The Climate Desk: A Journalistic Collaboration

| Mon Apr. 19, 2010 2:00 AM EDT

This Thursday marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. Back in 1970, some 20 million people are estimated to have participated in activities and protests of various kinds, some of them captured by a hour-long CBS News special report, "Earth Day: A Question of Survival," narrated by Walter Cronkite.

To watch that report on YouTube is to crack a time capsule—the hair, the teach-ins, a young Dan Rather—but also to absorb a message that is depressingly familiar, particularly the 2:40 minute concluding jeremiad from Cronkite about how Americans need to reform their ways. And we did reform in many ways. The air and rivers are cleaner, there’s less litter, bald eagles have rebounded, and so forth. But the environmental problems that seemed so dire then seem simple by comparison to the ones we confront now, principally climate change. And has journalism risen to the task of explaining these complexities, not only the scientific ones, which are daunting enough, but the competing proposals and interests among the politicians, policy makers, and technologists? Mostly the answer is, not really.

Why? Well, climate change is slow-moving, vast, and often overwhelming for news organizations to grapple with, especially in a time of dwindling resources. What coverage there is tends to be compartmentalized—science, technology, politics, and business and covered by different teams or “desks," despite the intrinsic connections. Coverage is also too often fixated on imperiled wildlife, political gamesmanship, or the “debate” over the existence of climate change, all at the expense of advancing the bigger story—how we’re going to address, mitigate, or adapt to it.

In sum, it’s a huge story, perhaps the biggest story of our lifetime, but the traditional structures of journalism aren’t configured to reporting it well. Thinking about this problem we wondered, what if someone were to pull together a range of news organizations—with their various skill sets and their audiences—to take on this story together? And so a group of editors met to discuss if such an unprecedented collaboration could work.

Four months later we’re so excited to introduce the Climate Desk, an ongoing project dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. The partners in this endeavor are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Mother Jones, Slate, Wired, and PBS' new public affairs show Need To Know. Our pilot project, running over the next two weeks, will address how business is attempting to adapt to the changes—both meteorological and regulatory—that will accompany global warming. Stories will run on the sites of the partner organizations and on theclimatedesk.org. (You can also follow the collaboration on Facebook and on Twitter.) It's been a lot of hard work, a ton of fun, and we've only just begun. So check it out, tell us what you think and what we should tackle next.