We need big-picture climate stories, now

Americans are losing interest in the climate crisis. Newspapers have a responsibility to wake them up.

If I worked at a Serious Major Newspaper or Magazine, I would be pushing hard this week to have editors assign a major, big-picture cover story about coronavirus and climate change.

The headline would be “Climate Change, a Deadly Crisis, Accelerates Amid Pandemic.” Or maybe something lighter: “Two Crises, Both Deadly, Collide And Ruin Lives.”

Clearly, this wouldn’t be a feel-good story—but what even is a feel-good story these days? I personally feel best when I know how my greatest adversaries are trying to destroy me. And that’s what this story would do, by compiling and contextualizing all the devastating climate-fueled weather disasters and alarming climate-related scientific findings that have reared their heads over the last six months.

It’s weird that we haven’t seen a Big Serious Newspaper story like that yet, right?

This week seems as good a time as any. The dramatic wildfires in California and Colorado and the wildly active hurricane season in the Atlantic provide a pretty undeniable news peg. A reporter could explain how the economic and health impacts of all that put pressure on the pandemic; then she could do the same for this year’s record-breaking heat waves in the West; devastating wind storms and flooding in the Midwest; the alarming recent breakdown of Greenland’s ice sheet; the recent science showing more people may die annually from climate change than all infectious disease by 2100; and each major climate report issued this year. The list goes on and on.

Indeed, it seems like the perfect time to reveal the cumulative health and economic toll climate change is taking on America as it struggles to contain the COVID-19 virus by talking to victims and researchers across the country. They could also put that suffering in the context of the upcoming election, too, and provide a clear-eyed look at what must be done to prevent it.

You might be wondering: Emily, why don’t *you* just write this story? That’s fair, but a truly good story quantifying the acceleration of climate change during the pandemic would be both a financial undertaking and a time-suck, requiring in-person reporting in disaster areas. This is also what Serious Major Newspapers exist to do—in-depth, big-picture reporting about majorly consequential national and global events.

This newsletter’s audience is also made up largely of people who are already very concerned about the climate crisis; who already know that Shit is Fucked; and who enjoy putting pressure on mainstream institutions. Y’all know I think you’re great, You’re not the target audience.

The target audience—the people who need big-picture climate coverage most—are those who’ve forgotten about the climate crisis because of the coronavirus. Which is to say, many people.

According to a recent survey by Harris poll, concern about climate change has plummeted since the pandemic struck, going from number one issue to the second-to-last. A study published recently in the Journal of Experimental Psychology also indicated that people are no longer as interested in climate change as they once were. “With a global pandemic monopolizing news coverage,” it says, “searches around environmental issues have plummeted to new lows.”

There’s an obvious, easy fix for this: just connect climate change to the coronavirus. It’s not like there aren’t countless opportunities. Yet our biggest news institutions aren’t often doing this, and certainly not in a big-picture way. In major newspapers, climate-related stories are for the most part episodic—that is, they center on only one weather event or study. Often, their episodic coverage of individual extreme weather events doesn’t even mention climate change.

Twitter avatar for @DavidLWindtDavid Windt @DavidLWindt
Not one of these articles on the #California wildfires mentions climate change, global warming, or fossil fuels. #EndClimateSilence
nytimes.com/2020/08/20/us/… sfchronicle.com/california-wil… npr.org/2020/08/19/904… mercurynews.com/2020/08/20/how… ImageImageImageImage

David Windt @DavidLWindt

#California: "Evacuations widened in the San Francisco Bay Area overnight as wildfires ringing the region scorched hundreds of square miles of land, edged toward San Jose and produced perhaps the world’s worst air quality." https://t.co/L5uAYRDm93 https://t.co/vkUfCFOqUA

It’s understandable, then, why episodic climate coverage in Serious Major Newspapers and Magazines probably no longer feels relevant to many people. If the weather event isn’t affecting them, and it’s not directly connected to the pandemic, their attention span is limited. That’s why we need well-written, zoomed out, devastatingly comprehensive accounts of how climate change is worsening the pandemic and our lives right now. Our mainstream newspapers and magazines have a responsibility to provide it.

This isn’t to say there hasn’t been good big-picture climate coverage in our most respected print and digital media outlets during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s simply to point out that there hasn’t been nearly enough. But we’re at a place where all the elements for good Big News stories are out there. Hopefully we’ll see them start rolling in soon, from outlets with the resources to do them well.

In the meantime, below are two recent well-done examples of big-picture climate change/coronavirus stories from Serious Major Newspapers and Magazines. Read them, but more importantly, share them—because if you want to get people to care about climate change, talking about it is one of the most effective things you can do.

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