Environmental journalists have a new beat: Coping with climate disaster
As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the Connecticut coast late October of 2012 and Gov. Dannel Malloy pled with residents to find high ground, reporter Neena Satija couldn’t shake one thought: “We are clearly not prepared for this."
Sandy passed, and sheer luck spared the state the worst of its impacts. But did officials acknowledge the averted disaster? Not in Satija's view. “All of a sudden talk about vulnerability was over,” she recalled. “No one wanted to talk about what could have happened.”
So Satija took up the task herself. Then a reporter for the Connecticut Mirror and Connecticut Public Radio, she produced award-winning reporting on shoreline vulnerability as public housing residents nervously awaited the next storm.
But, as Satija later learned, the story of disaster sidestepped then forgotten is far from unique. In 2013, after moving to Texas to become an investigative reporter and radio producer for The Texas Tribune and Reveal, she heard nearly the same story about 2008’s Hurricane Ike.
Although Ike was the third most costly hurricane to hit the United States after Sandy and Katrina, little official action had been taken in its wake to ensure the state was ready for another big hurricane.
Again, Satija and her team dug into the story, this time in partnership with ProPublica. Hell and High Water, published in March, revealed that Texas remains unprepared for a major storm that could leave thousands dead and cripple Houston’s massive petrochemical industry. A second report, Boomtown, Floodtown, published in December exposes ways that Houston’s explosive development has left residents vulnerable to repeated floods.
Climate resiliency takes center stage
This focus on preparedness in the face of extreme weather puts Satija, and a cadre of reporters like her, on the forefront of an evolving resiliency beat, one that examines the ways societies adapt to the impending risks of climate change.
This emerging angle on the climate story comes as shifting political winds in the nation’s capital are moving away from easing global warming by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, some prominent news organizations seem to be back-burnering the issue.
Many communities are preparing for more frequent flooding and extreme storms, drought, wildfires and heat waves. Reporters, meanwhile, are picking up on the trend, with hundreds of examples of resiliency reporting to be found in recent months alone.
There have been international stories, such as a report from The World on how cities can learn to live with rising seas, regional stories, such as a Hakai Magazine’s report on how wetlands helped Northeastern states avoid damage from Sandy and local stories about cities like Charleston, S.C., adapting to climate change.
Resources have cropped up to help journalists and others become familiar with the burgeoning field. The Georgetown Climate Center, for instance, has an extensive website on adaptation policies, including a clearinghouse of state and location adaptation plans, and sections on urban heat, floods, transportation issues and green infrastructure.
A Reporter’s Guide to Climate Adaptation (which, full disclosure, I helped produce) was launched in late 2015 with funding from the Reynolds Journalism Institute, with a database of more than 200 government, academic and private sector resources. The guide also offers reporting advice such as an animated explainer, video tips on story angles, and regularly updated backgrounders on issues such as floods, droughts, wildfires, urban policy and adaptation funding.
Thousands of adaptation stories show up in climate news archives
While there’s little data tracking changes in the number of climate adaptation stories, some tallies are suggestive. For instance, adaptation coverage archived by The Daily Climate shows a steady march of such stories over recent years.
Between 2010 and 2014, for instance, Daily Climate tagged nearly 11,000 adaptation stories out of approximately 118,000 climate stories. Adaptation stories peaked in 2012 and 2013 in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, accounting for about 10 percent of all climate stories in those years.
Current counts are lower because of changes in methodology at the news service, said Douglas Fischer, the director of Environmental Health Sciences, the nonprofit publisher of Daily Climate.
But there’s been a trend toward more adaptation stories over time, particularly as the topic has become a major element in United Nations-led climate negotiations, Fisher said. This increase has also likely been spurred by readers, who are connecting climate change with the need for to prepare for extreme weather.
The biggest uptick may be yet to come. “I would expect [adaptation] to command a larger part of the pie going forward, said long-time environment beat observer Bud Ward, who edits Yale Climate Connections.
