 stories for a combined audience of more than a billion people. According to Google Trends, climate searches that September were the highest they had been in Google’s history. Since then, the number of our partners has grown past four hundred, and their combined audience approaches two billion people. We are just beginning to build a network capable of informing the world that it’s not too late to save ourselves.
ur hope is that this magazine can begin to supply some answers about what’s needed for climate journalism to be effective. We hear from Emily Atkin, a climate reporter who felt constrained by traditional forms of storytelling (“It was difficult
We are just beginning to build a network capable of informing the world that it’s not too late to save ourselves.
to hide my sense of alarm,” she explains), and Michael Specter, a writer who believes in the ability of facts to convey the severity of the crisis. E. Tammy Kim reports from the Doomsday Clock–setting convention of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which may be the only publication, she writes, “to cover climate change with an approach that is explicitly existential.” Alexandria Neason goes back to her childhood home in Hawai‘i, where well- intentioned climate journalism focuses on tourists and ignores indigenous people. Betsy Morais, CJR’s managing editor and the guiding force behind the magazine, writes about the difficulties—and opportunities—for reporting on the climate in China, where, as the corona virus reminds us, censorship is rife. I talk to George Miller, the director of Mad Max, about what reporters can learn from movies when it comes to crafting climate stories. Elsewhere in the issue, we trace climate journalism across Alaska, shadow a fire reporter in California, and lament the ubiquity of the polar bear as a climate change mascot. Clearly, the climate crisis can’t be contained in a single issue of this, or any, magazine. But we can use this occasion to survey the work being done and to consider how we can do better. It’s as good an expression of CJR’s mission as there is.
We also have worked to produce a magazine that takes its subject matter to heart. If you are holding this issue in print, you are reading it on 100 percent recycled post consumer stock. The inks we’ve used are vegetable- and soy-based. Allied Printing, the company we’ve hired to produce the magazine, has a zero-carbon footprint; nearly three-quarters of the energy used at its facility comes from wind and solar power. To further minimize our climate impact, we’ve elected to print half the number of issues we typically would, which helps us offset the costs of eco-friendly printing and distribution. We have also made every effort possible to reduce travel for our writers and photographers. We have reached a turning point for journalism and the planet. Old ideas that had dampened our attention to climate change— that the subject was too polarizing or too complicated or a money-loser—have been proven wrong. Old forms of storytelling—fast, without helping readers draw crucial connections—are not what’s needed to confront the crisis we face. We owe it to our audience, and our conscience, to be more thoughtful. Climate change is the story of our time. Journalism will be judged by how it chronicles the devastating reality. cjr
Field Notes FROM THE CLIMATE CRISIS
Good Grief By Emily Atkin
N COLLEGE, MY PROFESSORS taught me that journalism played an essential role in democracy by helping voters make informed decisions. Reporting meant making an impact. So when I was job-hunting and I saw an open position on the climate beat, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to make a difference. Climate change was a solvable problem, I figured. If I served readers the facts, my job would one day become obsolete, and the earth would be saved. I started in November 2013 as a climate reporter for ThinkProgress, a liberal news site. My first assignment was about a prospective Senate candidate from Texas who said that global warming was God’s punishment for women who got abortions. Obviously, that was wrong; the guy was a dangerous idiot. But I kept those thoughts to myself. In order to be an effective reporter, I’d been taught, I couldn’t editorialize. So I kept my story dry. “The most recent report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed that ‘it is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature’ ” was caused by human action, I wrote. Then I added, “The report did not mention abortion.” Over the next two years, I fact checked dozens of instances of climate misinformation without passing judgment on those who lied. I explained terrifying scientific studies without explicitly remarking that they were terrifying. I reported on environmental injustices perpetrated all over the country
without saying that the victims deserved better. Even though I was writing for a progressive readership, my goal was to appear neutral. But I was not actually neutral. Because in reality, I didn’t want climate change to get worse. I didn’t want people to suffer. Every time I didn’t say so, I felt like I was failing readers. In 2014, I covered a World Meteorological Organization report showing that carbon was accumulating in the atmosphere far more rapidly than expected. Once carbon concentrations reached a certain point, the report stated, the subsequent warming would trigger feedback loops of further carbon release and more warming, causing unpredictable levels of suffering for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations. “We must reverse this trend,” the WMO’s secretary said. “We are running out of time.” It was difficult to hide my sense of alarm. I was also exasperated—a natural consequence, perhaps, of reporting on the willful ignorance of those tasked with solving a looming environmental crisis. Instead of preparing for climate change, state agencies were removing scientific information about it from their websites. Instead of trying
to limit the damage, politicians were contriving ridiculous excuses—global warming couldn’t be all that bad, one argument went, since Mars was warming, too. Worst of all, readers didn’t seem to be paying attention. I knew my stories were about important problems, but they were rarely picked up by bigger outlets. My reporting never sparked activism campaigns or changed policy. I felt like a child drowning at a crowded beach as everyone ignored my screams for help. Was I not screaming loudly enough? In August 2015, I cracked. Frightened about the climate crisis, pessimistic about the future, and self-conscious about my own ineffectiveness, I asked my boss if I could switch to politics. The answer was yes.
or the next eleven months, I traveled the country covering the presidential election, trying to reignite the spark that climate reporting had snuffed out. At first it was great. Political reporting was fast-paced and competitive. The subject matter was more wide-ranging. On my first trip to Iowa, I covered Ted Cruz’s promises to
I didn’t want people to suffer. Every time I didn’t say so, I was failing my readers.
be “antiestablishment,” women’s-health activists throwing condoms at Carly Fiorina, and a Republican college student confronting Marco Rubio about climate change. Readers seemed to care about what I was writing. Traffic-wise, my stories did well. I received some nice emails. After not very long, however, I realized that clicks weren’t a real measure of impact. Writing for ThinkProgress, I wasn’t changing minds; I was flinging fodder into the discourse of progressive rage. So in July 2016, when Trump became the Republican nominee, I took a political-reporting job at Sinclair Broadcast Group, which was known for leaning conservative and had stations in swing districts all over the country. The job at Sinclair felt like an opportunity to move the needle on public understanding of many subjects, climate change chief among them. For months, I worked on a segment about how sea level rise was threatening Langley Air Force Base, in Virginia. I got several high-level military officials on camera explaining the threats to the environment. I interviewed a conservative thinktanker who admitted that sea level rise was a danger the military ought to tackle. But then I waited for viewers’ reactions, and they never came. When Trump was elected president, I was standing in Times Square doing a Facebook Live video about how tourists were reacting to the news. It felt just as pointless as any climate story I had reported. Fear about the future washed over me—fear not just for the climate, but also for democracy. For the first time in my adult life, I questioned the path I had chosen. A few months later, I quit Sinclair.
knew the truth about climate change. And the truth was we were running out of time. America’s new president and the fossil fuel industry that helped elect him were content to allow people, animals, and ecosystems to suffer and die. Those people, animals, and ecosystems included not just the most vulnerable members of society, but me and the ones I loved most. The more I thought about that, the more I realized: I wasn’t depressed, I was angry. I decided that from then on my reporting would be driven by passion, not obligation. With a climate change denier in the White House, a stiff presentation of facts would not suffice. I took a job covering the climate crisis at the New Republic, where I would have to learn how to bring my feelings to the page.
I needed to turn my despair into rage.
It felt weird at first when, in May 2017, I wrote an article calling Scott Pruitt, a Republican politician and the newly confirmed head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a “hypocritical liar.” My editor assured me that my terminology was okay—that’s what the facts about Pruitt showed, in the end. I got used to it. Over time, I felt increasingly confident about being a moral arbiter as well as an information gatherer. As I developed my voice, my climate grief regenerated as rage, and my writing became better, more honest, and more fulfilling. Plus, my work finally got noticed in high places. Still, I didn’t feel like I was connecting to the general public—the New Republic is a high-flown magazine that can be inaccessible to many readers. And while I was commenting on other people’s reporting, I lacked opportunities to do my own investigations of the forces that made me so mad about climate change: the bosses, the wire-pullers, the campaign givers and takers. So in September 2019, I left the New Republic to start my own publication, HEATED. HEATED, a daily newsletter, publishes stories about how the powerful fail the vulnerable. One story demonstrated the hypocrisy of corporations that claim to be climate-friendly while funding the reelection campaigns of climate-denying politicians. Another exposed the oil company Chevron’s suggested climate talking points for employees. An investigation into how an ad policy announced by Twitter in October would benefit fossil fuel companies sparked a national conversation; ultimately, Twitter changed its rules. At last, I had made a meaningful impact. “Knowledge without anger can stagnate into mere cynicism and apathy,” Jack Newfield, the Village Voice journalist, once wrote. “Anger improves lucidity, persistence, audacity, and memory.” That’s how journalists of the past were effective, and that is how we will be effective now. Recently, I asked my readers to tell me why they enjoy or don’t enjoy HEATED. I got one hundred and eleven responses and compiled them into a spreadsheet. Eighty-four people, or 77 percent, said they appreciated a shift in tone about climate from dispassionate to passionate. Six people said that it made them feel “less alone.” In order to make an impact on climate journalism, I’ve learned, I need to turn my despair into rage. Only then can others feel the burning importance of the story. cjr
RE P ORTING
On the Side of Facts By Michael Specter
SO N I A P U L I D O
NE DAY IN 1990, a friend of mine asked if I would have lunch with Al Gore, who was then the junior senator from Tennessee. Gore was writing his first book, Earth in the Balance, which, when it was published, in 1992, would warn of an impending crisis of global warming. (The term “climate change” was less commonly used in newspapers in those days.) Gore had told my friend that he wanted to talk about the gravity of the subject and make a pitch for more coverage. At the time, I was a science reporter at the Washington Post. Global warming was only vaguely on my radar. My main responsibility was to focus on the aids epidemic—a distressing, fulltime job—but I also wrote more generally about medicine and, occasionally, about the environment. The movement to address climate change was building, having begun in earnest just two years prior, around the time that James Hansen, a nasa climate scientist, delivered congressional testimony saying that global warming was caused by human activity and that it posed significant risks to our planet. There were many doubters—somehow there still are—but it was already clear to anyone who cared to look that something untoward was underway. “The decade of the 1980’s was the hottest since climate experts began keeping records a century ago,” I had written in a story published in the Post on January 13, 1990. “And it included six of the 10 hottest years on record.” In the three decades
since I and others covered that news, the planetary weather vane has only moved in one direction. Gore had read my story in the Post, and when we met for lunch, in Washington, he told me that he had been annoyed by various c aveats I had included. It is hard to imagine that he would remember that lunch, let alone his problems with the piece, but I have never forgotten. (“Many climate scientists have predicted that the earth will get warmer as carbon dioxide and other heat- trapping gases increase in the atmosphere,” I had written. “But there has been sharp disagreement about how great that warming will be or when it will be first detected.”) Gore argued that there was already plenty of evidence to suggest that we needed to curb our industrial and personal excesses. He considered reporters who gave equal coverage to realists and denialists to be deeply misguided. Gore wanted more passionate climate storytelling. I’m not sure I had a reporting philosophy thirty years ago, but I did not come from a world of conviction or advocacy. I was taught to talk to people, present the facts, and file on time. In the piece Gore read I had done all that, I insisted. No matter how ominous one hot decade might seem, I told him, climate data from ten years of human history was simply not sufficient for scientists to draw meaningful conclusions about anything. (Believe it or not, in those days the magnitude of the disaster, while predictable, was not nearly as obvious.) Gore was dismayed at what he thought was a general journalistic indifference to climate trends
and what they implied about the future. I was not indifferent, I said; nor did I suspect that most of my colleagues were. But we didn’t work for him or for Greenpeace or any other pressure group. Activists had one job, I felt, and journalists had another. It remained, I was certain, a world where facts would prevail. And my job was to lay them out for the reader. In the end, my meeting with Gore was inconclusive. I respected his commitment, but he did not persuade me to approach my job in a new way.
I don’t think we ought to discard the values of journalism and join an activist movement.
t took another conversation, not long afterward, to force me to recalibrate my c onception of fairness and truth. One day, as I was on the verge of missing my deadline on a particularly explosive piece of aids policy news, I looked up to see my editor standing menacingly by my desk. “Where is your copy?” he asked. I told him I couldn’t file until I got a comment from a wellknown California representative who regularly denounced homosexuality and considered aids a plague visited upon sinners. My editor was astonished: Are you joking? “There are not two sides to every story,” he said. “We pay you to exercise some judgment, not to type. File right now!” I did as I was told, feeling uneasy about it. The next day, though, when I looked at the story in print, I saw that my editor was right. What on earth did I think readers would gain from being exposed to comments uttered by a notorious homophobe? My approach to my job began to shift, slowly at first, but more dramatically as I moved from the Post to the New York Times, where impartial detachment was the official goal, and then to The New Yorker, where I had more space and more of a responsibility to construct an argument in my pieces. As a reader of news, I became increasingly attuned to false equivalences in stories. They’re detestable, I realized, and they’re ubiquitous. You can always find a true believer to tell you, based on nothing, that vaccines will kill your children, that GMOs will give you cancer, that climate change is a hoax. But preposterous statements should not share equal space with facts. Choosing what to leave out of a piece is just as important as deciding what to include. The central question for our profession has never really been about whether we should remain objective—reporting can never be wholly neutral. Instead, it is about whether our reporting is fair and thorough. I am not an advocacy journalist; there
are people who will dismiss anything I write if they think that I am taking a stand. But when I tell a story, my point of view is often easy to discern. I see no benefit to running down the middle of every aisle. It’s dishonest.
he subject of the climate is complex. Changes are slow and often hard to recognize. Many readers don’t see the disaster looming, or they don’t think it matters. Yet the greenhouse effect has already had a profound impact in many countries, including the United States. Try growing wheat in America’s breadbasket, Kansas, where the weather is already too hot and unreliable to plant the way farmers did in the past. Or getting a house insured in many of our coastal communities. Or buying raspberries at a grocery store while unpredictable crop seasons disrupt the supply chain. For years, many excellent writers have covered the subject exhaustively, fairly, and with insight. But there has been little significant progress. To stave off the worst effects of climate change, we have to cut carbon emissions sharply, yet in the past three years the world has released more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than at any time in human history. It is hard to ignore the fact, as the Global Carbon Project has demonstrated, that carbon dioxide emissions rose by an estimated 1.6 percent in 2017 and 2.7 percent in 2018. A few years ago, toward the end of his editorship of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger tackled the question of how to persuade readers to care about climate change, writing that “journalism has so far failed to animate the public to exert sufficient pressure on politics through reporting and analysis.” One could argue that fairness and accuracy have never been enough to get the job done. Which raises a question: Since we are plunging rapidly toward the abyss, is activism, rather than journalism, the way to make the strongest case? Maybe, but journalists should do their job and focus on helping the public see and understand the world in front of them. This may seem like a bleak time to occupy the high ground of dispassionate reporting, but I don’t think we ought to discard the values of journalism and join an activist movement. After all, journalism that is honest and thoughtful and unafraid is a movement. It poses questions that challenge traditional ways of thinking, it surfaces information
that has been hidden by powerful interests, and it draws attention to people and problems that are otherwise ignored. To tell the whole story of climate change, we need to deploy our best reporting to make the terrifying conclusions obvious. When we write about the consequences of policy inaction, we should do so with human beings at the center. We need to illustrate the stakes for people who are economically displaced or flooded out of their homes. Theoretical tragedy doesn’t make an impression. Lay out the facts and use your judgment to build a story that makes your point. Take a stand, sure, but do so in a measured and direct way, so that your reporting speaks for itself—loudly and clearly, but
not in the tone of an angry commentator. That is the only way journalism will continue to matter. How bad will things get before we take action, as a society, to mitigate climate change? It will get worse—perhaps much worse. One day, though, I believe, the public will value facts again. So let’s not abandon our principles at this dreadful, crucial moment. Gore, for his part, never told me to do that. His argument, which he made clear in the wholly fact-based 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, was that the truth would eventually help rescue the world. I have no choice but to agree. And as journalists, if we don’t believe that, I’m not sure what we can believe. cjr
NATIVE L ANDS
The Biggest Emergency
SO N I A P U L I D O
By Jenni Monet
NE NIGHT LAST November,
Jon Eagle Sr., tribal historian of the Standing Rock Sioux, spoke at a hearing before the North Dakota Public Service Commission. Three years had passed since the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, and though life on the prairie had returned to some semblance of normalcy, concerns of a potential oil spill remained.
“We’re still here, an ancient people, deeply connected to our environment, deeply connected to this land, this water, and this earth,” Eagle said. The hearing, held in the sleepy ranch town of Linton, would determine whether the volume of Bakken crude oil moving through the Dakota Access Pipeline would increase to 1.1 million barrels daily—double the flow for which it was originally designed. Two hundred and fifty miles
north, in Edinburg, oil oozed from a rupture in a different pipeline. I sat in the auditorium and took notes. For ten hours, energy company officials had assured commissioners that the proposed expansion was safe, while a group of Indigenous water protectors—many of whom had boarded a bus at five that morning to be there—waited for their turn to speak. Eagle was the first Indigenous person the North Dakota energy commissioners had heard from all day. John Pretty Bear, a Standing Rock tribal councilman, was the second. “Since the pipeline has been operational, our community has endured the daily stress of an impending oil spill,” he said. “Doubling the capacity only doubles our distress.” It took nearly six hours more to record the testimony of every Lakota citizen present, making it the longest public hearing in the commission’s history. Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, impeachment inquiries were getting underway. Through the lens of the national media, that was the only hearing that mattered. Except for a swift summary filed by the regional bureau of the Associated Press, the DAPL proceeding—a sequel to a global event that spotlighted environmental racism, Indigenous treaty abrogation, and government collusion with a corporate energy project—was totally overshadowed by the politics of Donald Trump.
ournalists were missing a critical moment for the people of Standing Rock—one arguably as important as the 2016 resistance. In this way, the established press continued its pattern of climate coverage, wherein solid enterprise reporting about environment al affairs takes a back seat to breaking-news assignments about extreme weather events. Standing Rock had been no different. Journalists only traveled to the reservation after police doused demonstrators with water on a subfreezing night, an event so shocking that it made the anti-pipeline resistance impossible to ignore. The oversight also illustrated the media’s myopic gaze, its stubborn failure to see the importance of Indigenous stories. Within the conversation about climate change, too little attention is paid to the people who possess wisdom about sustaining the land. The catastrophic bushfires in Australia, predicted
Tribal citizens are among the most vulnerable people in the country to climate change.
by Aborigines years ago, provide one recent example. Another: Berta Cáceres, a Honduran Indigenous environmentalist who was assassinated in March 2016, just before the DAPL protests. I met up with Cáceres early that year, in La Esperanza, where she was hiding out from government threats. I attempted to cover her situation, but my pitches were denied; it was only after her death that editors became interested in her story. To this day, I’m burdened by the thought that I should have pressed harder to publish before her murder. When I traveled to Standing Rock a few months later, I demanded from the start that editors recognize the importance of the demonstrations. Cáceres’s death had made something clear to me: the invisibility and violence inflicted on Indigenous peoples is inextricable from the harm inflicted on the planet. Standing Rock represents the most vivid example in recent history of the links between aggressive natural-resource extraction in North America and human brutality, a pattern well documented since the time of the 1840s gold rush in present-day California. Then as now, women and girls have borne the brunt of the abuse. On the reservation borderlands of the Bakken oil fields, in North Dakota, the appearance, in the mid-2000s, of hundreds of male oil and gas workers—living in temporary housing often referred to as “man camps”—led to a dramatic increase in rapes, sex trafficking, and the disappearances and deaths of Native American women. By 2016, crime had gotten so bad that the FBI opened up a new field office nearby. Only in the past year has the lopsided rate of gender violence in Indian Country finally received the media attention it deserves. But an uptick in readership, on any topic, doesn’t guarantee substantive journalism. Few if any publications have held the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation accountable for its complicity in the abuse visited upon its own women in the Bakken, or revealed that the majority of oil production occurs on the tribe’s trust lands. The Indigenous press, too, falls short; three-quarters of Indigenous media platforms are owned by tribal governments or advocacy groups. The result is coverage that tends to be dictated by political agendas rather than the facts. Tribal citizens are among the most vulnerable people in the country to climate change.
Among Native communities in Alaska, as many as thirty coastal villages will have to be relocated to escape rising ocean waters. Yet, for all the coverage addressing this slow-growing tragedy, little scrutiny has been cast on the contributions of Alaska Native Corporations—the state’s largest private property owners, established specifically to capitalize on extracting resources from their lands. According to the Government Accountability Office, today’s tribal nations and their citizens collectively represent the third-largest owner of extractive resources such as oil, gas, and coal. For sovereign tribal economies faced with limited opportunities for revenue, these deposits are an attractive draw. This means Indigenous peoples must contend not only with encroachment from multinational corporations, but also with their own leadership’s exploitation of the land. We need clear-eyed reporting on the complexities of these actors— or we risk distorting the public understanding of communities affected by climate change, and of those responsible for it.
The Media Today
hen the public hearing in Linton concluded, well past midnight, I headed back to the hotel where I was staying on the Standing Rock reservation. As I drove, I wrestled with disappointment in the industry I’ve worked in for twenty-one years. The Standing Rock protests had inspired a push by newsrooms big and small to enhance their coverage of Indigenous affairs, and yet on this day, almost no one—not even Indian Country Today, with its recent AP partnership—was present. Once again, those who raised their voices loudest in a call for environmental justice were muted by the press. I crossed the Missouri River, vibrant in the moonlight, and thought of the poem “Anchorage,” by Joy Harjo, a Muscogee Creek citizen and the current US poet laureate. “Who would believe the fantastic and terrible story of our survival; those who were never meant to survive,” she wrote of Indigenous resilience. In our contemporary emergency, Indigenous peoples are, as ever, on the front lines. It will take fortitude to tell the stories of a warming planet. Unless journalists know that the climate crisis is an Indigenous story, we’re likely to receive a warped representation of it. And that is perhaps the biggest emergency of all. cjr
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The Ecofascists By Betsy Hartmann
AST NOVEMBER, Tucker Carlson invited Justin Haskins, the editorial director of the Heartland Institute, to discuss climate change on his popular talk show. The Heartland Institute is a climate-denial think tank, and given Fox News’s penchant for climate misinformation, the appearance of one of its representatives on the channel was hardly surprising. According to a report by Public Citizen, a watchdog group, “The millions of Americans who tune into Fox News are regularly bombarded with messages intended to undermine climate science, cast climate advocates as hysterical and frame climate policy as dangerous and un-American.” The episode offered something different from Fox’s usual slant, however. Haskins’s rhetoric departed from climate denialism, pure and simple, in favor of blaming immigrants for causing environmental damage—an ideology known as the “greening of hate.” Supposing that climate change really is human-caused, Haskins mused, then why let in all those immigrants from countries like Mexico and Guatemala, where CO2 emissions per person are way lower than in the US? Carlson jumped in: “Isn’t crowding your country the fastest way to despoil it, to pollute it, to make it a place you wouldn’t want to live?” Both men were repeating lines of argument routinely deployed by the Tanton network, a collection of more than a dozen anti-immigration groups founded or funded by John Tanton, a wealthy ophthalmologist from Michigan. Tanton, who died last summer, believed that the root cause of environmental destruction is overpopulation by the wrong sorts of people. To protect both nature and the nation, one must preserve white supremacy by keeping immigrants out.
Tanton was a shrewd political operator who, in the seventies, was a leader of the Sierra Club and the Zero Population Growth organization. He was a clever fundraiser, too; over the years he secured generous financial backing from Cordelia Scaife May, an heiress to the Mellon family fortune. With her support, he set up multiple anti-immigration organizations, including the influential Federation for American Immigration Reform, Numbers USA, and Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). Tanton lured mainstream environmentalists into the nativist camp by exploiting the public’s fears of overpopulation and environmental doom. He was successful at first, but in the nineties the Tanton network’s attempts to take over the Sierra Club ran up against resistance from a coalition of progressive activists. (Full disclosure: I was part of that coalition.) The network remained largely off the radar of liberal media outlets until the election of President Donald Trump. A number of top Trump advisers and appointees—Stephen Miller, Kelly anne Conway, and Jeff Sessions, to name a few— have close ties to the Tanton network. So far, the anti-immigrant messages emanating from the White House and right-wing media have leaned on economic and security narratives rather than Tanton’s environmental arguments. But the Carlson-Haskins exchange from November offers a preview of how the political calculus could change.
utright climate denial is falling, even among Republicans. A recent Pew Research Center poll of Americans’ views on climate and energy found that 67 percent of the public thinks that the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change. Predictably, 90 percent of Democrats believe this, as opposed to 65 percent
of moderate to liberal Republicans and 24 percent of conservative Republicans. But Republicans are also split along generational and gender lines. More than half of millennial and Gen Z Republicans want more government action, compared to less than a third of boomers and those older. And Republican women are significantly more likely to favor climate action than Republican men. As the direct impacts of climate change become ever more apparent in severe heat waves, storms, wildfires, droughts, and coastal flooding, climate denial is likely to become an increasingly hard sell. The European right is facing similar challenges, and some parties are adapting their positions on climate change. Last spring, the youth wing of Alternative for Germany, the country’s largest ultra-right party, called on its leadership to reexamine climate skepticism after the party received a poor showing in the European Parliament elections compared to the Greens. In Austria, a new coalition government has formed between the conservative People’s Party and the progressive Greens. The People’s Party has pledged to crack down on Muslims and immigrants; it has also committed to the Greens’ goal to make Austria carbon-neutral by 2040. If political necessity forces the US Republican Party in this same direction, the Tanton network stands ready to help. Its main think tank, the CIS, served as an important source of immigrationrelated disinformation for the 2016 Trump campaign. CIS has also carefully cultivated access to the liberal press by cloaking its agenda in the neutral language of research studies and statistics. A study by Define American and the MIT Center for Civic Media found that from 2014 to 2018, more than 90 percent of references to CIS in the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today were made “without contextual information as to the nature of the group or its ties to the Trump administration.” In January, the New York Times ran an anti-immigration op-ed written by a member of CIS who identified himself, in the headline, as a “liberal.” It was likely an attempt to spin the organization’s image away from a less favorable label: being named a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
ow the conservative media treats climate change matters deeply. The views of moderate Republicans who favor bipartisan action on climate change, whether through
Blaming immigrants for causing environmental damage is an ideology known as the “greening of hate.”
taxing carbon, investing in alternative energies, or improving infrastructure, warrant far more space than they’re getting in right-wing outlets like Fox and Breitbart as well as in conservative newspapers like the Wall Street Journal. At the same time, liberal media need to play a much stronger role in educating the public about the key issues and debates that will emerge when the federal government finally gets serious about establishing a national climate policy. Years of climate denial have left the public largely illiterate about the brass tacks of an effective and equitable transition away from fossil fuels. It’s of equal and vital importance that liberal media expose the influence of the Tanton network. To guarantee close and continuous scrutiny of the network, why not assign reporters to a “Tanton beat”? Only a few days after the Times published the CIS op-ed, a Tanton network litigator wrote on the organization’s website that immigration-caused population growth drives carbon emissions, pollution, and destruction of open space in the US. We must correct this narrative rather than giving disinformation a platform. The environmental stakes are high. The stakes are also high for the safety and security of immigrants. The white-supremacist shooters who went on killing sprees last year in El Paso, Texas, and Christchurch, New Zealand, rationalized their deadly violence against immigrants in part on environmental grounds. “The environment is getting worse by the year,” the El Paso shooter lamented in his manifesto. “Most of y’all are just too stubborn to change your lifestyle. So the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources.” The Christchurch shooter wrote that he was an ecofascist concerned about the threats of climate change, overpopulation, and immigration: “They are the same issue, the environment is being destroyed by over population, we Europeans are one of the groups that are not over populating the world. The invaders are the ones over populating the world. Kill the invaders, kill the overpopulation and by doing so save the environment.” As outright climate denial diminishes among conservatives, we can expect the Tanton network to renew its focus on the environment to push anti-immigrant policies—cloaking the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Now is the time to prevent a serious resurgence of the greening of hate. cjr
The Climate Gap Number of full-time climate reporters in each newsroom: 1 full-time climate reporter
1 newsroom staffer
DATA COMPILED BY
Akintunde Ahmad Savannah Jacobson Lauren Harris
Falling Short SURVEY
New York Times
Los Angeles Times
ournalists increasingly consider climate change to be important, but newsrooms are still figuring out how to navigate the beat. What counts as success? The number of stories published, the size of a team, the extent to which climate reporting is integrated throughout a newsroom? CJR conducted a survey of twenty newsrooms and reviewed data from George Mason University to measure the gaps in consistent climate coverage and to understand why they persist.
