just asking questions

Chris Hayes and Ali Velshi Talk the State of Climate Journalism (and State of the Planet)

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Scott Heins; Noam Galai/Getty Images

On September 23, the United Nations will open its Climate Action Summit here in New York, three days after the Global Climate Strike, led by Greta Thunberg, will sweep through thousands of cities across the globe. To mark the occasion, Intelligencer will be publishing “State of the World,” a series of in-depth interviews with climate leaders from Bill Gates to Naomi Klein and Rhiana Gunn-Wright to William Nordhaus interrogating just how they see the precarious climate future of the planet — and just how hopeful they think we should all be about avoiding catastrophic warming. (Unfortunately, very few are hopeful themselves.)

Today, MSNBC will host the first half of its two-day Democratic-primary forum on climate change — a full day of climate programming, followed by a second full day tomorrow. The event is presented by New York magazine, along with Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service and Our Daily Planet. Earlier this week, I spoke separately with hosts Chris Hayes and Ali Velshi about the state of climate coverage on television and how each sees the state of the race and the state of the planet. The following Q&A combines the two conversations.

David Wallace-Wells: I look at the last year of climate politics and things seem so different now than they did a year, 18 months ago. Does it seem that way to you?

Ali Velshi: Yeah, I think it’s moved from the kind of thing that people believe is true into the kind of thing people believe is a crisis. There’s definitely been a change in energy. Suddenly, people are talking about this as an imperative. And where the biggest move has come, in full, is from personal behavior into trying to influence institutional and governmental behavior, which I think is where the answer lies. There seems to have been a lot of emphasis on what individuals can do about it. And I think we’ve now understood that if all of us drink from paper straws and drive electric cars, we’re still not going to come close to dealing with our targets. I don’t know what has caused that shift to occur, but it seems to have occurred.

DWW: Has there been any similar change in the way climate is covered on TV?

AV: It was community service a little while ago. Up to a year ago, I was doing hurricane coverage, and when we started doing it in earnest at MSNBC, either Chris or I would insert the discussion about climate change into the coverage. We would sometimes get pushback from people to say, “Now’s not the time to talk about that,” in the same fashion that people, when you cover a shooting, would say, “Now’s not the time to talk about it.”

DWW: Chris, at least in my corner of Twitter, that tweet you sent a year or so ago about climate change being sort of a ratings killer was — that’s been like a talking point ever since.

Chris Hayes: [Laughs] Good God, yes, let’s talk more about that tweet!

DWW: Do you still see things that way? Do you think in general TV news views climate change that way?

CH: The first thing I’d say is I think that people inside media tend to underestimate how much power they have over people’s attention. You’re trying very hard all the time, under incredible pressures of metrics and ratings, to get people’s attention, and sometimes you fail. So it feels like you have very little control over what people pay attention to. And in a corollary fashion, people outside media tend to overestimate how much people inside media can focus attention. They think, like, Oh, if you just cover this, everyone will watch. That’s just not true. There are topics and things that you will do and people just turn away.

But people are paying more attention, and I think that TV media is pretty good at like sniffing that out when it happens. And so there’s kind of a good, virtuous cycle right now. There are things happening on the climate front — much of the credit due to activist groups and organizers and people on the ground and everyday citizens — and that’s generated news, it’s generated conflict, it’s generated like big announcements, things that are coverable. It’s also generated attention, and people’s attention to the climate crisis is really increasing. And the coverage has followed that.

DWW: Do you see that in network news or just cable news?

CH: I don’t actually know the answer at the level of network news just because I don’t monitor it very closely. But I think probably the level of network news, too.

DWW: Cable news is obviously way ahead, though.

AV: Well, I think it’s got to do with format, right? We’ve got 24 hours a day to do this stuff, so we can be experimental. I can book a segment a day on climate change. Sometimes they’re really good, and sometimes they’re a little technical and don’t resonate as much. But I do at least two and sometimes three shows a day. So it doesn’t matter if I get it right all the time. That work is a struggle to get into half an hour of news in a world where one story sucks up most of the oxygen and then other stories have to get in there.

DWW: It’s always struck me as strange because television news loves natural disasters. Producers obviously don’t see them as ratings killers. And to me the climate context only heightens the narrative drama of a disaster — to talk about how this isn’t just terrifying in its own right, it’s terrifying as a portent of what’s to come. But the networks are reluctant to connect those dots.

AV: And you know, for instance, that warming oceans and weaker prevailing winds are gonna cause what happened in the Bahamas to happen a lot more. I think that we as journalists are getting smarter about things like that, in part because of books like yours, which are written for people who are not scientists. But it’s still a lot like what I do in economic reporting, where I’m dealing with economics for an audience that are not economists. We are now all trying to deal with science for an audience that’s not made up of scientists. It’s taken time to get that right.

CH: One thing that’s been unlocked a little bit is the weather-climate nexus. For a variety of complicated reasons, there was reticence, not all of which is indefensible, about conflating weather and climate. You know, weather is variable, day to day; climate is these sort of longer-term trends. And you can’t just be like, “Every single weather event is climate change.” But at a certain point because we have the climate we have, which is warmer, it’s almost definitionally true that all the weather that’s happening is related to that.

DWW: Is there any reason to worry about that phenomenon, though? I’m a part of it, probably, and to some degree you’re a part of it, too, but do you think there’s any danger that we’ve overstated the case about those connections and brought the audience into a hot-boiled, emotional landscape about the state of climate change before the science really merits it?

CH: Here’s the thing that I worry about, which is related to but distinct from that. People have taken the IPCC timeline and the social and intellectual impact of your book, as well, and they’ve created this kind of idea in their heads about a binary situation between doomed and not doomed. Like, the plane either takes off or crashes. But as you lay out in the actual book and as you and I have discussed, that’s not the way it works. It’s like every little bit at every margin counts.

