September 22nd, 2017


Journalist, The New Yorker; Author, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future

Staff Writer, Vox


In this episode, two veteran climate reporters talk about their personal stories, media coverage of climate, and how people respond to the massive evidence that the climate is changing in their lifetime, and in their hometowns.  

Elizabeth Kolbert's 2006 book Field Notes from a Catastrophe was instrumental in creating and shaping Climate One. Her 2014 book,The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History won a Pulitzer Prize, and she continues to cover climate and other stories for The New Yorker.  David Roberts earned a wide following covering climate for Grist. He eventually got so burned out that he walked away from the climate beat for a time, but he’s back now writing some of the most incisive climate articles anywhere for Vox.

So what is it like to write about climate change in a post-truth world? “On some level it’s the worst story ever,” explains Kolbert. “It is ubiquitous, but very hard to pin down. It's being caused by everyone and everything. And therefore it’s sort of everything and nothing and so finding the narrative is very, very difficult.” She notes, however – for better or for worse – that this is changing. “it’s becoming easier and easier to go places and have people say this is climate change we’re looking at it, we’re experiencing it.”

Yet some journalists feel that media coverage of climate-related events is still too guarded against push back from the audience or politicians in terms of articulating the threats. David Roberts claims a more practical approach. “My goal was always to speak to the political junkies and the nerds in the news,” he says, “the news obsessives and bloggers and twitterers and all those – speak to those people about this in a way that reaches them and that they understand.”

As such he tries to avoid the table-pounding metaphor escalation that characterizes more activist-oriented journalism. “At a certain point you have to find an equilibrium you, have to find a way to operate on a day-to-day level.”

Kolbert similarly disavows any role as an activist. “That’s way above my pay grade, solving this problem,” she states categorically. “I am trying to give people information that I do hope on some level inspire people, you know, to think about it at the very least.” Still, she does express admiration for activists like Bill McKibben who felt that their work as journalists wasn’t enough to create change. “Journalists are not movement builders as a rule… To be both, as a successful journalist and a movement builder, is an extraordinarily impressive achievement.”

But climate journalists face another challenge: the human brain, which evolved to respond to immediate threats much more effectively than distant ones. “The problem with climate is that you've gone so far away from physical extremes that we lack metaphors, we lack ways,” says Roberts. “We just don't have the language or the conceptual apparatus to wrap our heads completely around it.”

Kolbert adds the accumulative nature of climate change to the challenge of conceptualizing and writing about it. “Once you decide to solve it, there’s a sense of okay that it’s too late now,” she notes. “I think people have a really hard time getting their heads around that, they think when it's bad, when I look out the window and things are bad then we’ll solve it and we’ll deal with it, but it doesn't work that way.”