“Adaptation is much more often a local story, while mitigation is large ways a global story,” Ward said. “It’s the declining confidence that mitigation is going to get us far enough that leads to the likely upbeat in interest in adaptation. That’s heightened by election results.”
Research shows adaptation news has ‘healing’ effect
Ward’s news service is increasing its adaptation coverage in response to data that suggests many of those who are concerned about climate change are suffering from “issue fatigue” and worry their actions are too late or simply futile.
“We are seeking to engage them more,” he said, “and let the public know there’s lots going on in terms of adaptation. It’s a way to keep energized those who are concerned about issue.”
In fact, recent research suggests adaptation reporting may be a powerful way to reach news consumers on climate change while avoiding politicized responses.
One such national study (which I helped conduct) exploring the impact of climate reporting through an adaptation lens was conducted this spring by the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. Some 500 news consumers were asked to read and respond to a series of stories about climate change. Some were typical reports, while others used an adaptation “frame” that focused on impacts and responses to climate change.
The research found that adaptation framing had a kind of “healing” effect, encouraging news consumers to be more accepting of the idea that society must prepare for weather extremes and other possible climate disasters. Subjects also perceived adaptation stories to be less biased, and they also found the stories more credible.
The effects were more pronounced with climate skeptics, who saw adaptation stories as more affirming of their perspective, less biased, and more credible.
“You could not book a more powerful outcome,” said lead researcher Esther Thorson. “We found that if we don’t emphasize global warming, we focus the community on being prepared and reducing risk. Adaptation not only overcomes negativity regarding climate change, but really makes news consumers more hopeful about communities being able to modify things so that harm is lessened. That’s huge.”
“It’s also a good way to reach deniers,” Thorson said. “The research really does suggest a very strong and perhaps effective way of dealing with people where science disagrees with their politics.”
Pitfalls of climate adaptation reporting
Adaptation stories help journalists like Satija by allowing them to set aside arguments about climate change in order to address clear-cut impacts like rising sea levels. “In states where governors are questioning climate change,” she noted, “it’s a way to talk about climate change and have a meaningful conversation.”
She also sees adaptation coverage as part of a growing nexus of reporting beats. Rather than fitting within the traditional environment and energy beat, adaptation coverage meshes with urban and political reporting and topics like the demographics of affected populations, or impacts on agriculture and food security issues.
But there are also pitfalls aplenty on the adaptation beat. When Satija was reporting on Texas hurricane preparations, many potential solutions remained hypothetical, which allowed sources to avoid answering challenging questions. Meanwhile, they pointed their fingers at other stakeholders amid the gridlock, she explained.
To illustrate the real-world consequences of climate change, it’s important to talk directly to scientists who have developed climate-related data, she said.
“Get to know climate scientists who are studying your area,” said Satija. “Get as specific as you can about what can be expected in next five to 10 years or so, especially in coastal areas with sea-level rise, which is some of the most irrefutable data.”
Ward noted a broader challenge for reporters covering adaptation. Environmental activists used to scorn adaptation, saying it came at the cost of mitigation.
Now? “Adaptation’s no longer a dirty word in the advocacy community.”
But, warned Ward, it’s important for media not to treat adaptation as an alternative to mitigation. “Adaptation can buy us time and that’s important, but in the end there’s going to need to be mitigation as well.”
Ward also warned that media shouldn’t see all adaptation efforts as the same. "Some are small, relatively easy adaption measures, like local preparedness procedures to raise flood awareness or reduce the likelihood of wildfires. Others, he explained, are the most extreme form of adaptation, under the name of geo-engineering that seek planetary-scale action to address climate change.
Bottom line, said Ward, “If we’re entering a period of a declining U.S. role in mitigation, which appears likely, then there’s a great demand for adaptation to buy us more time.”
But he cautioned, “It won’t be enough. You can almost think of mitigation as offense, and adaptation as defense. It buys us time. But when you’re playing defense, you can’t score."