Breaking the climate news bubble

With her new project Floodlight, Emily Holden hopes to bring hard-hitting climate journalism to the people who need it most.

A little over a year ago, a few months after I launched HEATED, I got invited to speak at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. They were holding a multi-day workshop for climate journalists, and wanted me to talk about my storytelling approach. When I got there, I was anxious; the imposter syndrome was real. So I decided to go to the hotel gym to clear my mind.

The workout I chose was straight-up stupid. It had a bunch of ridiculous-looking movements and I was trying to get through them as fast as I could. I remember it also involved sit-ups, because every time I got up, my back was covered in pieces of black material that had flaked off from the gym’s crappy yoga mat. I knew I looked absurd but there was only one other person in there. I figured there was no way she would also be at the workshop.

False! It was Emily Holden, The Guardian’s badass environment reporter. When I was finished, she turned around and said, “Hey, are you Emily? I’m Emily!” and I nearly died. For many years, Holden had existed primarily in my mind as “the other, better climate reporter Emily.” I say that not to disparage my own work, but to express how much I admire hers.

The next day, at the workshop for climate journalists, I was feeling annoyed. One of the speakers was telling us we needed to avoid making people uncomfortable if we wanted to be effective. Don’t call climate change a “crisis;” that could turn off skeptical readers. Don’t call lying politicians “deniers;” that will turn off conservatives. There was a preoccupation with converting people to become concerned about climate change (an activist’s job), and no focus on educating people to become more engaged and effective citizens (a journalist’s job).

I hated this, so I raised my hand and (politely) expressed it. The next hand that went up was Holden’s, and she agreed. Others did not, and the whole thing sparked a pretty fascinating debate in the room about what it meant to be a responsible, effective climate journalist. But overall, it felt cool to hear other journalists who I admired, like Holden, say firmly that it was not our job to tiptoe or handhold. As journalists, our job is to tell the story of the climate crisis, and tell it accurately. Period.

I tell you this story because, today, Holden is launching a new climate news organization called Floodlight—and the idea behind it is that, in order to engage more people on the issue of climate change, climate journalism must be more hard-hitting, not less. The other idea behind Floodlight is that, in order to engage more people on climate change, hard-hitting climate stories must be written for the most affected communities, and provided directly to them.

Floodlight’s first story, published today, is a partnership with The Texas Observer and The San Antonio Report. It’s about how Texas’s natural gas industry worked to stop meaningful climate policy across the state—and how the fossil fuel industry is using the same playbook to kill climate action across the entire country.

I spoke with Holden by phone last week about her new organization, and what HEATED readers can do to support it, if they’d like. Our interview is below, edited and condensed for clarity.

Emily Atkin: Where did the idea for Floodlight come from?

Emily Holden: I have wanted to do something for a very long time that would help local reporters connect with what's happening in D.C., and help their audiences feel like they're part of what's happening here. So last fall, I started talking with Alex Kaufman, who is our adviser and a senior environment reporter at HuffPost. And we started working on a model for sharing resources between local and national journalists, and bringing climate stories to totally different audiences.

We want to be able to reach people where they are, and explain why an investigation of corporate influence matters to someone living in Texas, or California, or Wyoming, for example.

EA: You’ve said you feel like the climate coverage we're doing on a day-to-day basis in Washington feels foreign or unrelatable to a lot of people. Where did that feeling come from?

EH: In my career in D.C., I've been at CQ Roll Call, E&E News and Politico, and I've worked in some of the D.C. bureaus for wire news services. We’ve had a really specific audience, which I've appreciated, of people who are already in this world who already care about these issues. Everyone from academics, to officials at big corporations, to people working in the White House.

I love writing stories knowing that they get to those people, but I don't feel like a lot of them have reached people like my parents in Louisiana. My mom cares a lot about conservation, and cares about her impact on the planet. She's eager to learn more. And there just hasn't been a lot to introduce her to why climate change is happening, why it's relevant to her, and who is keeping it from getting better where she is in south Louisiana.

