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"Climate Change: The Story About Everything"

New York Times reporter Coral Davenport speaking at the event "Controversy! A Reporter’s Perspective On Global Climate & Energy Debates."
Benn Craig

"Climate Change: The Story About Everything"

A Discussion with New York Times Reporter Coral Davenport

News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

February 18, 2016

Author: Casey Campbell

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Environment and Natural Resources

 

For journalism, the 21st century is an era where public trust drops yearly, and reporters face competition to reach a growing Internet audience. Adding these challenges to a beat as controversial and global as climate and energy policy creates a job that seems near impossible.

The New York Times’ Energy and Environment Correspondent Coral Davenport confronts these challenges head-on by covering environmental policy in a way that goes beyond the conventional boundaries of Washington-based reporting to the larger, all-encompassing impact of climate change issues on a human and dollars-and-cents scale.

“Climate change is a story about everything,” Davenport said at a recent Harvard Kennedy School seminar that drew a standing-room-only crowd. “There’s nothing that climate policy doesn’t touch. A few groups lobby against things like health care. Hundreds of groups want a say in climate change policy,” she said.

The talk, and following question and answer session, was co-sponsored by the Belfer Center’s Environment and Natural Resources Program, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics & Public Policy, the HKS Sustainability Initiative, and the HKS Energy and Environment PIC (Professional Interest Council). The event, which attracted nearly 80 students, faculty, HKS alums and members of the Boston community, is part of a long-running speaker series “Climate, Energy & the Media,” noted ENRP director Henry Lee.

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“I invited Coral because she is one of the most respected and prolific reporters in Washington DC covering controversies in the policy and politics of climate, energy, and environment,” said ENRP Senior Fellow Cristine Russell, a science journalist and organizer of the series. “She came to the New York Times only two years ago with an in-depth knowledge of these issues and a fresh journalistic approach to making this meaningful on a human level.”

Davenport explained how climate change used to be perceived by the public as a distant problem, one that would only affect the Arctic and the survival of polar bears. Through her reporting, she showcases how climate change is impacting people now, combining the policy with personal stories. In a topic that can often be muddled with numbers and scientific reports, Davenport emphasized her constant objective to publish climate stories that seem more immediate and closer to home. For example, she noted that one story focused on a struggling local business in Miami affected by storm surges and sea level rise.

Of course, stories that link policy to a real face are not likely to convince the most serious climate change science deniers. There is a large group, including both members of the public and Republican 2016 presidential candidates, that still questions the “established science,” a term Davenport uses in much of her reporting. To address this group, she chose to write a story not on the results of recent climate research but the methodology of the scientists behind it.

Her in-depth report, “Greenland is Melting Away” not only puts a face to the NASA-funded scientists studying the Greenland ice sheet but also shows what this team risked to carefully measure the degree to which climate change is happening here and now.

In her first-person story, Davenport follows a team researching the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. The scientists spent 72 hours on the ice in a mission that could have cost them their lives and sacrificed their own hand and foot warmers to help keep the batteries in their equipment alive. Davenport also described how they would urinate in bottles in their tents and then place these bottles inside their sleeping bags to keep warm.

“To me, this seems like a lot of work to fake data,” said Davenport. “What we ended up with was a story that brought the reader to Greenland. It wasn’t about the end result. It was about the process.” The multimedia story included not only photographs but also the first footage from the Times’ drone, as well as in-depth graphics to help visualize the story.

Following the publishing of this story, Davenport attended the most significant climate event of 2015: the December United Nations’ COP21 Climate Conference in Paris. Russell described the importance of knowledgeable coverage by reporters such as Davenport, who specializes in the policy side of climate, energy, and environment while other Times reporters do the in-depth science.

Davenport came to the Times in December 2013, from the National Journal. Previously, she reported for POLITICO, Congressional Quarterly, and the Daily Hampshire Gazette, in Northampton, Massachusetts. From 2001 to 2004 she was based in Athens, Greece, where she wrote stories on economics, terrorism, the environment and the 2004 Olympics for several publications, including the Christian Science Monitor, USA Today and CondeNast Traveler. She is a graduate of Smith College.

“Journalists writing about climate have been forced to understand not only the science and the impact of climate change but the political side as well.  Most importantly, in the past five years, climate change has increasingly emerged as one of the most important global issues,” said Russell. Davenport also spoke to her HKS class on “Controversies in Climate, Energy and the Media.”

Davenport concluded her talk with a look into the future, especially how climate change will come up in the 2016 presidential election. She reminded the audience of the breadth of this issue and how it will continue to grow in the interest of policy makers and the public. “I feel less like I have to fight for space on the front page or make my stories interesting,” she said. Instead, Davenport worries about finding enough “time to write all the stories out there.”

 

For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

Campbell, Casey. "Climate Change: The Story About Everything." News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 18, 2016.

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