ABOUT THE NUMBERSâ€‚ In 2018, the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication conducted a survey of more than a thousand journalists from the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Radio Television Digital News Association, and the Society of Environmental Journalists. For the purposes of CJRâ€™s analysis, we excluded SEJ in our discussion of the survey.
How often do newsrooms assign and publish climate stories?
A couple of times each week.
A few times per week to every day.
A couple of times per month.
Source: CJR survey
Media Mentions of “Climate Change” or “Global Warming” 1,500
December 2009 16th UN Climate Change Conference— Copenhagen summit
October 2007 Al Gore wins the Nobel Peace Prize
June 2017 Donald Trump announces US withdrawal from Paris Agreement
February– June 2007 Fourth IPCC report on climate change released
November/ December 2015 22nd UN Climate Change Conference— Paris (Paris Agreement)
Africa Central/South America Middle East Asia Europe North America Oceania Wire Services All Sources Combined
Source: International Collective on Environment, Culture & Politics
2020 TK CREDIT
The Climate Hurdles
Percentage of George Mason University survey respondents who considered the following to be obstacles to their climate reporting:
Lack of: 78%
TIME FOR FIELD REPORTING
TIME/SPACE IN NEWS
ACCESS TO ROLE MODELS TRUSTED SCIENTIFIC INFO
ACCESS TO EXPERTS
ACCESS TO LOCAL SOURCES MANAGEMENT SUPPORT OWNER SUPPORT
Number of CJR survey respondents who said that the following beats regularly overlap with climate reporting: Business International/Foreign Politics National Energy Health Local Science Arts/Visuals Culture (Race/Class) Tech Weather Labor Housing Education Breaking Misinformation Investigations
“This is still a subject that remains a far-off thing for many people. It’s hard to make it immediate.” —Curtis Morgan The Miami Herald
The ubiquitous, imperfect signifier of climate change MEDIA HISTORY
n late summer 2015, I stood on the deck of a small cruise ship in the Canadian Arctic and saw a polar bear. It was my first time encountering one up close. The bear was lonely and beautiful, adrift on a snow-covered slab of ice in the open sea. The water beyond the floe was cold and dark, but around the bear, where a hidden mass of ice below the surface captured light, there was turquoise. I had seen other bears on this trip, some just vanilla ice cream scoops on red-brown tundra in the far distance. A few were distinct: one scaled a cliff to rob nesting seabirds of their eggs; another swam by as passengers crammed into the small inflatable boats we used for shore landings, its ears and snout barely visible above the water. But this sighting was different. The ship’s PA system had crackled in the dining hall as we all sat eating our lunch; a crew member announced that there was a polar bear ahead. We’d abandoned our soup bowls and stampeded to our cabins to grab puffy down jackets and cameras; the captain had slowed the ship to a crawl and then brought it to a full stop, coming to rest with the gentlest bump against the berg that held the bear. Now a hundred tourists packed the deck in near-perfect silence, our only sounds the artificial clicks of digital cameras and the occasional sigh. The bear glanced up at us briefly, sniffed, and then dismissed us, returning his attention to a disemboweled seal that lay bloody on the snow beside him. He worked at the carcass, tearing off dark strips of tough blubber with his long yellow teeth, ignoring a handful of gulls that hovered eagerly nearby. We stood and watched the bear butcher that seal for more than an hour. We were close enough to hear the scrape of his claws on the ice, close enough to see that the seal’s eyeballs had popped out of their sockets and now dangled in the snow on long tendrils of nerve tissue.
As I observed the scene, I realized that I was witnessing a kind of reversal: the real animal behind the iconography—that is, the image of a solitary bear on a dwindling ice throne. In the age of climate change, the polar bear has become the mascot for a planetary crisis. With its crucial habitat, Arctic sea ice, in inexorable and well-documented retreat, it seems a useful—and, to those who haven’t seen one maul anything, adorable—symbol for an otherwise abstract warming process. The polar bear as climate change symbol is ubiquitous. A Google search yields links to countless stories from CNN, the BBC, CBC, and many more outlets, alongside search suggestions for “starving,” “global warming,” “sad,” “skinny,” and “dying.” A notable example came in 2006, with the big-eyed cartoon polar bear swimming hopelessly in search of vanished sea ice in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The appeal of polar bears has been attributed to the “identifiable-victim effect.” As Kate Manzo, a geographer at Newcastle University, writes in a 2010 paper, “The basic idea is that numbers (or ‘dry statistics’) fail to either spark emotion or motivate action in the same way as images do.” Bears, in other words, are more compelling than bar graphs. Manzo charts the rise
P R E V I O U S PAG E : DAV I D M E R RO N P H OTO G R A P H Y
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of the polar bear as an embodiment of climate change in connection with a few near-simultaneous events in the mid-2000s. One was a viral image of two Alaskan polar bears that seemed to be “howling against injustice” as ice crumbled around them. (The image was shot in 2004 but received its widest circulation when the Canadian Ice Service released it alongside a 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.) Another was the sudden global celebrity of Knut, the Berlin Zoo’s baby polar bear, born in 2006. As a cub, he was not only photographed and relentlessly documented by webcam but also trademarked, televised, and commemorated in everything from ringtones to stamps to credit cards. Knut even posed for Annie Leibovitz, landing the cover of Vanity Fair. With polar bears, journalists had stumbled on a shorthand for climate change—something specific, with emotional heft, that could be used to stand in for a slow-moving and almost invisible crisis. For millions of people who would never lay eyes on one in real life, let alone on a shrinking shard of ice, the polar bear would signify a looming disaster that otherwise felt distant, even irrelevant. But the polar bear, hungry and paddling on, couldn’t tell the whole story.
f the polar bear capped the modern age of climate journalism, we can trace the beginnings of that era to the summer of 1988. It was unusually hot. Since the early years of the twentieth century, scientists had discussed the possibility that the planet would eventually be warmed by an excess of carbon dioxide trapped in the atmosphere. By the fifties, the first long-term data-gathering projects to document the increase in CO2 had been launched. But public awareness was limited, and news outlets had given the threat only occasional notice. The New York Times published its first reference to a terrestrial “greenhouse effect” on August 2, 1970, reporting that “its future consequences are unknown.” (A story from 1961 had referred to the same effect on Venus.) Through the sixties and seventies and into the eighties, global warming was “a prediction about something that might happen,” says Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University who specializes in the story of climate change. “Most people think it’s still pretty far away and they don’t want to put a date on it.” But a hearing on June 23, 1988, changed that. Dr. James Hansen, the director of nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, appeared before the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Capitol Hill. Forty-seven years old, with a thinning brown comb-over, he wore a tan suit and a dark reddish tie. Seated before the committee, he pulled a pair of microphones in close, leaned forward, and explained his findings. He offered three key conclusions: First, that in all recorded history the earth had never been hotter than it was in 1988. Second, that the planet’s warming could now be attributed “with a high degree of confidence” to the greenhouse gas effect. And third, that the effect was already pronounced enough that it might explain the incidence of extreme weather events. “The greenhouse effect has been detected,” Hansen said, “and it is changing our climate now.” In a highly visible forum, with reach beyond the scientific community, the climate discussion had turned abruptly from speculation to something concrete. Hansen’s role was to share his research on global temperature patterns, not to prescribe policy. The presiding senator on the
I realized that I was witnessing a kind of reversal: the real animal behind the iconography.
committee, Timothy Wirth of Colorado, picked up where the scientist left off: “The global climate is changing as the earth’s atmosphere gets warmer,” he said after Hansen had testified. “Now the Congress must begin to consider how we are going to slow or halt that warming trend and how we are going to cope with the changes that may already be inevitable.” The next day, the front page of the New York Times was topped by the headline “Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate.” A few months later, Discover made global warming its cover story. Andrew Revkin, the author of the piece, used Hansen’s testimony as the jumping-off point for a wider look at climate science. The magazine’s eye-catching front depicted Earth glowing white-hot and melting into a puddle, overlaid with the lines “The Greenhouse Effect: This Summer Was Merely a Warm-Up.” The next year, 1989, Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, which would become known as the first mainstream book on climate change. It seemed as though something was changing, that attention was being paid. And then came the backlash. Hansen’s testimony triggered a rapid public relations response from the fossil fuel industry and other interested parties; that reaction and its fallout were the subject of Oreskes’s 2010 book Merchants of Doubt. “Sadly, that’s when the ‘both sides’ false equivalence kicks in,” she told me. “Because journalists don’t realize what’s happening. They don’t get it. They don’t understand that this is a disinformation campaign. And frankly, most of the scientists don’t understand it either. So the scientists don’t call it out.” That old journalistic touchstone of “balance” provided an ideal platform for companies like Exxon and BP to distort the science of the greenhouse gas effect. In a 2008 paper on televised news coverage of climate change between 1995 and 2004, Maxwell Boykoff, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, found that 70 percent of American news segments dealing with climate offered the kind of “balanced” coverage that ultimately obscured the scientific consensus. In 2001, the George W. Bush administration announced its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 treaty that had offered a road
map for emissions reductions and emphasized the contributions of industrialized nations. Kendra Pierre-Louis, who is now a reporter on the climate change desk at the New York Times, was in college at Cornell at the time. She remembers a series of campus protests and sit-ins where students spoke out against Bush’s decision and called for the university to implement Kyoto even if the federal government would not. Pierre-Louis read The End of Nature and was shocked to realize that it had been published so many years earlier. “I don’t want to call it a blackout rage moment,” she said. “But I was just very confused. Everyone seemed to have known about this for over a decade and there didn’t seem to be a lot of traction.” By the mid-aughts, that’s where things stood: scientists were largely in agreement, the public was largely unengaged, and journalists were struggling to connect the two. Enter the polar bear. “I’ve been trying to tell this story for a long time,” Gore says in the opening minutes of An Inconvenient Truth, “and I feel as if I’ve failed to get the message across.” Back in college, Gore had studied under one of those early CO2 data gatherers, Roger Revelle. So after Gore’s loss in the 2000 election, he returned to a project he had put aside during his vice presidency: giving public presentations about global warming. A touring slideshow led to the documentary, an Academy Award, a Nobel Peace Prize (awarded jointly to Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and a critical milestone in the public’s awareness of climate change. I remember the image he put on-screen: the animated polar bear, stranded on a shrinking iceberg, the open ocean menacing all around. As Gore’s voice-over describes polar bears “swimming long distances…to find the ice,” he transfers the bear’s sense of crisis to the viewer. The image cemented my awareness of the polar bear trope. Journalism’s wide embrace of the polar bear was logical, to a point. It “leaned on the language of conservation,” Pierre-Louis said. The polar-bear-on-sea-ice image was similar to save-the-whales campaigns and dolphinsafe tuna can labeling and the World Wildlife Fund’s panda logo. The overwhelming problems of the environment could be channeled through friendly megafauna.
BEAR BONANZA Knut’s celebrity advanced from journalism to stuffed toys.
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But that focus also had limitations. For one thing, it led to several news cycles, over the years, of wrangling about the precise connections between viral images—of a sad-looking bear, for instance, that was most likely dying of starvation or injury at the moment the photojournalist’s camera snapped—and the effects of climate change. “I do think, in retrospect, there were some problems with it,” said Boykoff, whose recent book, Creative (Climate) Communication, is about effective ways to engage the public in environmental science. The polar bear, so far from most people, made it appear that climate change was “something that was distant from us,” Boykoff added. “And so there is an argument that could be made that it did have this kind of stifling impact on engagement. Whereas if we really talked about how it’s affecting urban centers, how it’s affecting our daily lives, how it’s really an intersectional set of challenges, not just a single issue, and it permeates everything from land-use decision-making
to immigration policy in the United States—that livens up all kinds of discussions that I think people find relevant.”
half hour or so into An Inconvenient Truth, Gore rattles off a statistic about the ten hottest years on record to date, noting how recent they all were. “The hottest of all,” Gore says, “was 2005.” That year saw what were historically high temperatures in a number of US cities—“including, incidentally, New Orleans.” We know what he is teeing up: Hurricane Katrina, a flooded New Orleans, nearly two thousand people dead, and the haunting imagery that most of us will remember from the hot, swampy days that followed the storm. Stranded residents waving for rescue from baking rooftop islands, the displaced hordes packed into the Superdome, Sean Penn in his skiff. Gore quotes Winston Churchill: “We are entering a period of consequences.” I didn’t connect Hurricane Katrina with climate change when it struck the Gulf Coast, or for many years afterward. Neither did the writer Mary Annaïse Heglar, who lived through the storm. “Not at all, at the time,” she told me recently. “And I don’t think most people down here did either—I don’t remember seeing a lot of people make that argument, certainly not on TV.” (As is so often the case, there’s more room for coverage to diverge in print: On August 30, the day after the storm hit New Orleans, the New York Times ran a news story
“For communities of color, the stereotype has always been that environmentalists care more about animals than they do about them.”
disputing the idea that Katrina was fueled by climate change. The day after that, the Times ran an opinion piece that began, “The hurricane that struck Louisiana and Mississippi on Monday was nicknamed Katrina by the National Weather Service. Its real name is global warming.”) Attuned to stories about the failures of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, about the Danziger Bridge shootings, and about Kanye West’s famous declaration that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” I thought of the aftermath of Katrina as a story about race and racism, about infrastructure and inequality, about political indifference—and about the sheer emotional and financial and logistical difficulty of abandoning one’s home. But the story of climate change is the story of all those things, too. It’s not as simple as a white bear on shrinking sea ice. Last fall, Heglar published an essay in Guernica that linked her family’s experience during Katrina; the threat of climate change; and the story of Emmett Till, the fourteenyear-old boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955. “Katrina descended the day after the 50th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till,” Heglar points out in her piece. “The climate crisis is covered in the fingerprints of slavery and Jim Crow and colonialism and genocide and patriarchy,” she continues. “It’s what happens when large swaths of people are not only systematically ‘left out,’ but forced to be their own gravediggers and pallbearers. I can’t help but see how those same layers complicate and exacerbate the crisis.” When I spoke with her, Heglar compared using pictures of polar bears to tell the story of climate change to focusing on bombs to tell the story of war. “You need to show the impacts on people,” she said. “In particular, for communities of color, the stereotype has always been that environmentalists care more about animals than they do about them.” As for the bears themselves, they are declining in some regions, but certain populations are stable and, in parts of the world, their numbers are increasing. Even as it becomes increasingly evident that they might not make for the best climate change symbol, the trope remains prevalent. I recently noticed that, to illustrate the impact of climate change on communities in northern
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British Columbia, a Vancouver paper had run a photo of a polar bear dipping a reluctant paw in the water. Surely the editors could have come up with some local imagery for the story, I’d thought. There are no polar bears in British Columbia. Some journalists, however, are trying to pivot in a human direction. Last October, Fiona Shields, the photo editor of The Guardian, published a note to the paper’s readers under the headline “Why we’re rethinking the images we use for our climate journalism.” She wrote: “Often, when signalling environmental stories to our readers, selecting an image of a polar bear on melting ice has been the obvious—though not necessarily appropriate—choice. These images tell a certain story about the climate crisis but can seem remote and abstract—a problem that is not a human one, nor one that is particularly urgent.” From now on, instead of reaching reflexively for a stock image of a polar bear on an ice floe (the most convenient option in this era of shrinking time and money), The Guardian promised to strive to find human-focused images to tell its stories. “We need new imagery for new narratives,” Shields wrote. “This can be challenging in a fast-paced newsroom but it is important to be nuanced and creative with search terms
to unearth photography beyond the usual keywords of climate change, heatwave and floods.” The New York Times’ climate desk is seeking out alternatives, too. Recently, the Times used a high-end infrared camera to create a visual of a methane leak in Texas, normally an invisible event. Pierre-Louis pointed out that environmental journalists have vastly better tools at their disposal than they did during her college days—tools that can help make symbolic bear-on-ice imagery obsolete. Attribution science—used to determine the role of climate change in any major weather disaster—has progressed enough that researchers can calculate, almost in real time, the likelihood that a given event would have occurred without the influence of global warming. Such was the case during 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, and—close to home for me—when a retreating glacier caused the abrupt and total disappearance of a Yukon river, the world’s first known example of “river piracy” that can be firmly attributed to climate change. “I don’t think there’s an ideal image that is out there to be discovered,” Manzo, the Newcastle University geographer, who has continued to study the impact of climate change media, told me. “It’s: What is it that you want to visualize? What is it you want to show? What message have you got that you want to get across?” Different aspects of the problem will require different points of focus, and we’re only just starting to see a wider array of perspectives, with new and different ways of getting at the story. That day on the ship, we eventually left the polar bear to his meal. The captain revved up the engines and motored on through a mostly ice-free Northwest Passage. We travelers returned to our abandoned lunches, and then dispersed to the hot tub or the bar. Beautiful and terrible as the polar bear had been, we had to leave him behind. cjr
WHAT WE’R E R EAD ING
K A R LOT TA F R E I E R
The Recycling Myth In a radio piece from September 2, 2019, WBUR (Boston) spoke with Sharon Lerner, of The Intercept, about her reporting on how recycling works. The idea that plastic is refashioned into new products is largely untrue, she said. Instead, “it has actually ended up in landfills or scattered around the world or burned.” For years, most of America’s plastic waste was shipped to China—until 2017, when the Communist Party stopped taking it. Now, Lerner explained, “It’s piling up at recycling facilities and going to poor countries.” What we didn’t know has been hurting us.
E . TA M M Y K I M
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists may be the only outlet whose approach to climate change is explicitly existential.
E. Tammy Kim ILLUSTRATOR
n November, just before I went to see Jerry Brown at the annual meeting of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, some eleven thousand climate experts signed a statement declaring “clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.” At eighty-one, Brown, the former governor of California, was retired, but not really, having committed himself to fending off environmental disaster. Recently, he had testified before a House subcommittee, calling an attack by President Trump on California’s auto emissions rules “just plain dumb, if not commercially suicidal.” A month before that, he’d announced the creation of the California-China Climate Institute, a bilateral research and training initiative “to spur further climate action.” And just before finishing his last term as governor, he’d signed on as the executive chair of the Bulletin, which was eager to stake out territory in the climate fight. I’d arranged to interview Brown about his choice to join the Bulletin, a nonprofit magazine founded in Chicago in 1945 by conscience-stricken alumni of the Manhattan Project. The Bulletin covers all things nuclear and is best known for its annual Doomsday Clock announcement, which draws on expert opinion to report just how close we are to the “midnight” of man-made apocalypse. But the publication’s original remit—to help “formulate the opinion and responsibilities of scientists” and “educate the public” about the many “problems arising from the release of nuclear energy”—has broadened considerably. It now devotes equal attention to the threat of the climate crisis, including in the setting of the clock.
In this regard, the Bulletin and a post-gubernatorial Brown were an ideal match. The meeting I attended, at the regal University Club in downtown Chicago, was Brown’s second with the science and security board, a group of subject-matter experts who set the clock and advise the editorial staff. (The Bulletin also has two other boards: the governing board, a corporate and philanthropic fundraising body, and the board of sponsors, which boasts thirteen Nobel laureates.) A few hundred people arrived, palling around and getting ready to talk all things apocalypse. The dress code for the event had called for business attire, but Brown turned up in crumpled slacks and a navy-blue sweater—a suitcase screwup, he explained. Why the Bulletin? I asked. “Number one is, of course, the reduction of the nuclear threat, but climate is another huge threat to humanity,” he said. “And the Bulletin, by linking the two threats, can increase public awareness, get people thinking about the big threats that humanity faces.” Brown complained, in his jocular, pugnacious way, that the American news media’s “servitude to the concept of the news of the day” is partly to blame for public ignorance about climate change. He asked me repeatedly, “How can journalism cover something as diffuse and general and gradual as climate change?” As we chatted, searching for answers, I thought of the untold amount of carbon we’d all combusted to get to Chicago. I next saw Brown at the opening luncheon, in the buffet line among Bulletin funders and fans. The crowd resembled that of a classicalmusic concert: old, white, intellectual. The day included three sets of workshops, led by eminent scientists and policy wonks, then a closing plenary session and dinner banquet at Chicago’s Palmer House, a grand hotel dating to the late nineteenth century. At the dinner, Brown delivered an energetic, free-flowing speech. “The worse it is, the more excited I am,” he said, the it being our current geopolitical, nuclear, and climate morass. “Let’s get it done!” That second it—the avoidance of total destruction—aptly distilled the Bulletin’s mission. Since the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the magazine has tried to convey the grave danger we’ve imposed on ourselves. Today, though the possibility of nuclear war remains real, the climate crisis feels just as daunting and consequential. Environmental scientists know this, as do journalists who report on global warming. Yet the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists may be the only publication to cover climate change with an approach that is explicitly existential.
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n 2017, during a seemingly endless, ever-escalating row between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was permanently tabbed in my browser window. What some were calling a new “North Korean nuclear crisis” wasn’t really new or even a crisis so much as the crackling of a rather constant fire. Still, as a Korea watcher with family on the peninsula, and given the “statesmen” involved, I felt frightened and looked to the Bulletin as a vital source of news and commentary. The magazine had, after all, invented the nuclear beat. From the very first issue, a slight, mimeographed newsletter published on the fourth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Bulletin appealed to America and the rest of the world to eliminate
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L E X E Y SWA L L P H OTO G R A P H Y / B U L L E T I N O F T H E ATO M I C SC I E N T I STS
WHAT TIME IS IT? At the 2020 announcement of the Doomsday Clock, the Bulletin’s leaders declared us closer than ever to midnight.
nuclear weapons and establish “efficient international control” of atomic energy. Progress “will be useless if our nation is to live in continuous dread of sudden annihilation,” the editors said at a conference in Moscow. “We can afford compromises, disagreements, or delays in other fields—but not in this one, where our very survival is at stake.” A few years on, the Bulletin published the text of a speech by Albert Einstein, delivered to journalists at the United Nations, in which he asked why global cooperation hadn’t yet staved off the threat of apocalypse. Perhaps it would be different, he suggested, if the atom bomb were not “one of the things made by Man himself.” Einstein later founded the Bulletin’s board of sponsors. The Bulletin evolved from a newsletter into a magazine, headquartered at the University of Chicago, and Martyl Langsdorf, a landscape painter and the wife of a Manhattan Project alumnus, designed a symbolic cover: an analog clock, set at 11:53pm, to represent the imminence of our self-destruction. In 1949, when the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear device, Eugene Rabinowitch, the Bulletin’s coeditor, decided to animate
Langsdorf ’s clock, winding it four minutes closer to midnight. It has ticked forward and backward ever since—through the proliferation of ballistic missiles; the catastrophes at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima; and the adoption of and American withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The Nuclear Notebook, a research column of hair-raising erudition, has appeared in every issue since May 1987 and is second only to the Doomsday Clock in Bulletin influence. Each Notebook installment analyzes a category of stockpile—tactical nuclear weapons, for instance, or the Chinese nuclear arsenal—down to the quantity and types and locations of various arms and fissile materials. The interests of the magazine have always overlapped with those of environmentalists. Early Bulletin scientists expressed a desire to make atomic energy a clean, limitless alternative to fossil fuels. That did not, of course, come to pass; more apparent were various kinds of long-term damage, from nuclear tests to plant meltdowns to radioactive waste buried on- and offshore, all of it documented in the Bulletin. There’s still no consensus on nuclear power. At the annual meeting, Robert Socolow, a member of the science and security board and a Princeton professor emeritus, said in a presentation, “I’m still going back and forth on nuclear energy, because of the coupling of nuclear power and nuclear weapons.” There is always “some probability” of disaster, he added. Atomic energy, in any case, never came close to rivaling fossil fuels, and the subject of climate change appeared in the Bulletin as early as November 1961. “Climate to Order,” an article-cum–thought experiment by H.E. Landsberg, a German climatologist, described
geoengineering—that is, hacking the atmosphere (reflecting sunlight, injecting chemicals into the stratosphere, etc.)—avant la lettre. In theory, Landsberg wrote, it would be great to customize our environment, but “When we are changing the climate of the whole world, a mistake could be disastrous.” In 1970, the Bulletin ran another piece on geoengineering, this time in relation to “polar ice” and “man’s inadvertent influences on global climate.” By 1972, a long, poetic account of the loss of forests and arable land would warn, “There is plenty of evidence that man is the principal cause of this change.” When I visited Rachel Bronson, the CEO and president of the Bulletin, in the magazine’s Chicago offices, she plucked a bound library volume from her shelf and opened it to February 1978. “Is mankind warming the Earth?” William W. Kellogg, a meteorologist, queried in the magazine’s first climate-change cover story. “The answer is, I believe, an unqualified ‘yes.’ ” Kellogg’s article might have been written today, so salient are its arguments against delayed action and the conflating of extreme weather and atmospheric transformation. He included a message to colleagues who “maintain that we should not publish any conclusions about the response of the climate to anthropogenic influences until we have done more homework,” expressing his disagreement “with such a conservative and noncommunicative attitude because the stakes are so great, the issues so fundamental to the future of society and most of all because some decisions are upon us that depend on every scrap of insight we can muster.” By the end of the Cold War, most scientists were aware of the dangers of climate change and its relation to atomic and geopolitical concerns. Around the time Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, the first mass-market account of global warming, in 1989, the Bulletin was running pieces on the science of climate change “side by side with heated denials that global warming posed any threat at all,” historians
David Kaiser and Benjamin Wilson observe in a special seventieth-anniversary issue of the Bulletin. The magazine also recast the debate over nuclear energy “amid new apprehension about greenhouse gas emissions and implications for global warming.” Len Ackland, the editor from 1984 to 1991, told me that it became clear “we needed to address longerterm environmental dangers.” To that end, he commissioned new artwork from Langsdorf: in her cover illustration for the October 1989 issue, the circle of the clock encloses a blue-and-white map of the world, the minute and hour hands radiating out from the North Pole. In 1992, the Bulletin published a major speech by Mikhail Gorbachev that set out environmental priorities for a post-Soviet world: “The prospect of catastrophic climatic changes—more frequent droughts, floods, hunger, epidemics, national-ethnic conflicts, and other similar catastrophes—compels governments to adopt a world perspective and seek generally applicable solutions.” The Bulletin has vacillated in style over time, toggling between academic journal and science magazine, but has always maintained a certain seriousness. When I spoke to Bronson, she told me that tradition and expertise are no longer enough. “In the moment of populism in which we’re now operating, we’d better inform the populace,”
Ticktock Martyl Langsdorf, a landscape painter and the wife of a Manhattan Project alumnus, designed a symbolic Bulletin cover: an analog clock that would represent the imminence of our selfdestruction. That clock would become the magazine’s visual touchstone.
