Promoting a New Conversation on Climate Change: The Human Story

During a recent event, hosted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, journalists from The New York Times Magazine described the urgent need for a new, more effective conversation around climate change — a moral story, focused on humans, that currently isn’t being told.

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

We know about the politics of climate change. We also know the economic story, the technology story, and the industry story, Nathaniel Rich, writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine told a Yale audience this month.
“Those are all critical to understanding how we got here,” Rich said. “But what about the human story?”
On Aug. 5, the magazine published a special issue dedicated exclusively to climate change.  Through a combination of striking photography and historical reporting, the issue, “Losing Earth,” aimed to spark a new conversation about climate change that will reach more audiences and have longer impact than the usual journalism project in which something published today is replaced by another issue tomorrow.
On Sept. 10, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting hosted a discussion between three key contributors to the issue: Rich, photographer George Steinmetz, and Jon Sawyer, founding director of the Pulitzer Center. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the YPCCC, moderated the event.
The overall message of the evening was the importance of writing about the subject of climate change in a new way that will more broadly reach the public at large.
We’re talking about nothing less than the fate of civilization, all we love and all we are.
— Nathaniel Rich, The New York Times Magazine
Both Rich and Sawyer addressed one criticism with current reporting on climate change: it has fallen into a remarkably consistent narrative that is “undergirded by activist impulse.” Climate change is the only social issue in which there is an expectation for the writer to motivate the reader to act in one way or another, Rich said. While there is value in activist journalism, he emphasized this is neither the traditional nor most effective way to approach journalism. Rather, a writer’s responsibility is to delve into these areas of moral uncertainty like climate change to help direct the public towards thinking about these challenges, he said.
A key challenge in altering public perspective on climate change is finding ways to make the issue relatable to people. Steinmetz, a field photographer for National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine, uses visual images to engage the public on climate change. In “Losing Earth,” he intentionally captured images where relatable things (cars, swimming pools, neighborhoods) are juxtaposed with expansive climate change impacts (forest fires, floods, or melting glaciers).
The panelists agreed the climate change movement needs a moral framework for how the public thinks about the issue. Major social changes tend to be powered by a sense of moral purpose, Rich said; climate change is no exception. By framing a new conversation in “Losing Earth,” the panelists hope to incite conversations about many of the moral questions behind climate change on a broad public level.
“We’re talking about nothing less than the fate of civilization,” Rich said, “all we love and all we are.”
Watch the full panel discussion | Read the article, “Losing Earth.”
ypccc new york times pulitzer Jon Sawyer, left, Nathaniel Rich, George Steinmetz, and Anthony Leiserowitz.
Katie Bleau ’20 M.E.M. is a joint-degree student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Vermont Law School.