Good Grief

Illustration by Sonia Pulido

In college, my professors taught me that journalism played an essential role in democracy by helping voters make informed decisions. Reporting meant making an impact. So when I was job-hunting and I saw an open position on the climate beat, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to make a difference. Climate change was a solvable problem, I figured. If I served readers the facts, my job would one day become obsolete, and the earth would be saved.

I started in November 2013 as a climate reporter for ThinkProgress, a liberal news site. My first assignment was about a prospective Senate candidate from Texas who said that global warming was God’s punishment for women who got abortions. Obviously, that was wrong; the guy was a dangerous idiot. But I kept those thoughts to myself. In order to be an effective reporter, I’d been taught, I couldn’t editorialize. So I kept my story dry. “The most recent report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed that ‘it is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature’ ” was caused by human action, I wrote. Then I added, “The report did not mention abortion.”

Over the next two years, I fact checked dozens of instances of climate misinformation without passing judgment on those who lied. I explained terrifying scientific studies without explicitly remarking that they were terrifying. I reported on environmental injustices perpetrated all over the country without saying that the victims deserved better. Even though I was writing for a progressive readership, my goal was to appear neutral.

But I was not actually neutral. Because in reality, I didn’t want climate change to get worse. I didn’t want people to suffer. Every time I didn’t say so, I felt like I was failing readers. In 2014, I covered a World Meteorological Organization report showing that carbon was accumulating in the atmosphere far more rapidly than expected. Once carbon concentrations reached a certain point, the report stated, the subsequent warming would trigger feedback loops of further carbon release and more warming, causing unpredictable levels of suffering for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations. “We must reverse this trend,” the WMO’s secretary said. “We are running out of time.” It was difficult to hide my sense of alarm.

I was also exasperated—a natural consequence, perhaps, of reporting on the willful ignorance of those tasked with solving a looming environmental crisis. Instead of preparing for climate change, state agencies were removing scientific information about it from their websites. Instead of trying to limit the damage, politicians were contriving ridiculous excuses—global warming couldn’t be all that bad, one argument went, since Mars was warming, too. 

Worst of all, readers didn’t seem to be paying attention. I knew my stories were about important problems, but they were rarely picked up by bigger outlets. My reporting never sparked activism campaigns or changed policy. I felt like a child drowning at a crowded beach as everyone ignored my screams for help. Was I not screaming loudly enough?

In August 2015, I cracked. Frightened about the climate crisis, pessimistic about the future, and self-conscious about my own ineffectiveness, I asked my boss if I could switch to politics. The answer was yes.

 

For the next eleven months, I traveled the country covering the presidential election, trying to reignite the spark that climate reporting had snuffed out. At first it was great. Political reporting was fast-paced and competitive. The subject matter was more wide-ranging. On my first trip to Iowa, I covered Ted Cruz’s promises to be “antiestablishment,” women’s-health activists throwing condoms at Carly Fiorina, and a Republican college student confronting Marco Rubio about climate change. Readers seemed to care about what I was writing. Traffic-wise, my stories did well. I received some nice emails.

After not very long, however, I realized that clicks weren’t a real measure of impact. Writing for ThinkProgress, I wasn’t changing minds; I was flinging fodder into the discourse of progressive rage. So in July 2016, when Trump became the Republican nominee, I took a political-reporting job at Sinclair Broadcast Group, which was known for leaning conservative and had stations in swing districts all over the country.

The job at Sinclair felt like an opportunity to move the needle on public understanding of many subjects, climate change chief among them. For months, I worked on a segment about how sea level rise was threatening Langley Air Force Base, in Virginia. I got several high-level military officials on camera explaining the threats to the environment. I interviewed a conservative think-tanker who admitted that sea level rise was a danger the military ought to tackle. But then I waited for viewers’ reactions, and they never came. 

When Trump was elected president, I was standing in Times Square doing a Facebook Live video about how tourists were reacting to the news. It felt just as pointless as any climate story I had reported. Fear about the future washed over me—fear not just for the climate, but also for democracy. For the first time in my adult life, I questioned the path I had chosen. A few months later, I quit Sinclair.

I needed to turn my despair into rage.

 

I knew the truth about climate change. And the truth was we were running out of time. America’s new president and the fossil fuel industry that helped elect him were content to allow people, animals, and ecosystems to suffer and die. Those people, animals, and ecosystems included not just the most vulnerable members of society, but me and the ones I loved most. The more I thought about that, the more I realized: I wasn’t depressed, I was angry.

I decided that from then on my reporting would be driven by passion, not obligation. With a climate change denier in the White House, a stiff presentation of facts would not suffice. I took a job covering the climate crisis at the New Republic, where I would have to learn how to bring my feelings to the page.

It felt weird at first when, in May 2017, I wrote an article calling Scott Pruitt, a Republican politician and the newly confirmed head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a “hypocritical liar.” My editor assured me that my terminology was okay—that’s what the facts about Pruitt showed, in the end. I got used to it. Over time, I felt increasingly confident about being a moral arbiter as well as an information gatherer. As I developed my voice, my climate grief regenerated as rage, and my writing became better, more honest, and more fulfilling. Plus, my work finally got noticed in high places.

Still, I didn’t feel like I was connecting to the general public—the New Republic is a high-flown magazine that can be inaccessible to many readers. And while I was commenting on other people’s reporting, I lacked opportunities to do my own investigations of the forces that made me so mad about climate change: the bosses, the wire-pullers, the campaign givers and takers. So in September 2019, I left the New Republic to start my own publication, HEATED.

HEATED, a daily newsletter, publishes stories about how the powerful fail the vulnerable. One story demonstrated the hypocrisy of corporations that claim to be climate-friendly while funding the reelection campaigns of climate-denying politicians. Another exposed the oil company Chevron’s suggested climate talking points for employees. An investigation into how an ad policy announced by Twitter in October would benefit fossil fuel companies sparked a national conversation; ultimately, Twitter changed its rules. At last, I had made a meaningful impact.

“Knowledge without anger can stagnate into mere cynicism and apathy,” Jack Newfield, the Village Voice journalist, once wrote. “Anger improves lucidity, persistence, audacity, and memory.” That’s how journalists of the past were effective, and that is how we will be effective now. Recently, I asked my readers to tell me why they enjoy or don’t enjoy HEATED. I got one hundred and eleven responses and compiled them into a spreadsheet. Eighty-four people, or 77 percent, said they appreciated a shift in tone about climate from dispassionate to passionate. Six people said that it made them feel “less alone.” In order to make an impact on climate journalism, I’ve learned, I need to turn my despair into rage. Only then can others feel the burning importance of the story.

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Emily Atkin is the author and founder of HEATED, a daily newsletter dedicated to reporting and analysis on the climate crisis. Previously, she was the climate staff writer at the New Republic.