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she said. “Our power will come from having an educated and devoted following that’s larger than it is right now.” Recently, the Bulletin has adjusted its idioms; leaned more on interviews, explainers, personal essays, and multimedia; and stretched beyond an author base of older white male technocrats from Europe and the United States. There’s the Voices of Tomorrow column, which ran a moving essay by four teenage activists, including Isra Hirsi, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s daughter: “Adults won’t take climate change seriously. So we, the youth, are forced to strike.” There’s elegant multimedia reportage, such as deputy editor Dan Drollette’s “Tilting toward windmills,” about a test wind farm on Block Island, Rhode Island. And there’s refined polemic: for example, “Let science be science again,” by Yangyang Cheng, a Chinese physicist based in Chicago, on science advocacy in the age of Donald Trump. A popular video series, “Say What? A clear-eyed look at fuzzy policy,” produced by multimedia editor Thomas Gaulkin, demonstrates that, even though the Bulletin is nonpartisan, it’s religiously pro-science.
n recent years, the Bulletin website has more than quintupled its traffic, from about 42,000 visits per month in 2013 to 236,000 per month today. The audience remains small but is also—judging from the comments section and social media—well connected and atypically informed: scientists, graduate students, journalists, the kinds of people who subscribe to Scientific American and Foreign Affairs. In response to a recent article on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that debunked the supposed coming of a “little ice age,” commenter Cjones1 wrote: “You forgot to mention that less solar radiation allows more cosmic radiation which effects [sic] cloud cover. The IPCC predictions have been less accurate than a bone throwing shaman.” Fifty-five people responded to this with a thumbs-up.
“Some decisions are upon us that depend on every scrap of insight we can muster.”
The Bulletin discontinued its print edition in 2008 but maintains a distinction between its paywalled bimonthly magazine and other articles. A yearly subscription costs eightysix dollars and comes via Taylor & Francis, a profitable British publisher of scholarly books and journals. Since 2011, John Mecklin has served as the Bulletin’s editor in chief. He supervises six editors, spread out across the United States, who commission and write; seven other staff members handle administration, public relations, and fundraising. Collectively, they aim to grow the magazine’s readership, assign more illustrations, and invest in narrative and investigative journalism. “I’m in the process of commissioning a story right now, paying somebody two to three dollars a word,” Mecklin told me. “The Bulletin is doing well financially, but I can’t pay what The New Yorker pays somebody, or I can’t do it for very many stories a year.” Most pieces are written for nothing—“donated,” as Mecklin put it—by experts with day jobs. One of Mecklin’s predecessors, Mark Strauss, recalled compensating at least one contributor with a Bulletin T-shirt. When Mecklin took the job, climate represented just “a quarter or 30 percent” of the magazine, he told me; it’s now “more like 40 percent nuclear, 40 percent climate.” As he explained, “What has evolved and changed since I’ve been editor is that there are now three areas of focus: it’s nuclear, climate change, and this area we call disruptive technologies”—such as artificial intelligence and disinformation—a sort of “threat multiplier of the first two.” Both Mecklin and Bronson described this expanded mission as logical and necessary, and in line with the Bulletin’s history of tackling the impacts of cuttingedge science. When I listened in on a recent editorial meeting, via Skype, I was struck by the magazine’s simultaneously banal and illustrious character. The editors did what all editors do: they evaluated pitches and commissions, reviewed social media statistics (e.g., an “SUV shaming” story, by contributing editor Dawn Stover, that was “doing well on the interwebs”), brainstormed story ideas, and planned coverage. But every so often, someone would refer to a famous politician or scientist (e.g., Siegfried Hecker,
a Stanford physicist who has personally inspected North Korea’s nuclear arsenal) not as a dream subject or occasional source, but as a friend and adviser to the magazine. On questions of climate, for instance, they might consult Elizabeth Kolbert, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker writer who sits on the science and security board. This is a publication with extraordinary history and reach. I thought of something Mecklin told me when we first spoke: “We want to be read in the White House, at the Kremlin, and at the kitchen table.” Among the prominent scientists closely involved with the Bulletin is Raymond Pierrehumbert, a lavishly bearded and tweeded physicist, not of the nuclear sort. He joined the magazine’s science and security board while across campus at the University of Chicago. He has since moved to Oxford, but remains heavily involved. In his work on “the early Earth” and planets around other stars, he applies the “same physics we use to quantify the greenhouse effect on Earth,” he told me. “If you’re a climate scientist or paleontologist, you’ve studied the role of CO2 in the Earth’s past history—you know that what humans are doing to the Earth’s climate is truly disturbing.” For his part, he said, “It would be irresponsible to stay in the lab.” Pierrehumbert once wrote a lively column on science and politics for Slate; he also contributed to the website RealClimate and appeared in a well-intentioned rap video titled “We are climate scientists, Chicago style.” (He’s better as a folk musician.) In a recent cover story for the Bulletin, “There is no Plan B for dealing with the climate crisis,” Pierrehumbert argues in dramatic language against geoengineering. To pursue that strategy, he writes, would commit “generations yet unborn to continuously run a mechanical process, over a time-span longer than the age of the pyramids.… And if our offspring don’t, or simply can’t, do so at some point in the future, then they will suffer the consequences of an unimaginably huge climate shock, accumulated over vast amounts of time.” When I saw Pierrehumbert at the annual meeting, he was sheepish about the sin of his flight to get to Illinois. Yet he seemed energized by the company of his colleagues:
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“We want to be read in the White House, at the Kremlin, and at the kitchen table.”
fellow physicists, national-security experts, and politicians, including Jerry Brown, whom he admires. A few years ago, Pierrehumbert told me, he’d raised concerns with Brown about coal exports. If California allowed a proposed coal export terminal to be built, Pierrehumbert had said, it would increase demand in China, putting all of our carbon reduction goals in jeopardy. The problems were confounding, the answer frustratingly simple: “We need to put fossil fuel companies out of business, or at least their traditional business,” Pierrehumbert told me. “We will need to write down carbon to zero.” Brown heard him out, Pierrehumbert recalled, but “it was not on his radar.” In November, Pierrehumbert had California’s cap-and-trade program on his mind. A flaw of that and related markets, he told me, is that they apply an inaccurate equivalence “standard, mass for mass,” to methane and carbon dioxide, thereby exaggerating the role of methane in global warming. But “if we reopen the debate”—that is, rejigger the math of cap-and-trade—“we could lose the benefit on carbon dioxide. It’s politically complicated. I’m not sure it’s worth the risk,” he explained. “It’s too bad that Jerry Brown is no longer governor.” Even if he didn’t act on everything Pierrehumbert told him about,
he had, at least, listened. Gavin Newsom, the new guy in Sacramento, has yet to show up to a Bulletin meeting.
t the start of 2020, Bronson and her staff flew to Washington, DC, as they do every January, to announce to the world what time it is. At the press conference, livestreamed to maximize virality, Bronson wore a scarlet dress and stood at a podium bearing the Bulletin’s somber blackand-white logo. In 2018 and 2019, the clock was set at 11:58, the direst assessment by the science and security board since 1953, after both the United States and the Soviet Union tested hydrogen bombs. This year, alongside Brown; Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland; and Ban Ki-moon, a former UN secretary-general, Bronson delivered an even grimmer report: the world was now a hundred seconds from apocalypse—“closer than ever to midnight,” as CNN would write. The Bulletin’s accompanying statement, authored by Mecklin and addressed to the “leaders and citizens of the world,” is a sevenpage, reader-friendly recitation of man-made horrors and suggested mitigations. Humanity is facing “a state of emergency that requires the immediate, focused, and unrelenting attention of the entire world,” it reads. The
reasons are many. On the nuclear side, the US, Russia, and China retain their stockpiles; Iran retreated from international cooperation, in response to America’s withdrawal from their nuclear deal and its assassination of a top Iranian military commander; the INF Treaty is no more and other arms agreements are soon to expire. In terms of climate change, the US officially left the Paris Agreement; Brazil is allowing its precious rain forests to be destroyed; and greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise, zero-carbon rhetoric be damned. All this is made worse by a “corrupted and manipulated media environment” in which truth, let alone scientific reality, becomes increasingly unknowable. Still, the Bulletin statement offers shards of hope. “Climate change has catalyzed a wave of youth engagement, activism, and protest,” it observes. If we multiply this “mass civic engagement,” it states, “there is no reason the Doomsday Clock cannot move away from midnight.” If the clock announcement invites sober reflection, it’s also an occasion to push for political action. Throughout its history, the Bulletin has balanced its journalistic mission with various forms of advocacy. As soon as
the atomic scientists in Chicago founded the Bulletin, they joined with colleagues in Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Manhattan to lease an office in Washington, forming a Beltway collaboration that eventually became the Federation of American Scientists. Last year, just after the clock announcement, Bronson, Brown, and former defense secretary William Perry, who now chairs the Bulletin’s board of sponsors, met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer—to lobby not for a specific candidate or bill, but for arms control, diplomacy, and nuclear and climate policies rooted in science. Bulletin staff transmitted the ominous details of the clock statement: North Korean nuclear proliferation, increasing carbon dioxide emissions, and information warfare. This year, alas, Congress was busy with impeachment proceedings. There is a tension, in such conversations, between fear and hope. How much is too much apocalypse talk? “It’s very hard to find the words, even, to express the moment we now are in,” Brown said, during the clock announcement. “I myself am a person of limitless words,
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Underwater in Florida
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Saltwater, a neighborhood in Key Largo, on the Florida Bay, is accustomed to annual floods. But they usually ebb after a few days. On October 19, 2019, the Miami Herald reported on floods that lasted more than a month, leaving residents trapped and property damaged by seawater. The article ended on a foreboding note: “South Florida is in for about two feet of sea rise by 2060, which will make everyday high tides—and these annual king tides—much higher.”
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but I can’t find how to say it in such a way that it can be heard.” Back in November, at the end of the closing plenary session, a tall, bespectacled woman in the audience raised her hand: Elizabeth Talerman, a strategic-communications expert, who offered some advice on framing. It’s best to avoid phrases like “existential threat,” she said, because they bum people out. The Doomsday Clock certainly has its skeptics, mostly on the right. See: “Just skip the doomsday predictions, guys” (the National Review); “Goose eggs: No climate change doomsday warning has come true” (the Washington Examiner); “The Climate Doomsday Trap” (the Cato Institute). Strauss, the former editor, told me that the Bulletin has played just as important a role in debunking “overhyped threats”—for example, “fears that terrorists might start massive forest fires”—as it has in playing up actual perils. When I asked Brown how the Bulletin should convey the urgency of the climate crisis, he didn’t have an easy answer. He brought up a document from 1992, a one-page “Warning to Humanity” published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit whose members and staff often write for the Bulletin. “A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated,” the statement reads. Brown’s point was that every climate messenger, not just at the Bulletin, struggles to balance gloom and motivation. Meaghan Parker, executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists, told me, “It’s not so much about the emotion—are you a doom writer or a solutions-and-hope writer?—but talking about the specific, lived changes of real people.” Some Bulletin articles punch and flail; others coax. Many do both, traipsing from seemingly intractable problems to optimistic solutions. In its March 2019 issue, the Bulletin examined “climate change action—from the right,” including an interview with Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey and head of the Environmental Protection Agency under George W. Bush, and an article about a Christian group, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. Mecklin’s editor’s note offered practical guidance to “ungenerous corners” of the American left: “Republican officeholders are not likely to agree to substantive action on climate change until they feel it is clearly in their best political interest to do so. The best people to explain those best interests to Republican congressmen and women? Republicans who believe in climate action and vote their beliefs.” Recently, when I sat down to read a tall stack of Bulletin articles, I felt a confusing combination of terror, depletion, and productive rage. Perhaps this is how the original atomic scientists felt, trembling from guilt, trying to pull us away from the abyss. Nuclear war, so overwhelming a concept, once needed its own metaphors to be understood. When the Bulletin first took on climate change as an area of focus, it might have seemed an odd fit. “As they say, nuclear can do us in in an afternoon; climate change will take much longer,” Kennette Benedict, the Bulletin’s former director and publisher, who oversaw the inclusion of climate change in the clock-setting, told me. But the two crises are now an inseparable apocalyptic pair. If memories of fallout shelters and air raid drills make rising sea levels and extreme temperatures feel more pressing, then so be it. cjr
BY MARK RYAN Executive Director Judith Neilson Institute
Bushfires are as much a part of the Australian summer as blue skies and lazy days at the beach. Nature designed eucalypts to burn. In dry spells they turn to tinder. All it takes is a lightning strike or a match. While every summer brings bushfires, some are worse than others. Ten years ago 180 people died in an afternoon. Eighty died on one day in 1983. These days pass into history with such names as Black Saturday, Ash Wednesday, Red Tuesday. But the recent fires were like no fires before them. By the time summer officially arrived in December they had been burning for three months. They started five hundred miles north of Sydney and made their way down the south-east coast. The best fire services on the planet could not put them out. By Christmas more than 44 million acres had burned, including ancient Gondwanan forests in which fire is all but unknown. For days capital cities filled with smoke. In coastal holiday towns it was pitch dark at midday and people huddled on beaches waiting for the navy to evacuate them.
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Australiaâ€™s Summer of Discontent
The land will eventually recover, though probably not all the diverse species that inhabit it, and perhaps not the Gondwanan remnants. Farmers will replace their dead sheep and cattle, replant their fields and vineyards. Homes and lives will be rebuilt. By contrast, the transformation of the political landscape might be permanent. Though some culture warriors will not welcome it, the fires have created an opportunity to remake the national conversation about climate change.
REPORTING THE BUSHFIRES The heroes of these fires were thousands of volunteer firefighters. Three American volunteers whose plane crashed while water bombing fires near Canberra, were among those who died. Journalists also played essential roles. The bushfires reminded us how quickly our digital world becomes analogue as soon as the power goes out and the cell phone towers go down. Radio, and especially the national broadcaster,
the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, provided a 24-hour flow of information, critical to life-or-death decisions people had to make as the fires veered in their paths. Journalists and photographers from every media organisation covered the fire front and brought the tragedy into homes around the world. Reporters working in threadbare regional newsrooms stuck to their beats through physical and emotional exhaustion, in some cases even as they fled their own homes. The local and international awareness their reporting generated is the main reason for the astonishing sums flooding into agencies involved in the recovery effort. But the fires also turbocharged the tribalism of Australia’s media. As Damien Cave observed in the New York Times, the fires became a battleground for culture warriors. “Instead of commonsense debate”, Cave wrote, “there are culture war insults.” Before the fires started the war was largely between those who accept the science
of man-made climate change and those who don’t. As the fires grew into a catastrophe, the extremes of the argument contracted as the old deniers insisted that no one could say unequivocally the fires were a result of climate change, and the Greens in Parliament, with characteristic charity, fed the beast by insisting they were. As for the media, it’s the popular view that on one side of that argument lay science and on the other News Corp. A fair-minded review of News’ various outlets reveals an editorial line that acknowledges the science and the need for action but emphasises the challenges and costs that accompany any radical phase-out of the fossil fuels on which Australia’s first world living standard depends. Yet it’s undeniable that this approach has been overshadowed by sceptical and climate activist-baiting commentary on its opinion pages and, more loudly, on News’ Sky News channel. With the discernible shift in public mood as a result of the fires, some of News’ competitors have been unable to resist the urge to call them out. News Corp partisans have predictably fired back, while reporters jousting on social media have amplified the tensions. This is understandable. As emotions go, the impulse to cling to opinions long after they cease to be defensible is only matched by the urge to say, ‘I told you so’. But journalistic trench warfare is not what Australia needs right now.
A MORE CONSTRUCTIVE NATIONAL CONVERSATION Prime Minister Scott Morrison was hurt by a series of misjudgments during the fires. Heading to Hawaii for a family holiday as the fires reached a crescendo was only one of them. His ineptness upon returning made George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina look deft. More fundamentally, the confluence of scientific evidence, an increasingly vocal populace, and fires that in scale and duration dwarfed every monster of the past, has shifted
Journalistic trench warfare is not really what the country needs right now. the debate to uncomfortable ground for a government in which climate sceptics hold considerable sway. In a speech to an incredulous audience at the National Press Club in January, Morrison explained that his Government did believe the climate science and that he was stepping up “practical” responses. It hasn’t stopped members of his Government from peddling sceptical interpretations of the role of climate change in the fires, advocating loudly for new coal-fired power stations, and generally making it difficult for the Prime Minister to reset his message. While this season’s bushfires might not have been unprecedented in the ways some have claimed, they were not entirely unexpected. In a prediction of uncanny accuracy, one of Australia’s leading energy policy experts, Ross Garnaut, wrote in an independent 2008 report on climate change that “fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense. This effect increases over time but should be directly observable by 2020.”
Garnaut has just published a new book — Super Power: Australia’s Low Carbon Opportunity — in which he argues Australia can turn the climate change challenge into a profit-making opportunity. He says Australia has the renewable energy resources and the scientific skills to become the natural home of an increasing proportion of global industry. That’s a narrative that could win heart and minds, and possibly elections. But, more importantly, it’s a narrative that might lift the country beyond the reach of the culture wars. This is where good journalism comes in. The temptation will be to focus on the internal divisions and shortcomings as the Government seeks to reposition itself. That a series of governments for various reasons, including no doubt the persuasive powers of the fossil fuel industry, failed to act on Garnaut’s original report, makes the temptation all the stronger. But there is now an opportunity for media to focus on policy looking forward rather than politics looking back. As Garnaut notes, “broadly shared knowledge is the foundation of good policy in a democracy.” Without it progress will be stymied by ignorance or willful opposition. At this critical moment, journalism in Australia can push governments towards necessary policy by helping to build the corpus of shared knowledge that informs debates rather than fuelling partisanship. The Judith Neilson Institute will play a small part in supporting this where it can. It has, for example, initiated a program to put scientists in newsrooms. It is looking at ways to expose journalists to new approaches to audience engagement through ‘constructive’ or ‘solutions’ journalism. But ultimately editors and proprietors will decide the issue. For inspiration they need look no further than the work of their journalists and photographers during the fires. If the devastation their people so ably and conscientiously recorded does not persuade them we need a more constructive national conversation, then nothing will.
Supporting quality journalism The Judith Neilson Institute provides journalists with the resources they need to produce outstanding stories. Its education initiatives give them the skills they need to tell stories in compelling ways. Its events promote well-informed discussion of the issues shaping the world. In its first year JNI helped generate over 200 stories that would otherwise have gone untold. Journalists in mainstream and emerging media reported on subjects as diverse as climate change, Asia and the Pacific Islands, First Nations peoples, the arts and business. Based in Sydney but with a global outlook this year JNI will launch an ambitious project to encourage more and better reporting on Asia, the world’s most important region. Learn more about JNI at jninstitute.org
What you see in the aftermath of the California fires DISASTERS
The Heat Reporter AUTHOR
n November 8, 2018, the day the Camp Fire broke out, four local reporters showed up at the Butte County sheriff ’s department for an end-of-day news briefing. They descended a set of narrow stairs to a dimly lit basement, which served as the county’s press headquarters, and took their seats in gray plastic folding chairs. From behind a podium, police officers and local officials provided updates: 23,872 phone numbers had been reached with a CodeRED alert, more than a thousand 911 calls had been received, and approximately six hundred people were reported missing or out of contact. They couldn’t yet confirm any deaths; the fire had been burning since morning, and many places were still too dangerous to enter. The faces of some of the officials were streaked with soot; others appeared to be in shock, eyes glassy and distant. A county supervisor had watched his home burn. “This is the fire we always feared would happen,” the sheriff said. After about an hour, they said good night. The Camp Fire would burn for the next two weeks, becoming the most devastating fire in California history. It would grow at a rate of eighty football fields a minute, kill eighty-five people, destroy more than 11,000 homes, and reduce 153,000 acres to ash. The news would spread across the state, then the country. Hundreds of journalists from New York, Washington, and even Europe would show up to tell the story of “Paradise lost”—fashioning an easy metaphor out of the affected town’s name. So many arrived, in fact, that Cal Fire, the agency that manages most of the state’s wildfire response, would relocate the press center from the sheriff ’s office basement to the local fairgrounds. Most of the journalists would stick around for a few days
and then, as is often the case with disaster reporting, file their stories and fly back home. That first night, though, it was just the four. One of them was Lizzie Johnson, a fire reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. By this time she had been on the fire beat for almost two years, and she knew what was coming. After the briefing concluded, she approached the police chief of Paradise. “Your community is going to come under the spotlight in a way that you never would have expected,” she told him. “I’m really sorry you have to go through this, because it’s going to be hard. But know that I’m not going away, and I’ll be here to tell your community’s stories.” As disorienting as the spotlight can be, Johnson had seen that, when it disappears, the result can also be cataclysmic. The day after the press conference, Johnson headed back to Paradise along with Gabrielle Lurie, a photographer for the Chronicle. There are a few ways to reach Paradise by car, and they chose Honey Run Road, an isolated, twisting route along the forested mountain ridgeline. They did not know that, in the event of a fire, this road leaves a vehicle surrounded by trees and with only one way
P R E V I O U S S P R E A D: J OS H E D E LSO N / A F P V I A G E T T Y I M AG E S
out. As Johnson and Lurie drove, in separate cars, they saw trees scorched to embers whose branches could fall at any moment. Power lines were already down, crisscrossing the asphalt, and Johnson knew that it was impossible to tell if the lines were live or not. Lurie’s car made it over one, but Johnson’s didn’t—she got stuck, and the two were terrified to try to move the wire. The moment recalled a day the previous year, while Johnson was covering the Thomas Fire; she had found herself in an avocado grove, outrunning a sudden gust of flames. “It’s scary in a way that embeds in your bones a little bit,” she told me. Eventually, they managed to move Johnson’s car and continued toward town to report for the day on the fire’s impact. It was a place Johnson had never been, and as she passed destroyed and smoldering houses and buildings, she tried to get the lay of the land. “These wildfires are the closest thing you have to war journalism in the United States—the death, the widespread devastation, the way things look,” she told me. Later, she met back up with Lurie at their hotel. (Johnson and Lurie always room together during fires so that at the end of the day they have someone to talk to, and sometimes to cry with.) Lurie’s chest was splotched with burns. She’d been wearing her jacket with the top button undone and encountered a blast of embers. In moments such as these, Johnson said later, “You’re aware of the fact that you’re lucky to be alive and to breathe clean air and have a house that’s standing.” Despite the urgency of being on the ground, Johnson considered the work of covering the fire itself a small part of her job. She was more interested in what came next. After most of Paradise had burned and the news crews had flown home, Johnson understood that the story wasn’t over; that, in many ways, it was just beginning. So she packed some bags, left her apartment in San Francisco, found a room in a local family’s home, and moved part-time to Paradise to report on the recovery.
o live in California during fire season is to feel that your state has fallen off the map. There are days at a stretch when homes burn, the air fills with smoke, and the power is cut, turning off refrigerators, respirators, heaters, streetlights. Schools are forced to let out; workplaces grind to a halt. Yet the national news remains mostly quiet. Eventually, the outside press catches up—and sometimes overshoots the mark. This past fall, during a slower fire season than the previous few years, a rash of stories emerged about California’s undoing. “It’s the End of California as We Know It,” proclaimed an October op-ed in the New York Times. On the same day, The Atlantic ran a headline assessment: “California Is Becoming Unlivable.” Business Insider came to the same finding, and added a gesture to scientific credibility: “California Is Becoming Unlivable, According to Science.” In January, the San Francisco Chronicle published its response to the attention: “If there’s one thing you can count on in the new year it’s this: The rest of the world will kick California when she’s down.” Certainly, California has problems. The state has always been prone to wildfires; slow-burning, naturally occurring fires help thin the trees. But climate change has brought hotter temperatures and
“Your community is going to come under the spotlight in a way that you never would have expected.”
prolonged droughts, meaning the fires travel farther, faster; since 2000, the average acreage lost every year as a result of climate change is double that of the 1990s. In 2018 alone, 1.67 million acres of the state burned. This easily combustible landscape is strung with outdated electrical infrastructure, too—igniting so many fires that PG&E, the state utilities company, has filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, rising housing costs edge more and more people into suburban enclaves built in densely forested areas. To Californians, however, the stories about their home state’s newfound “unlivability” rang as absurd hyperbole, even offensive. Those pieces, Audrey Cooper, the Chronicle’s editor in chief, lamented, resembled “crappy clickbait pseudo-journalism.” “I have never felt the East Coast media bias more than in the last two years,” she told me. “When national outlets attempt to play catchup and the click game, it really is a disservice to Californians, and to the rest of the country, because it makes us seem very other, and like these fires are not a national crisis. And they are.” California, she points out, is the country’s largest economy, and the fifth largest in the world. In November, Cooper tweeted a link to a CBS story about a winter storm watch in New York City. “BREAKING,” she wrote. “East Coast is becoming an unlivable, dark underworld of terror. Love, West Coast media.” Given that the fires are exacerbated by climate change, a crisis affecting everyone, the national media should be paying attention. But parachute journalists tend to write stories for readers far away from catastrophe who are consuming the news as spectacle, at the expense of locals. As Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, told me, “The primary responsibility with news reporting is to make sure people are informed of decisions related to their personal safety.” People in affected areas need to know where the fire is, where it is heading, the recommended routes for evacuation, and how to find help. One of law enforcement’s main challenges during a fire, says Lieutenant Anthony Borgman of the Paradise Police Department, is reaching everyone. Public officials, he says, rely on journalists to serve as messengers, and sometimes residents plead with reporters on social media to check on their homes or their loved ones. The week after the Camp Fire, when the people of Paradise were still barred from returning home, Johnson stayed out until dark one day to visit addresses people sent her. She took photos of what she found and posted them on Twitter; most of their houses were gone. Johnson, who is twenty-seven, moved to California soon after graduating college. Originally from Nebraska, she studied journalism at the University of Missouri and, after a short stint interning at the Chicago Tribune, landed a job at the Chronicle. She spent two years covering city politics, but she began to find the work dull. One night, she stayed out late to observe the success of a train station wall coated with “pee repellent” paint. She started to question whether she belonged in journalism. In 2017, as Johnson was beginning to itch for work that felt more meaningful, Cooper dispatched her to wine country, to help cover the fires there. She fell right into step with it. “I loved talking with people and feeling like I was making a difference in their lives before the story even came out,” Johnson told me.
“The unyielding and horrific and devastating nature of these fires has forced our newsroom to get really, really good at covering them.”