The shorthand of “We have 12 years or we’re doomed” — that’s based on what the IPCC is saying, sort of, but it’s hard to put in your mind just the scale of it and also the fact that it all matters marginally.

DWW: So how would you rate the conversation on the presidential-campaign trail so far? Do you think it’s been rigorous and serious?

CH: I think it’s done pretty well, actually. I mean, it’s been light-years better than previous campaigns or the other party’s internal deliberations. Is that good enough? I don’t know. I mean, I thought the “Climate Forum” on CNN was quite good and pretty sophisticated. But I think that the most important thing is a discussion about prioritization.

I tend to think that primaries have two tracks. One is the candidate selection and then the other is the creation of an issue set and priorities. Sometimes those come together, and sometimes they’re a little distinct from each other. But one of the most consequential things happening in the Democratic primary right now is about this prioritization-sequencing question: Does the next Democratic president understand this as the priority? Whoever it is. And I think the odds of that now are much higher than they were six months ago. Much higher.

DWW: Then there’s the matter of, like, how many priorities can you actually address in the time you’ve got with the political capital that you have?

CH: Well, that’s why priorities are zero-sum, right? Which is why there’s a real important debate to be had about what actually comes first.

DWW: Do you think we’ll see that debate more explicitly?

CH: Yes. Everyone tries to paper it over now, because why would you want to piss everyone off?

AV: One of the difficulties we’re facing right now is that certainly all the Democratic candidates are on what you would call the right side of the issue. But what we haven’t got from everybody is what happens beyond platitudes. So what I’m hoping to achieve out of this forum is some sense of that: What do you see this as? How do you articulate this problem? How serious do you think climate change is? What do you think has to happen to mitigate it? And then how will you convince people for whom this is not yet an imperative [when it] might cost them money? Do you want to get behind this? I’m not talking about executive action the first hundred days or congressional action. I’m talking about the fact that to remedy this will actually require the government to lean into it, and the government doesn’t lean into things that cost them money unless they believe there’s public support behind those things. And fixing this problem will cost money.

I’ve never asked a candidate “Who’s going to pay for this?,” because I think that’s a stupid question — we’re paying for it anyway. However, paying for the damages is accidental; paying for mitigation is deliberate. And the Democratic candidates are going to have to convince people to get onside for a deliberate allocation of resources to fight climate change.

DWW: Inslee made this point to me when we spoke that it was really notable that Trump came out and tried to claim he was an environmentalist, as laughable as that seemed, because it showed at least on some level that he and his staff recognize he’s already suffering for having taken some of the positions he’s taken. But if that is the case, is there any one of the Democrats who are making a kind of clearheaded case for action to take advantage of that?

AV: Bernie Sanders and others have done a good job of putting a cost on it. The Green New Deal struggles with that a little bit. I’m not troubled by that because we know that the cost of inaction is greater than the cost of any action we can take. The problem is, how do you articulate that in terms of [helping] people who don’t have $400 extra a month, as we saw with the shutdown? What’s the way in which you say this? Is it centered around health care? Or climate migrants or floods or hurricanes or rising sea level or wildfires or your children’s health or an uninhabitable planet? What are the ways in which you as a candidate articulate how serious this is and why it requires massive government and industrial efforts to combat it?

DWW: The question is really important, I think, in the sense that something like 75 percent of Americans are concerned about climate change. But just a sliver are willing to pay $10 a month to deal with it.

AV: Correct. And so that’s where the heavy lift is. A corollary is health care. When you talk about Medicare for All and people say, “Well, this is going to be the cost over ten years,” then I put up a chart that says, “But this is the cost of our existing law over ten years and x tens of millions of people are covered. Wouldn’t you rather do this than that? The return on investment on this one is better than that one.” That’s the argument that we have to have with climate. That the ROI; it’s better if you do x than current law.

DWW: In general in our politics, we have a hard time talking about comparative costs. We treat the status quo as though it’s free. And think any new programs are too expensive.

AV: One hundred percent. We think doing nothing’s free.

DWW: And what about on the other side of the aisle? Is there any reason for optimism there?

CH: No. I mean, you can squint and find, like, Oh, there’s the climate caucus now, and, you know, Frank Luntz is coming around and the polling is bad for them. It has become a political liability, in a way.

DWW: Personally, I didn’t expect that to happen so soon.

CH: But the collective behavior of that party is essentially sociopathic at a global scale. It’s like if everyone’s driving on a street at 30 miles an hour and someone comes barreling down at 80 miles an hour drunk. It’s indefensibly dangerous and reckless and has already led to unfathomable amounts of misery and death. It’s almost impossible to put your arms around it. Like, what the Republican Party and the Trump administration are doing is — on a longer timescale and in a less acute, visible way — not different or morally distinct from the Soviet leadership during Chernobyl.

DWW: I just saw this Washington Post poll today showing that eight-in-ten Americans say human activity is fueling climate change. Other polls say 73, 74 percent. Either way, it’s a strong majority. If that’s the case, how can the Republican Party continue as it is with anything like its present-tense climate politics?

CH: I think you’ll see a very fast pivot, and you’ve already seen it. Of course, yes, humans are causing climate change, but we’re not even 20 percent of global emissions, and no one’s really gonna stop China and India, and so [they will say] we’ve just got to build the wall as high as we can.

DWW: So given all those obstacles, is it conceivable we could decarbonize at the rate that the U.N. says we need to avoid catastrophic warming?

AV: I think we’ve got to think of it as a moon shot.

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