Sunday, September 13, 2020

Reporter’s notebook: ‘Climate change is water change’

Boreas River headwaters. Photo by Phil Brown 9/5/16.These weekly emails are supposed to come “out of the notebook,” a journalism term for something in my notes that hasn’t made it into a story.

Right now, I’m still working on my next stories and it’s hard to say what in my notebook will or won’t make it. So, let me share a few concepts that are important to our coverage here, particularly mine.

First, since I spend my time writing about water, I think a lot about what climate scientist Brad Udall says: climate change is water change.


What he means is that when we talk about climate change – the biggest running story in the history of the planet, the story that is, in fact, the history of the planet – we’re talking about the distribution of water.

A few examples:
How much does it rain or snow? An obvious question answered by annual precipitation totals, the most commonly-used precipitation statistic.

When does it rain or snow? Even if there are normal amounts of precipitation in a year, problems happen if all that comes at unusual times.

When does it rain instead of snow? Even in normal years with normal precipitation at normal times, if it rains instead of snows because the weather is warmer, everything can end up off kilter.

Second, everything is political.

That doesn’t necessarily mean partisan politics, though increasingly the national partisan framework shades local debates. That’s a general trend I believe is caused or fueled by the decline of local news – you can’t talk about local politics if you rarely hear about it. But “politics” goes all the way back to a Greek term and involves more than donkeys and elephants. It involves how people make decisions and who has the power to control outcomes. Water is political: How much water is released through a dam versus how much is held back to fill a reservoir that people boat on, for instance, is unexpectedly political. Who gets contracts to build and upgrade facilities, is usually political. And on and on.

Third, people want information that is not only understandable but actionable.

This is one of the things that makes the Explorer such an interesting place to work. Our reporting is generally about one of two things. Stories are either about places to explore and live, or about policies that affect those places.

The recreational stories obviously have actionable reporting. They tell you about a great place to hike or paddle and what to find there. Putting actionable — but not activist — information into other stories can be harder, but it means that if there’s something changeable with the world or a policy as it’s reported, the story contains the nuggets people could use to fight to change something or keep it the same. This means being clear about what is happening, why it’s happening and who is causing it to happen.

It seems odd for an environmental reporter to be concerned about who is causing something to happen, but we know that humans are shaping the world in almost every way imaginable and, to go back to idea No. 2, everything is political.

Boreas River headwaters photo by Phil Brown/Almanack archive.

Editor’s note: This first appeared in Ry’s weekly “Water Line” newsletter. The Explorer is raising money to support Ry’s water reporting, with a board member pledging to match every dollar raised up to $25,000. Click here to donate.

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Ry is a reporter who covered water-quality issues for the Explorer.

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