Soon enough, she was needed on another fire. One day, as she was putting on mascara before work, she said to herself, “I want to be the Chronicle’s fire reporter.” She began introducing herself that way; eventually, Cooper did the same. As the paper’s first full-time fire reporter, Johnson has been working almost ceaselessly for the past few years. It’s been hard on her friendships; she doesn’t see people as much as she’d like, and she often feels like the nature of her work—flying off at a moment’s notice to cover a fire—means she’s letting people down. She sometimes cancels plans simply because she’s exhausted. In November, she spent her first Thanksgiving at home in Nebraska in years. But the work, she says, feels both urgent and useful. The Chronicle has always covered wildfires, but California’s current reality has forced a more consistent beat. Local reporters
SC OT T ST R A Z Z A N T E
FROM THE ASHES Lizzie Johnson writes about what happens when a fire is over.
like Johnson are on the front lines during fire disasters and relief efforts. Proximity allows them to respond more immediately, to be on the ground longer, and to cover fire-related issues in the interim, after the flames have been quelled. But such coverage is also expensive. While Johnson is the only reporter dedicated almost exclusively to the fire beat, covering a wildfire in action requires a team of reporters and photographers to cover the scope of the blaze, fire suppression efforts, relief efforts, and impacts on communities and the landscape. In addition to the overtime and travel costs, newspapers must invest in safety equipment. The Chronicle bought $24,000 worth of safety gear for its reporters, including fire-resistant suits and personal fire shelters. During fire season, the staff works around the clock, accumulating hours of overtime. “The unyielding and horrific and devastating nature of these fires has forced our newsroom to get really, really good at covering them,” Cooper said. An interactive map, modeled on Chronicle graphics that have helped readers track local crime, allows people to follow the movement of active fires, monitor air quality, and anticipate planned power outages officials put into effect to reduce fire risk. According to Cooper, the interactive maps are, by an order of magnitude, the
most popular features on the website. But such innovations are not yet given due credit in the journalism industry. “You don’t submit the interactive outage map for the national prize,” Cooper said. “That’s not what’s going to take home the Pulitzer. But it should.” Recently, other regional papers have bulked up their fire coverage, too: the Sacramento Bee, the Los Angeles Times, and tiny outfits like Placerville, California’s Mountain Democrat. “This is our new reality,” Carol Simon, editor of the Mountain Democrat, said, “and we have to learn how to deal with it.” National news outlets aren’t likely to send a journalist to conduct sustained reporting on every fire. But even the typical framing of wildfire stories in the media can be misleading: the stories, explains Culver, too often portray a single dramatic event rather than the series of policy decisions that led to that event. Public officials and fire
experts point to an absence of stories on fire prevention, ones that could applaud progress and persuade people to modify their personal behavior or support legislation in favor of fire safety measures. Coming from a local reporter with experience covering some of the more mundane aspects of everyday policy, Johnson’s fire reporting is noteworthy in its textured, people-centered portrayal of the fire and associated impacts; its inquiry into the science and policies that led to the fire; and its reckoning with the long shadow a fire casts upon communities, far into the future. Her aim is to keep readers tuned in. Early in her fire reporting, Johnson noticed that many fire stories—hers included—sounded similar; they often relied on the same beats, the same kinds of quotes, the same tropes. (A woman who left her wedding ring at home, for example, only for it to burn.) Johnson began to wonder if disaster fatigue happened when stories felt predictable. So she changed her approach to make the fire secondary, a “supporting character” in a more surprising and nuanced human story—and readers paid attention. Too often, she said, coverage tries to hit people over the head with a “climate change caused this” moral. “I’m now thinking more like, What does climate change feel like? If we changed the model, maybe people will listen more, and we can do more work with our storytelling.”
n Paradise, Johnson took her time and hung around. When PG&E officials first arrived to tour the town’s destruction, the Chronicle was the only outlet there. When Cal Fire announced that the Camp Fire had been sparked by a faulty PG&E electrical line, Johnson heard the simmering rage in the voices of residents.
Once businesses reopened, she got lunch at the local Thai place and listened to the other diners’ laments and frustrations. She went to get her nails done at the salon across from the police station. She overheard conversations in line at the grocery store. After a few months, Johnson came to know the neighborhoods in Paradise, what roads led to where and what roads led—to the peril of some residents during the fire—nowhere. She watched as homes were rebuilt, as the deer and squirrels returned, noticed when sprouts poked out from beneath the char. She was interested in these stories of rebuilding: how life persisted, and changed, in the wake of the fire. The post office, for example, was suddenly inundated with people opening PO boxes—they no longer had addresses. Each night, Johnson would take a walk through the razed neighborhood where she was staying. Under the stars and with the scorch obscured, she could feel what people meant when they spoke so lovingly of Paradise: just how beautiful a place it had been to live. By the time we met, in December, Johnson had been living in town part-time for about a year. She arrived at our agreed-upon spot, a newly reopened Starbucks, in a peacoat and a pastel knit hat, its pom-pom bouncing as she
WHAT WE’RE READ ING
K A R LOT TA F R E I E R
“The Trump administration is accused of muzzling climate science,” The Guardian stated, introducing six people who were sidelined in their attempts to confront the crisis. In separate interviews published on September 17, 2019, whistleblowers described what work they did—or tried to do—for the United States government, and how President Trump annihilated whatever hope they had of protecting the climate.
greeted me with a hug. She then offered to give me a tour of the town in her 2011 Toyota Corolla, which she lovingly calls Cora. Pointing through a windshield pocked by debris, she showed me the houses that had survived and the new ones going up. She called my attention to scars on the road—these were burn marks, she explained, where cars had been destroyed, sometimes with their drivers still behind the wheel. She took me by the police station and indicated a sign in front that featured a carved wooden bear and read “Welcome to Bearadise!”; it had been salvaged from a burned-down diner. We parked for a moment, and she went inside to leave a note for the police chief. “I just always like to check in and let folks know I’m around,” she said. This level of attention to people in the community is what has distinguished the Chronicle’s coverage of Paradise. When Cooper heard about a firefighter who had protected himself and two others in a tiny tentlike structure barely large enough for a single person during the Kincade Fire, she sent Johnson to find out who he was; it turned out Johnson already knew the firefighter. Johnson’s dedication has also landed her a book deal. Back in the car, she explained that she had gotten queries from literary agents and publishers in the months after the Camp Fire. She considered whether she could ethically approach a larger project as a reporter, and particularly as an outsider. But she’d also been following the fires for years, and she was one of the few reporters who’d stuck around. People in town trusted her. We left Paradise and drove five miles up the hill to a town called Magalia, where Johnson was reporting on a church that had become a relief center for people in the area. Dozens of residents whose homes had burned were living in trailers behind the church, which had opened a donations headquarters; people could come by four times a week for food, clothing, blankets, sanitary items, and toys. The holidays were approaching, and the aisles were stocked with Christmas decorations and presents for children. The church also hosted free counseling sessions. Inside, a line of about a dozen people waited their turn to collect donated goods. Johnson, her notebook out, conversed easily, asking people how they were faring and what their plans were for Christmas. She was a good listener: quiet, unassuming, persistent. People relaxed in her presence. I spoke with a volunteer named Doreen Fogle, who was checking people in at the front desk. Fogle was one of the lucky ones: her house hadn’t burned. A retiree, she took classes in nearby Chico four days a week, but after the fire she couldn’t bring herself to drive through the devastation in town. Instead, she started aiding with the church’s relief efforts, serving meals to displaced residents and helping to organize the donation center. She told me how, as the fire pushed its way up the hill, she constantly refreshed the Chronicle’s heat map. After she decided it was time to evacuate, she kept looking at the map— watching her address as the flames raged. While the fire was burning, she told me, she had appreciated the media presence. The attention was helpful to her for writing grant applications and soliciting donations. But now, after a year had elapsed, the news consisted of only a handful of anniversary stories. “The help and support drifts away,” she told me. “When the media attention disappears, people think everything’s okay.” Now her
requests for donations are sometimes met with suspicion. “People say, ‘How can we help?’ It’s like, keep it in the media,” she said. “We’re still rebuilding.”
s climate change disasters, from fire to drought to flooding to tropical storms, worsen over time, so, too, will the mental health impacts on journalists covering these stories. Ryan Sabalow, a fire reporter for the Sacramento Bee, spoke at a public talk in November about the stress of his work. Sabalow showed a photograph of a family he had written about during the Carr Fire: a woman whose children had burned to death in their home, and beside her the children’s grandfather. “Months later, I could still hear his big, gulping, baritone sobs,” Sabalow said, through his own tears. Once he filed his story, he returned home to his own family. “Everything I owned stunk like smoke and stress and sadness,” he recalled. “I was fried.” But at least, he thought, that fire would be the worst of the year. Two months later came the Camp Fire. Last fall, feeling overwhelmed by the emotional toll of her reporting work, Johnson started seeing a therapist. She’s often hesitant to talk about her personal experience, lest it overshadow the pain suffered by the communities she’s writing about. And in the office, journalism’s grin-and-bear-it culture can discourage people from talking about how the work affects them. “You just quietly carry your baggage around,” she said. On the oneyear anniversary of the Camp Fire, Johnson finally hit what she called a “breaking point.” She was driving through Paradise and passed a house that still looked freshly destroyed. She pulled over and sobbed. “I just couldn’t believe that so little had changed,” she said. Winter offers a brief reprieve from the flames, but Johnson, who is finishing her book, keeps on reporting. Soon the fires will start back up. “I just always feel on edge,” Johnson says of the off-season. Though she’s committed to the fire beat, she doesn’t know if she can do it forever. At the Magalia church, I asked Fogle what she thought about the national news stories claiming California had become unlivable. “Everywhere has a potential for disaster,” she said. “There’s no safe place to live.” cjr
The Marshall Islands prove that all stories are climate stories CASE STUDY
In Clear View AUTHOR
or the Marshall Islands, a collection of narrow coral atolls in the middle of the Pacific, climate change is an immediate and existential threat. The Marshall Islands could be submerged within a century; well before that, they will be uninhabitable. Already, regular flooding has damaged infrastructure. Food and water are scarce. Storms lash with increasing frequency. This is the part of the story where climate journalism would typically stop. But in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, where there’s no higher ground to speak of, the climate story is not typical. Every story is a climate story. The following pages showcase journalism that has risen to the challenge. Drawing from a three-part series in Mashable by Kim Wall and two visual collaborators, Susanne Rust’s reporting for the Los Angeles Times, and a piece by Amanda Sakuma for MSNBC, the climate story that emerges here is complex, ongoing, and unexpected. These journalists traced the climate narrative through a legacy of American militarism, the mass migration of Marshallese to an unlikely new home, and the geopolitical tensions that underscore the islands’ precarious future. This work offers a road map for the climate journalism that we urgently need everywhere.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands consists of five islands and twenty-nine coral atolls, situated between Hawai‘i and Australia. Though independent since 1986, the nation is financially dependent on aid from the United States, exchanged for the use of Kwajalein Atoll as a US military base.
A Marshallese child plays near a makeshift seawall. The Marshall Islands sit, on average, 6.5 feet above sea level. Studies show that since 1993, sea levels in the western Pacific have been rising at a rate of 0.3 inches per year, which is twice as fast as they’re rising elsewhere in the world.
â€‚ The Los Angeles Times photographed dead fish littering the shores of Bikini Atoll as a result of ocean warming. Climate change has killed local seafood and crops; flooding has contaminated groundwater reserves, polluting the drinking-water supply.
P R E V I O U S S P R E A D: CA RO LY N C O L E / LOS A N G E L E S T I M E S T H I S S P R E A D: M I C H A E L C H R I STO P H E R B ROW N ( L E F T ) ; CA RO LY N C O L E / LOS A N G E L E S T I M E S
The nuclear backstory In 1944, the US forcibly displaced Marshallese communities in order to build a military base and test nuclear weapons. Over the next fourteen years, the US dropped sixty-seven atomic bombs on the Marshall Islands. Marshallese life was irrevocably changed: radiation poisoning wreaked havoc on islanders and their food systems; cultural practices broke down with the loss of ancestral land. Susanne Rust wrote about how the US has declined to take full responsibility for its actions, by underpaying on promised reparations and downplaying health risks to people returning to radioactive areas. Kim Wall reported on a family’s resettlement on Enewetak, an atoll that was evacuated and then bombed forty-three times. Before the family’s return, the US military scraped the island bare and then dumped radioactive soil and other nuclear waste into a crater, sealing it with a concrete dome. The structure, known as Runit Dome, has been hit by rising tides; it’s now cracked and could collapse entirely. The islands are plutonium-poisoned. Residents must rely on supply ships for food.
An atomic-bomb crater next to Runit Dome, a concrete structure built on Enewetak Atoll to contain American nuclear waste.
â€‚ A woman sits in the Bikini Atoll town hall under images of nuclear-bomb testing and forced relocation.
CA RO LY N C O L E / LOS A N G E L E S T I M E S ( L E F T ) ; M I C H A E L C H R I STO P H E R B ROW N
One way out As the scars of nuclear testing and climate change have made the Marshall Islands increasingly uninhabitable, almost a third of the Marshallese population has found the same solution: a one-way ticket to the United States. A Compact of Free Association, signed in 1986 to provide reparations, allows islanders to live and work indefinitely in the US without visas (and also without access to Social Security, Medicaid, or citizenship). Wallâ€™s reporting for Mashable introduced readers to some of the ten to fifteen thousand Marshallese who have settled in Springdale, Arkansas. She described their struggles to adapt to poultry-processing jobs and traffic laws, and their impossible dreams of returning home. These are the realities of a new class of displaced people, wrote Amanda Sakuma of MSNBC, highlighting climate refugees as part of the global migrant crisis.
C O L E E N J OS E
â€‚ Coolers packed with fish and fruit for loved ones in the US have become symbolic of Marshallese migration.
Downtown Springdale, Arkansas
Marshallese churchgoers in Springdale, Arkansas
C O L E E N J OS E
Ferdinand Muller, a Marshallese migrant, holds a friend’s baby at a lakeside barbecue.
Brinson “Bear” Andrew, who moved to the US as a child, works at an Arkansas Walmart.
â€‚ Job Atlaia, who lives in the Marshall Islands, builds a seawall as part of a government project on Majuro. CA RO LY N C O L E / LOS A N G E L E S T I M E S
Political ties In December 2019, flooding inundated Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, while an unprecedented outbreak of dengue fever filled the nationâ€™s hospitals. At the same time, Susanne Rust reported, the nation faced a critical juncture: votes were being counted to elect members of the Nitijela, the Marshallese parliament, who could end an alliance with the US and start a relationship with China. For the US and China, the Marshall Islands provide a setting for military access and regional domination. But for the Marshallese, the election was about the climate. The incumbent president supported maintaining ties with the US; her opposition advocated forming a link with China, which has recently been making investments across the western Pacific. For a nation in dire need of seawalls, desalination, and landscape reconstruction, the most appealing global partners are those offering aid and infrastructure investment. The pro-China camp won. It remains to be seen what will happen, but if the US wants to hold on to its strategic position in the Marshall Islands, it will have to do better for local peopleâ€”starting with making good on a promise to extend the Compact of Free Association, which is up for renegotiation in 2023. As sea levels continue to rise, there is a sense of urgency for both the nationâ€™s coastline and its political future.
In the Air AUTHOR
iamen, a port city on the Taiwan Strait, sits on an island with white sand, mangoes, and tropical mist. The parks are lush with green. Flame trees bloom red in summer. Everywhere there are banyan trees—their canopies wide, their aerial roots hanging down like trunks; it’s said that a single banyan tree can be a forest. Locals call Xiamen “the garden city.” So in 2007, when news surfaced of a chemical plant coming to town, ten thousand residents assembled, wearing yellow ribbons and chanting, “Preserve Xiamen!” A Taiwanese company called the Xianglu Group was preparing to produce paraxylene, known as PX, used to make polyester fiber and plastics. At the time, China’s fiveyear plan called for the development of seven major PX projects, including one in Xiamen’s Fujian Province. China had just become the greatest carbon emitter in the world, and soon it would be the largest PX producer. The economy was on the rise, but environmental information was hard to come by. When the
Chinaâ€™s environmental journalists must withstand an insidious system that is at once supportive and oppressive.
PX plant was under review—by Communist Party officials who stood to gain financially— local outlets did not report a word of it. Eventually, a chemical biology professor at Xiamen University learned of the plans and waged an opposition campaign, prompting a story in China Business, a Beijing-based publication. A blogger named Lian Yue picked up the story and went on to disseminate more information, drawing attention to potential climate hazards posed by PX, as well as health risks, which can range from shortness of breath to cancer. “Awareness spilled from blogs to street corners,” Elizabeth Brunner, an assistant professor at Idaho State University, writes in a new book, Environmental Activism, Social Media, and Protest in China. The internet, which is subject to less state control than newspapers, aired details that could not have appeared in print. The city grew anxious. A couple of days before the demonstration, the Xiamen Evening News was able to publish a story with comment from the Environmental Protection Bureau. “The gates were then opened,” Brunner writes. Local papers printed quotes from official sources, which online outlets discussed freely. By the day of the protest— June 1—press had gathered from near and far, including reporters from the United States, covering an unprecedented scene. “I know how bad the environment would be because I was from a heavily polluted city and I still suffer from lung problems,” a demonstrator told the South China Morning Post. “I don’t want my son to grow up in such an environment and get poor health.” Afterward, the government put the plant on hold. As this was occurring, a young woman named Tori Zheng Cui was finishing college and seeking a sense of purpose. Two points on a test had kept her from her major of choice, sociology, and instead she’d been studying mechanical engineering at the China University of Mining and Technology. Her courses were in physics, chemistry, fluid mechanics: “Things I never thought I would ever use as a writer.” Her mother was a statistician working for a state-owned corporation; her father had been a middle school math teacher. He tried to train her to be a numbers person, she said. “But I don’t have the math gene.” She preferred the world of words and
culture. She was eager to learn as much as she could, from any available source. “I watched The Apprentice in college in an English training program,” she recalled. Zheng had spent part of her childhood in Xiamen, and she followed the anti-PX campaign closely. The blogs and “market” (or “qualified free media”) publications she read gripped her with a sense of possibility. China was still discovering the internet, and Zheng saw journalists tunneling through information barriers to deliver news to the public. “It was the golden age of China media,” she recalled. There was censorship, to be sure, but there was also a proliferation of new outlets. As the Xiamen drama unfolded, “I read all the stuff,” she said. “I was quite amazed, because that wasn’t something that happens a lot.” That fall, she enrolled in journalism school in Beijing. In the years that followed, Zheng worked at CNN, The Guardian, and Caixin Media, a Chinese news organization, where she was a reporter and editor on the science and environment desk. She investigated human responsibility for climate disasters and the effects of pollution on a local and global scale. Coverage of the Xiamen demonstration became foundational to public perception of environmentalism in China; as Miao Ji, a fellow of the Institute of Asian Studies at China Foreign Affairs University, wrote, “The Xiamen PX protests were by far China’s most successful case of societal involvement in the environmental protection sector, and in all sectors too.” Even the People’s Daily, the party mouthpiece, referred to the protest as a positive event. The story was turned over in different hands, and lent itself to different purposes. It was often cited as a win-win for both activists and the government, which had demonstrated an interest in cooperating with the public; journalists were granted an unheard-of degree of access to the state’s environmental assessments of the plant. Within a year, China introduced Open Government Information measures— an equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act—and the first agency to implement them was the Ministry of Environmental Protection. “There’s a lot of pent-up desire in China for information,” Jennifer Turner, the director of the China Environment Forum at
P R E V I O U S S P R E A D: Q I L A I S H E N / B LO O M B E RG V I A G E T T Y I M AG E S
“During my reporting, I step on people’s toes. Then I scurry back to see if it was too much. And then I go back for more.”
the Wilson Center, in Washington, DC, told me. “So there was a lot of excitement.” Zheng, too, was excited. “I think that it brought intellectuals in China, who value freedom of expression, some hope,” she said. “But it was fated to be an individual case. It hasn’t become a phenomenon or a pattern of civil movement in China.” Nor was the legacy of Xiamen a total success: the PX plant was soon moved to another town in Fujian Province, where it erupted in two explosions in two years. (There were about a dozen casualties.) A year into the open government policy, the environmental ministry declared that it had addressed all requests for information, but in none of them, according to the Wilson Center, did the ministry supply satisfying explanations for its decisions. The thrilling prospect of an information doorway that journalists could pry open soon turned out to have been a mirage. Within a few years, as the internet fell prey to heightened censorship and Xi Jinping assumed the presidency, Zheng and her fellow environmental journalists saw an epistemological fog settle in, like exhaust from the factories that churned across China.
n journalism school, Zheng was taught how to conduct interviews and write a lede. She was also obliged to take a course that roughly translates as Marxist journalistic theory. “The core of the theory is that the press is the throat, the tongue of the party, the nation, and the people,” she explained. “The party goes first.” Chinese media is often described as “a dancer with chains.” In 2002, Eugene Perry Link Jr., a professor emeritus at Princeton, wrote that China’s censorial authority is like “a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier.” The snake rarely exerts overt pressure on editors, because it doesn’t have to; “everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments.” Karoline Kan, an
environmental journalist in Beijing, told me, of the government’s restrictions, “It’s like a big database of words and terms. You are not given a book. But if you live in China long enough you would know what would be troublemakers.” Turner recalled a Chinese journalist telling her, “During my reporting, I step on people’s toes. Then I scurry back and see if it was too much. And then I go back for more.” The Central Propaganda Department, headquartered in Beijing, is the ultimate overseer; there are also local authorities, who install in-house censors in newsrooms. The system is full of mind-bending contradictions. A guiding principle is that all party-related information is secret unless officials say otherwise. But, Turner said, “What’s secret and what’s not secret gets tricky for journalists.” Newsrooms are forbidden from picking up unauthorized information from foreign media. On a weekly basis, the propaganda department may send out a list of things that journalists should and should not report on. “They will come and visit your editor if your guys aren’t doing a good job,” Turner added. (After the outbreak of the coronavirus, for instance, censors directed outlets to focus, somehow, on positive news.) Occasionally editors try to argue, but they inevitably come
around. They must; the alternative can be frightening to contemplate. As Evan Osnos, of The New Yorker, has written, “A publication’s first offense usually draws a warning ‘yellow card,’ as in soccer. Three yellow cards in one year, journalists say, and a paper or magazine is shut down.” Or worse. “I think, globally, journalism is a risky business,” Ma Jun, one of China’s most prominent environmentalists, told me. China ranks 177th out of 180 on the Press Freedom Index. Reporters Without Borders calls Xi a “predator” who runs “the world’s biggest prison for media personnel.” More than a hundred journalists and bloggers are in jail, many charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Most of the Chinese reporters I spoke to requested anonymity or said they’d have to self-censor, even if they no longer lived in the country— because they hoped to return, or feared for their families. One recalled a time when, after a story she’d written about the coal industry was picked up by the New York Times, she was phoned by a censor inviting her to tea, “peacefully or by force,” the caller said; when she arrived, she was asked about her work and warned, “We know what your husband looks like.” “They really sometimes take personal risks when they do investigations, and it can be dangerous to them,” Ma said, of Chinese journalists. “Sometimes it can be direct, sometimes indirect—indirect meaning that it might not be something that would put your life, your safety, in danger, but if you offended some of the interest groups, you could be in trouble later on.” By “interest groups,” he meant government officials. Zheng was aware of all that when she began her career. She thought she might want to work for a foreign outlet, since she spoke English well, and wound up taking an internship at CNN. Her supervisor introduced her to an environmental reporter seeking an assistant. He was happy to learn that she had a background in engineering, which would help her wade through scientific jargon. When she took the job, Zheng went out and bought an environmental-science textbook. Climate change wasn’t something she’d ever studied in school. Zheng soon came to appreciate her beat. “In terms of trying to avoid censorship, we have slightly more space to do environment stories,” she said. “Because it’s not that important.” She went on: “Maybe most environment stories are not as striking or sensational as stories about injustice and inequality. So it’s not influential.” The task would be to report, not provoke, which was fine by her. “You can easily frame a story,” she said. “We can just show scientific facts. Or maybe we can address some of the government efforts in combating the problem.” She was not to say that China had done something wrong, but rather point out—gently—the opportunities for improvement. “Environmental journalism at that time was a particularly active field compared to other areas of reporting—legal affairs, politics,” Ma Tianjie, the Beijing editor of chinadialogue, an NGO focused on Chinese environmental news, told me. “Environmentalism seemed less sensitive, less threatening to the party agenda. And in a sense, the party encouraged this kind of participation in environmental governance.”
Still, coverage had to suit China’s interests. “There is no evidence to show the authorities are telling the media how to report on climate change,” Jia Hepeng, a former journalist with a PhD in science communications, wrote for chinadialogue. Nevertheless, he went on, “the Chinese government has been effectively guiding the conversation.” China, under international pressure to reduce its carbon emissions, has typically been described by its national press as succeeding, as its ratio of CO2 to gross domestic product has started to decrease. “That description is not accurate,” Jia argued. The national economy continues to grow, which means that carbon levels are increasing overall. “When it comes to climate change,” Jia explained, “Chinese media reports consist either of government-led reporting on climate change events; Chinese efforts to respond to climate change; or rewriting overseas news reports on science developments, as the majority of climate-scientific findings are made abroad.” Chinese officials would not deny findings recognized by global authorities. Facts could not be ignored. That left journalists to cover the science behind pollutants—sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide and nitrate contamination—as well as the health and environmental effects. They reported on the basics of the country’s carbon emissions, offering evidence of the connection to coal. They described the international policy landscape. “I worked on the scientific part, the factual part. I didn’t comment on policy,” Zheng said. The framing had to be just right. “We were encouraged to report on how much effort China has put into gathering an international alliance in terms of combating climate change,” she added. “We were encouraged to boost our own national image.” At a climate conference that took place when Zheng was a news assistant at The Guardian, a debate ensued over the degree of China’s liability in the crisis. “The story covered in official newspapers was completely different from that in Western media,” she said. The write-ups in the Chinese press did not directly criticize China for failing to meet the same standards as the European Union, or for moving chemical plants within close reach of residential areas, or for ignoring the human
CAREFUL OBSERVER Despite censorship, Tori Zheng Cui reported on China’s carbon impact.
causes of rising sea levels. They made note, instead, of China’s commitment to reducing fossil fuels.
AV E RY B E LS E R
ome of Zheng’s first stories were about the sky. In 2008, when Beijing hosted the Olympics, the air was gray, thick with exhaust. A number of apps helped Beijingers monitor the city’s air quality day to day; one was called Airpocalypse. But the China Meteorological Administration, which put out the official air quality report, said everything was fine. “They had a very, very low standard,” Zheng explained. At the time, they measured PM 10 (particulate matter ten micrometers in size), but what caused the pollution was even smaller, PM 2.5. The smaller measure had been the international standard for years, though China didn’t recognize it. Ahead of the Olympic Games, the US embassy set up its own air quality monitor. “They published the result on Twitter every day, and it was so different from the Chinese report,” Zheng recalled. (That was when citizens of China were still permitted to use Twitter.) “People would translate the US embassy air quality data and publish on social media and use that as their guide as to when to go out or to wear masks,” she said.
“A lot of people started to talk about it.” (The government eventually recognized the PM 2.5 measure, in 2012.) “Compared to climate change, air pollution is a bigger issue domestically,” Ma Tianjie told me. In news reports, the emphasis was on incidents of pollution, dissociated from the rise of industry and the stakes for the climate. For editors, focusing coverage that way made sense: smog stories played better with readers, who were directly affected. Climate change, by contrast, was an international problem that hardly felt particular to China, especially when you considered that about 75 percent of emissions from China’s industrial sectors supported the global supply chain, as Ma Jun told me, serving American and European businesses. Besides, the party has never denied climate change. With “beautiful China” pledges and an Energy Conservation Law and an “ecological protection red line,” the government’s message has always been: We’re on top of it. There are hardly any climate change skeptics in China; a national survey found that more than 94 percent of the country’s citizens believe the crisis is real. That may also be thanks to the absence of a coal industry lobby, since the energy sector is overseen by the state. “In the West, the traditional high-carbon lobbies, particularly in energy
“Journalists are very often a tool of central government to find out what the hell is going on in Dodge.”
generation, are seen as being responsible for climate scepticism,” Jia wrote. “But in China the same industries have no effect on the media’s stance on climate change.” The public is at once aware of climate change and satisfied with the government’s stated efforts to confront it: according to the Pew Research Center, residents of China are the least concerned about climate change of any nationality in the world. Journalists, limited in how much they can scrutinize the country’s climate policy, provide little reason to worry. “If you dig a little deeper and ask what climate change is,” Ma Tianjie said, of Chinese citizens, “their knowledge is very shaky.” At times, Zheng and others found, certain government officials used journalists to push a climate-conscious agenda. The environmental ministry, in particular, was “the ‘nicest’ in terms of media relations,” Zheng told me. “Because they are relatively weak, among other ministries, if they really want to enforce a policy and they don’t see any hope inside, sometimes they are willing to collaborate with media by providing information, and even workshops, that educates them.” When, in 2014, China waged a war on pollution, cities were required to measure air quality and make the results available to the public in real time.
