An interview with MSNBC's Ali Velshi
This is the last episode of our limited-run mini series on COVID-19 and climate change! Next week, HEATED’s publishing schedule will return back to normal. Free subscribers will get at least one email a week, and paid subscribers will get four—every morning, Monday through Thursday. I’ll make all essential COVID-19 reporting free, too.
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Enjoy the chat with Ali!
Emily Atkin: Thank you for doing this. Thank you for taking some time out of your day for climate change.
Ali Velshi: We should be doing it every day. So thank you for continuing to force the issue on us. I mean that in a good way, because what we tend to do in this world is jump from crisis to crisis. and it's becoming increasingly obvious that this is the one crisis that looms in the background all the time, and gets shoved out by other crises.
EA: I mean, that's my whole life. Literally the only thing I do is just poke people and tell them to pay attention to climate change.
AV: And this situation [with COVID-19] is interesting, right? It's the urgency. It's the unknown outcome. It's the suddenness. Suddenly, you're healthy, then you're not. Suddenly you know people who have died. So it's just this compressed timeline that we know nothing about that is scaring us. And with climate we just don't experience it the same way.
EA: Yeah. There's plausible deniability with climate change. You can have a loved one die from the effects of climate change and still be able to convince yourself that it wasn't that. Whereas with coronavirus, there's no denying that’s what it is.
But I want to start by having you tell listeners a little bit about your personal journey into climate reporting. We aren't seeing a lot of broadcast reporter interest in climate change. I see your interest growing. Can you just tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming someone who's interested in climate change?
AV: I have a history of being a reporter who explains complicated things to people. It came from economics but it morphed into other things. And like a lot of reporters, I read and I understood climate change from the perspective of someone who reads. I certainly always thought I was on the right side of it.
But probably five years ago, it became about the fact that this isn't going to inevitably solve itself. The idea that right-minded people all sort of probably shared my view, but our regulations are not built to actually acknowledge it, and our media is not built to actually acknowledge it. And so I started becoming more involved in understanding it.
But it was difficult. I can explain to you why the Dow dropped a thousand points today. How do I explain to you two degrees compared to pre-industrial times in a hundred years? How do I make that understandable to people on TV? Because we have a way of doing things, and they don't lend themselves to large conceptual discussion.
But then what started to happen is two things. One is the movement started to get bigger, and started to bring new people into it. It became kids teaching their parents that, “Okay, this isn't gonna change unless we're all involved in it.” And the second thing is we started to associate it with things that were urgent, that did lend themselves to television—like hurricanes, like wildfires, like flooding.
And what I found was that every time I made that connection on TV, I would get people really angry at me. They'd say, this isn't the time to talk about climate. And I started to wonder: Why not? This is the only time I have your attention. And the two things are actually connected. There's real science as to the way hurricanes form now and how they develop and why temperature makes them more intense.
Then people like you trying to force the discussion. There were books out there that spoke to me in my language. There were candidates who started to make this an actual priority. There were people who started to build policy around it. There were articles written that didn't feel the same. And it all came together and caused me to understand that this is my job. Being on the right side of the issue is fine. But the job is actually using your platform to express to people why something is important, and what role they might play in it, whether it's a policy role or whether it's an individual behavior role, and even what the competing interests are within those roles.
EA: One of the things I've seen you do is have an increased focused on the powerful forces that have driven climate denial in our society. And I see that as an opportunity for broadcast and cable news in particular to make climate change more interesting to people—to tell the story in the language of corruption, as opposed to the language of science. Is that part of your evolution? And is that indeed an easier story to tell on broadcast?
AV: It's part of my evolution in that it’s part of my evolution as a journalist. Again, probably five or six years ago, I realized that having people on TV to give you their PR-honed pitches about their business or their company is not serving my viewers interest.
I would go to award ceremonies in New York for broadcasters around the world. These were people who were under threat from their governments. They would wear bulletproof vests to just do their job. And I was thinking, yeah, I don't really do a lot of that. Like I book people through their PR agencies, and they come on my show and they tell me about stuff. We call ourselves journalists, but these people speak truth to power to the extent that they endanger their lives every single day.
Maybe I’m not endangering my life every day, but maybe I can actually start to say, “what can I give my viewers?” As a business journalist, most of your interviews are CEOs or marketing people. So you are just constantly being barraged by their hard sell. They spend millions of dollars being trained to deliver information, and you act as a conduit for that to your audience. And I sort of said, “This can't be what this is about.”
So why not hit this disinformation part of things hard? Particularly in business journalism and economic journalism, in which lot of this climate denial is rooted. We don't do enough of a job of telling people whom we interview, holding them to the fire, because we want them to come back and interview with us again.
