News & Politics

NPR’s Plan to Make You Care About Climate Change

Photograph via iStock.

A poll published last month by the Pew Research Center reported that going into the 2016 presidential election, the top six issues on voters’ minds are the economy, health care, terrorism, the federal budget deficit, foreign policy, and immigration. Running seventh, with 55 percent of those surveyed rating it as “very important” to their vote, was the environment.

“Environment” is a catch-all term here, but it rounds up concerns about runaway climate change, which a separate work of Pew research found to be the “top global threat” in July, though not in the United States, where it ranked behind ISIS, Iran’s nuclear program, economic instability, cyberattacks, and Russia. But with President Obama and other world leaders headed to Paris on Novemer 30 for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, NPR News will attempt to get more people to pay attention to what the Pentagon calls an “urgent and growing threat” to national security.

Starting Wednesday, NPR will throw teams of reporters from several different broadcast titles at climate-change stories leading up to the Paris conference. The coverage will include reports on the daily Morning Edition and All Things Considered broadcasts, episodes of the Planet Money podcast, interviews on Here & Now, visually driven stories on NPR’s website, and a one-hour special the week the conference begins.

We very much thought as this enters the overall news cycle, it’ll be good to give our audience a whole set of timely things so they can make their own judgements whether Paris is a success or failure,” says NPR News Exexutive Editor Edith Chapin. “We thought we’d use a reasonable amount of time in the front end to give you a user’s guide to everything they’re talking about.”

While Chapin says “people can form their own judgment” from NPR’s reporting—which she says will be a blend of politics, business, and science—it is difficult to avoid the topic’s urgency. A UN report released in 2014, the hottest year on record, suggested the effects of global climate change may already be “irreversible.” Meanwhile, 2015 is on track to set a new mark the hottest year since weather records started.

Chapin concedes that even NPR’s audience, which tends to be more educated than most groups of news consumers, is probably rusty on climate issues. The UN’s 1997 climate summit in Kyoto, Japan, produced a global treaty that foundered after the United States failed to ratify, while a 2009 meeting in Copenhagen is widely remembered as a failure. In terms of news cycles, even six years is an eternity.

NPR’s climate stories won’t be a bunch of pedantic wind-ups to the conference, though. The coverage will start on tomorrow’s Morning Edition with the first installment of a five-part report from Lourdes Garcia-Navarro on the ongoing deforestation of the Amazon and how that ecosystem could be nearing a “tipping point.” Garcia-Navarro’s series will be paired with an online package featuring original photography and data visualizations that will be made available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Chapin says other far-flung NPR reporters will file dispatches from China, India, and Indonesia, among other places, as the Paris conference approaches. Planet Money, the economics podcast NPR produces in conjunction with Chicago Public Radio, will do an episode on whether carbon-offset credits—clean-energy units people and businesses can buy to negate the pollution caused by their energy consumption—are actually helpful.

We’re trying to pull a lot of different threads to leverage our reporters,” Chapin says. “When NPR is at it’s best, it’s giving you context and taking you places.”

The political stories might be the trickiest to incorporate. While 74 percent of Democratic voters profiled in the October Pew survey cited environmental concerns as a top issue in the 2016 election, only 37 percent of Republicans said so. Climate change has been mentioned very sporadically at the three GOP presidential debates so far, with most leading candidates denying that it is a man-made effect. (Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, the current Republican frontrunner, responded to a question about climate change in October by talking about daily weather fluctuations and pondering the origin of gravity.)

Still, Chapin says NPR’s approach will not treat climate change as a strictly political issue but a global one. “We won’t ignore that there’s a political debate in this country,” she says. “In terms of the rest of the coverage in the coming days and weeks, we need to cover all of those areas in some fashion. You should feel you should have a well-balanced meal.”

All Things Considered anchor Ari Shapiro will host the one-hour special set to be broadcast the week of November 30. Individual stations will choose when exactly to broadcast it, similar to what NPR did in September with a Steve Inskeep-hosted special about the nuclear-inspection agreement with Iran. (WAMU aired that one September 17.) And once the conference begins, Shapiro will lead coverage from Paris, along with Paris bureau chief Eleanor Beardsley and science reporter Chris Joyce. The UN summit is scheduled to run through December 11, and NPR intends to be on it the entire time using resources from its political, business, science, and foreign teams.

It’s designed to have a life so it’s not dated by the second week of Paris,” Chapin says. “It might not make sense three months for now, but it doesn’t date after 24 hours or two days.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.