The Media Today

Q&A: The LA Times’ Sammy Roth on covering the climate front lines 

June 12, 2024
Sammy Roth poses with a Joshua tree while on assignment in the Nevada desert in January 2023. He was reporting on the tension between solar development and conservation on public lands. Courtesy photo.

In the summer of 2014, Sammy Roth started his first full-time reporting job, covering energy at the Desert Sun in Palm Springs, California. He had just graduated with a degree in sustainable development from Columbia University, where he was the editor of the student newspaper, the Spectator, and he found himself reporting at the forefront of renewable-energy debates; at the time, some of the first solar-panel power plants were being opened on public lands in the Mojave desert. After growing up in what he referred to as “the climate change era” of the Obama years, Roth was out in the trenches, mired in the nuanced arguments of how best to live on a heating planet. “I was telling stories that nobody else was telling,” Roth says, “because this wasn’t happening anywhere else yet.”

Ten years on, Roth is a climate columnist at the Los Angeles Times, where he writes Boiling Point, a twice-weekly newsletter that highlights recent climate-related coverage and offers insight into the impacts of climate change at the state, regional, and international levels. Roth also holds public officials and energy companies accountable for their decisions. He has reported on energy infrastructure, how the entertainment industry engages with climate stories, and investigations into the Imperial Irrigation District. (If you are not familiar, please look it up—the district owns Colorado River water rights comparable to those of Arizona and Nevada combined.) In April, Roth published the fifth installment of “Repowering the West,” a multimedia series investigating the tensions between renewable-energy projects and their opponents across the western United States. (The project won a Gerald Loeb Award last year.) 

Roth is also keeping a close eye on this year’s extreme weather events. Just last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a report stating that this year’s hurricane season was going to be “above-normal,” which the New York Times interpreted as a “dire warning.” Forest fires are already burning in British Columbia, sending smoke south into the US; over the past two weeks, a high-pressure system covering parts of Florida, Mexico, and the Gulf trapped unseasonably hot air close to the Earth’s surface, baking the region under a “heat dome.” In parts of Mexico, the record-breaking heat killed at least sixty-one people and caused howler monkeys to fall dead from the trees. 

A few days later, that same heat dome traveled north and west, settling over the southwestern US and setting record temperatures in Arizona, Texas, and parts of Southern California. At a Trump rally in Las Vegas, where temperatures reached a hundred and two degrees, the Secret Service reported a medical event due to the heat. (A week prior, eleven Trump rally-goers in Arizona had been hospitalized due to heatstroke. “Everybody was so worried yesterday about you,” Trump told the crowd in Vegas. “And they never mentioned me. I’m up here sweating like a dog.”) 

In LA, Roth was experiencing a hazy, colder “June Gloom”—but he was tracking the extreme weather that much of the country and planet is experiencing, or likely about to experience. Late last week, I spoke with Roth about having the confidence to include the causes of increased extreme weather in reporting, what political journalists get wrong when they “both-side” climate issues, and how even the best path forward for curbing emissions is frustratingly full of sacrifice. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

KL: We have already experienced quite a lot of extreme weather in 2024. What does the forecast look like for the immediate future and the rest of the season? 

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SR: You’ve probably seen the numbers as well as I have. Unbelievable. The last twelve months were the twelve hottest for each of those respective months on record globally, and we’ve just had eleven straight months that all came in above the 1.5 degree Celsius mark, relative to preindustrial levels. That doesn’t mean it has permanently broken the Paris climate accord targets; we’re probably going to dip below that level after we get through the El Niño [a weather pattern that indicates hotter ocean surface temperatures] that we’ve been in. But it’s pretty scary.

Was there ever a moment where you realized the full scale of what was happening with climate change? 

It was a slow dawning. This is something we need to get our minds and our politics and our democracy around: That is how climate change works. There are a lot of big scary moments, but it’s not one thing; it’s not Don’t Look Up, where a comet is going to hit Earth. It’s not a we win or we lose; it’s not a we’re doomed or we’re not; it’s not the ice cap melts and we die, or the ice cap doesn’t melt and we live. It’s gradual. It’s incremental. It’s 1.7 degrees is a lot better than 2, is a lot better than 2.3, is a hell of a lot better than 3 degrees of warming. It’s a compounding series of things that we do our best to slow and stop. 

