Why we need climate writing today more than ever
January 17, 2020
We have a joke in climate communication that once you’re in, you’re in. When you spend all day researching and writing about climate change — a.k.a. the greatest threat ever known to humanity — no other field compares.
To go into another field would be akin to Superman shedding his cape for glasses, his flying for faxing: “Oh, saving the world? That was something I used to do, but it got old.” Like Superman, climate communicators know this field will never get old.
Climate writing is a field in its relative infancy, a response to tumultuous and unprecedented times: Humans have never faced a dilemma as complicated as burning fossil fuels, a practice that has uplifted humanity and destroyed it at the same time. We have never before been tasked with, well, saving ourselves from an existential threat like climate change.
Of course, to say that climate writing is akin to “saving the world” is hyperbolic. But what’s true in this superhero metaphor is that climate communicators are trying to carve out a living doing something to better humanity: in this case, informing the public about climate change and then empowering them to do something about it.
That’s why climate writing is so important. We need communicators to cut through politics, science, jargon and denialism and make sense of it all. Without climate writers, we’d be a lot worse off than where we are — which is already a real bad place.
Climate communication challenges
Climate writers get to talk to experts, scientists, executives and entrepreneurs. We get to write about research and people that literally change, and hopefully save, the world. As effective climate action must be intersectional, effective climate change communication must also address many fields. This all-encompassing aspect of climate writing makes it both interesting and challenging.
Climate communicators must decipher the jargon, tables and graphs, experiments and the highly specified and sometimes abstract world of science. At the same time, they must consider the far-reaching political, social and economic impacts of climate change.
Climate writers must also cut through the politics of science and climate change — and yes, there are politics. As science writer Jaime Green notes, “Science is political because politicians hold the power to make meaningful change… All the individual actions in the world can’t save us. Science is political because it demands action from power.”
So, how we respond to climate change is political, and how politicians discuss it is, as well. Good communication, therefore, must walk the fine line between providing facts and narratives to inform and drive political action while side-stepping accusations of partisan rhetoric.
Perhaps the largest barrier to climate communication is human stubbornness. Our brains are wired to ignore looming, distant threats, and we’re very reluctant to change. But climate change requires a complete rethinking of our society.
“There is simply no way to square a belief system that vilifies collective action and venerates total market freedom with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that created and are deepening the crisis,” writes Naomi Klein in her latest book On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.
Climate communicators must break through not only this stubbornness but also acres of confusion and climate science misinformation that have been sowed by corporations like ExxonMobil. Big Oil and its investors have spent the last 30 years fueling misinformation campaigns around climate science, hiring the same PR teams that defended the tobacco industry in the mid-20th century.
These tactics weaponize facts and feed confusion and overall distrust in science. When applied to climate change, this confusion creates potentially devastating impacts: Just as millions have died from delayed action on cigarette regulation, millions will die in the next decades from delayed action on climate change.
And if we ignore science altogether, we create new problems. One notable example is the false association between vaccines and autism. Though the scientific community has discredited this claim, unvaccinated children still lead to avoidable outbreaks of disease.
One of the first things I learned in my professional writing master’s program was the power of writing. Just as we need good climate writers, we need ethical climate writers that truthfully disseminate knowledge. As writers and journalists, we have a responsibility and obligation to the public.
The world needs climate writers
The good thing about climate writing is anyone can do it. Research a lot, read a ton and work on your craft, and you’ll get better every day.
But to be good science communicators, it’s not enough to just get the story right — we also need to keep people reading. A big challenge of science writing is explaining a complicated topic in a way that is accessible.
That means we must tell an engaging story, possibly the most important rule of any writing. People like reading about human stories and experiences, as it allows us to connect at the most basic human-to-human level — if people feel personally connected to something, they feel more inspired to defend it. When that happens, people can start changing their own behavior, or better yet, take action.
Anything we do, any fraction of a degree of warming we avoid, will save the extinction of millions of species and immeasurable human suffering. Good climate communication — and writing — will be a one of the many things we need to curb greenhouse gas emissions, push us toward a more sustainable future and, ultimately, save humanity from ourselves.
In 2020, let’s keep the momentum going by investing in the next generation of environmental writers and communicators. This month, Earth Day Network’s campaign Foodprints for the Future is hosting a journalism contest.
Each winner and a guardian or guest will receive a trip to Washington, D.C., that includes transportation and lodging to participate in Earth Day 2020 activities on the National Mall on Saturday, April 25, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. This includes backstage passes to the anniversary concert on the Mall.
Pave the way for youth voices in the media and the environmental movement and set us on a course for a sustainable future by submitting an original essay, podcast or video.