NPR’s Year-Long Climate Connection Series: Focus on Climate Change as it Affects Peoples’ Lives

Four years ago, staff editors and producers at National Public Radio began plans for an expansive series of reports showing how climate change has worked its way into every aspect of life around the globe, from the poorest coastal citizen to the largest industrial leader.

Then Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and dominated environmental programming for months.

By spring 2007, NPR had regrouped to launch “Climate Connections,” an ambitious year-long series on how people have contributed to climate change and, conversely, how a warmer climate is hurting people on all continents.

The series began May 1 and is scheduled to go on for a year. Renee Montagne reported the opening segment, reporting from the Prime Meridian in the United Kingdom about the birth of the industrial revolution via coal, iron, and steam. More than 115 segments have since aired on “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” and the Los Angeles-based “Day to Day.”

The series shares material and web links with National Geographic, including a climate map and a “Green Guide,” a print version of on-air answers to listeners’ climate questions such as “What’s Greener, Flying or Driving?” (The answer: flying, but the train is even better.)

NPR spokeswoman Leah Yoon said that the stories are often personal narratives by reporters as they visit places like storm-ravaged villages in the Philippines, the warming Arctic, drought-parched Mali, industrial Japan, etc. Covering climate science as it affects people’s lives “was spot on,” she said. “We’re doing it differently than other news organizations.”

How much differently? Well, Laura Sydell’s September 3 feature on American car culture on the program “Day to Day” managed to mention family SUVs, the television show “The Brady Bunch,” the exploration of the frontier, and automobile emission standards. Her narrative included: “Getting on the open road with the family is in the American DNA” as she showed the ways American life leads to its elevated carbon emissions.

Melissa Block recorded the unabashed hoots of excitement of researcher Katey Walter as she discovered a bubbling area of methane gas on a lake where melting ice has released large amounts of this greenhouse gas. The feature aired September 10.

Madeleine Brand visited urbanized Japan, which has struggled to meet its own carbon dioxide emission goals but where citizens are famously frugal; one couple recycled bath water in the washing machine.

Two editors vet stories for “Climate Connections,” said one of that team, David Malakoff, editor/correspondent with the NPR science desk. He works with Alison Richards. Anne Gudenkauf, senior supervising editor of the science desk, has been particularly influential in creating the series.

“NPR wanted to take on a big and important topic in a new way,” Gudenkauf said in an e-mail response to questions. “We wanted to tell a story in all the ways now available to us – online, video, pictures, sound, words. We talked about many different topics over several months, and this one seemed the best of all.”

The two editors have met with reporters from every corner of each NPR show, Malakoff said. “We collected hundreds and hundreds of ideas. The stories have ranged tremendously.”

Not all environmental science stories end up in the series. A series on the coal industry ran as a business feature, for example.

Malakoff said they did not want to produce “the typical climate science story and policy story, ‘Intrepid scientist sets off into the Arctic.’”

Historical features can make a listener rethink history, as in the reminder by reporter Nell Greenfieldboyce in an August 13 feature that aired on “All Things Considered.” Author Mary Shelley was inspired to write the novel “Frankenstein” in the wake of the horrendous weather of the summer of 1816 after the eruption of Mount Tambora in what’s now Indonesia had altered weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere.

Narratives about today’s struggles are of course more common. Jon Hamilton visited Catholics in the Philippines for an October 16 feature in which the faithful and their bishop both said that God was not to blame for the devastating typhoon that had wiped out a village. Melissa Block captured the altered routines of whalers in Alaska for a September 17 segment on “All Things Considered.”

Every story grew out of an approach adopted by NPR after much discussion, Malakoff said. “The way we like to talk about it in the office is that if you put your climate colored glasses on and look around the world you start to look at the world differently,” he said.

NPR has avoided what long had dominated climate reporting: the old debate about whether it is real.

“We had to make a couple of basic decisions in the beginning,” Malakoff said. “Climate change is real and every evidence points to a human contribution. That freed us up in a significant way.”

How do the subjects of the features react? The University of Alaska at Fairbanks, where methane researcher Katey Walter teaches, put out a press release saying that the trip she made with NPR’s Block had revealed a more dramatic source of bubbling methane than Walter had expected to find.

Roland Hwang, vehicles policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, whom Sydell quoted twice in the September 3 car feature, said he was happy with the outcome. On the radio, his remark that all cars made today could be made more efficient with technology available to the carmakers right now closed Sydell’s segment.

“The NPR audience is a very important audience to us,” Hwang said. “The reports are typically fair and balanced perspective.”

From NPR’s Climate Connection series online, one can see all of the story titles and where and when they aired. From this page, people can listen to archived segments and subscribe to podcasts of current segments. The page
also includes print versions of some of the radio pieces and links to National Geographic, which is sharing links and information for the series.

National Geographic‘s blog on saving energy provides answers to NPR listeners’ questions through the “What to Do” sub-series of the Climate Connections features.

For answers to questions about climate change, try NPR’s Climate Connections.

Christine Woodside

Christine Woodside is a freelance writer living in Deep River, Connecticut. She is a regular contributor to The Yale Forum. (E-mail: christine@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @chriswoodside)
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