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Zahra Hirji on how to write and think about a warming planet

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Last week I wrote a long essay about how most of us are not ready for the precarious future (of climate, of politics, etc). I focused on the media and a few of the structural reasons that some climate coverage fails to capture the emergency at hand. After I published the piece, my former BuzzFeed News colleague, Zahra Hirji reached out. She has been covering science and climate issues for years and offered to chat about how I and others in media could think about and cover climate change. We spoke this week and what follows is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation. Read/scroll to the end for her incredibly helpful list of resources!

From my uninformed vantage, it feels like the climate discussion has changed in the last three or four years. It feels like there is a greater understanding of the urgency among some media outlets and also from audiences. In my head, I attribute that to the grim IPCC report that came out in, I think, 2018 and said something like, ‘we have like 12 years or so to avert total catastrophe.’ It felt like a turning point to me — is that how you see it? Or am I totally off?

I think the discussion has changed. I’m not sure if the report itself was the turning point but it certainly was part of it. Around that time we started seeing activism pick up, too. There was the school strike movement, the Sunrise Movement, and the midterm elections. It was a lot of things at once. Maybe, for the public, the report felt different because the scientists that wrote it stated their conclusions in plainer and more stark language. It felt more emotional.

But let me offer some more context and rewind a bit. When countries signed the Paris accord, the messaging was about firmly keeping global temperature increases to two degrees Celsius, while attempting to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. The IPCC report looked at what this half degree difference really meant and it was shocking to see at the difference. We had his notion that more than two degrees was a catastrophe. But, in the report, the picture they were painting of what two degrees warming or even 1.5 degrees of warming looked like was terrifying. And this outcome is what is most likely. The report made our future feel very real to a lot of people.

Now, couple that with the last few years, where we’ve started to see the types of weather disasters that have pushed the edge of what’s considered normal. We saw Hurricane Harvey and the enormous amount of rain. We saw Hurricane Maria, which took out all of the power in Puerto Rico. We’ve seen some of the deadliest and largest wildfires ever in the West. It felt like these events were hitting one after another. And throughout it all, during the Trump era, we had a government in U.S. turning its back on climate policy. It made the issue feel more hopeless and urgent.

And then, we had a pandemic!

I feel the pandemic, in a way, has made people more aware on climate. I know that I feel more aware of just how fragile our society is. We all just experienced so much trauma and saw so many people die from Covid-19. It was an existential-feeling time and then you have climate change on top of that. People feel vulnerable.

But, broadly, I think you’re right. I was talking last week with some other climate reporters and we were like, ‘Does it feel worse? Does it feel more intense right now than ever before? Does it feel like things are failing before our eyes?’ We concluded that it feels like the discussion of climate change has gone from being ‘a future thing’ to a ‘now thing.’

The point about the pandemic feels very real to me. I think there’s a bit more awareness from specific people — especially privileged ones — that ‘bad things can happen to me, even if I’m rich or safe right now — trouble will still find its way to my doorstep.’ But I wonder if this isn’t a double-edged sword? People are traumatized by the pandemic. They’re worn thin. Many are already worried about climate change and painfully aware of the crisis to the point that they might tune out. So what happens next? How do you deal with balancing the awareness-raising with whatever comes next?

Right now, personally, all I see are stories. I have too many stories I want to report. And there’s a bit of paralysis that comes from that. I’m starting to see the connections everywhere and I get energized to report the news and make those links.

At the beginning of this interview, you mentioned the IPCC report and it being scary and the sort of ‘doomsday clock’ that suggests we only have a set amount of time left. The thing I feel — and that people on the beat feel — is that the Countdown To Doom framing is wrong. Because, like, the real fear is isn’t climate denialism, it’s the normalization of climate change. It’s the idea that we create the narrative that, ‘It’s over, we’re screwed, so what can we even do about it?’

And when people say, ‘what can I do?’ I’m like, ‘EVERYTHING!’ You can do anything and it can helps. Because the difference between 1.5 degrees of warming and 2 degrees and so on and so forth is a matter of countless lives lost. There are so many solutions out there, like infrastructure that makes communities more resilient. And it feels, at least in the moment, like maybe we’ll see some government action. It feels like we’re seeing a return to the momentum that we saw at end of the Obama administration with the Paris Agreement.

So you have this mix of high emotions and urgency that are coming while there is still time to do something. As a climate reporter, I think all the time about, ‘how do I take advantage of this moment?’

I worry a lot about that false deadline mentality. In my worst moments, I feel that it is too late and I feel hopeless. But it is really heartening that more and more climate reporters I listen to feel like there’s the potential for some real progress that could come out of this moment. It makes me feel like my pessimism is also a result of the fact that I don’t know as much about the subject of climate change as I should. It’s why I wanted to have this conversation.

I think there’s a lesson from covid that we can apply to climate coverage. The pandemic hit and, initially, science and health reporters took the lead. But quickly, people realized, this is effecting every single beat. Climate change has a similar dynamic and yet it is siphoned off, only to get covered by the the science desk or the climate reporters. A week or so ago, Emily Atkin, who runs the HEATED newsletter went on CNN and made the point that everyone should be a climate reporter, just like everyone kind of became a covid reporter. I think she’s right.