There was a protest-control motive behind the policy—“China was going to be open enough that they keep people off the street,” Turner said—and if a municipality failed to comply, the environmental ministry was happy to send tips to reporters. “The journalists are very often a tool of central government to find out what the hell is going on in Dodge,” Turner explained. That relationship was cultivated by Pan Yue, who was the vice minister of environmental protection when Zheng’s career took off. “Until his arrival, the environment agency was seen as toothless, but Pan astounded many observers by blocking billions of dollars’ worth of projects and warning publicly that the country’s economic development was in danger of hitting an ecological wall,” Jonathan Watts, the Asia environment correspondent for The Guardian, wrote. “He harnessed the power of the media by naming and shaming the worst violators, introduced a freedom of information law that obliged local authorities to release pollution data and encouraged non-governmental organisations and journalists to expose environmental wrongdoing.” Pan had been a reporter himself—first for Economic Daily, and then for the China Environment Journal. The level of transparency
he advocated was unique among Chinese politicians. “Journalists know where to go,” Elizabeth Economy, the C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “And they knew they would always be supported by Pan Yue.” But Pan was eventually pushed out, his plans shelved. When Xi became president, he ushered in a new era. “Everyone’s a little bit more cautious,” Turner said. “It’s kind of like a Cultural Revolution lite.” In 2013, Xi’s first year in office, he went on a visiting tour of all the major newspapers and told them, over and over again, “Love your country.”
n February 28, 2015, a documentary called Under the Dome appeared on state-run websites. Created by Chai Jing, a former host on China Central Television, it told the story of air pollution through her perspective as a new mother, fearful of what the smog would do to her child. “I didn’t wear a mask on polluted days before,” she explained to viewers. “After holding a new life in my hands, I started to worry about the air quality.” Chai investigated what was in the air around her (fourteen carcinogens) and criticized Chinese oil companies. Apparently, she’d had the cooperation of party officials; the People’s Daily promoted the film. For days, everyone was talking about it. Many compared its impact to that of Rachel Carson’s revelatory 1962 book Silent Spring. But within a week, as the documentary was viewed two hundred million times, the censors got mad and ordered that it be pulled from the internet. Suddenly, it was reported that the film—which Chai had self-funded—was produced with money from foreign NGOs. “In the beginning, everyone was praising it, saying it helped people to realize how important clean air is, and how big of a problem it is. But then later the censorship clocked it,” Kan, the Beijing-based journalist, recalled. “When China sees something that should only be managed by China, it doesn’t want other countries to get involved—even on environmental issues.” The reports about foreign funding were a pretext, intended to smear Chai as a tool of outside interference. “Sometimes your success can be your own problem,” Ma Jun told me. “For the media, usually you report news.
Years after China became a top global producer of greenhouse gas, it still considers itself a “developing nation.”
China becomes the world’s greatest producer of carbon. MAY
The Ministry of Environmental Protection becomes the first agency in China to implement Open Government Information regulations. But when it files the paperwork, what reporters learn is minimal. NOVEMBER
The Communist Party announces an “ecological protection red line,” placing limits on economic growth and restrictions on polluters, in order to reverse the effects of unfettered development on the climate. FEBRUARY
A documentary called Under the Dome appears on staterun websites. After it goes viral, transforming the national discourse about climate change, state authorities pull it from the internet. APRIL
China, along with the United States, announces that it will sign the Paris Climate Agreement, presenting a statement of joint resolve by the world’s two largest greenhouse gas polluters. (The US will later pull out of the agreement.) NOVEMBER
In a national survey, 94 percent of Chinese citizens say they think climate change is real and 66 percent believe that it is caused “mostly by human activities.” In another survey, however, Chinese respondents express the least concern about climate change of any people in the world.
from Xiamen, called the recent demonstrations “pathetic.”) Sometimes it could be hard to tell where the line was. A few months after the documentary was banned, Zheng reported from the scene of an explosion at a chemical storage facility about a hundred miles southeast of Beijing. The facility kept hazardous substances such as dry nitrocellulose, a highly flammable compound that had apparently overheated. After the first boom came a second, far larger one, caused by the detonation of some eight hundred tons of ammonium nitrate; it was captured by a Japanese meteorological satellite. “The first day was okay,” Zheng remembered, of her reporting. “It was so huge, and so unexpected. The local propaganda department wasn’t very prepared for such a news flash.” But soon chemicals began leaking out into the sky and drifting toward the homes of thousands of people who lived in the area. Thanks to a few days of rain, the pollution turned into ominous white foam. Zheng’s reporting conveyed the gravity of the situation. At that point, Central Propaganda stepped in, demanding that her piece be taken down. “Censorship made it harder, because a lot of the stories that would really attract readers
WHAT WE’R E R EAD ING
The Disappearing Coast In an ambitious digital feature, the Los Angeles Times confronted the terrible outlook for California’s coastline and explored what can be done to prevent catastrophe. “The coastline is eroding with every tide and storm, but everything built before we knew better—Pacific Coast Highway, multimillion-dollar homes in Malibu, the rail line to San Diego—is fixed in place with nowhere to go,” Rosanna Xia, the author of the piece, explained. The story, published July 7, 2019, assessed various adaptation plans and impressed upon readers the urgency of the problem.
K A R LOT TA F R E I E R
But when you become the news, sometimes you can end up in some challenges.” No one I spoke to seemed sure of what became of Chai, who has declined to speak with foreign media about the film (or anything) since. Ma Jun, who wrote a tribute to her for Time’s 2015 Most Influential People list, told me, “I hope she’s fine.” Kan could only speculate: “I think she’s in America, right?” Zheng didn’t think that was true. The best anyone could tell, Chai had gotten into some trouble with the authorities that prevented her from appearing on television ever again. Now she was lying low. If the coverage of the planned PX plant in Xiamen showed how the internet makes the rapid spread of information possible, the Under the Dome episode demonstrated how quickly censors can use it to impose a lasting amnesia. Journalists like Zheng now had to be even more cautious, wary of any story that might stir up popular resentment. “Most environmental journalists in China want to do something, but they’re not saints,” she told me. “It is a job. If it costs too much, or you’re trying to achieve an unachievable goal, I don’t think that’s realistic.” (Of course, support of the party can be genuine. That has been true for many mainlanders covering Hong Kong; Lian Yue, the blogger
were no longer allowed,” Zheng said. In time, environmental desks weakened and shrank. “Market” outlets began to fail—in addition to censorship, this happened for reasons familiar to publications in the United States that have felt digital media encroaching on their business models. “We’re seeing a steep decline of environmental journalism from its peak years,” Ma Tianjie said. “There’s a pretty severe brain drain.” Some reporters turned their focus to new media—WeChat, Weibo, and an app called Today’s Headline, which is run by the company behind TikTok. Others left journalism altogether, Zheng among them. Her former optimism had dissipated. “I was looking for a change,” she said. She took a corporate job and, for a little over a year, got to know what it felt like to make decent money. She also learned what it meant to feel less emotionally invested in her work. “Journalism is very different from a regular corporate job,” she said. She missed writing enough that she spent a holiday working on a freelance piece. After a while, she decided to pursue an academic path in the United States. Today Zheng, who is thirty-five, is a graduate student at Penn State, working on a doctorate in science communications, with a focus on the environment. Her aim, eventually, is to become a researcher and do freelance journalism on the side. When I met her recently for coffee, she wore a burgundy shirt under a loose charcoalgray sweater, accessorized with a necklace of turquoise and purple beads. She had on burgundy socks that matched her top perfectly and white-and-green Adidas Stan Smiths, which looked a little worn. She said she liked central Pennsylvania, which had beautiful foliage in the fall and places to go on hikes. University Park, the town where the campus is based, is small but not too small, with some forty-two thousand people; when Penn State’s football team has a home game, the population swells to the size of Pennsylvania’s third-largest city. As we sat down to talk, Zheng presented me with a local delicacy: a jar of apple butter. “From where I live,” she said. “When I first saw it, I was confused: How do you combine apples and butter?” She laughed. “Then I tried it. It’s just like applesauce.” Some things about America were exactly as she imagined. “I landed in Washington, and it was like The West Wing.” Other things surprised her. “I’m amazed by how central climate change is to the discourse here. That’s not how it is in China.” As she spoke, she pulled the ends of her sweater and tucked them into her hands, making a fist. There were unexpected political dimensions to life in the States, too. “I don’t think the US is better or superior to China, but there are values that I think many Chinese people want but they can’t have,” she said. She mentioned a quote she’d heard somewhere: “A Chinese person coming to the US is like a two-dimensional person coming to a three-dimensional world.” She added, “You never knew life could be this way.” Zheng still follows the news from China. President Xi signed the Paris Climate Accord in 2016 and has since recommitted to it even after Donald Trump pulled the US out. “Man coexists with nature, which means that any harm to nature will eventually come back to haunt man,” Xi declared. “We hardly notice natural resources such as air, water, soil, and blue sky when we have them. But we won’t be able to survive without them.” In 2018 he reshuffled his cabinet and formed a new megadepartment, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment;
Ma Jun is optimistic about what that means for the exposure of environmental violations. “At least on issues with a lot of consensus,” he said, “now the central government is so keen to bring pollution under control—there is a lot of space.” The ministry is handling its own communications, too, with some 1.8 million followers on Weibo, which Ma Jun views as a measure of public interest.
welve years after the protesters’ victory in Xiamen, the government’s authority remains absolute. When it comes to climate change, “It’s getting better in terms of education and awareness,” Zheng said. “But still there’s a long way to go. We are still in the phase of ‘Well, we want cleaner air to breathe.’ But they haven’t reached the phase where they will advocate for less carbon dioxide.” The country continues burning more fossil fuels than any other. In China, she went on, “We have rising sea levels on the east coast and more severe weather. More extreme hot days, more extreme cold days, melting glaciers. We have it all.” Still, to Zheng, imperfection is understandable. “The fact is that China is still a developing country,” she explained. It ought to be allowed to make mistakes; in telling stories about its impact on the climate, she said, journalists need to have some patience. “People have just started to become aware of the environment as an asset in the past few decades.” That may be true, but there’s also a history, going back thousands of years, of China’s sense of connection to the natural world. Ancient Chinese philosophers and courtiers espoused the idea that human activity has consequences for the earth, and that how we engage with our environment reaches back into our lives, determining our fortunes. I asked Zheng how she felt about the censors’ demanding that her air pollution story be taken down. She shrugged; she wasn’t bitter. “I don’t care about that anymore,” she replied. “My philosophy when I was a reporter was that I do my best, and I’ll let it be. When I was editor, I told my reporters, ‘You go, you write as much as you can—you write in your standard and I will edit in my standard. And then, if the censorship comes, we will adjust their way.’ But when we are doing our jobs, we do it for ourselves.” cjr
The battle between meteorologists and 5G
Under the Weather AUTHOR
Mary Cuddehe ILLUSTRATOR
t first, Hurricane Harvey didn’t look so bad. During hurricane season, which spans from June through November, roughly half a dozen storms develop in the Atlantic basin without ever making landfall. In Houston, the city’s Integrated Warning Team—a small group of broadcasters, local officials, emergency managers, and employees of the National Weather Service—kept watch and were unfazed. But in the era of climate change, patterns can shift unpredictably and suddenly spin into record-breaking disaster. So much depends on our ability to forecast the weather—and then, when catastrophe strikes, to respond quickly. On August 23, 2017, Harvey re-formed over the Bay of Campeche, in the Gulf of Mexico. As is routine, meteorologists tracking the hurricane’s path followed updates from the National Weather Service’s regional office and checked competitive modeling programs overseas, exchanging information with colleagues and emergency personnel on private message boards. Their aim was to convey a cohesive message to the public. It was now clear that what had first appeared to be nothing too threatening had become freakishly ominous: hundredthirty-mile-per-hour winds and forty-five inches of rain in a swirling cascade heading toward the mid-Texas coast. “Harvey was incredible because of how quickly it intensified as it approached land,” Jordan Gerth, a research meteorologist at the University of Wisconsin– Madison’s Space Science and Engineering Center, said. The National Weather Service issued a hurricane warning and Texas declared a state of emergency for thirty counties. Residents of coastal communities
were given barely enough time to flee before water submerged their homes; many made it to safety, but sixty-eight people died. The architecture of forecasting—the warning systems powering weather apps and television broadcasts—is based on public information sources. In order to collect essential weather and climate data, research agencies inside the federal government build and maintain a fleet of weather balloons, hurricane hunter airplanes, and polar-orbiting satellites that are equipped with microwave sounders—highly sensitive sensors—attuned to the vibrations of the water vapor molecule. To observe water vapor is to glimpse the atmosphere’s future. Water vapor is detectable by meteorological tracking systems at 23.8 gigahertz frequency on the electromagnetic spectrum, which you may remember from physics class as the diagram illustrated with a line of waves that start big and grow smaller, indicating that the frequency is going from low to high. The spectrum measures energy waves, most of them invisible to humans. They travel at the constant speed of light and we measure them in crests and troughs; the number of crests that pass a given point within one second determines the frequency; one wave per second is a hertz. Electromagnetic energy keeps us alive, but we mostly don’t think about it. The water vapor frequency exists inside the “greenfield,” a term that refers to open bands on the spectrum, around 24 gigahertz and above. Until recently, these were uncrowded reaches: hardly anyone except weather professionals and scientists—namely at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (noaa) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (nasa)—had interest in the greenfield. To most everyone else, it was a junk spectrum. The action was all happening in the lower bands, where consumer telecommunications like radio, broadcast TV, and the wireless broadband network were developed. But a few years ago, right around the time Harvey hit, the greenfield began to shimmer with appeal. The telecommunications sector was starting to roll out fifth-generation wireless, or 5G, the newest digital cellular technology, which was the first to provide service in a higher-band spectrum.
The idea of 5G was tantalizing. The more spectrum room you have, the faster your network can go, the more users you can support, and the more money you can make. 5G promised hundred-times-faster speeds than 4G and a future “Internet of Things”—a network where every device from your doorbell to your coffee maker could be connected. “If you want to continue to grow the industry and you want to connect sneakers and T-shirts and watches and water meters to this amazing new network, you really do need 5G,” Mike Dano, who covers wireless communications for Light Reading, an industry trade publication, told me. The wireless industry agreed to standards for 5G and started to build out equipment and infrastructure, which meant that companies needed more spectrum real estate. The White House joined the crusade, making 5G a priority. The Federal Communications Commission set off to campaign “aggressively,” in the words of its chairman, Ajit Pai, to open the greenfield for business and expand the nation’s network capabilities. That would mean selling bands of between 24.25 and 25.25 gigahertz frequencies to T-Mobile, AT&T, and a handful of other companies heavily invested in 5G technology. But the entry of 5G signals into that swath of the spectrum, adjacent to the comparatively modest dance of the water vapor molecule, could, according to federal agencies and meteorologists worldwide, obstruct the collection of atmospheric data. “You can’t put a nightclub next to a retirement community or a nursery, right?” Gerth said. A prominent member of the American Meteorological Society, Gerth, thirty-three, began studying satellite interference five years ago. “The analogy is very similar to what we’re dealing with here,” he went on. “If the 5G signal stays quiet, it can exist with us next door. If it doesn’t, then it’s going to essentially bleed over and ruin our experience with trying to sense the 23.8 gigahertz band.” Intricate, accurate foreknowledge of the weather—the extended forecast—is a fact of life, relied upon for everything from flying to farming; weather apps are among the most popular in the world. Moreover, water vapor is a greenhouse gas that traps energy near the earth’s surface, so measuring what it’s doing is particularly important to observing climate change patterns. Knowing how much water
You’re not allowed to put a nightclub next to a retirement community. The analogy applies to weather data and 5G.
vapor is where tells us about shifts in the sea surface, lands caught in drought, and the polar ice caps. “It’s important with climate change to understand the why,” Gerth said. “If we don’t have the water vapor picture, how are we going to be able to isolate the other potential sources or sinks for warming or cooling in the atmosphere?” Monitoring water vapor is also crucial for warning the public to take cover from a hurricane. “Understanding tropical cyclones is partly reliant on our ability to know what kind of moisture they have access to, because the moisture environment around the storm translates into the amount of rain that will eventually fall out of that storm and produce flooding,” Gerth said. noaa found that a reduction in water vapor data could reduce hurricane forecasting by two or three days, and that the data loss would be most acute over big cities with heavy wireless usage. Rolling out 5G could have a particularly dire impact on a place like Greater Houston, where seven million people reside in ten thousand square miles. For emergency managers and broadcasters in Texas trying to manage the next Harvey, that could mean two or three fewer days to tell people to board up homes, buy food and water, or retreat inland. Residents living by the shore might be stranded at home in the line of disaster, left without time to survive.
rive twenty miles outside your city and you can probably still tune in to your favorite radio station. But take your laptop to the backyard, and you probably won’t be able to connect to the Wi-Fi. That’s how spectrum propagation works: radio waves— signals transmitting at a lower frequency and greater strength than
Wi-Fi—travel farther. For wireless companies, broadcasting on lower bands means they don’t have to build as many transmitters to get their signal out. But the low bands are crowded; the upper bands are not. All of the open space in the greenfield means that wireless companies, armed with new technology to harness it, can access large blocks of spectrum, enabling transmissions of more data at faster speeds. “It had great capacities so you could get really good speed out of it, and it was lower than some of the other high-band spectrum that we were looking at,” an FCC official told me. “It was empty.” But, of course, it wasn’t empty. In separate testimony before Congress, the heads of noaa and nasa stated that 5G deployment on the greenfield, without adequate limits to protect monitors’ ability to read the water vapor signal, would imperil weather and climate data collection. Neil Jacobs, noaa’s acting administrator, said the effect could take forecasts back some forty-odd years, to a time when broadcast meteorologists could rarely forecast major storms more than three days out.
That would be a shame; it took a long time to get where we are. The American weather program is as old as the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson recorded the temperature each morning at dawn using a pair of thermometers, and kept a meteorological diary noting fair and cloudy skies. In the early 1900s, foundational tools for modern weather prediction entered into use: the government began flying airplanes to research the atmosphere, sending up weather balloons, and transmitting wireless reports. The most significant evolution of the century came in 1960, with the launch of the polar-orbiting tiros-1, the first Earth observation satellite. Over the following decades, advances in atmospheric sounding—the means by which scientists measure molecules vibrating at different altitudes, in order to gauge atmospheric temperature and moisture—made global weather mapping possible. At present, polar-orbiting satellites equipped with microwave sounders are circling the poles, flying around Earth as it spins counterclockwise beneath their path and taking snapshots that measure portions of the atmosphere. In a single day, one satellite can orbit the planet fourteen times. The data collected from those flights renders a whole picture of the globe and is funneled into complex computer modeling systems that spit out the predictions we know as the forecast. It’s difficult to count the exact number of American satellites equipped with microwave sounders because there’s no central agency managing them, and different weather satellites use various tools for observation. noaa has eight with microwave sounders and operates another ten in partnership with Europe, Japan, and the Department of Defense. nasa has at least two. And then there are the dozens of private satellites zooming overhead. Tracking the movement of water vapor is one of the principal functions of these satellites, and there is no signal adjustment they could make to sidestep the introduction of 5G. Because of the way the water vapor molecule is observed, it’s impossible to tune out potential static from, say, cell network towers pinging in crowded cities. “It’s not like communications interference on an old black-and-white TV when you just see snow,” Renée Leduc Clarke, a satellite policy expert who runs Narayan
Strategy, a DC-based weather consultancy, said. “When you have interference in these sorts of situations, it still looks like data that’s actually not real data. So that’s why we’re so concerned about it.” The National Weather Service is, for now, the clearinghouse for weather information and responsible for issuing emergency warnings. The US system is historically decentralized and underpowered, and the National Weather Service has only recently upgraded its modeling software to better compete with its rivals in Europe, the United Kingdom, and Canada in accurately predicting the path of storms. Meteorologists seeking to report on the day’s forecast must pay attention to multiple global and regional models, while also drawing from the work of private companies doing heavy computation—primarily the Weather Company, which is a subsidiary of IBM, and its competitor, Baron Services. These companies absorb enormous streams of continuously updating data, filtering it through proprietary algorithms to produce screen-ready visuals for newscasters. Nearly every television station in the country relies on these tools, since all the world’s competing predictions charted together on a screen look like spaghetti strings jiggling against a moody watercolor. The work is to refine the strings into a range of probabilities. That isn’t easy. A few weeks after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, Houston ordered evacuations in advance of Hurricane Rita, another fierce storm that was expected to hit the Gulf Coast. The exodus led to a two-day traffic jam, in extreme heat, involving more than a hundred deaths, while the storm moved offshore and weakened. Rita’s path fell within something called the cone of uncertainty, which has narrowed in the years since, as forecast technologies have improved. The model of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, which has the best record for accuracy, became a fixture of newscasts on the East Coast in 2012 during Superstorm Sandy. Other projections had shown a tropical cyclone churning in the ocean, but only the European center, using one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, correctly charted it veering left, to make landfall in New Jersey. “It was the first time the general public was exposed to the
THE SPECTRUM 5G technology threatens to interfere with water vapor data, which is needed for weather forecasting.
fact that the European weather center had a better model than the US,” Eric Berger, a former Houston Chronicle science reporter who now writes the Space City Weather blog, told me. Scientists at the European center later ran an experiment in which they omitted different sources of information to see how the model would play out. When they removed water vapor data from view, their map, just like all the others, was wrong: it showed Sandy remaining at sea.
n February 28, 2019, Wilbur Ross, the secretary of the Department of Commerce, which oversees noaa, and Jim Bridenstine, the administrator of nasa, sent a letter to Pai, the FCC chairman. Pai, forty-seven, is a former general counsel to Verizon, and in his government work he has remained openly friendly to his colleagues in the wireless sector. Shortly after he was appointed head of the commission, by President Trump, in 2017, Pai spearheaded
a repeal of the agency’s rules governing net neutrality—arguably the FCC’s most controversial decision of this century. Pai also enthusiastically championed a fast-moving campaign to open the spectrum for commercial use. For months, he led an FCC effort to put the 24 gigahertz band up for auction. Now there were just two weeks to go. Ross and Bridenstine, both conservative Trump appointees, pleaded that Pai reconsider. The FCC’s plan, they wrote, “would have a significant negative impact on the transmission of critical Earth Science data—an American taxpayer investment spanning decades and billions of dollars.” In the normally staid halls of radio spectrum oversight, this was pulling the fire alarm. Auctioning off spectrum rights didn’t originate with Pai or the Trump administration; allocating the airwaves is one of the principal functions of the FCC, and the agency has tried various strategies to open up to private enterprise in the past. Years
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conference where member states of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)—the telecommunications body of the United Nations—would agree on restrictions to govern the spectrum, the FCC published what it proposed should be the out-of-band emission limits around the 24 gigahertz frequency—a buffer, to protect the water vapor signal: -20 decibel-watts. That, in the view of the FCC, was sufficient. But in their letter, Ross and Bridenstine asked Pai to backtrack “immediately” because, they wrote, their respective agencies still hadn’t reached consensus on the topic. They invited Pai to a meeting at nasa headquarters to hash out the noise limits and “converge on a unified US government position.” Pai didn’t conceal his irritation. “As you may know,” he replied, the United States had a position on the matter, one that “resulted from a two-year coordination and reconciliation process.” Pai declined Ross and Bridenstine’s invitation, rejecting any claim that the auction could jeopardize weather reporting. In 2016, when the swath of 24 gigahertz bands was first proposed for sale, nobody had made a fuss about it. Or at least, they hadn’t yet. Determining which slice of the spectrum can go to whom is an
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Trash (and More) on Mount Everest CNN called Mount Everest “a very tall garbage dump.” In an article from May 2, 2019, about a recent cleanup campaign, Rob Picheta described mounds of waste left behind by hikers and noted, too, that as climate change has caused snow at the peak to melt, it has been “exposing an increasing number of dead bodies.” The effects of the climate crisis are numerous, varied, and sometimes gruesome. K A R LOT TA F R E I E R
ago, the agency made careful analyses of individual applicants to determine the most deserving, but the process was unwieldy and time-consuming and created massive backlogs. In the 1980s, the FCC introduced a lottery system, only to watch valuable bands go to winners with no capacity to use them. The lottery became a kind of betting pool, with application factories cropping up to guide the unqualified; a group of dentists scored a license so prized that they turned around and sold it to Southwestern Bell for $41 million ($91 million today). Eventually, the agency landed on the most suitably modern and American of solutions—selling the spectrum to the highest bidder. The idea was first proposed in 1959 by a Nobel Prize–winning economist named Ronald Coase, who was literally laughed at when he raised the suggestion during a congressional hearing. But by 1993, privatization was embedded into the code of Washington. The FCC adopted the new protocol and has since generated $114.6 billion in revenue from spectrum licensing, making it one of the few arms of the federal government to earn more than it spends. Pai had determined that the greenfield lot was ready to go. In advance of an upcoming
achingly deliberative undertaking, involving an alphabet soup of federal agencies, private interests, and international agreements. The FCC is in charge of the commercial spectrum, but another agency, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), manages the government’s bands. Figuring out the rules for out-of-band emissions typically happens toward the end of the negotiation. The NTIA is part of the Commerce Department, which also oversees noaa, and it was the NTIA, according to Pai, that had “declined to agree with the FCC’s balanced approach.” In 2017, noaa produced a study showing how disruptive the development of 5G would be to meteorological satellites. In his retort to the scientists, Pai wrote that he believed the study had failed to demonstrate a need to tighten out-of-band emissions limits, and that it was ultimately withdrawn because of technical problems. But that’s not exactly true. According to noaa, the study was not withdrawn, it was simply under revision. Around the same time, nasa began conducting its own research, and took over the work. nasa verified noaa’s assessment; again, Pai found the findings problematic. At that point, the FCC invoked “reconciliation,” a standard process by which the State Department serves as arbiter. The State Department sided with the FCC, and that’s how the FCC was able to move forward with its proposed limits, despite the fact that, as Pai wrote, the other agencies had “refused to recognize that US government now has a fully coordinated position on this critical spectrum issue.” The FCC’s Spectrum Frontiers initiative, as the campaign to sell America on 5G was known, was in keeping with the agency’s mandate, and, Pai argued, the agency had followed all the complex rules governing the auction process, relying on established limits already protecting other bands from interference. “The engineering suggests, and years of experience confirm, that these protection limits enable us to have the best of both worlds,” he wrote. “They enable the 24 gigahertz band to be an American test bed for 5G innovation.”
he White House and the wireless sector were bent on pushing ahead. “I want 5G, and even 6G, technology in the United States as soon as possible,” Trump announced in a tweet. If the FCC was confident that no threat to weather reporting or climate research existed, that confidence was buoyed, undoubtedly, by an underlying faith in the wireless industry to be good stewards of the spectrum—in the all-powerful force of markets resolving their own problems. Scientists like Gerth were floored. “Even though we knew that this was a bit of a cauldron that was starting to bubble, a lot of spectrum issues were solved internally, within the government,” he said. “A year or eighteen months before the 24 gigahertz auction, I would tell you that the meteorological community was concerned, but they weren’t very attentive to it. They felt, Well, noaa, nasa, the government will work through these issues on their own—academia doesn’t need to get involved, industry doesn’t need to get involved.” Soon enough, however, scientists decided they had to intervene. More meteorological authorities began chiming in. The US Navy concurred with the noaa and nasa research. An internal analysis by
The FCC had faith in the wireless industry to be good stewards of the spectrum, in the force of markets to resolve their own problems.
