Emily Atkin on Climate Reporting
The urgency and drama of the biggest issue of our time
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Hiya writer friends,
Writing about the climate crisis can be kind of a bummer, what with the existential threat to humanity and all. But also, as Emily Atkin points out, writing about the climate crisis is definitely not boring. There are villains and heroes and drama galore. And there’s a chance to have an impact on an enormously urgent issue by telling stories that help people understand what’s going on.
I got on the phone with Emily to talk about her career in climate journalism. Emily was a staff writer at The New Republic before leaving last year to launch Heated, “a newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis.” Heated is now her full-time job; four times a week she publishes critical perspective and analysis on this ongoing global emergency and sends it straight to her subscribers. She’s making more money through her newsletter than she ever made with a staff position, and she’s covering stories a lot of the big outlets are missing.
While a lot of climate coverage can make the audience feel responsible for pollution and waste and starving polar bears, Heated makes clear: “the majority of the blame for the climate emergency lies at the foot of the greedy; the cowardly; the power-hungry; the apathetic.”
Through ruthless, independent journalism, Emily is holding these climate-crisis villains accountable for the damage they’ve done and continue to do.
It was pretty exciting to talk to her about all of this. Writers! Meet Emily Atkin.
Emily Atkin on the Urgency and Impact of Climate Reporting
BR: How did you come to focus on climate reporting in your journalism career?
EA: It’s sort of uninspiring. I just always wanted to be a journalist, and I was having trouble finding a political journalism job early in my career because political journalism is very competitive. I saw a job opening at Think Progress (RIP) for a climate change reporter. They were hiring a political reporter, too. But I thought that I was more likely to get a climate reporting position—like, no one else is applying for that! I was just looking for a job and then it turned into… what this is: a lifelong career.
How much awareness did you have of the urgency of the climate crisis at that time?
I think that like most people, I knew that climate change was real and important and something I cared about and something we’d have to deal with, but it was not at the forefront of my mind. At that point, I sort of considered it a longterm problem, and one of a myriad of environmental problems we faced. I didn’t really realize the full scope of the issue we’re dealing with. Actually, I don’t think I really realized the scope of what we’re dealing with until four or five years into being a climate reporter.
What was the first climate story you covered?
It was a story about a Texas politician who was running for some public office, and he said on some radio program that he believed carbon emissions didn’t cause global warming; global warming was God’s punishment for women who got abortions.
I come from a very traditional reporting background which says that you’re not allowed to say something like, “this guy sucks, this guy is wrong and clearly a dangerous idiot.” So I just reported that he said that—I just focused on the facts. He said this, and the science says this. I quoted some scientific paper, and this paper does not mention abortion as the cause. So that was a really interesting introduction to climate change reporting.
There is so much to learn when you realize how the climate crisis touches everything. You’ve written about how much work is created for established climate journalists when they have to explain and correct the sloppy climate journalism that’s out there. So I’m curious, how do you think writers who want to start covering these stories can establish the necessary expertise? How do you know when you know enough to do it right?
I don’t really know that you ever know when you’re an expert. I would say that most of us are just trying our best—I don’t want to say “fake it till you make it,” but that’s kind of how I felt for most of my career.
It’s not hard work when there’s sloppy climate journalism out there per se. It’s hard work when there’s sloppy climate journalism that’s being put on a very high pedestal. That’s a really important distinction. What I’m talking about when I make that critique is, who gets the loudest megaphone in the climate journalism world? And who are the editors at top publications giving those megaphones to?
We’re all going to screw up at some point in our coverage. I still screw up. The way to avoid sloppy climate work, beginner or experienced, is to just talk to a lot of people. So much of the sloppy climate work out there is by people who read one paper and decide that THIS is the solution nobody else has thought about.
And it’s like, nope. There are no silver bullets.
You have to always be accepting the reality that any [climate] story is five times more nuanced and complicated than you could possibly imagine; that there is no one silver bullet and no either or; that it’s too big and too variable for there to be some simplistic point other than, it’s everything. I think the most harmful thing you can go into climate journalism with is arrogance, thinking you know the solution before you report the story.