I agree. But I also imagine two types of pushback coming from newsrooms and reporters. I imagine some writers and editors rolling their eyes at the idea that most stories should to have some climate lens. Journalists are always trying to simplify stories for audiences and are likely to say, ‘I just want to write a story about X, I don’t want to complicate it.’ I notice this dynamic sometimes, too from bad faith critics. When people write climate stories with a racial justice/equity lens they get mad and say, ‘not every story is about racism.’ And I imagine there are writers and editors out there who, even if they won’t say it publicly, agree with that notion.

The second pushback is maybe more relevant and that is the simple fact that I think a lot of reporters and editors who aren’t on science or climate desks are intimidated by the beat. They aren’t as familiar with the science and the sources and are simply scared to screw it up by linking things on their beat to climate. And so they don’t.

I think climate reporters can help their newsrooms. First, I want to address the intimidation bit, especially for reporters on deadline. I very much understand the headspace of ‘I want to write about climate issues and know it’s related to a bigger picture part of my beat but I’m not familiar with it and it’ll be a lot of effort to get that context paragraph in my piece.’ One of the ways we think about it at BuzzFeed is, ‘how can I help other reporters who are working on a breaking story for a a specific event like Heatwaves or hurricanes?’

One thing we’re experimenting with is for our science desk to provide a nutgraf or context paragraph about how climate fits into that story. It would be something our desk could provide to reporters on different desks and it would have relevant data and context and language, all vetted by us.

BuzzFeed instituted something similar this year for shootings. We have a series of context paragraphs for stories that cover gun violence. They include data and references shootings that have happened. The hope is that the context helps readers see that this isn’t just one random story, it’s part of a trend. The context paragraph is constantly updated so it stays relevant. On the Science desk, we’re talking about doing that for climate. Vetted information that somebody could slot in, so it’s not up to another reporter to deal with the weight of taking on a new beat while also on deadline, which is a big reason people just don’t include climate information in their pieces.

That’s really smart. Just, like, a library of context that colleagues can use.

We’ll see how it works in reality. A context paragraph is great, but then you want to sink your teeth in. I want others in my newsroom to feel like they can explore how climate change impacts their beat. Part of my job is being available so anyone could Slack me if they’re interested to say, ‘I want to get on this beat or I’m curious about X.’ This has led to me working with lots of reporters on their stories. And it works. You work on a story with another desk and it expands your outlet’s climate coverage. I expect those people I worked with will do more on their own, too. Because now they’re more comfortable with the background and the material and sourcing. That’s one way that newspaper outlets’ science desk will be helpful. Reach across the aisle, tag team a bit and then go off on your own.

You mentioned earlier that you are have more stories you want to do now than ever before. How do you go about making these stories feel new and resonant, especially to people who are already aware and concerned about warming?

I’ve been doing a lot more stories about the health impacts of climate change. I’m the type of person who gets inspiration by virtue of experiencing something. Last year, I was pregnant and knew I’d be having a baby in June in Washington, D.C. And it was getting hot and I started thinking of pregnant women and their risks to extreme heat. I didn’t know much about the topic. But I started digging and what I found was troubling and surprising to me. That was personal experience informing my reporting. Then, with latest heat waves this summer, the effects of high heat on vulnerable people became a big story. And I had all this background on it.

Honestly, I was surprised how much of the conversation leading up to the Pacific Northwest heatwave was focused on “record setting temperatures!” There wasn’t a lot of coverage connecting the dots as to why record heat matters. But this is the job — finding ways to connect these weather events to peoples’ lives. Weather events are displacing people and hurting peoples’ health. I’m trying to hit those messages home. So I’m focusing on housing, displacement, and on the human health toll.

I feel almost radicalized on climate stuff since moving out west. Climate change was something I cared about but it felt abstract and academic to me until I moved to Montana and almost immediately experienced the effects of wildfire season first hand. And, as I’ve watched it get worse in my own life, I feel more acutely aware of what the future will look like but also how warming might impact people in other regions. The experience kicked open a door in my brain and I feel like I can tell that story now.

Right. If you are dealing with the effects first-hand, you’re so much better positioned to advance the story. You’re breathing smoke all the time so the next logical leap is to start thinking about air pollution and how is it impacting different populations. People with heart disease, people with asthma, people working industrial industries who have previous conditions and now you are layering wildfire smoke on top of that. Then, you go further: Smoke doesn’t just impact peoples’ air, it also effects their water. What next? You start with your own experience and you extrapolate out until you have an idea of all the fallout and the people who might be effected. It’s a way into these stories.

It sounds like a good endorsement for having a diverse newsroom — in all ways, including geographically.