Northrop Grumman, the American contractor that builds the microwave sounders used on polar-orbiting satellites, found that any emissions larger than -58 decibel-watts—significantly more restrictive than the FCC’s proposed limits—would “adversely affect” meteorological instruments. The American Meteorological Society had been studying interference for years, and the World Meteorological Organization, part of the UN, adopted a resolution expressing “serious concern at the continuing threat to several radio-frequency bands” critical to atmospheric observation. On March 8, the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang published a story on the exchange between the FCC, Commerce, and nasa, writing that “this dispute boils down to, in essence: What’s the bigger priority—the 5G network for wireless providers or accurate weather forecasts?” The coverage circulated in congressional offices. Staffers at the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and at the Appropriations Committee set to work preparing letters to the FCC. On March 13, the committees mailed separate requests to the agency that the 24 gigahertz auction be delayed until an agreement on signal strength could be reached. The Science Committee was “deeply concerned” that the FCC appeared to be disregarding “the views and concerns of nasa, noaa, the DOD, the National Academy of Sciences, and the international community.” The House Appropriations Committee raised the specter of “potential impact on the federal investment of billions of dollars in our satellite fleet, which is designed to support our defense apparatus and to provide lifesaving weather data.” It was unusual for oversight committees to try to stop a spectrum auction, but the FCC was undeterred. A spokesman for the agency responded immediately, telling the Capital Weather Gang that it was “perplexing” to be asked to delay the auction so late in the game. “While our nation’s international competitors would undoubtedly be pleased,” he said, “the FCC will move forward as planned so that our nation can win the race to 5G.” Pai stated—and has maintained—that his office didn’t receive any evidence or validated studies indicating that the out-of-band emission limits he had proposed would harm weather
and climate data collection. The 24 gigahertz auction began as scheduled the following day, March 14. But spectral interference was brewing into a bigger political fight. Pointed letters and comments started flying around the Capitol. On April 2, Bridenstine, the nasa administrator, told Congress that there was “a very high probability that we are going to lose a lot of data.” On May 13, Maria Cantwell, the ranking member on the Senate Science Committee, wrote to Pai asking him to prevent companies from accessing the 24 gigahertz band “until vital weather forecasting operations are protected.” On May 16, the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group, called for caution and more testing. One phone won’t matter, the group said, but by 2023 the number of people using 5G could be one billion. Jacobs, the acting director of noaa, spoke about the matter during a House Science Committee hearing. Jacobs, forty-five, the former chief atmospheric scientist at Panasonic and an expert in numerical weather modeling, had been brought to the agency in part to improve its forecasting. In video of the testimony, he appears trim and bookish in a blue suit, with close-cropped hair and dark-rimmed glasses, staring down at notes as he speaks into the microphone. The US would have to abide by out-of-band emission limits set at the ITU conference, but Jacobs affirmed to the committee that the limits set by the FCC ahead of its auction had the potential to “degrade the forecast skill by up to 30 percent.” Later in the hearing, Representative Frank Lucas asked Jacobs to explain how he confirmed that number. Jacobs explained that he worked with nasa—the “agency that sent a man to the moon fifty years ago using calculators”—and ran his math twice, at the FCC’s request. He reiterated that noaa and nasa recommended far stricter limits than the FCC proposed. “So you’re comfortable in saying that noaa dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s?” Lucas asked. “I’m confident,” Jacobs said. Still, the FCC objected to the science. A few weeks later, in June, Pai laid out for Congress in testimony and letters the flaws he saw
in the noaa and nasa research. Pai said that the agencies had failed to account for numerous technical factors relating to the way 5G was actually going to be deployed. The wireless industry echoed those comments. Brad Gillen, the executive vice president of CTIA, the sector’s lobbying arm, wrote a blog post accusing the Commerce Department of “misleading” Congress and the press. “We were pretty surprised to learn the ongoing FCC 5G spectrum auction will mean our 7-day forecast will go away,” he wrote, calling it “an absurd claim with no science behind it.” CTIA dismissed the research by noaa and nasa because it was based, at least in part, on projections from an old satellite that was never launched. But the scientific community said that was nonsense. A new version of the satellite had launched. Gerth tweeted: “Dear @CTIA, I’d like to introduce you to the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS), a real instrument in flight right now with a sensing band at 23.8 GHz.” He appended the hashtag #FactsMatter. After the auction closed, on May 28, CTIA declared that it was “time to move past the
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Teen Girl Activists Facing Online Abuse
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The world has its eyes on Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate advocate. Not everyone looks upon her kindly. A story in BuzzFeed from September 25, 2019, highlighted the online vitriol against Thunberg and her peers, many of them girls. “The rise of a new climate movement means there’s now a much more visible— and especially vulnerable—target: kids,” Zahra Hirji, the story’s author, wrote, casting attention on good deeds going punished.
surprising debate about interference rules.” T-Mobile, AT&T, and other telecoms knew about the public deliberations when they went into the bidding, and knew that the ITU would implement rules that could change their licenses, but that didn’t stop them from leasing shares of the 24 gigahertz spectrum worth more than $2 billion.
ate in 2019, American delegates headed to the International Telecommunication Union’s World Radiocommunication Conference, in Egypt. The signal limits of 5G were scheduled for debate. Not only did the US proposal defy the recommendations of the country’s own experts; it also ran up against the World Meteorological Organization, which argued for even tighter restrictions than nasa’s. The negotiators landed on a compromise: the standard buffer was set at -33 decibel-watts. In 2027, by which time 5G would presumably be widely deployed, it would get slightly stricter, down to -39 decibel-watts. Shortly after the conference, the FCC issued licenses for the 24 gigahertz bands without bothering to account for the new
limits, which the US won’t officially adopt for about another year. But CTIA expressed its support of the new agreement. The US expects 5G to attract billions more dollars in revenue. The leases of 24 gigahertz bands represent a fraction of that. “Trump talks about the race to 5G, the FCC talks about the race to 5G; what they’re talking about is economics,” Dano, the reporter for Light Reading, told me. The US doesn’t want the inventor of a 5G Uber going off to China, where companies are unencumbered by regulation and building faster networks, he said. Then China would become the new Silicon Valley. Nor does the State Department want another nation developing the future of communications equipment. Foreign companies have been denied bids to build such infrastructure inside the US in the past, out of concern for national security; last year, the FCC voted down an application from a company called Chinese Mobile US. ITU delegates thought they were setting rules that wouldn’t impede innovation or cause too much interference for weather instruments, but the deal they struck amounted to a scandal inside the meteorology community. Eric Allaix, a French meteorologist who heads a UN group on radiofrequency coordination, told Nature News that the limits weren’t close to stringent enough. The World Meteorological Organization was so upset that its members read a statement of opposition into the meeting minutes in Egypt, making note of the ramifications for “our common ability to monitor climate change in the future.” The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts also released a statement, calling the decision “a big disappointment” and another disheartening case of “science losing out to other societal pressures.” None of the FCC’s bidders had started using the frequency yet. In Washington, the matter continued stirring debate on committee floors. After the ITU conference, the bipartisan heads of four Senate committees wrote to the White House requesting a new national strategy on 5G, while Senate Democrats began to question Pai’s timeline, asking whether it was wise to hold the auction when the interference limits were still
under discussion. At a recent hearing, Senator Cantwell complained that the FCC had “approached the issue the worst possible way by just dismissing the science.” The agency itself hasn’t escaped the Capitol’s growing party-line divisions. At a recent hearing, FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel, who is a Democrat—traditionally, the commission is stacked with representatives of both parties—complained about the “embarrassing” impasse. She told me: “This is unfortunate. It is no way to do spectrum policy.” At the end of 2019, yet another letter left the offices of the House Science Committee, this time bound for the Government Accountability Office. Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson, the chairwoman, and Lucas, the ranking Republican, asked the agency to look into the “concerning” contradictory arguments from the FCC, NTIA, noaa, and nasa. It was essential, they wrote, that “federal agencies work through these issues in a manner that is independent of political motivation and driven by science.” The GAO accepted the committee’s assignment and expects to start its review soon. What remains frustrating, Gerth told me, is that the weather community doesn’t want to be known for obstruction. Meteorologists just want to be heard. “We really want to rely on the science and try to avoid conflicts as much as we can, instead of waiting for the telecoms to select a new frequency,” he said. If they do, scientists will have to wave their hands in the air again—and, “eventually, that message will wear out.” What this all means for frontline meteorologists and climate watchers depends on how 5G technology winds up being implemented. As the planet warms and the seas rise, our collective ability to observe the climate changing and to inform people about it is a consequential power. Any act that could diminish it would seem to be, to put it mildly, counterproductive. Heather Vaughan, communications director for Republicans on the Science Committee, told me that the interference question presented an obvious opportunity for bipartisan unity. Protecting the forecast is really about protecting life and property, she said. “It’s a lot more than just, you know, getting your weekend weather report.” cjr
Exxon’s Snake Oil BY SAVANNAH JACOBSON
he story of oil company propaganda begins in 1914, with the Ludlow Massacre. In Ludlow, Colorado, a tent city of coal miners went on strike, and officers of the Colorado National Guard and the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company responded violently, killing at least sixty-six people. The event turned popular opinion against John D. Rockefeller Jr., who owned the mine in Ludlow. To recover public trust, Rockefeller hired Ivy Ledbetter Lee, a public relations agent, to peddle falsehoods disguised as objective facts to the press: the strikers were crisis actors; the violence was the fault of labor activist Mother Jones; there was no Ludlow Massacre. Rockefeller’s company, Standard Oil, evolved into what is now ExxonMobil, and its original PR strategy remains. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Exxon commissioned scientific reports that documented the potentially catastrophic effects of carbon dioxide emissions. But in the decades that followed, Exxon buried those reports and told the public the opposite: that the science was inconclusive, that regulation would destroy the American economy, and that action on climate change would mostly cause harm. Exxon’s public mouthpiece was the press. For more than thirty years, from at least 1972 until at least 2004, the company placed advertorials in the New York Times to cast doubt on the negative effects of fossil fuel emissions. Over the same time span, ExxonMobil gave tens of millions of dollars to think tanks and researchers who denied the science of climate change. Taken in sum, Exxon’s media shrewdness and its aggressive political lobbying have set back climate action for decades—putting the nation, and the world, dangerously close to a point of no return.
Turn for more on how ExxonMobil dripped in toxic spending.
Amount ExxonMobil spent, through 2012, to fund think tanks and researchers who denied aspects of climate change.
Minimum amount that ExxonMobil has paid since 2007 to lobbyists and members of Congress opposed to climate change legislation.
Humble Oil, a subsidiary of what would become Exxon, buys an advertisement in Life magazine reading, “Each Day Humble Supplies Enough Energy to Melt Seven Million Tons of Glacier!”
Exxon executives learn from James F. Black, a scientist employed by the company, that the practice of burning fossil fuels releases such large amounts of carbon dioxide as to imperil the planet.
Exxon’s researchers confirm published scientific findings: the level of CO2 output from fossil fuels could eventually raise the global temperature by up to 3 degrees Celsius.
MARCH An Exxon tanker crashes into a reef, spilling 10.8 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The disaster will be the second-largest spill in US history. In the following months, Exxon publishes a number of advertisements in the Times apologizing for the spill and asking readers to reject boycotts.
JULY Mobil runs its first advertorial on global warming in the Times. It reads in part, “Scientists do not agree on the causes and significance of [warming]—but many believe there’s reason for concern…we’re hard at work along all these fronts. We live in the greenhouse too.”
Percent of scientific studies ExxonMobil conducted internally from 1977 to 2014 that state climate change is man-made.
Percent of ExxonMobil’s advertorials published in the New York Times in the same time frame that cast doubt on the idea that climate change is man-made.
LATER THAT YEAR The Global Climate Coalition forms with the mission to oppose action against global warming and to advocate for the interests of the fossil fuel industry by promoting doubt about climate science. Exxon is a founding member.
Exxon’s annual research budget during the height of the company’s climate science research, in the late 1970s to mid-1980s.
The Kyoto Protocol is signed.
Years that Mobil placed weekly advertorials in the New York Times. After merging with Exxon in 1999, Mobil reduced advertorial placement in the Times to every other week.
Number of television networks and national and local newspapers that have cited Myron Ebell, a leading climate denialist, or published his opinion pieces from 1999 to the present.
Amount ExxonMobil gave to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank of which Ebell was a director, from 1998 to 2005.
Mobil places an advertorial in the New York Times reading, “Let’s face it: the science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil.”
Exxon pledges to stop funding climate denialist public policy groups; however, a 2015 Guardian investigation showed funding did not stop.
Percent of Americans who opposed, in 2009, a significant clean energy bill.
Percent of Americans who opposed the same bill after the Heritage Foundation, an ExxonMobil-funded think tank, published a study that misleadingly claimed the bill would increase gas prices to $4 per gallon.
New York State pursues a civil case against ExxonMobil for defrauding investors about the risks of climate change, the first against the company to reach trial. The state asks for as much as $1.6 billion in damages; Exxon wins.
Alaska is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the country. Will journalists find a way to tell the whole story?
Whatâ€™s Become of the Arctic AUTHOR
ver the past two summers, Bjørn Olson rode a fat-tire bike seven hundred miles along the shoreline of the Chukchi Sea, from the small city of Kotzebue, on the Arctic Circle, to Utqiagvik, the northernmost settlement in the United States. He pedaled the beaches, mostly, along with his partner, Kim McNett, and a couple of friends who joined for part of the way. Where old snowdrifts blocked their way, they pushed their bikes over a mountain pass. Nobody had ever made that trip before. Nobody had ever contemplated making it. Olson, forty-five, is lean, tattooed, and sandy-haired, with a wisp of chin beard. He and McNett ran into caribou on the tundra and chased a grizzly off a barrier island. They saw hundreds of thousands of nesting seabirds. When they strapped their bikes onto inflatable rafts to pass protruding cliffs, they watched murres, kittiwakes, and puffins dive-bomb into the water. Elsewhere on the beaches, they swerved around piles of dead birds that had washed up in the tide. All over, they observed signs of the warming Arctic. They looked for GPS shore stations marked ten years prior along the eroding coast, only to realize that some were now out in the water. They passed an ancient Inupiat village site crumbling out of the thawed permafrost and washing away. They visited a modern village, Point Lay, that not long ago moved back from an exposed beach. Olson and McNett happened to arrive just in time for a whale-hunt feast. At the local school, where blue tarps were spread on the floor of the gym, they joined the whole village for boiled beluga, bird soup, and fry bread, and they asked the whaling captains about the route beyond. The travelers
learned that there was still time to follow the barrier island north, though soon that beach would fill with thousands of walruses, which have taken to swimming ashore in summer now that ice floes disappear. To shield this unprecedented animal behavior, for three years Point Lay had closed itself off to uninvited visitors, including journalists. What Olson saw on his trip horrified and angered him. Back home, in the town of Homer, he is a climate activist and filmmaker, and he manages a website called Alaskans Know Climate Change, full of links to science backgrounders and suggestions for reducing carbon emissions. On Facebook, he posts news articles—about sea ice disappearing, glaciers retreating, salmon gasping in warm rivers and dying before they spawn. There are lots of good stories about how global warming is affecting Alaska. But they rarely seem to have much impact. It drives Olson crazy. Journalists, he says, can’t seem to break through the daze created by their own steady gloom-and-doom coverage. “Learned hopelessness,” he called it in a newspaper column. Readers in Alaska, desensitized by years of bad climate news, shrug off the
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latest projections of rising temperatures and rising seas. Some may get upset, but what is there to do? The articles don’t say. Stop burning fossil fuels? In Alaska? While the rest of the world ponders carbon-pricing schemes to slow fossil fuel consumption, the state of Alaska is doing the opposite, subsidizing new oil wells with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tax credits. After Mike Dunleavy, a Trump Republican, took office as Alaska’s governor, in December 2018, he dismissed his predecessor’s climate task force and wiped the state’s climate change webpage clean. “We’re the poster state for climate inaction,” Kate Troll, an opinion columnist and longtime conservation activist, told me. Imagine the picture on that poster: an oil state melting into the sea. It is not an easy visual for journalism. The urgency of the crisis and the resistance to doing anything about it fit together awkwardly in a single story. Alaska has a tradition of hard-hitting reporting, sometimes aimed at the oil industry that built its modern economy. Yet oil production continues to dominate state policy, Alaska is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the United States, and climate campaigners like
Olson can’t help but find the coverage to be sorely lacking. “People need to feel this in the pit of their stomach all the time,” he said. “Remember when we went to Iraq, you couldn’t turn on the TV or open the newspaper without seeing stories? We are at that stage of mobilization. All levels need to be engaged in this. It needs to become the banner story every day.”
he warming of the Arctic has been news in Alaska for a long time. More than a decade ago, local reporters were writing about polar bear science and crumbling villages and pressing evasive politicians to face up to the human causes of global warming. Facing an attentive press, Governor Sarah Palin, during her short tenure, convened a task force that set emission reduction goals, and Senator Lisa Murkowski talked about a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon. But it’s now been several years since Alaska had a reporter covering climate fulltime. Newsroom budgets are depleted, the scientific background is demanding, and travel to the bush, to describe the world Olson
THE TRIP Bjørn Olson rode where reporters don’t.
them for residents, and oil revenue saved in the Alaska Permanent Fund, a stateowned corporation, pays dividends to residents every year. For years, oil taxes funded as much as 85 percent of the state budget. But production income has been on a decline, which in the past decade has brought that number below 40 percent, and politicians say they don’t want to burden a struggling industry with new environmental regulations. Besides, Governor Dunleavy has argued, Alaska’s contribution to atmospheric carbon is too minor to bother about. With its small population (731,000), Alaska ranks fortieth among states in the latest inventory of greenhouse gas emissions. Calculated on a per capita basis, however, Alaska’s emissions in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, were the fourth highest in the country, thanks largely to the pipelines and processing plants in the North Slope oil fields. Despite that fact, when Olson was part of a shoestring local coalition last year, trying to get the state to cut back on the venting and flaring of methane, there was no press coverage. Such efforts tend to get dismissed as windmill-tilting, while consideration of the “downstream” atmospheric impact of burning Alaska’s oil is relegated to opinion columns.
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Methane Under the Sea A monster lurks beneath the ocean, Chris D’Angelo, of HuffPost, wrote: methane ice, also called fire ice. In an article from September 2, 2019, D’Angelo reported that methane, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases, is trapped in hydrate form, which “represents one of the largest carbon reservoirs on Earth.” If the methane stays frozen, everything is fine. If climate change causes it to thaw, the result could be cataclysmic. K A R LOT TA F R E I E R
saw, is costly and time-consuming. Breaking news stories—such as a “climate emergency” resolution adopted last fall by the Alaska Federation of Natives, over strenuous objections from Native-owned corporations active in the oil business—leave questions dangling for contextual second-day follow-ups that never come. Chris Rose, head of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, or reap, the state’s leading alternative-energy nonprofit, spends a fair bit of his week backgrounding reporters as they make piecemeal attempts at climate coverage. He’ll fill them in on ways Alaska could reduce its energy costs and emissions, hoping their articles can influence state policymakers. “None of them have a beat where they can invest the time,” he said. A few years back, a former Alaska Press Club president recalled to me, no awards were given for environmental journalism. Judges from the Lower 48 states said that none of the entries were worthy. The decline in climate coverage has coincided with a growing reluctance from Alaska politicians to talk about root causes. The production of fossil fuels is, of course, an essential part of Alaska’s political economy. The oil industry directly provides some ten thousand jobs in the state, three-fourths of
Short on resources, Alaska’s media can hardly keep up with the latest Arctic problems—much less address the state’s contribution to making matters worse. At the Anchorage Daily News, the state’s dominant, Pulitzer-winning paper, there was a brief and giddy reversal of a years-long staffing decline after its owner, debt-burdened McClatchy, sold the paper in 2014 to Alice Rogoff, an angel investor. (I took a buyout from the Daily News in 2009.) For a few years, Rogoff—who had already sunk a small fortune into the Alaska Dispatch, an online news startup, and then merged the two outlets to form the Alaska Dispatch News—aimed to build a national reputation for her newsroom’s coverage of Arctic warming. A full-time climate change reporter was hired; sea ice retreat was tracked assiduously. But in 2017, Rogoff—sinking in red ink and headed for divorce from her husband, a billionaire financier—pulled out. The climate reporter was laid off, along with much of the newsroom. The last of an older generation of journalists departed, taking with them their at-hand paragraphs of environmental context (“The Great Die-Off,” a rueful Gen X editor called it). A stripped-down Anchorage Daily News, restored to its original name, was rescued from bankruptcy by a pioneer Fairbanks family and is now said to be gaining in paid digital circulation and financial stability. But its climate reporting largely hasn’t resurged. “We’ve had to pick and choose much more carefully what we cover,” said David Hulen, the paper’s editor, who guided the more extensive climate efforts under Rogoff. “It’s certainly an important issue in Alaska. At some point, though, we found that the scoreboard coverage of temperature changes and sea ice wasn’t getting a lot of response.” Public radio has traditionally played an outsize role in Alaska journalism. In 2016, the Juneau station KTOO launched Alaska’s Energy Desk, a project funded with $1.4 million in grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; it has a broad mandate to cover Arctic science and state politics, and runs regular climate and fossil fuel production stories. It was the Energy Desk that got Alaska’s commissioner of environmental conservation on the record saying that having an official task force even discuss a tax on carbon emissions would be bad for investment in the state’s oil
Breaking news stories leave questions dangling for contextual second-day follow-ups that never come.
fields (“We need to be doing everything we can to show Alaska’s open for business”). But last year, Governor Dunleavy unleashed a series of devastating budget vetoes, and lost in the wreck were all state funds for public broadcasting, eliminating as much as a quarter of stations’ incomes. That doesn’t bode well for the Energy Desk: the CPB funds continue for another year and a half, and after that the station is left to hope that increased public support will be enough to sustain the work. On the plus side, private foundation support for climate journalism in Alaska is largely untapped. “The amount of money out there nationally for local journalism is staggering,” said Elizabeth Arnold, a former National Public Radio reporter who got her start in Alaska and returned as a journalism professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Arnold is on the board of the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism, a new nonprofit that has been set up to dole out small grants for training and project support. Climate change is on a short list of topics about which the foundation wants to see smarter journalism—even though the project has roots in the state’s oil economy. (It was seeded with $200,000 from the Atwood
Foundation, the legacy of Robert Atwood, the staunchly pro-oil owner of the Anchorage Times, now lost to a newspaper war against the Anchorage Daily News.) The Alaska Center for Excellence was the brainchild of three longtime Alaskans who all spent parts of their journalism careers doing public relations for the oil industry. They became concerned about the quality of the local press while discussing that city hall reporters in Anchorage had been late to a big scoop: the mayor was hatching an important utility sale. Until more money comes in, however, reporters are left to scramble after stories rather than take the necessary time to be enterprising and imaginative. Climate journalism does not move at the speed of press conferences—it’s more like a two-summers-long bike trip through the wilderness, with lots of uphill pedaling. Shutting down Alaska’s oil rigs overnight could indeed devastate the state’s economy and budget, as Governor Dunleavy says, but journalists with adequate resources could look at ways Alaska might begin to transition away from oil dependence. They could compare the state’s emissions standards to those elsewhere, and see whether shifting oil production to other states or abroad might make things worse; learn the science well enough to interrogate those who don’t accept the consensus view of climate change; or make the center of a story the dissonance of life in a crumbling oil state, in an oil-consuming nation, in a fossil-fuel-burning world. “If you wait for a government official to say something before you cover it, you’re letting them set the agenda,” Rick Steiner, an Anchorage biologist and longtime critic of petrodollar influence, told me. “For journalism to do its job here, you can’t just write about impacts. People get desensitized. It’s what the bad guys want. You need to cover what’s not happening. You have to go down and ask politicians what they’re doing. If they say nothing, that’s a story. It’s a more difficult story to write, but it’s the story of this country.”
here are those Alaskans who have become inured to repeated headlines about the Arctic, and then there are others whose indifference to climate science has been willed into place by a profound attachment to the continued production
of fossil fuels. For a while, Olson took to social media to go after conservative resistance to climate action. Using money raised through Salmonfest, a local summer music festival, he boosted Facebook ads to reach into what he calls “denier camps”—including groups “where they don’t think God’s going to harm the planet again because he said so after the flood.” Then he lurked in the comment threads to plug science. It was timeconsuming, but he made a little progress, he thinks, because he doesn’t see as much outright denial anymore. Denialism was never as widespread as climate indifference, according to Suzanne Downing, who runs a popular conservative news blog, Must Read Alaska. Downing, sixtyfive, would have a prominent place on that poster picture of Alaska’s climate inaction, perhaps wearing her blue Alaska-flag knit cap cinched tight over her ears. She is a former editor of the Juneau Empire, the state capital’s daily, as well as a former communications director for the state Republican Party. Her site, funded by donations and advertising, is entirely self-run. Downing said that her readers get information from a variety of sources—television, radio, internet—but they have given up altogether on the state’s mainstream “liberal media.” “My readers come to me for political analysis,” she said. “They want their views reflected through news coverage.” The stories she churns out—the latest political flap or liberal attack on common sense—tend to be lightly sourced and rely on shorthand political typecasting. One label she doesn’t use, however, is “climate denialist.” Her readers resent the phrase, she said. They don’t reject the idea that the climate is changing, they just don’t think it will turn out so bad. They are more worried about the radical social changes pushed by the left’s “scare tactics” on climate. “I’m not sure it’s as big of a problem as everybody says it is,” she told me. “I know a lot of people in Alaska who kind of like it a little bit warmer.” On the infrequent occasions when she does post about climate change, it’s to make a joke about hair-on-fire climate activists, or to point out some seeming discrepancy in the weather to show that “the science is all over the map.”
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The climate crisis has become a helpful wedge issue not only for Downing’s effort to peel off and claim part of the media audience, but also for her political party, which uses the movement against fossil fuels to position itself as the defender of Alaska’s oil industry. Alaska’s politics lean libertarian and conservative—voters went 51 percent for Trump in 2016—but there is a middle one-third of the electorate that can swing in either direction depending on whether their populist ire is aimed at “outside environmentalists” or the corrupting political influence of Big Oil (four of the last nine governors have been Democrats or moderate Independents). After losing the 2010 Republican primary to a hard-right conservative, Murkowski appealed to the center with a write-in campaign that saved her Senate seat. Downing wrote recently that the 2010 race “split the Alaska GOP into factions that to this day have not reconciled.” Dunleavy is a Republican of the farright bloc. His dramatic budget vetoes were prompted by unflinching support for oil-drilling tax credits. Last fall, after the rancorous legislative session in which he fired the state’s climate adviser and made
other unprecedented cuts, a recall campaign was launched against him. Deciding to seek outside support, he left Alaska to tour the Lower 48, meet with President Trump, and talk to conservative national outlets. Philip Wegmann, a reporter for Real Clear Politics, tweeted after their interview that Dunleavy had come out strongly against the Green New Deal, a progressive Democratic proposal to address climate change and economic inequality, saying that it would harm Alaska. “It would impact our civilization as we know it,” Dunleavy told him. “Yeah, that’s kind of the point,” came a Twitter retort from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York congresswoman who helped craft the plan. Back home in Alaska, the Twitter exchange drew a response in the form of a newspaper op-ed by Rick Whitbeck, the local director of Power the Future, a Koch-linked policy group. Whitbeck endorsed Dunleavy’s stance, noting how many Alaska households depend on oil industry paychecks. (Skeptical readers noticed that, by ignoring the consequences of continued carbon emissions, the column underlined Ocasio-Cortez’s point.)