Maybe it's my age, and how long I've been in this, but I've decided I don't need the access anymore. I don't need you to give me your interview anymore. I'm a journalist. I've actually got resources, and I've got ways in which to get to the bottom of the story. and that's how I'll do it. And if I never get a fancy interview again, or the CEO of an oil company, or a politician who wants to talk about this, that's fine. Because they've got lots of airtime. You can always hear from them.
A coal company or an oil company or anyone involved with those industries—there's no time you won't get their message. You may not know that you're getting it all the time, but you're getting it. And we have to work hard to bring the other message into mainstream media.
EA: Have you seen a change at all in how receptive people are at MSNBC to telling climate change stories on the air?
AV: So we have a climate unit now, which we never had before. It probably corresponded with around the time that we did that presidential forum that you were at in Washington at Georgetown. So it was in the fall. And climate now doesn't seem like some weird left turn to a different discussion. We now have it as part of all policy discussions, or at least most. And that helps a great deal.
You've probably seen in the last couple of weeks in mainstream media, pictures of smog that isn’t there in places where it normally is. Now, I don't think most people think, “wow, coronavirus is the solution to climate change.” But boy, that's pretty good TV. And it says, we can solve these problems. We want to solve this without it being about coronavirus—but this does mean there is proof, right? That if you stop running your engines as much, and you stop burning fossil fuels as much, some good may come of it. So let that be instructive to us.
EA: It's true, but I also see some of these stories about how coronavirus is cleaning our air as a smokescreen. Not to put it so literally, but a smokescreen to what is actually happening during the pandemic, which is that we're seeing all these regulatory rollbacks on climate at the state, local and federal level—and we're not actually seeing that much coverage on it from broadcast news.
AV: Network news has a smaller footprint. Far more viewers, but far less time to cover stories. And these things are definitely harder to get on network news. So I think that criticism is A) valid, and B) probably valid regardless because that's how these things slip through, right? That's what happens when we're all busy watching something else.
There are a lot of fronts on which [loosening regulations] can make sense [during a pandemic], but that can become a slippery slope. We may allow business owners with a slightly lower-than-acceptable credit score to get a loan during this time, because if they can stay open, they can pay 10 of their employees and that's money that's not going to be used for unemployment. There's a place where we might allow some like regulatory slippage.
But we have to come to terms with the fact that from a climate perspective, we’ve had decades of regulatory slippage. So we can't do that, because the regulatory stuff when it comes to climate change is the absolute lowest hanging fruit. That's the easiest stuff that we can do to get better. Even if we do all the right regulatory stuff, we still may not get to where we need to get. So we need behavioral change, we need scientific development, we need media change. But the regulatory stuff's easy. So my attitude is let's not break that.
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EA: We have this one crisis, coronavirus, that's threatening to kill millions of people. And by loosening regulations to deal with that, we're worsening another crisis that threatens to kill more people. So in my mind, as a journalist, climate change becomes more newsworthy right now than it was before.
Do you consider climate change more newsworthy or less newsworthy than usual right now?
AV: I'm going to give you a very different answer to that. And that is because I'm a economic and financial journalist. And the one thing that I have been frustrated by for 25 years is that stupid Dow.
The economy is such a complicated thing, and it affects people in ways that are much more sophisticated than whether the Dow was up or down 500 points. But because we have a chart, a board, a scoreboard, basically we talk about the Dow and economic numbers which come out all the time. And some are really important. But there's one that we report on all the time: The unemployment number once a month. And people get very attached to this moving number and then they get obsessed with it.
Now the good and the bad about coronavirus is that there's always a chart. If you look on TV, you know how many people have it worldwide, and how many people have died. Unfortunately, it's the way we tell stories, and there's some real science to the idea that people gravitate toward colors and numbers before they gravitate toward words. And so we see these numbers, and as a result we fixate on them.
We can't, in fairness, do the same thing for climate. Because the things that will kill you from climate are making some other underlying that you've got worse. Unlike Colonel coronavirus, but we don't have some scoreboard over a shorter period of time. Which again, cable news is all scoreboard over a short period of time.
So one of the things I find most informative and helpful on climate, is not just the great journalism and an in-depth work that goes on, but the interactive stuff that shows people, “what will happen if you do this,” and “what will happen if you don't do this?” What are the actual effects? That's what we haven't been able to do clearly. In other words, is there a way I can have climate coverage that I can drop in no matter what else is going on in the world and make that connection?
If we had a climate scoreboard—are things better or worse as a result of something that's going on right now—that would be great. But we don't think that way. It's not in our DNA enough in mainstream media to automatically say, what's the effect on climate? In the same way that I can look at anything in economics, I can look at any event and say, this is going to be bad for this company or good for that company. I can't do that yet with climate.
