In Climate Coverage, Reporting the Grim Facts, but Also the Fight
A Times journalist distills the recent U.N. report and talks about how he treats a beat that can get more than a little gloomy. explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together. The United Nations recently released a major concluding that a hotter future is certain but that there is still a chance to prevent the most dire outcomes. , a climate reporter for The New York Times, says there is a consensus among scientists on what must happen to limit global warming: Nations need to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. In an interview, Mr. Plumer, who focuses on the policy and technology efforts to cut carbon dioxide emissions, discussed the significance of the U.N. report, how he approaches a subject that can be upsetting to readers and his own environmentally conscious efforts. This interview has been edited. Halting further emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, particularly from fossil fuels and deforestation, is , and it means rethinking so many fundamental aspects of the modern global economy, from the cars we drive to how we produce food. So Im drawn to writing about people trying to figure out the best ways to get to zero emissions, as well as the huge structural challenges standing in the way. Weve known this report was coming for some time. Every few years since 1990, the U.N.s Intergovernmental Panel on has put out comprehensive assessments of the latest science around global warming, which means essentially summarizing thousands of existing studies into a coherent picture. This was the sixth such assessment, and hundreds of scientists had been working to put it together for months. For , we were able to get our hands on a few early drafts that allowed us to figure out what was new and noteworthy here. And my colleague and I called up a number of scientists beforehand to get a better sense of how climate research has advanced since the I.P.C.C.s last big assessment in 2013. That early prep work helped us write an initial version of the story ahead of time. Then, when the panel released a finalized embargoed draft to reporters three days before its release, we could quickly check our facts to make sure we hadnt missed anything big and then called up more authors for official comment. In a lot of ways, the overall picture on climate change hasnt shifted much since the first I.P.C.C. report in 1990. Scientists have been warning us for decades that emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation can and will warm the planet, with damaging consequences. But a few big things are different now. First, global warming is much more pronounced today than it was back then. Countries around the world have continued to increase their emissions, and the planet is now about 1.1 degrees Celsius hotter than it was in the 19th century. That means many of the impacts scientists have long warned about more frequent heat waves, more severe droughts, ice sheets melting in Greenland and Antarctica that push up sea levels along the coasts can now be seen very clearly in the present tense. This latest report offered the clearest look yet at how climate change is already, today, fueling a rise in extreme weather across the globe. And scientists are now able to model with much more precision whats likely to happen in the future. So theres more confidence now that humans have basically locked in another half a degree or so of total global warming over the next 30 years.That adds an important twist to the challenge facing humanity: Yes, well have to slash emissions if we want to prevent future global warming from getting even worse. But there are also dangers that are now unavoidable and well need to take steps to adapt, such as or . One of the starkest points in the report is that nations of the world essentially need to zero out all of their fossil-fuel emissions over the next few decades if we want to avoid an even bigger rise in global warming than whats already locked in. Plus we probably need to figure out how to suck vast quantities of carbon dioxide . Doing all that would require an overhaul of the global energy system at a speed without precedent in human history. Its staggering. So how do we do that? What technologies do we need? What sort of problems or dislocations might a huge transformation like that create? What mistakes might we make along the way? There are lots of smart people who think that this transformation is doable, but it certainly wont be easy. We do think about this a lot. When scientists are warning that global warming will impose real dangers and hardships around the world, I dont think we can shy away from reporting that as plainly as we can, even if it can be scary or disheartening. Its impossible to deal with a challenge like climate change unless we can clearly see what were up against. But theres also so much more to the climate story than merely doom and gloom. At the Climate desk and elsewhere at The Times, we write about people and cities for against extreme weather. We write about how climate change , and what might be done in response. We write about inventors and businesses tinkering with for . We write about how climate change is . We write about how individuals on climate change. Climate change along with efforts to cut emissions and limit the damage is going to be a central fact about the world for decades to come, touching on so many different aspects of modern life. Some of those stories will be grim, some will be hopeful. The trick is to try to capture that world, as best we can, in all its messy complexity. I generally think that individual efforts to cut emissions are great, but most peoples choices are constrained by the environment around them. So, for instance, I mostly walk or bike or take the bus to get around every day, but its easy for me to do so because I live in a walkable neighborhood in Washington with easy transit options. Most people in the United States dont have that choice, because most cities . Finding ways to transform our built environment so that more people have alternatives to driving would go so much further than trying to guilt people into driving less when they dont have much choice. is a senior staff editor at The Times.