All journalists should be scared of making mistakes. You should not go into this field if you’re not scared of making mistakes.
So probably being scared of making mistakes is a good place to start?
Absolutely! All journalists should be scared of making mistakes. You should not go into this field if you’re not scared of making mistakes.
Especially when you write a newsletter and you have no editor!
Right. So let’s talk about that. What’s it like to fill every position of your own publication that publishes four times a week? That’s… insane.
It’s just really easy because I’m a superhuman.
No, it’s hard. Some days it’s really fun and liberating. Some days I feel like I’m drowning. But in some ways that’s no different than working at a publication where you feel like you’re drowning in other ways.
I don’t think this career field is easy on people. I don’t think people who choose it expect it to be easy. I certainly didn’t expect it to be easy. I’ve always had, in my long-term career plan, this inevitability that I will burn out at some point. And when I burn out I will… go into academia or something. I hope that it’s not soon! I don’t think it’s going to be soon because the newsletter is so new and exciting. I feel like I’m getting old, but I’m still relatively young. Sometimes I look back at the amount of effort I was putting into small things when I was a twenty-four year old journalist. And I’m like, wow, I would not do that today.
If you’re 24, just GO. Do it. You’re never going to have this much energy again.
We’re still not at a universal news standard for how to cover climate change. And it can be discouraging when your vision doesn’t line up with the vision of the person in charge of what you’re supposed to write.
So you launched Heated a little over a year ago. Do you feel like you’ve been able to accomplish things that you couldn’t achieve in a staff position at a publication?
It’s less about any one specific story. What I’ve had the opportunity to do with Heated is to really test my news judgement and my interpretation of what is newsworthy and what has value and really put that to the test to see if people are interested.
I think one thing that discourages journalists in staff positions is they’ll bring stories to their editor and their editor will be like, “Nah, I don’t think that’s a good one, how about this?” I think that’s a universal experience; you start to question whether or not you’re thinking about your own beat in the right way. But this experience has given me a lot of validation that my ideas are good ones.
That is particularly a problem for a lot of climate change reporters. At so many publications, you have an editor who is smart and has good news judgement but they’re not very experienced with climate change. So their idea of what makes a good story is going to be different than yours. We’re still not at a universal news standard for how to cover climate change. And it can be discouraging when your vision doesn’t line up with the vision of the person in charge of what you’re supposed to write.
It’s hard to pitch climate news stories that have anger or moral outrage in them, about the fact that climate change is killing people and making people suffer. Because editors, to be honest, have been brainwashed by the fossil fuel-funded political system into believing that expressing objective, justified outrage about mass death makes you an activist. Editors don’t feel that way when it comes to genocide or pandemics or the opioid crisis—those are just objectively bad things. But for climate change, for some reason, it’s different. If you want to pursue a story that really shows that suffering, they’re like, “That’s the opinion section.”
But is it?
Yes—that’s so frustrating. I think a lot of people who choose to write about the climate crisis are doing it because people are suffering and it’s so urgent.
So, you’ve been teaching a journalism class at SUNY New Paltz this semester. I’m curious what conversations you have with your students about the sustainability of being a journalist right now, particularly if you’re writing about climate change.
We have not talked about that actually! But that’s a conversation we should have. I’ve really focused on how to do good climate journalism.
I did have them do an exercise where I made them interview me, press conference style, to teach them how to ask open-ended questions. So if they asked me a yes/no question I would just answer yes/no and say nothing else and make it really awkward.
But they did ask me about starting a newsletter, and a lot of them had questions about the emotional toll of working in this space, and how to deal with the stress of covering an existential threat to human life when there are so many other things going on.
The stakes are so high and life-threatening and everyone is profiting off of death and it’s just—I don’t understand how anyone can think this stuff is boring.
Sometimes I feel weird about this. I completely understand how awful a lot of this is, but it doesn’t stress me out to write about climate change. It makes me feel better to cover climate change. It makes me feel better to contribute to covering what I think is one of the most important, if not the most important, issue facing society right now.
