Climate Reporting in 2019: A Year of Warnings. And Also Hope.

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It was a big year for climate reporting, and not necessarily for the good news.

Wildfires consumed vast parts of the Amazon and Arctic alike. Greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise, but President Trump served notice to quit the Paris climate agreement. The latest United Nations climate talks produced one of the worst outcomes in 25 years, with the biggest polluters blocking even the suggestion of more ambitious targets.

Nonetheless, the year’s best climate articles found new ways to inform and surprise readers. In doing so, these articles, from across The New York Times and other publications, offered their own measure of hope: that by exposing some of the specific failures of governments, businesses and citizens, we might do better.


FAVORITES from The New York Times CLIMATE DESK

Using an infrared camera and a tiny airplane crammed with scientific instruments, Jonah M. Kessel and Hiroko Tabuchi made visible the large-scale methane leaks from oil and gas operations in Texas’s vast Permian Basin. Their work illustrated the consequences of the Trump administration’s efforts to further weaken regulations on leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas and major contributor to global warming.

As the Earth warms, the combination of changing rainfall patterns, rising evaporation rates and growing populations has put more places at risk of running out of water. Somini Sengupta and Weiyi Cai used data from the World Resources Institute to show where that threat is most dire, and looked at ways to address it, including recycling wastewater, capturing and storing more rain and helping farmers switch to crops that require less water.

Critics of cutting carbon emissions often cite concerns about the effect on people who earn their living from fossil fuels. But as John Schwartz wrote, there are now more jobs in renewable energy than in mining or burning coal. And in many cases, those jobs are going to people whose parents or grandparents worked in mines or oil fields. He shared their stories, exploring not just the shift in power generation, but also why it’s a cause for hope.

Transportation now exceeds power generation as the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and the vast majority of those come from driving. Nadja Popovich and Denise Lu mapped those emissions, showing readers how different cities compare. They found that per capita emissions have increased in most metro areas, despite the growing attention to climate change. The Trump administration’s rollback of auto emissions standards threatens to exacerbate the problem.

Our daily decisions about what to eat have a profound impact on the climate. Julia Moskin, Brad Plumer, Rebecca Lieberman and Eden Weingart guided readers through those impacts and explained what to consider when choosing what kinds of food to buy, while offering practical options for reducing carbon footprints. And no, it doesn’t mean you have to stop eating meat.

STORIES FROM OTHER TEAMS AT The New York Times

Climate change can amplify old problems in surprising ways. Miriam Jordan reported on the undocumented workers rebuilding towns and cities destroyed by hurricanes across the Southeast United States. She spent time with workers repairing storm-damaged homes in Bay County, Fla., who said they were cheated out of wages, charged exorbitant rents and threatened with deportation — while also being praised by a local mayor, who said her town’s recovery would be far slower without them.

How much flooding will people tolerate? That question will shape the future of coastal cities around the world, and it’s at the heart of Patricia Mazzei’s story about Stillwright Point, a neighborhood in Key Largo, Fla., whose streets had been underwater for almost three months. Residents described commuting to work in waders, suffering skin rashes, being unable to get food delivered and having their garbage bins float away. But as one person noted, Key Largo is still a pretty great place to live.

For some people, hope means having a backup plan. Julie Turkewitz examined America’s rising demand for high-end bunkers in abandoned missile silos and other underground structures, adorned with names like Fortitude Ranch and Survival Condo and marketed to people worried about everything from climate change to terrorism and civil unrest. “Fear sells even better than sex,” a professor of anthropology told Ms. Turkewitz. “If you can make people afraid, you can sell them all kinds of stuff.”

Climate change collides with income inequality in Los Angeles, where Tim Arango looked at shade as an increasingly precious commodity — and reported that local officials, “rather than selling sunshine as Los Angeles’s singular attraction, are treating it as a growing crisis.” The city is trying to create more shade, especially for its poorer residents, focusing on planting more trees with broad canopies. And if that means fewer of its iconic (but not particularly shading) palm trees, so be it.

Stories we admired from other news organizations

The Arizona Republic reporters Rob O’Dell and Ian James investigated the shortcomings in the state’s groundwater protections, and how the agriculture industry has been able to deplete groundwater with little or no regulation. Examining data for more than 33,000 wells, they found that in almost one-quarter of the state’s monitored wells, water levels have dropped more than 100 feet — a loss experts say is probably irreversible.

Those underground reserves “represent the only water that many rural communities can count on as the desert Southwest becomes hotter and drier with climate change,” they wrote.

The process of retreat is distilled into a series of heartbreaking decisions in this story by Chloe Johnson and Stephen Hobbs, reporters for South Carolina’s Post and Courier who looked at the dilemmas facing residents, businesses and officials in two communities hit by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018. “My heart said no, but my brain said yes,” one person said in describing her decision to leave. “So I had to follow my brain.”

How genuine is the oil industry’s public support for a carbon tax? Drawing from emails between state officials and the oil giant BP, the Inside Climate News reporter Marianne Lavelle reconstructed how the company used its clout to persuade Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington to water down his proposal to price carbon — then helped sink that proposal, despite BP’s publicly backing the idea in theory.

“They would look self-serving and out of touch if they tried to deny climate change,” one expert told Ms. Lavelle. “So they’ve just turned around and said, ‘We know climate change is happening, we want to take action on it. Oh, but not this action,’ any time action comes up.”

On the anniversary of the Camp Fire that destroyed much of Paradise, Calif., the Chico Enterprise-Record reporter Camille von Kaenel looked at where displaced residents had gone. Using change-of-address data from the U.S. Postal Service analyzed by Chico State researchers, she found that where people went depended on their income; those with less money tended to move farther away.

“An apartment in Texas was better than the leaky RV they were staying in at the Yuba City fairgrounds,” Ms. von Kaenel wrote of one woman who eventually moved with her teenage sons to San Antonio. “But few people have even heard of the Camp Fire there, she said, and she sometimes feels like she doesn’t fit in.”


After reading these stories, you too may be tempted to buy your family a bunker. But as the threat of climate change grows, so does the importance of understanding how we got to this point, and how to bend that trajectory toward something more sustainable than hiding out in a tricked-up missile silo. The year’s best climate reporting makes the case for trying harder.


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