EA: Was your mom part of the inspiration for starting Floodlight? Has it been hard to talk to her about climate change stuff?

EH: My family is definitely a part of the inspiration. My parents' house in Baton Rouge flooded in the freak rains in 2016. NOAA said that climate change increased the chances of that event by at least 40 percent, but still a lot of people where I am from don't see the connection. That's in part because many people in Louisiana are employed by the oil and chemicals industry, including my dad. 

It's taken my family years to recover. They just got their kitchen rebuilt a couple of months ago, and they haven't been able to cook many healthy meals until now. The house was their main investment for retirement. Insurance barely covered anything, so they spent a lot of their savings on the gutting and reconstruction. And they have both had health problems over the last few years too. The stress of the flood couldn't have helped.

I think when an event sets people back that significantly, they have a right to understand that it was exacerbated or caused by climate change. And they have a right to know that there are powerful interests in their community holding back the transition that would help to keep them safe. 

EA: What kind of stories do you think will galvanize people where they live? Because I feel like there are frequently big climate change stories running in local newspapers about all the terrible stuff that's going to happen in the community if climate change worsens. But eventually everyone forgets about that story.

EH: Our focus is on the corporate and ideological interests that are holding back climate action. Our first story is about how gas companies in Texas have been fighting back against climate proposals there. We got records showing how Texas Gas, the gas utility in Austin, really got involved in the process when the city was trying to write a climate equity plan, pushed back on the goals that would require it to sell less gas to buildings.

Then we looked around and realized the same story is happening all over Texas, and one of the other prime examples is in San Antonio. So we partnered up with The Texas Observer in Austin, and the San Antonio Report in San Antonio. And we were able to demonstrate how this is happening across the state.

And beyond that, there's a national element, because 12 states now have introduced legislation this year that would keep cities from banning gas hookups in buildings. Four states last year passed them. So it's very clear that this is high on the agenda for the industry, and it's just not getting talked about enough as it's playing out on the local level.

RELATED: The gas industry is doing the same thing in California—by claiming it’s racist to ban gas hookups.

EA: What are your goals for Floodlight in the first year?

EH: I hope that we have a solid set of investigations that can demonstrate to people where powerful influences are having the most effect on emissions reductions. And I want people to know that they can trust us as an objective, non-partisan source.

Floodlight is not an advocacy outlet. We do straight news work with traditional news organizations in local communities with people of all different political backgrounds. But we do feel very strongly that there are people working against fixing the climate crisis, and getting away with it because they're not getting any scrutiny. And so I hope that this year we have a body of work that can make those connections around the country. We really want to help build capacity for environmental work.

EA: I’m really glad you’re doing this. One thing I love about HEATED is the fact that I'm able to speak to so many people who are already concerned about climate change. But there has always been a feeling of, “I wish I could do more to reach people who are not already engaged on this issue.” But then I remind myself, “Not everyone can do everything.” So I was really stoked when you told me about this. Are you stoked?

EH: I might not sound like it because I have been working so much and I’m exhausted! But yes, I'm really excited, especially to get this first story out.

EA: Well, I will definitely let HEATED readers know when you are publishing stories in the future. But are there other things HEATED readers could do to support your project, other than just waiting for me to tell them about stories you published?

EH: Yes! We have information about this on our website, but we're really interested in hearing your leads on corporate and ideological influence where you are, if you see something happening, or if you’ve been trying to navigate it where you live. If you’re trying to make progress and getting held up; if you think you have traction; if there are a lot of people behind you. The places that really draw our attention is where there's an imbalance of power. So I'd love for people to send story ideas.

What I would emphasize the most is that we are we are a news collaborative. There's no reason that reporters who have totally different audiences should be competing. We should be working together.

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Catch of the Day:

Fish got so excited for Floodlight he passed out.

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