Our climate shadow and the power of storytelling
a conversation with Emma Pattee
COP26 starts in Glasgow this Sunday and much will be made of our individual carbon footprints and how to accelerate its reduction. Oregon-based climate journalist Emma Pattee coined a useful concept that goes beyond: the climate shadow. I reached out to Emma to understand its genesis.
Emma writes about eco distress, climate reality, and West Coast climate news for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Cut, The Guardian, CNBC, WIRED, Willamette Week, and more.
Her fiction has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Idaho Review, New Orleans Review, Carve Magazine, Citron Review and is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review. She is at work on a novel about climate, motherhood and capitalism.
Frederic Guarino: Climate journalism has come a long way since Earth Day 1970 yet it can appear to still be “fractured” and hobbled in its ability to tell the full story of climate change and crucially rebut carbon footprint. You’ve forged climate shadow to add the qualitative aspect, give us more background on how you came up with it and where you want to take the concept.
I see climate journalism and climate communication as having two different goals: climate journalism is about uncovering the truth, holding the powerful accountable and informing our citizens. I think in that sense, it’s not fractured and is in fact, cohesive and relevant. Climate communication on the other hand is about communicating something complex and scientific to everyday citizens who are highly emotional creatures, who think with their animal brain in times of distress and who are more persuaded by imagery and story than by facts and data. That is where I see the fracture, despite the incredible talent and efforts of so many communicators. Last month, I tweeted, “how do we make climate as engaging as LulaRich (the documentary about the MLM scheme, LulaRoe). That’s something I think about a lot. How do we make this topic exciting? How do we make this topic — and this is a stretch, I know — fun?
When I created the climate shadow, I had long been disturbed by the limitations of the carbon footprint. The problem with making something as nebulous as our individual impact on climate change into a mathematical equation is that we shift our focus to what can be quantified and away from what actually matters. Because of the urgency of climate change, we need to be constantly re-focusing people on radical action. More #FridaysForFuture, less switching to oat milk.
Where I struggled the most was with the image itself, of the shadow. I knew I needed something memorable and a nod to a footprint, but I couldn’t find anything that clicked. I played with the idea of a cloud above our heads, or a cape we wear. Finally my dad, who I’m very close to and who is a remarkable thinker, heard me ranting about it and suggested Climate Shadow. And that of course fit perfectly.
I would love to see the concept of the Climate Shadow more broadly used when we talk about climate change. But more importantly, I hope it inspires more people — especially young people — to introduce their own innovative ideas about how we talk and think about climate change. This is not a time for perfection, it’s a time for action and being willing to put yourself out there.
Frederic Guarino: Energy production and its use in industry appears to be the major area where meaningful climate action can occur. What’s your take on how this narrative is being covered in the media ?
Mainstream media is inherently reactive. Something happens and we investigate or tell about it or write a think piece about it, etc. The problem with that in terms of meaningful climate action is that we need proactive visionaries. Ursula Le Guin once said, ““I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being.” That’s something I think about a lot, that what we need now are imaginations and voices that can describe the future to the rest of us, so that we’re not just running from extinction but instead running towards something meaningful.
The narrative around energy production and usage lacks imagination, and I think there’s many reasons for that. An ability for most of us to imagine what a carbon-free future might look like. Editors who don’t fully understand the climate crisis. Newspapers who are assigning climate coverage with one hand and accepting advertisement money from fossil fuel companies with another. One of my favorite reporters, Emily Atkins, interviewed a former NYT employee who said that the top editorial powers see climate as “an activist issue.” I think I read that quote a few minutes after pitching the Times on a climate story. That just made me want to cry.