After the strikes

Catching up and moving forward after the biggest climate protest in history.

Welcome to HEATED, a Monday through Thursday newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis.

I’m in New York City this week for the U.N. Climate Summit and Climate Week NYC. I’ll be talking to former California Governor Jerry Brown, IKEA Group CEO Jesper Brodin, and former EPA environmental justice chief Mustafa Ali, among others. I’ll also be moderating an all-female panel of climate journalists and communicators tonight at the New School. You should come if you’re around. It’s free; register here.

What should I cover in NYC? Who else should I talk to? Tell me:

Drink a glass of water, eat a banana, and let’s start the week.

More than a feeling

Julian Meehan/Flickr

Did last week feel different to you? Better? Like maybe everything might not go to shit after all?

If it did, I’m guessing it’s because of the Global Climate Strike on Friday—the largest climate protest in history.

The strike sparked emotional responses from some longtime climate activists and communicators—and it’s easy to see why. Imagine spending decades trying to warn the public about the reality and danger of human-caused climate change, only to be thwarted time and again by a relentless, deep-pocketed misinformation campaign led by the fossil fuel industry. Now imagine millions of people suddenly taking to the streets across the world seeking accountability from that industry, and action to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as the science demands.

Beyond the climate strikes, an institution that for decades has facilitated climate misinformation—the media—radically changed course last week. It was no accident; in the days leading up to Friday, more than 300 news outlets across 6 continents coordinated to deliver accurate, in-depth coverage of the climate crisis as part of an initiative called Covering Climate Now. So if it felt like you were hearing way more stories than usual on the climate crisis last week, that’s why.

In addition to the Covering Climate Now initiative, MSNBC ran two straight days of climate-focused political coverage on Thursday and Friday, centered around the network’s two-day climate forum with 2020 presidential candidates at Georgetown University, co-sponsored by the Our Daily Planet newsletter and New York Magazine.

It was a lot to keep up with, which is why I didn’t go to the climate strike. Instead, I watched MSNBC’s 15-hour climate forum, because I figured most of you guys were busy striking and didn’t watch it. Here are my key takeaways.

'Til I see Marianne walk away

What did 15 hours of TV-watching give me, other than a screen headache and a deep sense of annoyance at Marianne Williamson?

Not that much—at least not much more than I got from the 7-hour CNN climate forum. That was no fault of moderators Chris Hayes or Ali Velshi; the two MSNBC anchors asked thoughtful, pointed, specific questions on a wide range of climate topics. So did the Georgetown students.

But the candidates who participated (all but Biden, Warren, Harris, O’Rourke, and Klobuchar) appear to have memorized their climate talking points. There’s not much more being said than what’s already out there. But here’s what I learned:

  • Bernie Sanders is the only candidate talking about criminal prosecution for fossil fuel executives. Washington Governor Jay Inslee used to talk about criminal liability for climate damage on the campaign trail, but with him gone, it’s just Sanders. Asked by Hayes if he would use the Department of Justice for litigation against fossil fuel companies and executives, Sanders responded, “Duh.” Asked how exactly he planned to do that, Sanders replied, “I’m not a lawyer, and I’ll need a good Attorney General to help me out with this.”

  • Julian Castro is testing his anti-fracking language. In the CNN climate forum, Castro said he supported states’ and localities’ rights to ban fracking—but said he would not pursue a national ban. In the MSNBC forum, Castro said he supported banning fracking nationally, but not immediately. “I support banning fracking, starting with on public lands, and then phasing it out as we can,” he said. “Practically, I don’t think we can do that on Day One. But I do believe that in short order, we can phase it out, and I’m committed to doing that and replacing that with renewables.”

  • Andrew Yang is touting his Elon Musk endorsement. The SpaceX founder and CEO endorsed Yang about a month ago, but I haven’t yet heard him mention it in a climate context until the MSNBC forum. Asked about his support for controversial technologies like nuclear energy, carbon-capture, and geoengineering, Yang jokingly said other candidates may not be “as forward-thinking” as he is. “I know for a fact that Elon wants to work on this,” Yang said.

