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Oct. 15, 2020, 8:30 a.m.

With Planet, The Atlantic aims to unleash its entire newsroom on climate journalism

“There’s a fair amount of climate coverage that is like a commuter leaning on their horn, in a traffic jam. It’s very loud. It tells everyone around them something they already knew. And, at the end of the day, nobody’s moved anywhere.”

The Atlantic launched Planet, a vertical and newsletter dedicated to climate journalism, on Thursday, calling the issue an “everything story.” The new section will serve as a guide to living through climate change, one that The Atlantic hopes can help readers make decisions about what to pay attention to when it feels like the whole world is on fire.

Like The Atlantic’s pandemic coverage, Planet won’t rely on a beat reporter or two; it’ll be a newsroom-wide effort that brings in writers across disciplines and sections. The 163-year-old magazine has earned many, many new subscribers during Covid-19 and the writers and editors who developed Planet say the time is right to bring an all-hands-on-deck approach to climate journalism.

The lead climate writer Robinson Meyer — who has also been keeping busy as a cofounder of COVID Tracking Project — said covering the pandemic has reminded him, again and again, of covering climate change.

“At the center of the pandemic story, it’s not science alone. Science is very important, but it’s not only science because knowing how the virus works isn’t enough,” Meyer said. It’s also not only an economic or business or geopolitics story, either. “It clearly has a core, but it to cover it well, and to understand it, you have to be thinking about all if it. I think the pandemic, to some degree, has trained us to think in this much broader way.”

As Meyer wrote in his introduction, Planet’s coverage will reflect the fact that climate change is no longer a distant threat to be avoided. It’s here, affecting our politics and economy and material lives:

We’ve made [Planet] because we recognize—as you might too—that climate change is the backdrop of our lives and one of the moral crises of the century, a globe-spanning force reshaping how we work, how we play, how we shop, and how we vote … We will cover climate change in the present tense—not as a distant threat, but as a force that is already reconfiguring business, culture, society, and life on Earth. This outlook doesn’t reflect our prediction about where the world is heading; we think a detached assessment of the facts allows for no other conclusion.

(One note: despite this assessment and press materials that call climate change “a moral crisis,” the magazine has yet to release a public pledge on company-level action. The Guardian, which we’ve called steps ahead of any other major news organization on the issue, has banned advertising from oil and gas companies, promised “sustained attention and prominence” for climate-related journalism, and vowed to overhaul their own operations to become carbon neutral by 2030.)

With Planet, The Atlantic wants to publish climate stories that’ll make you laugh — not just cry or rage. Meyer, again, in his introduction:

We will understand that climate change is too serious to be taken seriously all the time. When Justin Bieber plays a laid-off oil-rig worker in a music video, it is a climate story. When one in four childless adults say that climate change shaped their reproductive decisions, it is a sex story. And when the government of Tulsa, Oklahoma, repaints its giant downtown statue of an oil driller to look like Elon Musk, and then doesn’t even get the Tesla factory it was angling for, it is very funny, in addition to being a scandalously pathetic use of tax dollars.

There will also be a newsletter, The Weekly Planet, written by Meyer and launching October 20. The two will speak to readers in slightly different registers. First, there’s the “big, bold, and beautiful landing page” with Atlantic writers thinking “critically and expansively” about climate, said managing editor Gillian White. On the site, stories — including the vertical’s first, a report by senior editor Vann Newkirk II on heat as a generation-defining human rights issue — will be given the “same treatment and gravitas” as the magazine’s flagship politics and ideas coverage, according to White.

The newsletter, though, will be written more conversationally, as though it’s advice or answers coming “from your really smart best friend,” she said.

“The idea of service journalism is not something we have traditionally run at headfirst but we’ve been talking about it a lot more,” White said. “It’s meeting the readers where they are. It’s asking the questions, doing the homework, trying to become some level of an expert by talking to the true experts, and then reporting it back to folks.”

It’s not hard to see why The Atlantic cast the clear-eyed and thoughtful Meyer in this best friend role. He’s been a climate reporter for five years, starting as a technology and science reporter who first jumped on the beat to cover the Paris Agreement. (At the time, in 2015, no one was covering climate issues full-time at The Atlantic.)

Meyer is calm but pragmatic — a good fit for encouraging readers to engage with journalism that can be, frankly, anxiety-producing. He’s not much for doom-and-gloom, as he told my colleague Laura Hazard Owen, and he’s less interested in instructing readers to be optimistic or pessimistic than producing original reporting on what is and is not helpful. (“You’ll see journalists say, ‘We’re all doomed. Is it time to just admit that we’re giving up?'” Meyer said. “I just think that climate change doesn’t work like that. There’s no giving up.”)

Some of the early failures of climate change journalism — taking oil company talking points at face value or framing scientific conclusions as debates in the aughts — have largely been corrected, Meyer said, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. “There’s a tendency to treat climate coverage as the broccoli of the news diet, super nutritious but you either try to hide it or shame readers into reading it,” he noted.

He’s also not fond of thinking of climate change as fundamentally a pollution problem, a framing Meyer characterized as advanced by climate activists and too easily repeated in ways that don’t reflect the world and its complexity by journalists.

“A lot of Americans still believe climate change to be a pollution problem that, if we just stop this this one particular pollutant or set of pollutants from spewing into the atmosphere, then we’ll solve climate change,” Meyer said. “It’s true in a literal sense, but it is not a pollution problem like with particulate matter or airborne lead or a specific toxic chemical that you can pinpoint at the source and which we know how to get out.”

“Carbon is the lifeblood of the economy,” he added. “We’re talking about running the Industrial Revolution over again.”

So there will be Planet stories centering scientists, yes, but also politicians shaping policy, regulators enforcing new rules, climate-themed scam artists, engineers who will plan new power plants, trade unions that will actually build them, and more. Although it might surprise some U.S.-based readers, there’s also been a fair amount of good news on the climate beat lately, including the cost-competitiveness of solar and wind power and China announcing a goal of becoming carbon neutral. (“There are a few necessary but not sufficient parts of solving climate change and that is a big one,” Meyer said of the latter.)

At the end of the day, Meyer sees original reporting — not commentary that underlines, again, that we’re facing a crisis — as the antidote to the inaction around climate change.

“There’s a fair amount of climate coverage that is like a commuter leaning on their horn, in a traffic jam,” Meyer said. “It’s very loud. It tells everyone around them something they already knew. And, at the end of the day, nobody’s moved anywhere.”

Illustration by Ian Smith used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 15, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
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