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Climate Change Reporter Covers a Mix of Angst and Ambition

todayAugust 27, 2021 4

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Times Insider 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 scientific report concluding that a hotter future is certain but that there is still a chance to prevent the most dire outcomes. Brad Plumer, 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.

What questions are you interested in exploring on your beat?

Halting further emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, particularly from fossil fuels and deforestation, is an enormous task, and it means rethinking so many fundamental aspects of the modern global economy, from the cars we drive to how we produce food. So I’m 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.

Did you know this U.N. report was coming?

We’ve known this report was coming for some time. Every few years since 1990, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 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 this particular report, 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 Henry Fountain 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 hadn’t missed anything big and then called up more authors for official comment.

What is the significance of a report like this?

In a lot of ways, the overall picture on climate change hasn’t 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 what’s likely to happen in the future. So there’s 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, we’ll 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 we’ll need to take steps to adapt, such as managing forests to reduce wildfire risk or protecting people in cities from heat waves.

What questions did the U.N. report raise for you?

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 what’s already locked in. Plus we probably need to figure out how to suck vast quantities of carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere.

Doing all that would require an overhaul of the global energy system at a speed without precedent in human history. It’s 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 won’t be easy.

Climate coverage is a huge focus at The Times, but the topic can be unsettling for readers. Is this something you think about as you report and write these articles?

We do think about this a lot. When scientists are warning that global warming will impose real dangers and hardships around the world, I don’t think we can shy away from reporting that as plainly as we can, even if it can be scary or disheartening. It’s impossible to deal with a challenge like climate change unless we can clearly see what we’re up against.

But there’s 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 coming up with creative ideas for protecting themselves against extreme weather. We write about how climate change intersects with existing social inequalities, and what might be done in response. We write about inventors and businesses tinkering with novel strategies for cutting emissions. We write about how climate change is transforming politics. We write about how individuals wrestle with their gut-level feelings 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.

Has reading this report, or previous reports, changed your own behavior at all?

I generally think that individual efforts to cut emissions are great, but most people’s 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 it’s 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 don’t have that choice, because most cities simply aren’t built like that. 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 don’t have much choice.

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