EA: It's even hard for me at this point. I felt like I was really confident about how to make most stories really easily into a climate change story. And now with coronavirus, it's easy to see the parallels—but you don't yet have widespread public acceptance that you should be talking about this.
Plus, there's a large, well-coordinated campaign to get people like me to just stop talking about climate change right now, that it’s insensitive. That’s coming straight from the president—and it's really hard to counter that narrative if you're just, like, an independent newsletter writer. It’s also hard if you're sad. And I feel like everyone who cares about climate change has a level of empathy where they're all just very sad right now.
AV: Yeah. So this actually goes full circle to a question you asked a while ago. It may be easier to point out to people why certain politicians are taking that stance. Because that might be the thing that triggers the outrage, right? The person who still can't figure out anything about “parts per million” or “degrees centigrade” might still be able to figure out corruption or influence. Anybody who lived through all those years when they told us smoking was okay, they will start to understand that this is just a machine, and that machine is designed to roll over people like Emily Atkin. I mean that's what it's designed to do, right? It's mostly designed to run over people like you. And if it runs over me too in the process, that will be good.
But if we can silence the voices that dig deep, then we win this battle. And that does resonate with my viewers. So where they may not understand science, or where they may not make all the connections, it definitely does resonate with them that someone is up to no good.
But again, it leads you to this whole problem where you probably thought smarter people than you are in charge of this; that they'll do the right thing. And now you are clear on the fact that that's just not true. They—whoever you think “they” are—are not going to fix this, coronavirus. And they—whoever you think “they: are—are not going to fix climate change.
So the takeaway for a human consumer of media today is, no one will save you. There is no one coming to save you.
This is work for adults. You actually have to figure out what the right things are. We are in a world in which there is no time now for us to look for the leaders who are going to save us. So we have to look elsewhere. The evidence is there, it's available. You could subscribe to your newsletter. There are lots of books you can read. You helped me when I was preparing for that presidential forum to say, who should I be talking to? What should I be reading? What should I know? What questions should I ask? That is the work of all of us now. Me as a journalist, yes. But it's all of our work.
EA: I feel like one of the other really important things is just recognizing the importance of basic science literacy. Science isn't a subject that we all need to know about, but it is something that we need our leaders to have a certain respect for.
I spoke with the director of Harvard's C-Change Institute for the podcast, and he was talking about how washing your hands isn’t going to prevent the next pandemic. What's going to prevent the next pandemic is addressing biodiversity loss and the causes, which include climate change. And I'm being told this direct, scientific connection to the question that we’re all asking, which is, “how do we prevent this from happening again?” And he's just saying climate change. And I'm thinking, “why don't I see this anywhere?”
AV: We’re not even there yet. We're having weird arguments that don't even settle how not to spread coronavirus from one person to the next. We're having arguments about the cure being worse than the cause, and opening up on a certain date, which was supposed to be Easter Sunday.
I'm on your side on this one, but you're asking a lot. You're asking for people who are not going to have fifth grade science conversations to be having PhD science conversations. I'm with you, as we're thinking about how we're going to vote, whether it's gonna be mail in voting and term limits and campaign spending. I wish there were some kind of a thing about the scientific literacy that should play a role in our governance or at least the running of our government agencies.
But we are very, very, very far from that. And I never used to think that was a bad thing, because I used to think government by the people is about people making the right choices and finding the experts who can inform them on whatever topic they need to be informed on. What I didn't realize is what happens when you actually get ignorant, right?
We talk about developing herd immunity to a disease. We're developing herd ignorance. It's spreading at such a rate, and all you have to do is go on Twitter and type in “Corona virus hoax” or “lie,” and you will see the rate at which the media has bounced around on this thing and not told the right story. And unfortunately too many of our people get their information from either cable news or social media.
EA: Are you telling people to not watch your platform??
AV: No, I want people to watch my platform. I don't think you should only watch my platform. And I don't think anybody should take anything I say 100 percent. I think if I saw something interesting on the new, and you think I'm telling you the truth, then you need to look that up and you need to have sources that you would go to because anybody who thinks I know what I'm talking about is misinformed. I try to know what I'm doing. But this is harder than what guys like me should understand. So all I can do is point my viewer in the right direction, that this study was done by so-and-so. This article was written by so and so and you'll hear me say that on TV.
I often say it, and I've said it about you, that people should follow you on social media because you need to curate your own life so that your life is not in danger. And unfortunately, this explosion of social media in the last 10 years has created a world in which your life is actually endangered because you've curated bad information.
I just saw a quote from financial times saying that coronavirus is going to put a pause on anything climate related and in the policy discussions, climate's probably not going to be mentioned for the next six to 12 months.