MOVING OUT Residents of Newtok flee a village lashed by climate change.
“We’re all going to die, but meanwhile here are some beautiful photos.”
Downing, on her blog, posted about the Dunleavy-AOC exchange, referring to the congresswoman as “the angel of the apocalypse” and to Dunleavy as “a rising star on the national conservative scene.” Otherwise, the story drew little notice in the Alaskan press. That was too bad—it could have nicely framed a too-rare narrative about Alaska’s climate and structural changes to the economy. The biggest gap in Alaska’s coverage may be more in the realm of political science than climate science. The state’s official determination to do nothing about the causes of the climate crisis may seem too parochial a subject for visiting journalists, and too provocative for some Alaskans. But forcing state officials to talk just might be a way for local journalists to get the attention of readers—even Downing’s.
n October, the small Bering Sea village of Newtok prepared for a historic moment. It was moving day. In Newtok, which comprises three hundred and fifty Yupik people, house foundations had been falling into the river as permafrost melted and coastal erosion accelerated. At last, after
two decades of planning, a transition to a new settlement was beginning; a third of the village was headed by skiff to a rocky bluff nine miles away. Photographers at the scene faced the usual logistical and cultural difficulties of working in remote Alaska, plus a new one for the bush: keeping other journalists out of frame. A documentary film crew, a video crew, and three reporters were present; others had just left, or were coming in a few days. The press has been trooping through Newtok since before 2013, when The Guardian called its families “America’s first climate refugees.” Help for setting up interviews was available from a local move coordinator, who recognized that another hundred million dollars in public funds would be needed for utilities, a runway, a school, and more houses. But some climate refugees were noticeably tired of answering the same old questions. “There was definitely some journalism fatigue out there,” Marc Lester, a photojournalist covering the event for the Anchorage Daily News, said. Even as local media have struggled to fully cover the climate story, reporters from
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Europe, Asia, and across the United States have flocked north, following a muddy furrow to a handful of imperiled coastal communities. The work of these visiting journalists can be impressive—when veterans bring deep knowledge of climate science to bear on local problems, or when a reporter takes the time to assemble a larger tapestry, as the Seattle Times’ Hal Bernton did in the fall, with several sweeping looks at the Bering Sea. Bernton, whose travel was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, traced how the ice pack’s retreat was unraveling the food chain of algae, plankton, forage fish, seabirds, ice seals, and gray whales—not to mention commercial species such as cod and king crab—and creating havoc for fishing fleets and indigenous subsistence communities. “Things are happening so much faster in Alaska,” he told me. “The Bering Sea is really a planetary resource, one of the great fisheries of the world. Scientists were really surprised at how quickly the ecosystem has changed.” In other stories, however, Alaska is reduced to a colorful prop as visitors turn to easy climate clichés (try Googling “Alaska, canary, coal mine”) to compose a new
literature of victimhood. Julia O’Malley, a lifelong Alaskan and former Anchorage Daily News reporter, has freelanced climate stories for the New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, and National Geographic. She recently began turning down assignments, however, bristling at the narrow expectations of editors in other parts of the world. Too many articles she saw were like a Mad Libs game—plug in the name of a threatened village, an endangered marine mammal, a synonym for “windswept.” “The basic story is, ‘We’re all going to die, but meanwhile here are some beautiful photos.’ We’ve heard this too many times,” O’Malley said. “We are living in what to me feels like an emergency. We have to make stories that connect because they feel true and move people to see what we all have at stake, or we aren’t doing our jobs. I kind of think, right now, we aren’t doing our jobs.” Visiting journalists interview state officials who pledge support for climate victims, but their resulting articles often miss the subtleties. When Newtok’s climate refugees finally moved, into new portable energy-efficient houses designed by the Cold Climate Housing
UNDERWATER The Bering Sea coast is beset by erosion, melting permafrost, and flooding.
Research Center, an innovative Fairbanks nonprofit, none of the celebratory reports mentioned that the research center’s funding had just been zeroed out by Dunleavy’s vetoes. Rick Thoman, an oft-quoted meteorologist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy in Fairbanks, spends much of his time trying to steer reporters away from tired tropes. He emphasizes human impacts, he said, but it can be hard conveying how drastic these can be. Last year, at a big-market television conference, Thoman said, he drew a lot of blank stares when he urged weathercasters to concentrate on people stories and not the charts of Arctic temperatures. “It’s so outside the realm of people’s experience, to be living somewhere not connected by road,” he said. “They ask, ‘Why can’t they just move to another town?’ ” Old habits of race and class, of exoticizing and orientalizing Alaska’s Native people, also affect the choices of visiting journalists, in the opinion of Shady Grove Oliver, the only reporter for the only Arctic newspaper in the United States. Oliver, thirty-two, has worked for more than four years for the Arctic Sounder, a weekly covering Kotzebue, Utqiagvik, and the smaller northern villages. Her newsroom consists of a backpack and laptop, sometimes on a couch in Kiana, sometimes in a coffeehouse in California, where she grew up. Her editor works from a farm south of Anchorage, and ads are sold by the Anchorage Daily News, which recently took over the Sounder. “People in the villages have been seeing these changes for a long time, and have not been heard,” Oliver said. “A lot of local journalists have been trying for a very long time to cover the story in a way that’s meaningful to people on the front lines.”
ast summer, returning in his truck from the Chukchi Sea bike trip, Olson drove into a wildfire in the Kenai Mountains. The Swan Lake Fire, as it was named, was about to become the nation’s largest of the season. Flames had just jumped the highway, which state officials were getting ready to close, and were approaching the town of Cooper Landing. Holding his camera, Olson walked into the
embers. He did not have to go to the Arctic to see what climate change was doing. The photos he posted on Facebook were shared sixteen hundred times. Olson was not the only person documenting the scene. The Swan Lake Fire, closer to settled areas than any in memory, brought about a noticeable shift in how local media covered climate. In the midst of what would be the hottest year in Alaskan history, during the state’s hottest month ever, with Anchorage choking on smoke, reporters started connecting the dots. Record warming and extreme drought were presented as part of the story. “The scenario playing out this week is likely to repeat itself in a warming climate of Alaska’s future,” Michelle Theriault Boots, an Anchorage Daily News reporter, wrote, citing the opinion of climate scientists. Still, the coverage wasn’t explaining what could be done to fight back against climate change. Arnold, the former NPR reporter, believes that to fully engage jaded readers, journalists need to focus more on hope. “Such reporting would also include responses and innovations, and increase pressure on policymakers to act, rather than offering excuses for inaction,” she wrote in a 2018 paper for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. Her research burrowed in on Alaska, where her own early work treating coastal villagers as victims of the environmental crisis now struck her as somewhat exploitative. She noted that the residents of Newtok, for example, think of themselves not as losers but as “pioneers,” and argued that the story of how they cling to their region, rather than disperse, provides a compelling frame. Arnold told me that her argument has met with some resistance from national climate activists, who worry that a focus on resilience could undermine the important message that we’re in a planetary crisis. But her prescription for writing stories about community ties to a natural world worth saving was seconded by Tim Bradner, a veteran oil industry reporter who spent part of his career as a BP lobbyist, and who has also fretted over the toughto-penetrate scrim of despair in some readers. Bradner told me that despondency of this kind has now been clinically identified
and given the name solastalgia: a measure of how environmental change degrades mental, emotional, and spiritual health. It is a concern, these days, for journalists on the climate beat. The way to fight solastalgia, clinicians say, is to take action. In her paper, Arnold cited social-science studies that found readers pay less attention to bleak stories than they do to those about creative problem-solving. She also interviewed Denis Hayes, the founder of Earth Day. “There’s a responsibility,” he told her, “for those of us who are active in the field, and, I think, a responsibility on those of you who are covering it, to make sure that hope is part of your stories. It’s not just houses falling into the sea.” Stories of hope can do more than galvanize the despondent. They can deepen the plot, as resilient communities may become victims again. Three years ago, when I was in Utqiagvik, a town of around forty-five hundred people formerly known as Barrow, to write about climate change, community leaders pointed out that the Inupiat would not still be around in the Arctic after thousands of years if they hadn’t adapted. An essential part of their traditional culture is the bowhead whale hunt. So far, whales had been thriving in the warmer Arctic. But old ways were changing. In the spring, the usual hunting season, the sea ice was sometimes now too weak to support hunts. The people of Utqiagvik had adjusted by turning to openwater hunting in the fall, before freeze-up, to land a majority of their whales. This past October, however, Alaska’s Energy Desk reported that the fall whale migration had not appeared. With annual temperatures eleven degrees above average, and sea ice unusually far offshore, the bowhead migration, for reasons unknown, had shifted out of range of the town’s small boats. A national reporter with Inside Climate News picked up the story, noting that as the small boats kept up the hunt, later than ever into the dark winter months, the weather turned warm in Utqiagvik and the snow started melting. “We’ve never seen anything like this,” a whaling captain said. If nothing changed, he added, “we’re going to go hungry.”
hen Olson gets to feeling solastalgic, he looks around to see what he can do. In agreement with Arnold, he believes that the media has failed to help its audience grasp that it’s not too late to act. “I’ve been frustrated for years about how, in scientific presentations, everyone talks about adaptation and that’s the end,” he told me. “They never go on to talk about a greenhouse gas emissions cap. It was like a forbidden conversation.” Lately, he said, he has come to feel the same way about journalism. “If you realize this is what’s happening, that we’re about to wipe out a million species and everything we know and love is on the line, then there is no story that is more important.” As 2019 drew to a close, Olson finally read a story that felt like good news: just before the final sunset of the Arctic winter, Captain Qulliuq Pebley and his Panigiuq Crew harpooned and landed a bowhead in Utqiagvik. Shady Grove Oliver got the scoop for the Arctic Sounder. “The crew,” she wrote, “was one of the last to remain out on the water this late in the fall, still searching for bowheads.” Sources described a long line of red brake lights down the road to the beach as a twenty-five-foot-long whale was pulled ashore. “People were hugging, crying, yelling and screaming with joy,” a source told her. Oliver’s story, picked up statewide, explained how whale meat would be shared around the community and saved for Christmas meals. But a single bowhead would not go far—the previous fall, the town had landed nineteen whales. No scientific explanation had yet emerged for why the bowheads stayed away this year. It wasn’t something the hunters would speak about in an offhand way. Oliver understood, better than any visiting journalist could, the cultural reticence around addressing the whales’ absence—a prevailing belief, even in a modern town built by oil taxes and Native corporation dividends, holds that bowheads choose to bless hunters by giving themselves. And so, out of respect for the scientists and the hunters and the animals, the nation’s northernmost reporter kept the climate angle vague, though every Alaska reader could relate to what she wrote: “This season has been marked by uncertainty, and left many with unanswered questions about what the future may hold.” cjr
“Always looking for the allegory”
The director of Mad Max tells Kyle Pope how to make climate fear compelling
EORGE MILLER, the Australian film director, looked out of his office window. Smoke from wildfires obscured his view of Sydney Harbor, bringing ash and soot from miles away. Parts of the horizon glowed red. A stench descended on the city. That was the scene when he spoke to me by phone in December, but it could have been right out of Mad Max, his dystopian franchise, which, decades ago, helped transform the climate crisis into a Hollywood terror. Miller, seventy-five, has made four Mad Max movies, including Mad Max: Fury Road, the most recent installment, released in 2015 and nominated for ten Academy Awards. The movie is a straight-up car-chase thriller, albeit ingeniously imagined and shot. What makes it memorable is the context: in the kingdom of Fury Road, water has become so scarce that it is the primary source of power. The setting is as scorched as the Australian outback, and superstorms, driven by dramatic climate change, are as much a part of the plot as Furiosa, the heroine of the movie, played by Charlize Theron. Miller worked as a physician before becoming a director and has since taken on a role, almost by accident, as an evangelist for science and the climate story. In addition to Mad Max, he directed Happy Feet (2006), an Oscar winner about a group of dancing penguins whose habitat is threatened by a warming planet. For Miller, the story is his guide; he never sets out to make a climate movie. He wants the worlds he creates to draw attention to themselves. But what a journalist can seeâ€”and envy, and strive to equalâ€”is his deep engagement with the natural world, from which compelling narratives emerge. In this conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Miller talks about how he thinks of storytelling and what we might learn from Mad Max.
B R E N D O N T H O R N E / G E T T Y I M AG E S ( L E F T ) ; P E T E R PA R KS / A F P V I A G E T T Y I M AG E S P R E V I O U S S P R E A D: L I C E N S E D BY WA R N E R B ROS. E N T E RTA I N M E N T I N C. A L L R I G H TS R E S E RV E D.
What does the air look like in
GEORGE MILLER We’ve had these severe bushfires. And because of the weather conditions, I guess, it’s blowing the smoke from inland across to the coast. To look up every day and not be able to see the boats and the ferries—and to see that red sun almost every day— it’s killing people. I mean, the number of times, just casually, I’ve heard the word apocalyptic. It really gets to people. POPE How much of your mental space do you devote to worrying about what’s going on with the climate? I know some people who cannot think of anything else. But are you able to compartmentalize it? MILLER You do, but it’s almost impossible to ignore. It’s astonishing how much it’s in the conversation, you know, with family and friends. It’s really interesting. Until something affects everybody, people seem to be able to brush these issues under the carpet. Now, somehow, everyone’s politicized. In rural Australia, there’s not only fires, but there’s severe drought. And the rivers, the great inland river system, which basically
greens most of the Australian desert—they are drying up, and you see what they call “fish kills” in which, it seems, millions of fish wash up dead, for complex reasons. There’s almost a biblical pestilence about things. POPE That image, the biblical pestilence, is so prevalent in the last Mad Max movie. It’s the dominant through line, which is why I wanted to have this conversation. And obviously, you tackled this issue in Happy Feet in a whole different way. When did you decide, or how did you decide, that climate would become a central part of your storytelling? MILLER It arises organically. When you tell a story—and this would apply to Happy Feet or Fury Road—you’re starting with essential elements that you put into play. With Happy Feet, for instance, I saw that documentary— Life in the Freezer—that the BBC had done. It was the first time that cameras went into the uncharted winter and filmed the behavior of the emperor penguins. The cameras could withstand the intense cold, and I saw the behavior of these penguins in Antarctica, which made some sort of sense as to who we are as humans. They had to share warmth, and this warmth was a valuable commodity.
LIFE IMITATES ART A photograph of the Australian wildfires resembles a scene out of Mad Max, shown in the previous spread.
Gradually through the long winter months, they huddle. Masses of penguins do this strange circular turn, which allows those on the outside to eventually end up in the center. It’s a sharing of the resource of warmth until they lose their body weight. They incubate the eggs and wait for the return of the female, from out at sea, who is basically bulking up and feeding and gathering this milk that she’s going to take to the young. It was a great observation from nature. You’re always looking for the allegory, and that was a great one to be had. Even an allegory has to be rooted in something essentially true to who we are as humankind. That’s why we tell these stories. And of course, environment became the central issue. The attraction to making these stories, for me, is that they are allegorical. In a sense, even though the Mad Max movies are set in the future, it all goes back to the past—and ultimately, it’s about who we are today. Fury Road had a long gestation. We started just at the turn of the millennium, and for one reason or another it fell away. Have you seen the movie? POPE
MILLER You remember Immortan Joe, who sits on top of the dominant hierarchy, controlling resources? Now, I think the thing that pleases me most about the film, or the way the film’s been received, is that the subtext is read. As I like to say, there’s a lot of iceberg under the top that people are picking up. And the exercise was to see whether or not, in a very linear chase film, to see how much people could pick up in passing. The strategy was to root everything as much as possible in reality, so that you’re sort of reflecting back what’s in the zeitgeist. That’s the basic interplay between the storyteller and what they see around them. Here’s the point: Immortan Joe, way back at the turn of 2000, was basically distributing produce to the people—in very, very small doses, just enough to keep them interested in sticking around. He had potatoes, which he dropped down in baskets, and, because at that time he was covered in blue powder, he would rub one particular potato in blue powder. And whoever got the blue potato would be able to go to the top of the Citadel. It was a kind of a lottery which gave everybody hope. I thought that was a really good idea. But looking back, we didn’t do it because it was too complicated.
“An audience is invited in to an experience, but the reading of it is up to the audience, according to their own worldview.”
I had put aside Mad Max to do Happy Feet. We were in India. I don’t know if you know the Lake Palace in Udaipur. It’s beautiful; there’s a great palace, right in the center of the lake. And the lake was completely dry, for the first time in a long, long time. There were elephants wandering around the bottom of the lake and kids were playing soccer. Now, I remember saying to the person who was with us, “Gee, that’s really bad.” For the first time, he mentioned the term water wars. And it made so much sense. We come back to Sydney, Australia, and there’s no blood spilled over it, but there certainly are wars over the water—these great central rivers, which are drying up. And everyone’s trying to siphon up the water as it goes down towards the sea. There’s a lot of corruption; each state is fighting. I’m not sure if these sorts of things are happening in America, but I hazard a guess that they would be. POPE So was that a sort of turning point in Mad Max—to replace potatoes with water? MILLER
Well, it certainly made it more authentic and truer to the times. I won’t say that it was a turning point, but that was a situation where I thought a good idea was replaced by a metaphor much more potent.
POPE For me, the movie was totally about the water pipe and this desperate fight for resources. So the background of the film became sort of foreground. MILLER I think what you’ve just described is the function of story. An audience is invited in to an experience, but the reading of it is up to the audience, according to their own worldview. There’s a really great quote from Freddie Mercury when someone came to him and said, “I think I understand what ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is about,” and the person proceeded to sort of explain that view. And Freddie Mercury said, “If you see a deer, it’s there.” And I think that, to me, is really the function of story. I’m not saying that if you throw stuff out there, people randomly pick up on it. It has to be coherent. It has to hold to its internal logic. It has to be as well orchestrated as possible. And for the storyteller, there have got to be premises and themes and ideas and explorations. POPE So let me ask you what this means for journalism. I’ve been frustrated at journalism’s inability, broadly, to convey the climate story in a way that resonates with people. We both live in countries where there’s a significant part of the media that continues to propagate
this notion that this isn’t a big thing. And I think there’s been a failure of storytelling—in journalism—to capture this. We don’t have, as journalists, the ability to create fictional stories. How do you think journalists could think of this climate story in a way that would resonate and connect more with their audiences? MILLER Each
story is part of some larger mosaic. So we have the broad narrative that you can distill out of many stories. Sometimes, one story can have a lot of impact, but I think it’s the general consensus of stories. Now, I think what’s happened is that the counter-story, the denialists, have a much easier story to tell, because it’s essentially a destructive story. And one thing’s for sure throughout human history: it’s much, much easier to destroy something than to create it. Climate modeling is highly sophisticated and becoming more so as time goes on, principally through computing power. This is what drives me nuts about the likes of the Murdoch press and all the climate-denying politicians and clergy, and everybody else who we might want to include—is that they avail themselves of the benefits of scientific modeling and the accuracy of it when it suits them, but they completely cherry-pick it. There’s that balance—that the countervailing voice is as legitimate as the scientific voice. And you only need a few of those stories to discredit the very strong evidence of science. It’s so reminiscent of the smoking- tobacco argument. It’s exactly the same denial. Tobacco companies were saying “It’s nonsense.” The politicians were beholden to them. This is a very similar thing. The only problem is, the organism we’re talking about is a finite ecosphere. POPE That seems to me the difference in where we are now on this subject. We’re talking about the earth, and we’re dealing with a situation that’s irreversible. I’m intrigued by people’s adaptability. People move out of immediate harm’s way, but not far enough to really keep them out of eventual harm. MILLER Essentially,
that’s our evolution. I think that’s part of how we survive: the ability to adapt is part of who we are. The problem is when we adapt in ways that ultimately
are dysfunctional. Do you sense that the people around you and the world are becoming more pessimistic? POPE
There’s a bit of nihilism that’s creeping in. It’s acceptance.
A sense that we can’t do anything?
POPE We can’t do anything about it. I mean, it’s very Mad Max. Everybody’s out for their own personal gain. Historically, it’s been the job of journalists to shed light on the reality of society’s problems and make the public see. During the Vietnam War, for example, there were journalists who helped chronicle the lies, and news organizations decided: “This is a moral wrong, and we need to tell a story in a way that works.” I think the same moral argument is needed on the climate story. Journalists aren’t incapable of taking that initiative, but, generally speaking, they just haven’t decided that this is a story that requires that. MILLER The irony is, there’s not going to be any choice. Two things come to mind. The two great influences of change in the Vietnam War were—apart from the morality of the war and the confusion in that war—were Nixon and the draft. The draft politicized everybody— everyone who had an eligible-age son, or father, or whatever, knew that he could be called up, in a purely random lottery, and go to war. That was a really bad mistake on the part of the politicians, because it suddenly politicized everyone. The other thing, of course, was the media and watching all the events of that war—the body bags coming back in full daylight, and so on. There’s got to be something that affects everybody, not on a moral ground. The only other thing I’ll say is, look—how do you describe science? It’s very, very difficult. Someone said to me once, “Science takes its own time. We can’t solve every problem.” The heliocentric view of the solar system was denied for centuries, and yet the evidence was apparent to everybody. But it was denied—mainly by the Catholic Church. So this is who we are as human beings. I mean, if I were a journalist, I’d be going and doing as many stories as possible on the actual scientists, and asking them what is really needed. I’d talk about their frustrations and their fears and try to get their explanations. And the other thing is, do the opposite: talk to the farmers, the irrigators, the people who cut down the trees in the forest. Talk about how they either explain it away, or how they’ve realized, “Hey, I’m really going to change the way I think.” Here in Australia, one of my nieces is married to a firefighter. And he couldn’t come to Christmas lunch, because he was off in another state fighting these fires. He’s a young guy, and I don’t know how politically savvy he is, but I would love to talk to him and his mates and just find out what it meant to them on that anecdotal level. POPE
Well, thanks, George. I appreciate your thoughts.
MILLER Nothing affects everyone more than climate change. And I can’t believe that the story’s been hijacked by the denialist voices, because that’s so disingenuous. Good luck to you. cjr
tour with Kyle Kajihiro wasn’t going to happen. Since the nineties, Kajihiro, a fifty-sixyear-old activist and PhD candidate in geography at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, has, along with a colleague named Terrilee Keko‘olani, run demilitarized tours of O‘ahu. Called “DeTours,” they offer an alternative to the glossy experiences advertised in the travel sections of newspapers and magazines and in the guidebooks that line the shelves of “World” departments at bookstores. The tour is entirely different from the fantasy that was sold to me from the moment I arrived at the Hawaiian Airlines terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport one morning in December, when I was greeted at bag check by airline employees wearing leis and saying, in Queens and Brooklyn accents, “Aloha!” On board, automated videos about flight safety were interspersed with messages from airline employees telling tourists that they and the people of Hawai‘i were eager to welcome them, that they were happy to share their special place. Kajihiro, who has a gray beard, cropped salt-and-pepper hair, and wire-rimmed glasses, had a different attitude. The DeTours, he told me at his office on campus in downtown Honolulu, are meant to puncture a tourist’s sense of entitlement and focus instead on the land and people who were in Hawai‘i first, whose lives and cultures and histories have been transformed by outside interference. Born and raised in Honolulu to a fourth-generation Japanese family, Kajihiro moved to Oregon for college and lived there for fifteen years before returning, in 1996. Back home, he came to observe
something he hadn’t noticed as a child. Visitors—including academics and activists, politically progressive people he considered friends—were weird about Hawai‘i. “Something switched off in their brains,” he said. “They became sort of like giddy teenagers and they just thought of Hawai‘i as a playground.” It troubled him. He wanted to show them there was more to his home than vacationing on the beach. “So that was one of the things that we tried to address, the discourse of tourism,” he explained. “How does it mask the violence of colonialism and militarization in Hawai‘i?” In the beginning, Kajihiro sought to expose visitors to the history of the sovereign Hawaiian Kingdom, including its overthrow, in 1893, by white American businessmen with help from the Marines. He wanted visitors to understand the struggle of Native Hawaiians to recover their land and assert their right to practice their culture. He hoped to introduce outsiders to local people and to build lasting connections that would subvert an industry predicated on “escape.” By 2004, the tour was formalized. Today, it focuses on four stops:
‘Iolani Palace; Camp Smith, the headquarters of the United States Indo-Pacific Command; Pu‘uloa, referred to in English as Pearl Harbor; and Hanakēhau Learning Farm, in Waiawa. “We don’t have a website,” Kajihiro said. “There’s no regular schedule. If we do it at all, it has some intentionality of what we’re going to do and why.” I had found him after reading a book that borrows the “DeTours” name, a collection of essays called Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai‘i (2019). It aimed to counter a historically colonialist narrative that has shaped Western ideas about Hawai‘i for centuries. But there was a problem: since the book’s publication, Kajihiro had been inundated with requests, many of them from travel writers who now knew of his operation. The sudden interest gave him pause. “It’s this incessant nature of capitalism to always commodify and fetishize everything,” he said. “Even a tour like ours is now seen as something that people want to consume. And now it’s become a thing, this dark tourism.” In a sense, it was nice to hear that readers wanted to explore the inherent power imbalance between tourists and the toured. “But people want to come here, and now that they know that there’s some problematic aspect of tourism in Hawai‘i, they want to come here guilt-free,” Kajihiro went on. “They want permission in some way. And they see our tour as being a way to give them permission.” It made him uneasy. “I don’t know quite what to make of it, or how we deal with it. That’s the crucial problem, that Hawai‘i is seen as something that’s for somebody else. To play, extract pleasure, experiences, memories, from this place. It’s never about how you come and why and what you bring.” His point lingered heavily in the air between us. I spent half my childhood on O‘ahu—I’m an apologetic Army brat—and I have come to view the American presence on the island as a pyramid of destruction. At the base is the United States military, which colonized Hawai‘i with the reckless force of the world’s strongest power. The central block is capitalism: nowhere else is the uniquely hyperactive version more evident than on O‘ahu, home to 980,000 and visited last year by more than 6 million tourists. And at the top of the pyramid is the climate crisis, seen in the form of eroding coasts, furious storms, and endangered plants and animals—the same problems found around the world, in places that are the least responsible for disturbing their environment, places that have been taken over by outsiders. Since moving to New York, I’d followed the impact of climate change on Hawai‘i. Recently, I started collecting articles published in national news outlets that purported to inform readers about the consequences of the crisis there. A story in the Christian Science Monitor, about a University of Hawai‘i report that warned of climate change’s effects on the hospitality industry, ran with the headline “How climate change could ruin your Hawaii vacation.” Another article about the same study, which was paid for by the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, ran in HuffPost under the headline “Climate Change Will Ruin Hawaii”; it made only passing mention of local residents. Last year, the San Francisco Chronicle published a slideshow: “Stunning vacation spots climate change may destroy.” A CNN report highlighted Hawai‘i lawmakers’ attempt to codify climate change resistance into law, but framed it as a response to the threat of lost tourism revenue in
“Hawai‘i is seen as something that’s for somebody else. To play, extract pleasure, memories, from this place. It’s never about how you come and why and what you bring.”