I feel the east coast bias in this coverage every day. And I see west coasters feeling they’re shouting into the void. Tropical storms probably do get more coverage than bigger fires and droughts. That bias is real. I think a lot about how to deal with it. It certainly helps to have people spread out and geographically based. Maybe covid and remote work trends will help that. But one of the things we’ve seen with newsrooms shedding so many jobs is the closures of entire bureaus. And that’s really unfortunate and should be a priority if people get the resources.

There’s interesting efforts to address this specifically with climate reporting — one example is the Uproot Project. It’s a group comprised of reporters of color working on environmental issues, trying to provide mentorship and support to other reporters of color trying to get into this beat.

In a way, I feel like your question was rhetorical. Obviously the answer in terms of diversity is: Yes, we need more of it. Especially when you think about the communities of color and poor communities who are impacted in outsized ways. Sending people to those communities is one way to address it, but so is having people in those communities. We in the media be investing in those stories.

You’re writing on a subject that is obviously quite intense and anxiety provoking. You’re also trying to make those connections to real life health and social consequences. How do you balance driving that point home while not, like, scaring your readers to the point that they disengage?

I don’t think much about whether I’m scaring people. And maybe I should. I recently did this story with Brianna Sacks about a town in Louisiana, which had five federally-declared disasters last year, not counting covid. The way that story came about is I remembered Louisiana was hit by a number of hurricanes in last season. So we tried to figure out what it’s like now in some of those towns. We remembered that Biden had gone to Lake Charles for his infrastructure push. And so we zeroed in around there and I was shocked to see the area was devastated by five different disasters. When I have those ‘oh shit’ moments, that’s when I know I have a story.

I don’t think it’s my job to worry about freaking people out, it’s my job to convey the truth of the crisis. And so many people still don’t even know the magnitude of it all. I’m hoping that with the stories or the data I’m finding, that they resonate with people. That resonance might be fear or hope or whatever. I’m just looking for what startles me and grabs me and I hope it has the same impact on my readers.

Before I let you go, I’m curious how you think about the debates right now that frame leftist climate activism as politically counterproductive. The argument seems to suggest that many activists are making demands that aren’t realistic, given the political reality in Washington. And then there’s the understandable pushback from activists that the stakes of the climate crisis are unprecedented — that any kind of discussion of politics as usual is actually dangerous. I can see some truth to both sides of these arguments. How do you parse them as a reporter covering it all?

When I think about what to cover I certainly think about ‘what are actions that have impact?’ Is it worth covering a rally or protest if I don’t think those demands are realistic or if anything will come out of it? That certainly plays into whether or not I cover it. But those judgement calls are being made daily and they are constantly shifting.

I admit I was a reporter who was slow to covering Sunrise to begin with. I was not quite sure why they were going so hard against Democrats in Congress when it was so clear that climate inaction was coming from Republicans. But a lot of people now know the phrase the ‘Green New Deal’ and it is an idea that both Trump and Biden have had to respond to. It was such a big idea. And even though Biden doesn’t call climate legislation the ‘Green New Deal,’ the idea of weaving equity and jobs and climate all together has become a key issue in the conversation. Sunrise and those groups are incredibly relevant. They made a difference and had a big impact that’s worth covering.

It’s a tough challenge — that tension of pushing for as much as you can get and pushing for what’s realistic. It is a tension that truly exists in the Democratic party and in the progressive wing of Democratic party and across the climate world. All these factions are tying to sort it out and that’s a tension worth covering. What it will lead to is interesting, too. I dunno what it will lead to but I think I have learned my lesson as a reporter in terms of dismissing new movements out of hand.

Last thing before we go. Say I’m a reporter and I have read this and am now ready to integrate climate issues into my beat more frequently. What can I do right away?

If you’re at an organization with a bigger climate desk, start talking to them to get advice. That conversation is the first step. The second step is just folding climate change into your conversations with your current suite of sources already. If you’re on that daily deadline just take an extra five minutes. The question can be blunt — just ask them how they’re thinking about climate issues right now. Not every source will have something relevant to say but it may also lead to new stories/ideas. Thirdly, there are resources. Twitter lists of great climate scientists and reporters to follow. Half the job these days is finding who is a trusted source.

Here are some of those resources straight from Zahra:

  1. Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University has a *ton* of twitter lists with various types of climate experts and groups. For reporters looking to start following more climate voices, I'd recommend her "scientists who do climate" list and her "climate emergency" one for more activist-y types. 

  2. Check out the Society of Environmental Journalists' "Covering Your Climate" guides, including this one for covering the Pacific Northwest region and this one for covering the South.

  3. Check out the Covering Climate Now coalition, especially their Best Practices list and check out their latest webinar with some climate reporters talking about stories on the extreme weather/climate beat. 

  4. For reporters of color looking to jump into the climate beat, I'd specifically recommend signing up for the new Uproot Project, which was formed by veteran climate and environmental reporters of color to specifically help provide mentorship and support tailored for you.

  5. And as I tweeted last week, I'm happy to chat with folks.

OK. That’s It! I’ll be back once more this week with a subscriber-only post with some fun stuff. Love y’all.