Listeners of WNYC’s daily program The Brian Lehrer Show say they’re limiting their use of plastics. They’re using bamboo toothbrushes. They’re making their own coffee with a French press. They’re purchasing reusable cups. It’s all part of Lehrer’s #PlasticChallenge, which he launched last week in tandem with the global journalism initiative, Covering Climate Now.
“A rap on climate talk is that it’s boring, that it can be technical, doom and gloom without a lot of solutions and remote from people’s lives unless you were caught in the middle of something, that it’s abstract and a remote threat for the year 2100. Judging from the demand to get on the air by callers and participating in the #PlasticChallenge people were really engaged,” Lehrer told CNN Business.
WNYC is one of more than 300 media outlets that have agreed to use the lead-up to the UN Climate Action Summit on Monday to elevate stories about the climate crisis. Covering Climate Now is spearheaded by progressive publication The Nation and by Columbia Journalism Review, which billed it as “the biggest effort ever undertaken to organize the world’s press around a single topic.” Soon after Climate Change Now launched in April, The Guardian also joined the effort as a “lead media partner,” and newsrooms have been signing on ever since. The partner list includes wire services, photo agencies, newspapers, magazines, digital outlets and individual journalists.
Scientists and media watchdogs have long criticized news outlets for failing cover the climate crisis prominently.
“Reporters and their news organizations sidelined climate stories as too technical or too political or too depressing,” wrote Kyle Pope, CJR’s top editor, and Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent. “Spun by the fossil-fuel industry and vexed by their own business problems, media outlets often leaned on a false balance between the views of genuine scientists and those of paid corporate mouthpieces.”
But that is changing with Covering Climate Now. Editors and reporters across local, national and global newsrooms in radio, online and TV told CNN Business they have been investing in more climate crisis coverage. The commitment to promote climate stories with the #CoveringClimateNow hashtag started on September 15, but many news organizations hope to stick with it long past Monday’s UN event. One reason is the readership and engagement from audiences have increased.
Vox Media’s Alissa Walker, the urbanism editor for its real estate vertical Curbed, told CNN Business she saw an “uptick in traffic” late last week when the outlet shared stories with the #CoveringClimateNow hashtag on social media.
“As recently as two years ago, putting ‘climate change’ in a headline guaranteed that no one would read it. But that’s definitely changed,” Walker said.
As part of the initiative, reporters for Curbed wrote features about how the building industry contributes to the climate crisis and how the Green New Deal would affect design and architecture industries. They updated Curbed’s list of “101 ways to fight the climate change” and covered the climate strikes in cities like Chicago, D.C. and New York.
Local outlets investigated stories that specifically affected their communities. The San Francisco Chronicle’s coverage included a feature on California farmers adapting to warmer weather. The Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton, Massachusetts, published a story about the county’s air quality rating. The Toronto Star’s participation included a two-part series on differing climate crisis policies in Canada’s federal election campaign.
Kenyon Wallace, an investigative reporter at the Toronto Star, said the paper “jumped at the chance” to be part of Covering Climate Now so their climate coverage “could reach even more readers.” Earlier this year, the outlet ran a 16-part series titled “Undeniable,” which included stories about permafrost, wildfires, droughts, record temperatures and rising sea levels, he said.
“There are, no doubt, more stories that will be on our radar given that we live in a country that in some areas is experiencing warming as much as three times the global average,” Wallace said.
On Monday, participating outlets not only covered the UN Climate Action Summit in real-time but also continued to publish new original pieces. DCist published a story about D.C. educators who are bringing the climate crisis topic to the classroom. Vanity Fair on Monday published an interview with former New York Times science reporter Tatiana Schlossberg about her new book on the climate crisis. Meanwhile, NowThis live-streamed Monday’s summit and shared videos of activists like Bill Nye, Greta Thunberg, Hannah Mills.
Bloomberg started prepping their stories for Covering Climate Now about six weeks in advance and released what would typically be a month’s worth of features and analysis in one week, said senior executive editor John Fraher. The outlet has already been covering climate through the lens of business for years.
“We talk about climate change as this thing that’s going to happen in the future, if we don’t cut emissions, but it’s happening now and that’s changed how businesses are thinking and acting. It’s becoming more and more important to our readers. You can see that in the readership numbers,” Fraher said.
The New Republic also increased its cadence of climate stories from about two to three stories per week to at least one per day, according to executive editor Ryan Kearney. He said their most-read story was a deep dive into what life would be like if one of the five models by climate scientists was accurate. The writer, Emily Atkin, recently left a staff position of The New Republic to start a climate-focused newsletter called Heated.
“This week is a good example of what it’s going to be like going forward. This will probably be the minimum expectation that we’ll have a climate piece a day,” Kearney said.
For WNYC, the initiative not only inspired the outlet to cover more climate stories in the future, but it changed workplace behaviors. On September 19, the office held a celebration where the invite requested people bring their own reusables. Going forward, that’ll be the case for all meetings and events.