Burning Headlines Kick off a Climate-Coverage Campaign

by |September 17, 2019
newspapers burned and waterlogged

As part of the Covering Climate Now initiative, an art exhibit transforms climate-related newspaper pages to reflect what’s coming on a human-heated planet. Photo: Andy Revkin

As I walked into the Foley Gallery on Monday evening, I wasn’t sure what to expect. For several weeks, off and on, I’d been sifting for projections of the impacts of human-driven climate change in cities from Shanghai to Chicago, Cairo to Honolulu. A company that does window treatments for Macy’s and all manner of special effects for advertising (fake snow and the like) took inspiration from all that collected climate science, and “dressed” the front pages of several dozen newspapers to reflect what’s coming on a human-heated planet. Some of the pages were baked, others waterlogged, others charred, more appearing melted.

Finally, on Monday evening these pages went on display at the gallery, tucked among Chinese shops on the Lower East Side, for the kickoff of Covering Climate Now, a campaign designed to inspire, prod and otherwise convince news outlets big and small to dig deeper on the story of the century — but one that all too often hides in plain sight.

As I’d learned through hard experience writing on global warming since the 1980s, no story is a harder sell in a newsroom than the incremental, unevenly-distributed, uncertainty-laden consequences from accumulating emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide. Where’s the “front-page thought?” I’ve heard that question posed by more than one eye-glazed editor over the years.

The architects of the Covering Climate Now campaign are Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, and Mark Hertsgaard of The Nation, like me an aging lifer on the climate beat. They’ve rounded up more than 200 news outlets, from TV networks to large and tiny newspapers around the world, all pledging to run a burst of coverage starting this week ahead of the Global Climate Strike on Friday and United Nations Climate Action Summit on Monday. (You can track the coverage and related commentary through the #coveringclimatenow hashtag.)

The altered newspaper pages, especially collectively, did seem to grab and hold viewers’ attention. Each was accompanied by a short paragraph I wrote offering some of the data behind the art — gleaned from a mix of sources including the U.S. National Climate Assessment, a series of studies by Climate Central, and research by Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

charred newspaper

One of the altered front pages of newspapers from regions affected by climate change. Photo: Andy Revkin

One, for example was the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald from August 30, featuring the fire-charred headline “Energy Security Warning” atop an article about a debate in the state of New South Wales over the need for nuclear power to sustain the electricity supply.

Fire is in that state’s future, for sure. As I wrote in the page’s label: “From 1973 through 2010, the number of ‘extreme fire weather days’ across Australia rose at 24 of 38 monitoring stations. In the decades ahead, government studies project the trend, driven by hotter and drier conditions, will worsen most in the south and east — that includes the region in the state of Victoria where 180 people perished in an explosive outbreak of bushfires in 2009.”

Will this kind of display, or the media project itself, move the needle from inertia to action?

That remains to be seen. Particularly important with a complex challenge like climate change is sustained effort. The same is true for experimentation.

In some ways, I think artists have leaped ahead of journalists in finding fresh ways to engage diverse audiences on global warming. Consider the University of Minnesota undergraduate student Daniel Crawford, who turned 133 years of global temperature data into the solo cello piece “A Song of Our Warming Planet.”

And then there was John Allen, a conceptual artist (and a Hudson Valley neighbor of mine) who made an unnerving dynamic sculpture called “Pending” — a hammer that arcs upward every 20 seconds or so, then falls and taps a pane over the words, “Break glass in case of emergency.” I still chuckle when I recall him telling me how he tested it on his kitchen wall, to see if his brain began to ignore the tapping.

That tapping hammer is a decent metaphor for media coverage of climate change — so far at least.

The hard work by Pope, Hertsgaard and their team to build a sustained pulse of reporting is, in a way, just as much an experiment as artwork of this sort — including those burned, waterlogged, melted and bleached front pages on the gallery walls.

But without such experimentation and, particularly, this kind of interplay among the sciences, the media, and arts of all sorts, I wouldn’t bet on the impact of journalism over the next 30 years being better than we did in the last.

Andrew Revkin, a science journalist for 35 years, is the founding director of the Earth Institute Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University.

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