“Fix the Climate, or the Kid Gets It”

MoJo’s Copenhagen issue shoots for the big picture

A Friday morning headline in Politico noted that it’s “crunch time” for the climate bill currently underway in the Senate. By Friday afternoon, stories were rolling in about a speech that President Obama delivered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in support of the legislation.

Crunch time for hashing out an international climate treaty in Copenhagen is also rapidly approaching. Stories about both domestic legislation and the global pact (as well the connections between the two) have steadily, if not prominently, trickled through the media for months. As with Politico’s article, however, reporters have stuffed a lot of the coverage full of frustrating metaphors about a “flurry of activity” on the one hand, and an “uphill battle” on the other.

That’s not to say the blow-by-blow news reporting has lacked import or substance. If you’re an environmental politics and policy junkie, it’s like catnip. But those in need of a different flavor should turn to Mother Jones’s November/December special issue, “Climate Countdown.” Focused on the Copenhagen negotiations, which begin December 7, the package is a world tour of narrative climate journalism, intended to improve upon the scattershot nature of daily coverage. Asking themselves, “What can we do?” in their Editors’ Note, Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery write:

Journalists make lousy organizers – and there are plenty of activist groups out there. But what, at this critical juncture, is our profession’s task? If climate change is the most important story of our time, why is it being covered piecemeal: horserace politics over here, green activism over there, science and tech breakthroughs, business, urban planning all in their various corners? It’s journalism’s job to bring these elements together, to synthesize disparate data points and let the public and policymakers find the big patterns, bigger pitfalls, and biggest opportunities.

That is indeed the right height for the journalistic bar. Whether or not Mother Jones’s special issue clears it is a matter for debate, but you have to give them credit for trying. Unlike many special issues, the relevant material here runs nearly to cover-to-cover, comprising ten features and essays plus a number of interesting sidebars.

It kicks off with a call to action from author and climate campaigner Bill McKibben. His essays have become a requisite part of magazine specials on climate and the environment, almost to the point of tedium. But his organization, 350.org, is planning a day of “international climate action” on Saturday, October 24, which will feature rallies and a variety of unusual publicity events. McKibben was also around for the Kyoto Protocol negotiations in 1997, so although there is nothing terribly new in Mother Jones for those familiar with his work, his insights are nonetheless timely and relevant.

It will be far more interesting to see what kind of coverage McKibben produces on the ground in Copenhagen. He is part of a three-person team the magazine is sending to the big event in December, including its Washington, D.C. bureau chief, David Corn, and reporter Kate Sheppard. Mother Jones promotes the trio in its special issue (and solicits financial support for them online), saying it will “team up with Grist and other news organizations … to track the lobbying and deal making.”

Such partnerships are becoming the norm in journalism and could prove to be an effective strategy for covering what’s sure to be a veritable circus in Copenhagen. Incidentally, this is the same strategy that Mother Jones applied to the creation of its special issue, which features the work of five separate outlets.

The Climate Countdown package is predominantly U.S.-centric, although one of its best pieces is a dispatch from Brazil by the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Mark Schapiro (who has also worked with CJR). He spent some time in the state of Paraná fleshing out the “byzantine politics of paying countries to save trees.” REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries) will be a hot topic in Copenhagen, Schapiro notes. His expedition to Brazil revealed that implementing the plan has many inherent difficulties, however, from oversight to the ways it will impact locals who depend on the forest for food and shelter. (A shorter and somewhat redundant story in the special issue points out similar problems with forest preservation projects in Malaysia.)

Another one of Mother Jones’s better offerings comes from New Zealand, from whence one of its editors, Rachel Morris, files an interesting tale about climate refugees from Tuvalu. The rising sea threatens to subsume their small, Pacific-island nation, just as it does to the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Relocating the residents of such places will surely a be topic of debate in Copenhagen, but, as Morris reports, many people resist emigration or have trouble assimilating to new homes.

Unfortunately, there is less to praise in the stateside coverage in Mother Jones’s special issue. Although they are interesting stories in their own right, two long features—one about river floods in Alaska, the other about medicinal mushrooms in Washington—have only the most tenuous connections to climate change and really nothing to do with any specific issue that will be addressed in Copenhagen. A third feature, about the growing dustbowl in California’s Central Valley, is more on track, but misses some of the nuance present in a similar story in the current issue of The Economist.

All criticism aside, however, the narrative writing in Climate Countdown is a welcome departure from the relentlessly short and rapid news stories that crop up daily in the press. In an effort to draw attention to the issue, Mother Jones printed four different covers, each featuring a different child making a different entreaty (via voice bubble) to address climate change—and readers can go online to make customized covers featuring their own kids (or pets) and messages. The editors admit it is a “hackneyed publishing formula” that hearkens back to a 1973 National Lampoon cover that read, “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.”

Mother Jones’s twist is, “Fix the climate, or the kid gets it.” Given the brouhaha this week over Rush Limbaugh comparing New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin to jihadists willing to dispatch child suicide bombers in support of their cause, it’s a somewhat ironic message choice. But, whatever. Go buy the magazine. For all its ups and downs, it’s worth it.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.