Covering Climate Now

Eric Holthaus v. the climate crisis

September 17, 2019
Eric Holthaus. Photo courtesy of subject.

“Right now I’m getting ratioed on Twitter,” Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist and climate journalist, says as we sit down for coffee on a late July morning. Holthaus, whose zealous reporting and commentary on the climate crisis has at times made him a polarizing figure, had recently criticized another Twitter user for planning a spur-of-the-moment trip from New York to Madrid. Where that Twitter user saw an opportunity for a discounted adventure, Holthaus saw a climate choice with rippling global repercussions. 

“This is just sort of my personality,” Holthaus says. 

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In April, Holthaus and activist Sydney Ghazarian published a memo in which they proposed a new media project that would “lift up diverse voices to tell the stories of a better future.” Currently, their unnamed undertaking lives in a Google Document whose contents include editorial principles; links to exemplary stories from publications including Grist, Jacobin, and Rolling Stone; and potential staff and coverage needs. In many ways it is less a business plan than a manifesto on climate-change reporting that accuses The New York Times, The Washington Post, and television networks of complicity with the fossil fuel industry and suggests an alternative: 

Ours will be a member-funded, member-driven, forum for reporting and analyzing the news, and imagining the future from voices that are systematically excluded from mainstream dialogue — especially Indigenous, women of color, people from the global south, anti-capitalists, and those living on the front lines of climate change. We will publish news articles, poetry, short stories, videos, memes, and podcasts that will be a worthy alternative to the voices that are working to erase our future. We will not be silent.

Ghazarian, a founding member of the National Ecosocialist Working Group, also helped start the Democratic Socialist for America’s Climate and Environmental Justice Working Group, an effort Holthaus covered for Grist. She frames their joint effort in solutions-journalism terms: the ways in which reporters cover the climate crisis, Ghazarian says, are critical to mobilizing positive change alongside climate action. “We see the scale of the crisis and the climate emergency,” she says. “But we see the other side too, which is an opportunity and a real moment for people to win—to make extraordinary changes that benefit not just the planet but people, too.”

Journalists, Holthaus says, are “essentially the gatekeepers of knowledge for society.” For Holthaus, that responsibility requires efforts such as the one he and Ghazarian propose; it also requires bucking the journalism establishment and the traditional practices the two find fault with—false balance, parachute reporting, and the notion of objectivity.

Mainstream journalism is already activist and political, Holthaus argues, ‘in the sense that they’re being activists for the centrist view. Either consciously or subconsciously, they’re choosing the keep things the way they are.’

For Holthaus, who recently joined The Correspondent as a climate reporter, the manifesto has been years in the making. He grew up in small-town Kansas where, he says, “pretty much all there was to do was watch the weather.” He attended St. Louis University, a Jesuit school, and took courses in philosophy and theology. “The motto of the university,” Holthaus says, “is ‘Be men and women for others’”.

In the mid-2000s, Holthaus enrolled in Columbia University’s graduate program in Climate and Society, where his work focused on predicting weather in the global south. He worked with subsistence farmers in Ethiopia to better predict rainy seasons to help them more effectively plant crops—an effort originally sponsored by Oxfam. He became disillusioned, however, when he realized the global insurance company that eventually took over the project hoped that participating farmers would buy crop insurance.

“Those five or six years were a great education for me as a rich white man to understand what the entire rest of the world is like, and also understanding that capitalism is sort of trying to get [to] literally the poorest people in the world, trying to extract money from them,” he says. “And I just couldn’t do it in the end.”

Around this time, Holthaus began live-blogging about hurricanes from his home in New York. “We had Irene and Sandy, back-to-back years,” he says. “So I ended up getting a big Twitter following, and then people started asking me to write more traditional articles.” Holthaus spent six years freelancing for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal, and two more on-staff at Grist, an independent news outlet covering and marrying climate, sustainability, and social justice.

In his decade or so as a journalist, Holthaus has realized that cramming science down people’s throats doesn’t work. “Effective writing and effective communication have to come from acknowledging your own perspective.” Holthaus’ perspective is clear: last month alone, he tweeted the phrase “We are living in a climate emergency” at least 20 times, not counting variations of the phrase. 

During our conversation, Holthaus raises the example of climate journalists traveling to places such as the Marshall Islands, which are rapidly sinking under rising sea levels while battling droughts and sustaining damage from powerful tropical cyclones, and reporting with authority on the country’s climate situation after spending only days there. (“Why not just have a Marshall Islands journalist who’s lived there, in that context, tell the story?”) When I ask Holthaus about the reactions he gets to his journalistic principles—eschewing objectivity, engaging the climate crisis in ways that may strike some as activist—he rejects their foundations. True objectivity doesn’t exist, he says, and mainstream journalism is already activist and political, “in the sense that they’re being activists for the centrist view. Either consciously or subconsciously, they’re choosing the keep things the way they are.”

At the moment, neither Holthaus nor Ghazarian is concerned about what exactly their proposal will produce. As it exists, it prioritizes function over form; it might yield an investigative project, a reality TV show, or something else entirely. Holthaus isn’t even attached to having a role in it himself. The document, he says, was a necessary provocation.

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