An Interview with David Roberts on Climate Journalism

This interview by Laura McDermott will be featured in The Beam #11 – Power in People. Subscribe now to read more on the subject

David Roberts is a staff writer for Vox. His topics of journalistic expertise include energy, climate change and politics. You can find him on twitter and on the Vox website.


What are the main challenges for journalists in covering the Climate Crisis in 2020? 

The main challenge is that the world has gone bonkers and every single news cycle is packed with madness. People are worried if they’re going to get sick, if there’s going to be a huge recession, who is going to win the 2020 election, if there’s even going to be a 2020 election … it is difficult to get a word in edgewise. And it is extremely difficult to draw people’s attention to long-term, incremental problems.


Are there any particular approaches that you personally take to overcome these challenges?

I mean, I’m going bonkers like everyone else. These days I’m dividing my time in half, trying to cover the multiple ongoing political crises in the US while also tracking developments in clean energy and climate science. When I can, I try to tie them together — the former do, after all, have many implications for the latter.


What would you say are the key factors that have shaped recent mediated, public and political discourse in the US?

The communications landscape in the US is as follows: there’s a giant conservative media complex, Fox News and its many compatriots, with stories and messages coordinated to support the conservative movement; and there’s a mainstream media, network and cable news and major newspapers, that still sees itself as, and struggles to be, “objective” and fair.

For some reason, the broader public has allowed the right to define those two as the “sides” of US political debate and culture. So the right’s messages are mainlined directly to its audience, while the left’s are refracted and diluted by being passed through the mainstream media.

There are other varieties and flavors of media catching on and flourishing around the margins, but that basic landscape has shaped US political news (and climate change is very much political news) for decades, and still does.

© David Roberts © David Roberts


With the upcoming Presidential election, what do you believe is the media’s main responsibility and priority in relation to climate coverage?

Climate journalists generally don’t like this answer, but climate is unlikely to get much devoted coverage in the general election. Now that the Democratic primary is mostly wrapped up, climate is a dog-bites-man story: Biden cares about it; Trump doesn’t. That seems obvious to most journalists, but it’s not necessarily obvious to the public — and it’s much more important to convey that very basic information than it is to get absorbed by the ins and outs of Biden’s climate plan, which, realistically, is unlikely to get anywhere in Congress.


What are your hopes for climate reporting? How do you wish for the rhetoric to evolve over the next 5 years?

I hope that climate reporting becomes better integrated into the rest of journalism, so that it is no longer as siloed. Climate change affects everything else and should be background context in almost every story; every journalist should understand the basics of climate change.

I also hope the policy dialogue gets more sophisticated. For years it was stunted by the “it’s happening” vs. “no it’s not” debate, which wasted an enormous amount of everyone’s time. Now that it’s finally being treated as a settled body of science, discussion can turn to policy in earnest and people can get more educated about the differences between, say, carbon pricing and performance standards.


Looking to solutions, what would you say are the key components for journalists to focus on for the coming months?

The only things that matter in the coming months are getting through the coronavirus crisis and navigating what is likely to be a global recession while ensuring that there are free and fair elections in the US in November. Climate policy is only one of many important matters at stake in those elections.

The situation in the US is extremely volatile and there are tail risks that involve not just American democracy crumbling but international climate coordination becoming impossible in the years ahead, when it is most needed. All public-spirited journalists should devote themselves to making sure that is well-understood by all Americans.