Journalism is a tool to inform citizens in a democracy so they can make the best choices about the issues they face. So if you’re covering the biggest issues they face, then you’re really serving society. I feel good about that. I’m trying to help in the best way I know is possible.
I think it’s in the journalist’s mindset to get fired up when you see something fucked up. That’s a quirk we all have, we’re like, “Wow that’s super fucked up, let’s do a story on that.” And there is just so much fucked up stuff about climate change. I don’t understand why every journalist doesn’t cover it. You want that salacious headline? Climate change is full of them! The stakes are so high and life-threatening and everyone is profiting off of death and it’s just—I don’t understand how anyone can think this stuff is boring.
So much has probably changed for journalism students coming into this topic now, compared to when we were in school. I’m curious if you’ve learned anything from your students?
I’ve learned that they know more than I did about what’s going on in the world when I was their age. Nine years ago I took basically the same class they’re taking now. Not the same room because there wasn’t a pandemic so I was on campus. But I was taking this required course taught by a working journalist, which is what this course is. All of them came in with a baseline knowledge of climate change and climate politics. They didn’t all know who Mitch McConnell was when I showed [a picture]. But, they knew that the state of the world is more messed up than I saw at that age.
Sometimes when I talk to them, I’m like, well, we’re the same age. But that’s to their credit, not mine. The kids are smart. Although some of them still fall asleep during Zoom class.
Is this a climate journalism class that all journalism majors are required to take?
No, it’s a class that’s different every semester, but always taught by a working journalist. The point is that they’re not professors. They’re not academics. They’re actually working in journalism.
Wow, I feel like that was the gaping hole in my journalism education. I was never taught about actually working as a journalist. All of my professors had been in academia for decades, probably.
So were mine!
How do you decide what to cover in your newsletter? Or how do you find stories when you don’t know what to write?
I’ve never felt like I don’t have anything to write about. Story choice is the most overwhelming decision I face every single day. There are too many stories to cover and I don’t have enough time to cover them all. I have to make decisions based on newsworthiness and also what I can feasibly accomplish in a day. If a story falls through, then I don’t have a newsletter the next day. So that sucks.
Sometimes I regret covering one thing instead of another thing. I am just at a point where I follow my instincts. The newsletter has taught me to follow what I think is interesting.
If I ever became an editor, I would encourage my reporters to follow what fires them up. If you think it’s interesting, that will flow through your reporting and writing and make it a better story. I’ve never written an amazing story about something that I wasn’t really fired up about. And the stuff I’m super fired up about does really well.
What are you most proud of in what you’ve accomplished with Heated?
Are you ready for a super corny answer?
I am proud of my readers. I am proud of everyone who has rallied around this subject because they have renewed my faith in this profession. They have renewed my faith in the effectiveness and the importance of what we do and what we have chosen to do as writers.
I think the last four years in particular have been really demoralizing for journalists. People like me who believe in journalism so deeply—who have really centered their identities around being a journalist and it being righteous and important for democracy—we’re hit by the left and the right and the center for being the worst. You start to think, well am I the worst?
But the coolest thing about the newsletter has been that at least once a week I get an email from someone who says, “Thank you so much for this story, it really changed how I felt about this issue,” or “it really opened my eyes about climate change,” or “it really helped me with something I’ve been thinking about but couldn’t articulate, and now I can articulate it in conversation with friends and family.” That to me is just so cool. That’s evidence that it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s informing people. It’s making people confident in talking about an issue that matters.
I’m very proud that my readers feel empowered.
If the climate crisis was not a thing, what would you want to be writing about?
I would want to either be a local D.C. reporter, a New York state politics reporter (that’s where I got started, covering the New York state legislature and they are CRAZY), or I would want to be a dating a reporter, covering the insane culture of dating.
That’s all for today, friends. Next week might be light on newsletters. I’m traveling the day before the election and then it’s… the election. So we’ll see what happens. But I promise to at least get you the usual round-up of pitch opportunities, fellowships, writing inspiration, etc.
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Take care of yourselves! And stay inspired.