How well are these instances of extreme weather being reported in terms of cause and effect, and as symptomatic of climate change? 

Better than they used to be. I used to see breaking news stories about extreme weather that made no reference to climate change. One thing that we’ve recently instituted at the LA Times is that, for a lot of extreme-weather coverage, we have these boxes that link to our previous climate coverage; if you see a heat-wave or storm article, it’ll take you to links explaining the climate connections and how this is related to emissions and fossil fuels. 

One area that can use improvement—and I continue to sometimes be frustrated with—is political journalists. I don’t see many instances anymore of political reporters quoting climate deniers without questioning them, but I definitely still see instances where, like, Biden will roll out a new rule to limit carbon emissions at power plants, and there will be some Washington-based political journalists who will say, Well, climate activists say this is great and the American Petroleum Institute says this is bad. And then there’s limited to no discussion about the reality of climate science and what scientists say we need to do to get emissions under control. That’s irresponsible. 

A few weeks ago, you wrote a newsletter that referenced a colleague’s reporting on the destruction of a grove of Joshua trees in order to build a solar farm. You grappled with the inevitable conflict between building greater green infrastructure and causing harm to the environment. In such circumstances, it seems impossible to make everyone happy. Can you talk about the nuance of that conversation? 

It’s fraught, because there are people who, rightfully so, care deeply about some of these ecosystems and landscapes that are getting torn up. It’s absolutely true that—to the extent possible—protecting an intact, biodiverse natural world is critical not just for Joshua trees and for tortoises, but for humans as well. We are part of these self-regulating systems that provide clean air and water and healthy soil. If oil companies hadn’t spent decades running these disinformation campaigns that have put us in this real bind—where we’ve got solar and wind and batteries at our disposal as our main solutions, and we’ve got to do it as quick as we can or we are in really big trouble—maybe there would be other ways.

Are there climate stories that you’re more or less drawn to? 

I try really hard to write about stuff that other people aren’t already writing about. This is maybe a broader journalism commentary and has probably always been true. But—with fewer and fewer journalists to go around—as tempting as it is to say, Oh, cool, that local reporter over there did this interesting story; I have a broader audience and I’m going to go write this thing and do a better job, there are so many stories that are going untold. It’s the old Wayne Gretzky quote about skating to where the puck is going. 

You have recently written about how entertainment companies have included climate change narratives in their storytelling—be it movies or even video games. What do you think is the most effective way to discuss climate change? 

It’s clearly more difficult to effect change with journalism than it used to be—because of the hyper-partisan nature of our society today, and just because it’s so much more difficult to motivate people through facts than it used to be. Our work obviously still has value—journalism is still central and crucial to a functioning, viable democracy—but so many people believe what they want to believe. What’s uniquely interesting about entertainment media is that it’s possible—by embedding messages in fictional storytelling in movies, TV shows, or even theme-park rides—to impart messages in a way that people aren’t prone to just reject out of hand. I don’t necessarily think it would be super valuable to go and make fifty movies or TV shows about climate change like Don’t Look Up; I don’t know how many [unmotivated people] saw that and said, Oh God, I’m a climate activist now. The way one production executive put it to me was hiding the spinach in the popcorn—you show a superhero driving an electric vehicle or taking the bus, or even a parent comforting their child after a storm. Putting factual, reality-based ideas into people’s heads that they might not reject in the same way that they would if they opened up one of my articles that talked about why we need to think about extreme storms—that is effective.

When covering extreme weather events, how do you avoid finger-wagging to audiences that are dismissive of any cause for alarm? 

