At the end of March, Columbia University awarded the 2011 Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism to New York Times reporter Justin Gillis for his ongoing multimedia series, Temperature Rising, examining the fundamental tenets of manmade climate change. Articles in the series, most of which appear on the front page, provide in-depth, back-to-basics assessments of global warming’s effects on glaciers, forests, food supply, weather, and more, and Gillis often follows up with more details on the Times’s Green Blog. Following his latest A1 story, about the strange run from hot to cold temperatures in recent weeks, CJR’s Curtis Brainard talked to Gillis about staying focused on a story that’s lost traction elsewhere in the media.
How did you become interested in climate change?
It was a direct consequence of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship I did during 2004-2005 academic year, where you take classes at MIT and Harvard. I was covering genetics and biotechnology for The Washington Post at the time, so I was thinking I was going to study biology and educate myself in the field I was covering. But when I got there, no one could talk about anything but climate and energy. So I started taking classes and the more I learned, the more I thought to myself, “This is the biggest problem we have—bigger than global poverty. Why am I not working on it?” From there, the question was, how do I get myself into a position to work on the problem? That ultimately led me to leave the Post and go to the Times because the Times is just better positioned cover the issue.
The Times launched Temperature Rising as climate coverage was in overall decline following the Climategate affair, the fruitless UN climate summit in Copenhagen, and the failure of climate legislation in the US. What inspired the paper to double down?
It was more or less a direct response to Climategate, which led to a lot of questions about the science. One was forced to read the e-mails and ask, “Do they suggest any sort of scientific misconduct?” As we studied them, it became clear to me that they didn’t, so we asked ourselves, “How do we respond in this situation when the evidence is all pointing in the same direction?” Points of contention exist within the science, as they should, but not about the basics of whether we have a problem. So, we asked ourselves, “What can we do to take readers back to square one, and can we better explain the underpinnings for this claim that we have a problem?” That’s when we decided to launch the series. The problem then and now is that it’s such a big topic that you’re really pushing the limits of what’s achievable within the frame of a newspaper story. But we decided to see if we could push those limits and give people climate change in bigger doses that might make more sense to them than the kind of incremental, he-said-she-said way the issue had traditionally been covered.
Has it worked?
It’s gotten a lot of reaction, certainly. Every single one of these stories has climbed pretty high, if not to the top of, the Times most-e-mailed list, which is an indicator of the level of public interest. They’ve also drawn scores—hundreds sometimes—of comments. The reactions are somewhat predictable. You have the diehard climate-change deniers who come out of the woodwork with every one of these stories, and sometimes we take bullets from people on the left who say that we’re not politically correct enough or that we should never quote skeptical scientists at all.
To me, the most interesting reaction has been from college professors writing in, saying, “We’ve never seen newspaper stories like this and we’re using them in our classes to teach students the basics of environmental science.” That’s been a gratifying reaction, and interesting to me. I think what it’s telling us is that there’s so little out there that’s accessible to people who don’t already understand the issue.