Five tips for localizing climate change stories

This column originally appeared in Navigator, GroundTruth’s newsletter for early-career journalists. You can subscribe to Navigator here

Samantha Fields is a GroundTruth environmental fellow. For the past six months she reported on the impact of climate change on Cape Cod for WCAI, the local NPR station in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. You can find her stories here.

When I arrived in Woods Hole in April for my reporting fellowship, my main focus was to look for stories on the human impact of climate change. In my research, I kept coming across articles about a series of late-winter storms that had hit Cape Cod back-to-back a month earlier. Nearly all of the stories  indicated these storms had been unusual, both in number and intensity, and that the damage had been significant. Many mentioned one town: Sandwich.

So I started calling around to people in Sandwich, a town that sits on Cape Cod Bay, along the edge of the Cape Cod Canal. Over and over again I heard the same thing from people there: In the last 5 years, there had been a shift in the climate — more storms, more intense storms, more erosion, more flooding, more flooding in places that had never flooded before.

That was how I ended up deciding to report several stories about Sandwich, and some of the questions residents were grappling with. Was it worth it to repair the town’s iconic boardwalk, damaged repeatedly by storms? Could they find $10 million to pull off a massive beach restoration project that would shore up the eroding dunes? Could they afford not to? What do you do when your oceanfront home is damaged beyond repair? How do you decide whether or not to rebuild?

These are all hyperlocal stories. But they are also stories about global climate change, and the real, tangible ways it is affecting one town, and the people who live there.

At an all-day workshop on “Telling Climate Change Stories That Matter” at this year’s Society for Environmental Journalists’ conference, Bernadette Woods Placky, a meteorologist and director of Climate Central’s Climate Matters program, said that for a lot of reporters, telling climate change stories “may be something you’re already doing. You just have to make the connection.”

How to do that? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Draw a clear connection in the moment.

The most effective time to report on climate change — the time when a story has the most reach and impact — is when something urgent is happening, like a major hurricane. Susan Joy Hassol, the director of Climate Communication, says that it’s valuable for journalists and meteorologists to make a point of explaining the connection between climate change and extreme weather events while they are front and center in the news, because once the danger has passed, fewer people are paying attention.

After the fact, draw the connection between climate change and the long-lasting ripple effects of a storm, like what happens to people who are displaced.

2. Report on what is happening now, in the place where you live.

Climate change is manifesting around the country and the world in many ways, some dramatic and catastrophic, others subtle and creeping. Paul Gross, a meteorologist at WDIV-TV in Detroit, who frequently draws the connection between weather and climate change for his viewers, says it’s important to report on the ways it’s affecting daily life in your community. One example he raised is something my co-fellow, Pien Huang, reported on on Cape Cod: how climate change is making allergies worse.

If you’re looking for data to help you localize different climate-related stories, whether on precipitation trends or longer pollen seasons — check Climate Central’s list of resources for journalists.

3. Find a local angle on big national and international climate change stories.

As Gross says, it’s important to localize climate change and make it feel tangible, Bernadette Woods Placky, of Climate Matters, says there is almost always a way to find a city or state angle on big international climate stories, like the release of the latest IPCC report on climate change. There is often also a climate change angle on stories that, on the surface, might seem unrelated — climate change intersects with so many other beats, from business to health to agriculture.

4. Make it accessible.

It’s important to think about how you’re using language, when you’re writing about climate change, says Susan Joy Hassol, of Climate Communication. It can be easy for journalists to fall into using language that scientists or lawmakers use, language that can be confusing or misleading for most people. And the last thing you want to do is confuse or lose your audience.

When you can, avoid jargon. When you can’t, explain it.

I did a lot of both in writing my fourth and final story about the town of Sandwich, and how it’s trying to combat its unique erosion problem. In working on that story, I encountered a lot of jargon. The coastal processes specialist using “escarpment” to describe the way the waves had carved away the dunes, and “groin” to describe short rock jetties. The town officials using “Section 111” as shorthand for a complicated study the Army Corps of Engineers is doing, and “nourishment” to describe a project that would completely rebuild both the dunes and the beach. I made a conscious effort to avoid the jargon, and describe both the problem and the proposed solution, as clearly and plainly as possible.

5. Find different ways in.

Climate change is still polarizing in many parts of the country. But even in places where a majority of people are not receptive to talking about climate change, they often are receptive to talking about solutions, like renewable energy.

Ultimately, Ed Maibach, professor at George Mason University, and director of the university’s Center for Climate Change Communication says, “the reality is, climate change has come home to roost in America. It’s happening here, now, to us.”