Reporting on climate change with Alessandra Potenza and Claire Stam
What does it look like to be a science and energy journalist today? How do reporters exercise their profession in countries where politicians deny climate change and maybe science in general? And what shapes the debate around climate change?
The latest elections in the U.S., the UK, and now in France have resulted in criticism towards the media, with journalists are often held responsible for the wounds of a crises and the frustration for lack of political transparency. So we asked two journalists what it’s like in the field today, what shapes the debate around climate change, and how reporters exercise their profession in countries where politicians deny climate change.
Alessandra Potenza is Associate Editor at The Verge and a journalist specialised in science and tech, and Claire Stam has been covering the energy transition and sustainable development in France and Germany for 20 years. Here they share with The Beam their experiences in the field.
What does it look like to be a journalist in your field today?
Alessandra Potenza: It’s definitely an exciting time. Every week, I’m reporting on cutting-edge scientific discoveries that have one goal in mind: making our world a better place — whether it’s a new way to engineer bacteria to prevent infections or a biotech invention that’s going to change how we treat cancer in the future. People and technology are interacting with each other more and more every day, changing the way we socialize, the way we think about our health, and the way we think about our planet. Having the opportunity to report about this every day is a bit like living in the future. I’m always thinking about what’s coming next, what new technology is around the corner, and how to make it all matter for my audience. I work with an amazing team of photographers, illustrators, editors, and videographers who help me understand what’s the best medium to tell each individual story. In other words, there’s never a boring day.
Claire Stam: Writing about energy, it’s writing about politics, international relations, technology innovation, economy, finance and even social issues. Energy is not only a category in itself. It implies a lot, lot more, because it affects our everyday life. When I started as a journalist some 20 years ago, writing about energy usually meant writing about utilities, i.e. about their financial reports and stock performance. Now, this has definitely changed and for the best. The worldwide expansion of renewables forces us to question our understanding and view on energy: where does it come from? How dependent are we from fossil fuels and the countries they are coming from? What about the ecological impact? The impact on health? Does investing in fossil fuels still make economical sense? What about the carbon market? The Paris Agreement? The questions are endless. And this is definitely what makes that field so interesting, and so motivating to write about.
What do you think of the treatment of the information on climate change by the mass media?
Alessandra Potenza: It depends which mass media you’re talking about. There are certain websites out there that consider climate change a hoax and help spread misinformation about one of the most serious challenges facing our world today. Climate change is complicated, and the journalists who try to make the science accessible and engaging to readers deserve more credit than they probably get. We hear about climate change all the time, but at least in the U.S. it’s still not on top of people’s priorities. Maybe we can do a better job at engaging people and helping them understand that climate change is not a far-off problem. It’s already affecting all of us today.
Claire Stam: There’s definitely room for improvement here. I still have the feeling mass media doesn’t cover climate change extensively enough. One reason might be because of the complexity of the subject: reporting about climate change and climate negotiation means being able to make very complicated issues understandable for a wide audience. And this, by using not too many words, is a real challenge. One way to address that problem I think is by choosing an angle that “speaks” to the readers, and I am thinking of the economy. An example to illustrate my point: If your real estate on the sea side is threatened by an increasing number of floods, then you might want to know more about climate-related insurance — and climate change in general. When readers know more about the immediate impact of climate change in their everyday life, and its impact on their wallets, then mass media will cover climate change more and more accurately.
Of course, I am speaking with a European point of view. Climate denial and non-access to scientific data like is now happening in the United States are (still) not such a big issue in Europe. But one has to be very, very careful. Which makes our job as climate and energy journalists even more important.
Alessandra, how do you, as a journalist, exercise your profession in a country where the president denies climate change and maybe science in general?
It’s definitely a challenge, and at times it’s dispiriting. But you can’t let yourself get discouraged or angry. You just have to keep doing your job, which feels more important than ever. And I think most Americans, across party lines, care a great deal about the environment and want their country to invest in scientific research. Innovation has been at the heart of this country since it was founded. This president is just one chapter in American history.
Claire, you work as a French freelance journalist in Germany. Out of these two countries, which one is the best to exercise your profession?
In Germany, my feeling is, the debate around energy issues is less emotional than in France. The Energiewende is now so well advanced that there is no turning back and the German political arena knows it, acknowledged it and accepted it. The question which now prevails in Germany is “How do we carry on with it?”. In France, the situation is not always that rational: the country is still strongly focused on the nuclear energy, not only for technical issues, it is still a question of political and national pride. So my main challenge in France is to get a news editor interested in what is going on in Germany, to make him or her look beyond the frontiers. Indeed, I spend a great deal of time explaining why it matters for French readers to know how the energy transition is dealt with in Germany. But readers are interested, and they keep sending me questions about the Energiewende after they have read my articles.
According to you, what shapes the debate around climate change today?
Alessandra Potenza: Unfortunately, climate change is very much a political debate. I say “unfortunately” because I wish everyone agreed about the science and that we could move on to what should be done to address global warming. Climate change denial within the Administration also takes up a lot of air time, and that’s unfortunate. The debate around climate change shouldn’t be about whether or not climate change is happening; it should be about what we can do as a country to reduce carbon emissions for the benefit of the whole planet.
Claire Stam: The implication of non-political actors. The Paris Agreement couldn’t have seen the light without the implication of private actors. And we’re talking a very broad range of private actors: cities, regions, corporations and businesses, NGOs. Cities want clean air, regions want to have solutions in order to adapt to climate change, businesses don’t want to invest in stranded assets and want new markets to emerge, NGOs want climate justice. They all came to Paris and made their voices heard. And what happened? The airtight bubble of UN diplomacy erupted, negotiations were no longer the prerogative of diplomats only, and this momentum is still here today, civil society does not intend to lower its voice.
What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?
Alessandra Potenza: I love The Verge and the journalism we do. I want to keep writing about interesting science and tech, build a following, and make sure I keep my readers engaged. I definitely have a lot of fun doing this job. I hope my readers have fun reading my stories.
Claire Stam: I would love to see a European media dedicated to the energy transition on our continent, in different languages because of the language barrier. This would be like some sort of interactive platform where citizens and journalists from different European countries could communicate with each other. We as journalists could provide them with fact-based news. A real alternative to the fake-news spread we are faced with right now. It would also improve our collaboration between us journalists. We have a lot to learn from each other, and my feeling is, we still think too much within our national boundaries.
Interviews by Anne-Sophie Garrigou