EA: Has there been any story that you've done that’s climate-related during the coronavirus crisis that you've found has particularly resonated with your audience members?
AV: It's analogies rather than stories, right? It's how people tell the story. So Jake Ward, who is our tech reporter, is really great. He sort of explains it like, an inch of water can sink a battleship. You wouldn’t think it can, but it can. And that's what climate is. It's the inch of water. It's not the tsunami.
One of the points that you make a lot is that we should all be doing lots of good things by the earth. This is a multi-front battle. But without dealing with the fossil fuel part of it, you can do all the other right things and you still won't get there, and I think that's the really hard one for people to understand because the fossil fuel companies have done a really good job. I'm really amazed by them actually, and somewhat impressed, at their ability to convey the message that they're on the same side as the rest of us are. They too think that there should be a carbon tax. They too think that we should tax fossil fuels at a higher rate. But they've worked it all out in a way that still will not fundamentally change the way we consume. And that I don't know that my viewers like the idea that they're being fooled. But they certainly deserve to know that they're being tricked.
If you don't fix the coal and the oil and the natural gas, it's not going to stop the end of the world. It will not stop us from heating up. This starts and ends with us taking this very seriously, just like we are thinking we should do about coronavirus.
So the takeaway might be that when space becomes more available for this conversation, we can start to convey to people: “You know how bad that was? That thing we just went through? That's what climate change is going to do. Times 10. It’s just not going to look as obvious to you as that one. Just look.”
EA: The one thing that I've been thinking about a lot is summer. It’s coming. That means hurricanes and wildfires and flooding. I can't imagine how this will play out if we're still in a situation like we're in right now.
You were an extreme weather reporter for a long time. So I'm wondering if you're thinking about the upcoming hurricane season and climate change and coronavirus coverage, and how you're thinking about approaching that as a journalist when it comes along.
AV: That's a good question. I've actually talked to my bosses about this, because you know the estimates for hurricane season have come out and once again they are estimated to be more severe.
We also know that climate and coronavirus affect the poor more than they affect the wealthy. That’s why this doesn’t get fixed. When rich people's houses get burned down or destroyed by hurricanes or flooded, stuff happens. Things change, code changes, buildings are put on stilts, plumbing is checked, all sorts of things happen. But because this happens to poor people as much as it does, it doesn't actually influence thought.
I think that does come down to inequity. If you have money, you can mitigate these things for longer than if you don't have money. And that part of the conversation is here, and has not been squeezed out by coronavirus. It's actually been underscored by coronavirus, that poor people who live in dense populations who don't have choices, don't get to stay home. They will die at a higher rate and they don't seek healthcare. That story is another way to tell the story of climate.
So if it happens, we're going to have to cover it this year, and I will be at the front end of that, but we have to start to remember the through line to all of these stories is still inequity.
EA: What are you learning about these stories from covering both? Has coronavirus influenced how you think about climate change at all, or has climate change influenced how you think about coronavirus at all as a story?
AV: Both stories have influenced me, but maybe coronavirus will influence my climate reporting more, in that we know, in the end, there are rights and wrongs. This coronavirus story has shown us that this wasn't inevitable. This didn't have to happen the way it happened. And we continue to hear from the administration that they did the right thing from day one. But we know they didn't do the right thing. And so it becomes very easy to call a spade a spade.
And coronavirus has made that very easy and that instinct, I think it needs to stay with us for climate. We've all gotten there. You were there before. Some of us were, but many of us have gotten to the point where, let's just be honest about what this conversation is.
This was not inevitable. It's not that nobody knew that climate change was a bad thing or that it was happening or that burning fossil fuels was going to be the case. Let's just be honest about it. Now let's call out those who weren't honest and let's hold those to account and let's support those who will hold them to account.
If coronavirus had never hit America, it would never have been a mainstream story. But it became our story. So you can call it the Wuhan virus if you want, or the China virus. But it is our story now. That's the same thing with climate. It is our story. It's not a fringe movement. You can discount the people who are the messengers of it all you want, but the fact is it's here and it's all around you.
Coronavirus allowed us to say to our viewers after every press briefing, that's just not true. You were just misled. And their bad actions have led to these outcomes. If we treated climate the same way, imagine if we were on a regular basis able to say that's not true. That's misleading. And that information has led to these outcomes. So it might give us a purity of thought around climate that I'd like to try and apply once we get a bit of an opportunity to do so.
EA: I like that optimism and I liked that you came on here and shared it with us. Thanks for doing climate reporting on television. It's really cool to see and thanks for coming on this podcast and talking about it. I appreciate your insights.
AV: Well, you have made a lot of us better and smarter and keep doing it and thank you for all you doing. We'll get this right eventually.
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