If 2018 was the year in which government inaction turned back the clock on climate change prevention, 2019 will be the year of the climate reporter.
Climate change can feel distant or close. When I moved from the heart of Manhattan to the wilds of the West Coast, climate change ceased to be an abstract political issue, and instead became something I witnessed every day: on walks through forests full of browning ferns, in dwindling waterfalls, and in the changing season of the salmon run. More recently, it’s turned up in the way my chest feels after breathing in the daily smoke of wildfire season, or waking up to find my kitchen counters covered in ash.
As journalists, it’s our job to give readers that sense of proximity no matter where they are, and in the coming year, more and more journalists will take on that job. Reporters who cover fires, floods, drought and heat waves will increasingly emphasize the role of climate change in these catastrophic events, and transform themselves into the front line of climate change reporting. Publications whose advertisers or traditions limit their ability to name climate change as a key factor in an ever-growing number of “natural” disasters will be outpaced by independent outlets and reader-funded publications that produce public service reporting on climate. The most exciting outlets will tell stories that shine a light on energy innovations, on brave politicians shifting their economies away from fossil fuels, on low-carbon buildings and sun-powered cities.
But don’t think the job is going to be easy: Reporting on both immediate losses and long-term dangers will challenge climate journalists both emotionally and intellectually. Journalists investigating government and business corruption on climate issues may find themselves doxxed and demonized by well-hidden corporate interests they are reporting on. To sustain themselves in the face of these obstacles, climate change journalists will need the full support of committed editors, as well as audience engagement and feedback.
As the impacts of climate change become more tangible and immediate, expect more journalists to enter the field. Journalism schools will need to complement training in investigative reporting tools with specific training in climate coverage. We’ll need reporters who know how to file freedom of information requests, read and grasp the nuances of corporate reports, check official numbers on carbon pollution and compare public corporate spin with shareholder reports. These climate reporters will need to read widely, keep current with science and track the politics of climate policy. Above all else, they will need to write well so that they can make complex facts accessible to a popular audience.
The journalists who take up the work of climate change reporting in 2019 will include some of these newly trained reporters, as well as many industry veterans who are tired of burying references to climate change somewhere in the footnotes of the latest weather or disaster report. At the very least, these reporters will create a public record of the business interests and government failures that have brought the world to the brink of climate disaster...but I hope for more.
In 2019 I hope for an explosion in climate change reporting that drives public awareness and encourages people to demand systemic change. I hope for climate change reporting that helps citizens see the connection between government inaction and the disasters that are now plaguing our coasts, and increasingly, our inland areas too. I hope for reporting that brings climate change so close that nobody can avert their eyes.