I don’t think about climate deniers in my writing. Polling shows they are quite a small percentage of the American public: somewhere in the 10 percent range, depending on the poll. At this point, if you don’t believe that it’s happening and it’s caused by humans, you clearly do not want to be convinced. When I’m writing, I try to hit to the big part of the field, to use a baseball metaphor—you’ve got the climate deniers who aren’t going to be convinced on the one hand and the really hardcore climate activists and advocates who know what’s going on and are already working hard on it on the other; then you’ve got the vast majority of the American public, who know that it’s happening, but it’s not the first thing on their minds. When you ask what are the most important issues in this election, climate change shows up, like, twelfth to fourteenth; when you ask young voters who’s better on climate, Biden or Trump—one CBS poll showed that they were tied. I’m not saying Biden hasn’t made some poor decisions, but there’s not a comparison between Trump and Biden on climate. Those are the folks who I’m trying to reach. I’m trying to tell stories that put it front of mind and help them make decisions. 

What advice do you have for reporters who are not on the climate beat but who might be covering storms or heatwaves this year?  

I would say two things. One, between these big weather events, it’s worthwhile to take half an hour and find the climate scientists; there are lots of them out there. Find someone who’s willing to give you a quick primer on the overall state of this climate science/extreme weather nexus. You can get yourself a little bit up to speed; it’s not super-complicated. This morphs into part two of my advice, which is to feel comfortable knowing that there’s a really high level of confidence that climate change—caused by human emissions, largely by the combustion of fossil fuels—is driving worsening extreme weather. You can say that in a story. You can write a sentence or two—and you should write that sentence—making that connection: There’s a vast body of scientific evidence linking human-caused climate change driven by fossil-fuel emissions—or fossil fuel pollution, or however you want to say it—to more extreme weather events. Period. End of story. You don’t need to be an expert in climate science to tell people that.

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR’s new Election Issue, Linda Kinstler profiled the Center for New Liberalism, a “political group aiming to provide a home for Zoomer, Gen Z, and millennial voters who feel alienated by the Democratic Party’s progressive tilt.” Members of the group “are Biden’s fighters in the meme trenches, doing what they can to make his brand of politics trendy again, using the language of the internet to tell their peers that capitalism isn’t so bad, the system isn’t broken, and we should all, as a CNL sticker proclaims, ‘embrace the decadent opulence of modern capitalism,’” Kinstler writes. (Asked about the group’s use of the word “neoliberal,” one of its founders told Kinstler, “It’s the whole postmodern thing—you’re always steeped in irony, but you also kind of mean it.”)
  • Yesterday, a jury in Delaware found Hunter Biden, the president’s son, guilty on three charges linked to his purchase of a gun while he was addicted to drugs in 2018. In the hours after the verdict, several jurors spoke with members of the press (a marked contrast, as one analyst noted, with jurors’ silence in recent cases involving Trump); they insisted that politics didn’t factor into their decision-making, but disagreed on some aspects of the case. Right-wing media personalities were quick to spread conspiracy theories about the verdict, as CNN’s Hadas Gold reports. The mainstream press also devoted considerable coverage to the outcome—to the chagrin of various media critics.
  • The union representing staffers at the Baltimore Sun—which was acquired earlier this year by David D. Smith, the executive chairman of Sinclair, who has ties to various right-wing causes—raised concerns that the paper’s new owners have “tossed aside” its “ethical standards.” The union pointed to slanted coverage—including articles republished from a Sinclair station and an op-ed in which the paper’s co-owner likened the “transgender movement” to a “cancer”—as well as stories that have been changed without their authors’ permission. The Washington Post’s Laura Wagner has the details.
  • Amid a period of turmoil at the Post—where Will Lewis, the publisher, recently unveiled significant changes to the paper’s leadership and editorial structure, before becoming embroiled in a controversy over his interactions with journalists covering his past—Elahe Izadi and Sarah Ellison, two media reporters at the Post, ask what Jeff Bezos, the owner, really wants for the paper. They report that Bezos has been “closely engaged” with Lewis’s restructuring, even as the details “remain unclear to most in the newsroom.”

New from CJR: Neoliberalism had become a slur. A group of very online young politicos set out to change that.

Update: This article has been updated to clarify the frequency of the Boiling Point newsletter.

Kevin Lind is a CJR fellow.