How to write about climate: Pull up a barstool
Climate change is an awkward fit for the conventions and institutions that make up today’s media.
There are a bunch of reasons for this, but the main one is that not much happens. Ecosystems change slowly and incrementally, on time scales much longer than those we’re biologically designed to heed. Climate processes unfold over centuries, millennia, whereas we’re primed to pay attention to what’s happening in front of our noses, or at best within our lifetimes. “The seas rose another .001 feet today” is not a story any editor wants to publish or anyone wants to read.
Climate politics is its own story, of course, and offers some day-to-day developments … but not many. U.S. politics addresses climate rarely, if at all, and when it does the results are, ahem, unenlightening.
All this means that it’s difficult to report on climate change. News editors want to know what’s new, what’s changed, and on climate, not much has. There are no crime scenes, no explosive revelations, no sudden shifts, just … PDFs. Lots and lots of PDFs. Climate change is just puttering along, moving at a pace that won’t mean much over an editor’s career but will profoundly reshape human habitats over centuries.
So it’s not much fun being a climate change reporter. Yet the public badly needs to hear about, and understand, climate change. So if not reporting, then what?
It seems to me what’s needed is more discussion of the meaning of what’s happening, the context, the forces at play, the narratives unfolding. The public — or more importantly, the subset of the public that is engaged, or potentially engaged, with these subjects — needs to learn about concepts, technologies, ways of doing things, ways of thinking about things, that are not familiar.
“Not familiar” is key here. The mainstream media, for all its talk of “objectivity,” is in fact incredibly biased in favor of the status quo, not just status quo powers but status quo narratives and frames. So anyone who’s going to try to help the public understand climate change is inevitably going to be in the position of an outsider. That adds a whole other layer of complications and tactical considerations.
What’s the best way to go about this? What’s the best way to write about climate and related issues?
From the time I first entered this field, I noticed a huge gap between wonks/academics, who release jargon- and chart-filled PDFs, and advocates/polemicists, who release propaganda. (I don’t mean that pejoratively; I just mean it’s explicitly designed to produce political outcomes.) Between those poles there is a large space for analysis, explanation, and argument, delivered by voices who (like wonks) are not forced by institutional commitments to “stay on message,” but who (like advocates) want to reach ordinary people. Independent thinkers and communicators — or, as they were once called, public intellectuals.
That space is well-occupied when it comes to, say, healthcare. Think of Ezra Klein. He’s not a reporter; he’s not writing in the voice from nowhere. He doesn’t pretend not to have values, preferences, and opinions. But his main focus is explanation. He elucidates complicated matters of healthcare policy and politics in ways that average, non-wonk readers can understand. He writes clearly, and fairly. His goal is to grow the pool of healthcare-literate citizens.
That space is much less occupied when it comes to climate. There are lots of wonks and academics, lots of advocates, but very few people who are (successfully) translating the issues so they are digestible by ordinary folk.
Why is that? My lay diagnosis is that most climate communicators originally approached the subject through science, or have scientific or academic backgrounds, or an interest in science writing. Much writing about climate is thus technical and dry; relatedly, most writers and advocates have been (and are) disproportionately obsessed with the “scientific consensus” and arguing with climate deniers. All of this is boring and off-putting to people who don’t approach it with similar scientific training or strong prior opinions about climate (which is most people).
I have tried, with varying success, to occupy that space. I have generally stayed away from science and instead focused on the social, political, and economic aspects of the problem. So, e.g., I try to explain discount rates, CBO scoring, the filibuster, risk-based decisionmaking, baseload power plants, and electric utilities. The stuff engaged citizens need to know.
Insofar as I’ve been successful at this — and jebus, you all have said so many nice things in the last few days! — it’s because of my secret formula. Since I’m leaving for a year, I’m going to share it with you. That way you can replicate me while I’m gone.
As I mentioned the other day, my entry into this field was rather idiosyncratic. I wasn’t trained in journalism or science or advocacy. Obviously that left me without the skills imparted by those disciplines (as many people have reminded me over the years), but it also left me without their preconceptions and dysfunctions. Instead, I was trained in academic philosophy, which is all about achieving conceptual clarity and constructing arguments. So when I approached these issues, it was all about breaking them down into their conceptual components, clarifying what the real disputes are, and making the case for my perspective. (Because I have argued in favor of some policies and positions, I often get accused of being an “advocate” or being part of a “team,” but unless you want to spend your life writing dreary, braindead “both sides are wrong, the truth is in the middle” pieces, you just have to live with that.)
Which brings me to my secret formula, which I call the Friend In a Bar principle.
When I write, I imagine that I am with a good friend in a bar. This is an intelligent friend, a generally knowledgeable and well-read friend, but a friend who doesn’t know much about the thing I’m talking about. I am trying to explain to my friend why she should care about this thing (say, discount rates). We’ve had a few drinks, so I’m feeling chatty.
If I were talking to a friend, would I adopt an “objective” tone, listing facts and citing sources in an inverted pyramid? No, that would be boring as hell. My friend doesn’t have to listen to me; it’s up to me to keep her from tuning out. Then again, would I just rant and rave about how long-term discount rates ought to be lower? No, that would be tiresome. There’s nothing worse than listening to someone get all red in the face about something you don’t particularly understand or care about. Would I speak as though I were some kind of Official Expert, standing at a podium and dispensing wisdom? No. My friend wouldn’t put up with that. She knows me too well.
So yeah, instead, I’d just talk to her. Not at her. To her. What I want, really, is to make discount rates interesting to my friend, to explain the context and considerations involved, so that she understands why the argument exists at all, the animating principles behind each side. I want her to see that it matters, that it’s lurking behind a lot of other stuff she already cares about.
I wouldn’t pretend I don’t have an opinion on discount rates, but I’m not looking for disciples, for soldiers in some discount rate army. Mainly what I want is to create someone else who cares about discount rates, so I have someone to talk to!
That’s the secret formula. I recommend it. And I mean really: When you write something, read it aloud and literally imagine yourself saying it to a good friend in a bar. When you speak to someone you know, someone you respect and who knows you, your voice has a kind of natural rhythm and variety. You instinctively know when you’re getting boring, or when you’ve droned on too much about technical stuff, or when you’re getting too pedantic or strident. You will know because, when you read it aloud, you will imagine your friend rolling her eyes.
And yeah, when you’re talking to a friend, you drop the occasional joke or curseword. Because that’s how people talk in real life. Not all Official. Just real.
Is this “journalism”? Hell, I don’t know. It’s not reporting. It’s not quite op-ed writing. It’s more … conversing. That’s what I’ve tried to do: draw people into conversations, enlarge the group of people aware of and engaged in this stuff.
I’m not arrogant enough to think my being gone will have any big impact on the world, but I do know that we need more people in that middle space, not wonking, not polemicizing, just musing and explaining and arguing and conversing. It’s what a healthy democracy looks like. I hope more people come in and occupy that space, and even more, I hope media editors and publishers see the worth in it.