  • Marianne Williamson is unable (or unwilling) to talk about climate policy. Williamson spent the bulk of her 45 minutes calling for a “non-violent revolution” in support of “conscious capitalism,” and a “season of repair” to change hearts and souls before we change policy. And look, I totally get the need for those things. But Williamson is running for president, and she didn’t adequately answer any questions about how to fix policy once she’s done with our emotions. At one point, Williamson even scoffed at other candidates for creating climate plans before they had a plan to achieve “emotional, psychological, spiritual buy-in” from Americans. It was not a fun 45 minutes for me. (Though if you felt differently, I’d love to hear from you).

  • Cory Booker is better at Marianne Williamson-style politics than Marianne Williamson. I get that we need someone talking about our spiritual centers on the campaign trail, especially with regard to climate. But I found Booker to be pretty good at that, in addition to having a clear policy vision. Booker opened his interview talking about how he’d reform government contracting and agricultural incentives to force better climate practices from farmers and private business. He also talked a lot about the need to develop “courageous empathy” and “coalitions of conscience” within society. It was a little wacky, but not “I may or may not spend my whole presidency doing tarot card readings, tbd” wacky.

I don’t have anything to say about Michael Bennett, John Delaney, or Tim Ryan. I’m sorry.

Moving forward: Quality over quantity

The MSNBC climate forum was good journalism. And it was incredibly important toward moving the needle on cable news network climate reporting. But it was also, like the 7-hour CNN climate forum, inaccessible journalism—and at times, boring to the point of being torturous.

Climate reporting is useless if the public is not watching or reading it. And people aren’t watching these marathon forums. Both the CNN and MSNBC forums got really bad ratings—which, if you watched them, is no surprise. It’s possible to do compelling climate change reporting for television. This isn’t it. (Again, thank the Democratic National Committee for forcing the forum format by not allowing a traditional debate format).

The media’s dedication to covering climate change more aggressively last week made me hopeful that the public will only get more informed on this issue as time goes on. On the flip side, however, the efforts also made me wonder whether that the fundamental problem with climate coverage is being addressed. Yes, we don’t have enough climate coverage. But that’s not going to be remedied by non-stop climate coverage in the short-term. It will only be remedied by smarter, more accessible climate coverage over the long-term.

News outlets don’t have to hire a bunch of new climate reporters and editors to accomplish that. They just have to teach their existing reporters—political, defense, healthcare, immigration, et cetera—how to responsibly incorporate climate impacts into their existing reporting. Ali Velshi and Chris Hayes had to do that in the course of preparing for their climate forum. It doesn’t take more than few weeks.

And if you’re wondering why you should care about this, it’s because accessible climate reporting can be extremely useful in the fight for climate action. The global climate strike was proof of that. People will mobilize to take action against the biggest problems facing society—but only if they are consistently and accurately informed about those problems. And journalists have a responsibility to consistently and accurately inform you.

HOT ACTION: After the strike

I could talk forever about how to improve climate journalism—in fact, I’ll be talking about it tonight at The New School, if anyone would like to come. (It’s free).

But how should the climate activist community keep momentum going after the global climate strike? I put it to readers, and here’s what I got:

From D.C.-based reader Elizabeth Sawin, the co-director of Climate Interactive:

I think part of maintaining momentum is just sharing this image, which I'm trying to do as much as I can. Sort of holding a mirror up to the climate movement so it can see how big and beautiful it is getting. I'd be happy for you to share the data or the image if you thought it would be interesting to your readers.

From Michigan-based reader Jennifer Carman, a PhD candidate whose dissertation is about what people can do about climate change impacts in their day to day lives:

If I could suggest just one action that all your readers could take today (or tomorrow), it's to see if their local government has a climate action plan, and what's in that plan.

If their local government doesn't have a plan, or if they don't like what's happening in that plan, they should get in touch with their local government to make changes. In the U.S. especially, local governments are on the forefront of responding to climate change impacts due to both federal inaction and the fact that climate impacts really happen at the local level.

Moreover, local governments are both much more likely to affect people's day-to-day lives with their decisions *and* be responsive to constituents who get in touch with them, so individual (or small group) actions can make a big difference.

From England-based reader Katie Jundt:

I think you could provide resources to readers, like a link to the Extinction Rebellion website, where they can learn about strikes happening near them, find affinity groups, and learn about other ways to take action. That website is where I got involved in my local environmental activism affinity group called the Red Rebel Brigade.

OK, that’s all for now—thanks so much for reading HEATED!

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See you tomorrow!