Native Hawaiian salt maker and community advocate, Hanapēpē, Kaua’i Here on the island of Kaua’i we have a salt-making tradition, the last of its kind. Seawater travels underground and comes up into natural earthen wells with a salinity level three to six times higher than the ocean. We then transfer the water to a secondary well, and when the water gets hot it will evaporate naturally, leaving salt crystals. Fifteen years ago I could walk away with fifty five-gallon buckets of salt, but in the last several years it’s gone down to zero. Salt production used to be from April or May to November, the hottest and driest times of the year. But now, with sea level rise, our wells overflow. With higher tides we get more waves crashing into the beach and increased erosion. And it rains more in June and July, which takes away the salinity and melts the salt. At UN meetings, I hear other indigenous peoples say that we have solutions based on traditional knowledge. What are these solutions? So for the past six or seven years a team of Hawaiians has been training communities on being better observers of weather conditions, moon phases, sea levels, and the ongoing changes around us. Every time we talk about our salt making and our solutions to the media, it never gets covered. They will say, “Okay, sea level rise is happening” and then say what the government’s comment is. Recently there were protests against a windmill farm in Kahuku, O’ahu. People were getting arrested. This got a lot of media coverage—it’s these crisis times that get covered. Why is the media waiting for crises to happen rather than bringing communities together and giving a voice to the indigenous community about solutions? To create policies it can’t just be top-down decisions from the government. I hear this from indigenous people all the time. —as told to Camille Bromley
Waikīkī, the beachfront of Honolulu. Never mind the thousands who live in Waikīkī and the surrounding neighborhoods. “That’s the part that’s hard about Hawai‘i,” Kajihiro said. “It’s too easy for folks to not have to engage.” The flight from New York is more than eleven hours long. As I looked around at my fellow passengers, I wondered if people on board had wrestled with the fact that the influx of tourists means there are more cars on the road, more energy needed to power dozens of hotels and restaurants, more trash, more marine litter. I wondered if these travelers had considered the flight itself; our plane ride would produce 1.549 metric tons of carbon dioxide. As we prepared for descent, my mind fell on a memory: one of my first days of school on O‘ahu, when I saw a sticker plastered diagonally across the binder of a girl who would become my friend. It read: we grew here, you flew here.
he first American missionaries arrived on the Hawaiian Islands in 1820, landing at Kailua-Kona. Once Queen Ka‘ahumanu, Hawai‘i’s ruler, was converted to Protestantism, she tasked the missionaries with helping to educate her people. The missionaries began by developing a written version of their language, and they introduced the islands to the printing press. Some seventy Hawaiian-language newspapers entered into circulation. For a while, because the printing presses were owned by white settlers, the papers reflected the views of missionaries; articles espoused the virtues of Protestantism and preached about the dangers of Hawaiian culture. By 1856, however, media in Hawai‘i had splintered. Henry M. Whitney, a businessman son of missionaries—who pronounced Native Hawaiians “inferior in every respect”—founded the Pacific Commercial Advertiser. Around the same time, a group of Hawaiian nationals began printing a paper of their own, Ka Hoku o ka Pakipika. It was helmed by David Kalākaua, a future monarch who would become known as the “editor king.” Hawai‘i was then entering the final phase of its sovereignty. King Kalākaua expanded the region’s sugar industry by signing the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 and pursued a controlled form of tourism to elevate his kingdom’s
international prominence—a goal foisted on him by missionaries. It was Kalākaua who built the opulent ‘Iolani Palace, in 1882. But shortly after his death, followed by his sister’s ascent to the throne, a group of insurgents waged a coup d’état that ended the Hawaiian dynasty. A provisional government, known as the Republic, was established, led by white Americans. (At the top was President Sanford Ballard Dole, as in the bananas.) The US annexed Hawai‘i as a territory, and eventually, despite protest, it became a state. The overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom by white settlers transformed the nature of local tourism and its depictions in media. Hypersexualized images of topless Native Hawaiian women dancing hula adorned postcards that visitors could send home. Newspapers ran ads with the unsubtle message that Hawai‘i was an empty paradise available for conquest. “Tourism was a way of inducing people to come to Hawai‘i, have sex with Native women, and maybe they’ll like it here and try to settle here,” Adam Keawe ManoloCamp, a Native Hawaiian cultural historian, told me. The author Jack London, who spent time in Waikīkī with his wife, Charmian, wrote of their excursions on the islands, enticing other foreigners to come and make it their playground. In London’s story “A Royal Sport,” he described surfing as an exotic pastime of primitive people: “Where but the moment before was only the wide desolation and invincible roar, is now a man erect, full-stature,” he wrote, “not struggling frantically in that wild movement, not buried and crushed and buffeted by those mighty monsters, but standing above them all.” The Republic began curtailing the rights of the Native Hawaiian press. By 1896, only fourteen Hawaiian-language newspapers were left, giving white men broad control of the narratives about Hawai‘i that circulated around the islands and spread to the continental US. Coverage reflected racist tropes and boosted the business interests of white Americans. That included matters of the environment. The island of O‘ahu, in particular, was pillaged to make space for white settlers’ sugar plantations. Waikīkī, on O‘ahu’s south shore, had once been rural wetlands; Native farmers in Mānoa, Pālolo, and Makiki had devised sophisticated farming and
aquaculture systems called lo‘i, or terraced taro farms, and loko i‘a, or fishponds, there. Streams filtered sediment before it reached the ocean. When the sugar barons came, however, much of Waikīkī was repurposed to meet their irrigation needs. Sugar, as it turned out, requires enormous amounts of water, and so it was diverted from Hawaiian farms and fishponds, displacing their proprietors. Thanks to the Reciprocity Treaty, sugar was the economic priority. In 1904, Lucius Pinkham, president of the local board of health, began to warn that Waikīkī’s wetlands were attracting diseaseridden mosquitoes and posing a threat to public safety. Pinkham, who was from Massachusetts and had only been in Hawai‘i a few years, proposed a solution: a canal that would drain the “Waikīkī swamps” and, through dredging, raise the area above sea level to allow for construction on the land. On February 21, 1906, the Hawaiian Star ran a story advocating Pinkham’s idea. “The tide would keep the water in this lagoon in perfectly wholesome condition,” the article stated. But real estate development was the true ambition. The Star led with Pinkham’s promise of “a Venice in the midst of the Pacific.” The story went on: “The president of the Board of Health recommends that the government, by its right of eminent domain, shall in an equitable and just manner acquire ownership and rights in said district as shall enable it to transform it into an absolutely sanitary, beautiful, and unique district.” In 1915, London made a visit and wrote, “I am glad we’re here now, for someday Waikīkī beach is going to be the scene of one long hotel.” The canal project started in 1918, by which time Pinkham had been appointed governor. Indigenous and Asian farmers largely lost their land. By 1926, the Ala Wai Canal, as it was named, was finished. The transformation of Waikīkī was well underway, complete with single-family homes, businesses, and hotels. Local newspapers encouraged development in the area; in October 1928, the Honolulu Advertiser ran a sixteen-page spread glorifying the boom. The number of tourists doubled. A travel writer on assignment in Waikīkī for Vogue wrote, “It is the most Oriental of Occidental cities, the most Occidental of Oriental; and, since it is so distant from the customary center
of human habitation, the eyes of weary men turn towards it wistfully as a haven of escape from the habitual.” Waikīkī attracted more and more attention from wealthy American tourists. The beachfront played host to a famous hotel strip. Indigenous lives were forever changed; the land and water were polluted. Eventually the environmental implications of the Ala Wai Canal became impossible to ignore when, in 1965 and 1967, heavy rain flooded two nearby streets: Ala Wai Boulevard and Kalākaua Avenue. The state cleaned up the resulting mess but dumped contaminated sediment straight into the ocean. Over the decades, as the neighborhood became more urban, the canal, plagued by runoff, became more toxic. Locals stopped fishing in it. Mercury was found in the boat harbor into which the Ala Wai led. By the time I was a teenager on O‘ahu, in the early aughts, the Ala Wai had earned a reputation for being dirty and smelly—like bad eggs—a far cry from the fancy boat race paradise that Pinkham envisioned. All the while, travel journalists continued to describe “virgin” beaches and to publish images of shorelines emptied of local people.
y own arrival in Hawai‘i was tinged with apprehension. I was thirteen, and I had already moved and changed schools seven times. I didn’t know much about Hawai‘i aside from that it was always warm and there was no winter. My mom, sensing my unease, gave me a book, a historical novel for young adults about Princess Ka‘iulani. She had been the heiress to the throne—King Kalākaua was her uncle—and she was educated in Hawaiian, Latin, French, German, and English, in the model of a cosmopolitan woman. Her kingdom was overthrown while she was spending time abroad; when she got home, she fought for Hawaiian rights. She died at the age of twenty-three, from inflammatory rheumatism. From her story, I learned that Hawai‘i had once been a different place from what it was now. My family took a two-legged flight to Honolulu. It was the longest plane ride of my life. At the airport, we were picked up by someone from the military, who dropped us off at a hotel designated for the military.
Waikīkī attracted more and more attention from wealthy American tourists. Indigenous lives were forever changed.
At our base, Schofield Barracks, there was a commissary and a pool and a movie theater—everything one might want. Some military families told my parents not to send me to public school. But they did anyway. My mom advised me to get involved with my classmates—and to step outside of the military bubble. I joined track. I became a cheerleader. I saw that sticker on my classmate’s binder— we grew here, you flew here—and although I didn’t fully grasp its meaning at the time, I understood enough to feel guilty. My guilt wasn’t discussed. But it was part of a tension that permeated everything: there were three bases surrounding my town, and my school was about 25 percent military kids. At a nearby high school, a clash between local kids and military brats got bloody; later, we all saw the story on the news. There was no big moment when the dynamic was explained to me. It was understood through talking it over with friends, being embraced by their families, having their families meet mine. It was a matter of building relationships and participating in my
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community—and not just the military one. The dynamic wasn’t explicitly discussed in classes: a course I took on modern Hawaiian history was taught by a white guy from Maui (a descendant of missionaries, I speculated); he was tall and goofy and also coached the basketball team. As I got older, I found videos of Haunani-Kay Trask, a Native Hawaiian political scientist and activist. “The Americans, my people, are our enemies,” she’d said. “The United States is a death country,” she continued. “It gives death to Native people.” I remember watching her, not disagreeing, and thinking: I should not be here. Recently, a friend asked me about going to Hawai‘i. She had visited, had a great time, and said that she felt a connection to the islands. “How can I move there without feeling like a colonizer?” she joked. I thought about it and replied, “Just don’t.”
f you are a tourist headed to Hawai‘i, it is likely that you will search for stories about the places you want to visit. You will look up restaurants to eat in, browse hotels to stay in, and perhaps trawl through Yelp comments for clues as to “authenticity.” Along the way, you may find stories that warn of the threat to Waikīkī Beach, an area that generates 42 percent of the state’s tourism revenue. For years, it has been eroding, because developers built resorts and seawalls too close to the natural shoreline. You may read about how rising sea levels, a result of climate change, claim about a foot of the beach per year. Sea levels around the archipelago are expected to hit 3.2 feet by 2100; if you keep clicking around, it’s possible you could discover that, in November, the City and County of Honolulu announced it would sue
OVERCROWDED Last year O‘ahu, home to 980,000, was visited by more than 6 million tourists.
fossil fuel companies for leaving some 3,880 structures on O‘ahu at risk of destruction. Or you might find the stories about those freaky king tides that engulf normally dry beachfronts. In 2017, the height of a king tide broke a 112-year-old record. But you may miss the story of the ahi tuna. Poke, which in recent years has exploded in popularity beyond Hawai‘i, is a local staple, and it’s now getting harder for local people to access the ingredients. As a result of climate change, tuna have come to find the waters around Hawai‘i too warm to swim in. So they’re heading north, seeking cooler temperatures, which means that fishing fleets in Hawai‘i have to burn more fuel to reach them. You might not realize, while on vacation from what may be very cold weather, that the temperatures around Hawai‘i are unusually high these days, especially when combined with the absence of trade winds. Over the past forty years, the number of northeast trade wind days has declined by half. That drop has led to sharp increases in commercial and residential air-conditioning costs; recently, the state installed air-conditioning units in more than half of all public school classrooms. They hadn’t needed it before. In the past several decades, O‘ahu has lost 25 percent of its beaches. There’s an obvious impact on tourism, and on residents who live in beachfront properties. Kanaloa Bishop, a forty-year-old educator who lives in Kahalu‘u, on O‘ahu’s north shore, sees evidence of the climate crisis every time he drives his car. “Our house is near the ocean, and all our activities require us to move along the coast, so we are starting to see the changes—and they’re getting more drastic each year,” he told me. In the winter, he added, “You’ll notice that a lot of the road is falling into the ocean.” Josh Stanbro, the head of the Honolulu Office of Climate Change, Sustainability, and Resiliency, told me about the cultural stakes of coastal erosion. Hawai‘i has the highest percentage of multigenerational homes of any state. (Housing costs are astronomical, supply is low, and wages are even lower.) “So you’ve got tons of people wall-to-wall in homes,” he said. “Where do they go to just blow off steam, to recreate, to hang out together, to socialize? Everybody
goes to the beach.” He continued, “That’s the heart and soul of our island culture, connecting on these beaches. And you can imagine, when you have 25 percent less of them? Suddenly people are getting more and more crowded. And that begins to fray the social fabric as well.” These stories are told in the local press. Nathan Eagle, a journalist for Civil Beat, published a multimedia story that took readers into the Maui rain forest as scientists went on the hunt for a dozen of the last surviving kiwikiu, a parrotbill that’s endangered because of a mosquito-borne illness caused by global warming. Local radio reports on how lawmakers are addressing an overaccumulation of trash around the state and greenhouse-gas-producing landfills that are reaching capacity. Hawai‘i’s editorial boards argue in favor of legislation meant to confront problems that exacerbate the climate crisis. A local television news station reports on the environmental impact of tourism. All that coverage has helped create a voting base with a high level of awareness about the effects of climate
“From colonialism until now, Hawai‘i has always been treated as ‘You’re not really a thing; you’re a postcard, you’re a pretty place, but you’re not self-activated.’ ”
change. But visitors are, by and large, not seeing that news. That poses a challenge to Stanbro, fortyeight, whose job is to find policy solutions that will help O‘ahu mitigate the climate crisis. When we spoke in his office, Stanbro, clean-cut, with a brown goatee and a blue aloha shirt, explained that tourists—and the powerful tourism lobby—are part of his mandate, even as they continue to exacerbate the problem. In 2015, for instance, Governor David Ige signed legislation committing the state to 100 percent clean energy by 2045 in an attempt to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers determined that, on O‘ahu, on-road transportation represented the second-largest emissions contributor. Rental car companies are a major culprit. A proposed state bill would require those companies to provide electric cars, but the legislation hasn’t progressed. “From colonialism until now, Hawai‘i has always been treated as ‘You’re not really a thing; you’re a postcard, you’re a pretty place, but you’re not selfactivated,’ ” Stanbro said, of how Hawai‘i is depicted in media outside the state. “The
message that I think we’re trying to spin, and flip that on its head, is that we’re actually leading. And it’s a moral issue, because we know we’re going to be hit first and worst as an island community.” For many in Hawai‘i, the Ala Wai Canal represents a convergence of the challenges— militarism, colonization, and hypercapitalism—that delivered the consequences of the climate crisis. In recent decades, it’s become apparent that the canal’s design was deeply flawed. As floods and pollution have worsened, millions of dollars of state funds have been spent on dredging and cleanup. In the nineties, the state asked the Army Corps of Engineers to devise a solution; in 2001, it released a plan. A few years later, after a 2004 flood in Mānoa caused $85 million in damages, focus shifted toward flood prevention. Since then, a series of plans have been proposed, and argued over, by state officials and Honolulu residents. “What is at stake is the economic engine of Hawai‘i, which is Waikīkī,” Representative Colleen Hanabusa said, in 2018. But homeowners worried about what would happen to their
“Now there are only three active lo‘i in all of this ahupua‘a of Waikīkī, and all of them would be impacted by the way that the Army Corps of Engineers has designed the Ala Wai project. We’re willing to sacrifice all those things to protect the tourist industry infrastructure. It’s just another contemporary example, to me, of those dynamics of settler colonialism: destroying one practice and way of life to replace it and proliferate another.” Stanbro, however, considers the Ala Wai Canal to be a false flash point that plays on otherwise real tensions between local residents and tourists. Though he acknowledges the legacy of land decisions being made by people other than those who have traditionally occupied it, he sees in the canal controversy a failure of communication by the government. “There’s thousands of people that are Hawai‘i residents that live in Waikīkī,” he said. “There’s a strip of hotels, but there’s a ton of residential right behind.” The canal problem needs to be fixed for everyone’s sake, he argued. This is not Pinkham redux. In Stanbro’s view, tourism makes climate resiliency more challenging. But he sees opportunity, too. In the Republic of Palau, an
WHAT WE’R E R EAD ING
After the Water NPR’s Rebecca Hersher and Ryan Kellman reported from Ellicott City, Maryland, producing a multi-platform piece on what happened in the wake of a flash flood. “Residents thought it was a freak occurrence,” they wrote. “Instead, it was a hint about the future.” Using radio, text, and images, their story, published November 7, 2019, made a compelling case, connecting a local weather disaster to a global crisis.
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land, remembering the seizure of farms in Waikīkī a century earlier and fearing that history would repeat itself. An appealing plan, known as the Ala Wai Centennial, has been put forth by Hawai‘i Futures, an initiative that seeks to restore the Hawaiian system of ahupua‘a. Ahupua‘a are traditional Hawaiian land divisions that typically extended from mountainous summits, down valleys, and all the way to the ocean. This land use system—the antithesis of the urbanization that has now gripped Honolulu—emerged out of a sense of responsibility to the local environment. An ahupua‘a revival could accommodate a number of flood prevention tactics and encourage shifts in human behavior necessary to combat climate change. But the Ala Wai Centennial plan gets relatively little coverage. “Certain places and practices get sacrificed to protect the tourist industry,” Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua, a Native Hawaiian associate professor of political science at the University of Hawai‘i, told me. “At one time, this ahupua‘a was a huge producer of food in terms of growing taro in lo‘i fields,” she explained, of the area around Waikīkī.
archipelago in Micronesia, the government imposes a hundred-dollar “Pristine Paradise” environmental fee on visitors. That could serve as a model in Hawai‘i, Stanbro suggested, forcing tourists to engage with the place not only as the vacation paradise they’ve read about from afar, but as a site of profound environmental consequence.
n 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, 9,888,845 visitors arrived in Hawai‘i by air and by ship, marking a new record. They spent $17.64 billion, an average of nearly $200 per person per day. More than 42 percent of that went to lodging costs. Some people stayed at the Royal Hawaiian, a pink palace on the beach. Others checked in at the Westin Moana Surfrider, the Sheraton Princess Ka‘iulani, or the Sheraton Waikīkī. All are owned by Kyo-ya Hotels and Resorts and operated by Marriott, the largest hotel chain on the planet. The hospitality industry, including food service, employs nearly 14 percent of the state’s workforce. While the tourists are out, their rooms are cleaned and their meals cooked by local people. In 2018, hospitality workers unionized with Unite Here! Local 5 earned $22.14 per hour, a rate higher than that taken in by their peers at non-union hotels. But that money doesn’t go far; many in Hawai‘i work two or three jobs to make ends meet. That June, when contracts expired for Local 5 members, union leadership approached Kyo-ya and asked for a $3 raise. In contract negotiations, the union also sought protections and benefits. Kyo-ya countered with a $0.70 raise. By the fall, talks had stalled, and the union posed a question to its workers: Were they willing to go on strike? Ninety-five percent voted yes. On October 8, 2018, some 2,700 Kyo-ya employees walked out. At five in the morning, they lined up by the entrances to their hotels wearing matching red T-shirts with a message to management in big white block letters: one job should be enough. At the Sheraton Waikīkī, while guests replenished their own shampoo, conditioner, and toilet paper from communal stations set up by management, workers picketed outside, beating drums and chanting.
Ikaika Hussey, an organizer with Local 5, walked the picket line alongside workers. Tourists, he said, responded to the strike in different ways. “Some people were incredibly supportive of the workers and would walk with us in the strike line, would give us hugs, would bring us food, and would donate money on the strike line,” he recalled. “These were people who were in town for a few days. They just spent thousands of dollars to get here. And they saw the strike as enriching their experience and not detracting from it.” Then his tone changed. “And as you can imagine”—he laughed—“there’s a lot of people who had exactly the opposite reaction. They hated us for ruining their Hawaiian vacation.” Over coffee in Nu‘uanu, Hussey, fortyone, who has dark hair and brown eyes and wore a navy aloha shirt tucked into slacks, told me that media depictions of Hawai‘i as an oasis throw a curtain over the state’s inequities. “There’s a Hawai‘i that exists in people’s imagination,” he said. “It was guys at Disney, at the marketing departments in Waikīkī, and journalists. All these folks crafting a narrative that makes my life harder. It makes the lives of everyone here a little bit harder.” Local 5 was on strike for a record fiftyone days before winning $6-per-hour raises, spread over four years. It was a proud time for Hussey. “So many people living here don’t have that same power, you know,” he said. Hussey had become an activist as a teenager, when he attended a meeting of the Hawaiian Sovereignty Elections Council. Soon, he started going to more political events and organizing around land demilitarization and Hawaiian sovereignty. He often found himself working as a de facto press spokesman. “A lot of times the press here is very colonial,” Hussey explained. “They would hire reporters who had no serious context for Hawai‘i history. And I would spend a lot of time trying to educate reporters.” In 2008, Hussey launched the Hawaii Independent, a site for investigative reporting and hyperlocal news that continued to publish through last summer. When Hussey became involved with Local 5, it put him at the intersection of many problems confronting Hawai‘i residents, including
the climate crisis. “I came to realize that the kind of work that we need to do in order to defeat climate change—which is an outgrowth of capitalism and colonialism—is, we need to organize within the labor movement,” he said. Local 5 has advocated climate change legislation, even when it’s not tied directly to labor concerns. Members testified in favor of a single-use-plastics ban that was signed into law in December. To Hussey, labor stories are climate stories, too. Hussey’s spouse is Marti Townsend, the director of the Hawai‘i chapter of the Sierra Club. It’s common for them to wind up working on the same things. “She talks to her members about environmental justice and racism; I talk to my union members about environmental justice and racism,” he said. “My members are worried about it because they know that it will affect them. The rich folks are going to get a lifeboat—they’re going to go to Mars, or they’re going to live on their own private islands. And they’re not going to worry about their jobs being taken away or their houses being washed away. The rich will always be fine.” Climate change, in Hussey’s view, is a concern of the labor class, a “violence perpetrated by capitalism.” When I asked Hussey about the narrative, often advanced by media coverage, that the tourism economy is singularly crucial to the survival of Hawai‘i—from the laborers of Local 5 on up—he balked. Tourism is a major industry in Hawai‘i, and thus newsworthy—sure. But stories that treat tourism as an inevitability, and fail to ask how it can be more sustainable, suggest that, for better or worse, we’re stuck with the status quo. “The idea of tourism as a main economic driver for Hawai‘i is an incredibly new idea,” he told me. “We’ve had an economy here for, like, two thousand years. Anyone who says that we have only this, that there is no alternative, lacks imagination.”
n my last day on O‘ahu, I set out to drive part of the route of Kajihiro’s tour. Though he said he couldn’t take me out himself, he’d offered—with some skepticism, I sensed—to give me notes on where he takes visitors. It was a warm day, at least eighty degrees. The sky was cloudless. I got into a rental car in Makakilo, my old
Climate change is a concern of the labor class: “violence perpetrated by capitalism.”
neighborhood on the west side, and headed east, toward downtown. I was headed for ‘Iolani Palace, on South King Street. Over the years, the palace has been painstakingly restored and cared for, as a reminder that the state of Hawai‘i was once a kingdom. When Kajihiro brings visitors here, he describes it as a living symbol of sovereignty, but also the scene of a crime. The palace, now a museum, is enclosed by a green gate and framed by manicured lawns. I drove in and parked, as I had done many times before, to remember Queen Lydia Lili‘uokalani, who was locked in a room here while white men stole her country. Kajihiro had told me to check out the southeastern corner of the lawn, where I hadn’t spent much time. The palace was decorated for the holidays: red, green, and white lanterns were strung across its balconies. Out in front of the stairs, two tourists wandered, posing for photos. I kept walking and found what I’d come to see: a small stone structure framed by leafy flora the color of rubies. It was a shrine, built in 1993, the hundredth anniversary of the kingdom’s
overthrow, made from stones that Native Hawaiians had brought from their homes. The stones were arranged in a cube, as if constructing a foundation, about two feet tall. Leis dried out by the sun were placed on top. A tiny Hawaiian flag, flown at half mast, was at the center. On tours, Kajihiro stops here to review the long history of Hawaiian resistance to colonization. The second stop on Kajihiro’s tour is Camp Smith, the headquarters of the US Indo-Pacific Command, atop a steep hill in Halawa Heights with views of Pearl Harbor, the crux of militarization on O‘ahu. To get there, the tour passes by Kapūkaki, or Red Hill, where the Navy buried storage tanks now leaking jet fuel into the ground near the island’s main drinking-water supply—which poses a major problem, if climate-crisis-induced storms hit and cause an accident that pollutes the water. At the top of the hill, Kajihiro and his guests get out of their car. Along the eastern side of the road is fencing that separates the military base from the rest of the neighborhood: houses crowded together, as though clamoring for space. Here, Kajihiro tells
the story of John Schofield—the general for whom the base of my childhood was named. In 1873, he was sent to sovereign Hawai‘i on a secret mission under the cover of tourism, to scope out a spot for the naval base that we now call Pearl Harbor. When I arrived at the main gate, I was denied access without a military escort. Instead of driving away, I pulled my car to the side of the road and got out, climbing to the top of a short rock wall enclosing the base. Before me, the valley spread far into the distance. I could see Pearl Harbor, the next stop on the tour. All around me was evidence of that destructive pyramid: militarism supporting capitalism that’s driving climate change. For decades, Native Hawaiian activists have sought, through protest and legal action, to demilitarize their homeland and restore its environment. As I drove down the Leeward Coast—past Ko ‘Olina, a series of man-made lagoons surrounded by four major resorts, including the Four Seasons and Disney’s Aulani—I thought of my conversation with Hussey. He’d asked me, “Who is Hawai‘i for?” Was it for the people who live here? For the military? For the tourists? Climate change puts everyone at risk. The question of how to confront the crisis will be a matter of whose story is at the forefront, whose survival is deemed the most important. Zigzagging across O‘ahu, I saw dozens of Hawaiian flags, fluttering off the back of pickup trucks, flown in front of homes, and hanging from tents at beach parks. Often, the flags were upside down, signifying distress. When I spoke with Hussey, he said that, even though the members of his union work in the tourism industry, they care more about an economy, and an environment, that can outlast it. “I think the winning move is for us to allocate our climate change dollars to restoring the economy that has sustained Hawai‘i for centuries,” he told me. “We focus on feeding our people, housing our people, educating, enlightening our local folks. That has to be our number one priority.” It’s a mindset that is more about sustainability than temporary visitors. It may never show up on a travel site. But it’s the one that asserts, clearly, who Hawai‘i is for. cjr
C H R I S ST E E L E- P E R K I N S / M AG N U M P H OTOS
hen sunlight bourrées across the sea in spring, it is stunning, breathtaking. To see water glisten is to be inside a poem. Maybe there’s a breeze, the kind that feels like a silk scarf brushing against your skin—not warm or chilly, just soft. The image of nature seduces us; we romanticize it. But we don’t love it, really. Ours is a superficial relationship. We exploit, raze, release fumes. We take climate measurements but don’t seem to care about the findings. What’s missing from the picture is us, our impact on the earth. Which is strange, since when it lashes out, we’re the ones who get hit. The climate crisis isn’t a story apart from human beings; we are at the center. When we look at the sea, it faces back—and it, too, is stunned. —Betsy Morais
The Marshall Islands
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