Last month, President Joe Biden signed a landmark climate bill that is already radically shifting US policy toward targeted action to combat climate change. The Inflation Control Act allocates billions of dollars toward renewable energy, combating severe disasters, and incentivizing individuals to purchase electric vehicles and other climate-friendly technologies. How important is this legislation, really? DAME asked climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis, who is currently co-host of Gimlet’s How to save a planet Podcast, to break the bill and share her own thoughts on the current climate. Pierre-Louis talks about the inconsistencies of the bill, the challenges of covering climate, and how she finds happiness.
DAM: Congress just passed a landmark climate bill that invests billions in combating greenhouse gas emissions and promoting renewable energy efforts. The legislation is historic, but it also comes on the heels of decades of struggle to get lawmakers to invest in serious solutions to tackle this global crisis. Can you tell us your thoughts on the promises of this new bill?
Kendra Pierre Lewis: The most important thing to understand about the LA is that it is the first step in a race in which we are already quite behind. So it’s part of the pre-eminent climate legislation and it’s not enough. It’s a necessary first step, but we still need to push for more change.
Regarding what’s good and bad, we’ve chronicled a lot of this in a How to save a planet An episode produced by my colleague Rachel Waldholz. Professionals include a lot of investment in renewable energy, not just wind and solar power but battery storage and grid improvements. These are the things we need to invest in to get rid of fossil fuels.
There are incentives for people who need to drive to help them afford electricity and incentives to install heat pumps in people’s homes, which is a more efficient way to heat and cool a building. There is an incentive to take people on low incomes from gas stoves to induction stoves, which use electricity, but not an old coil stove, they use magnets. Induction hobs have a lot of benefits…even better than being better for the climate, they’re better for your lungs. There is also $60 billion earmarked for environmental sanitation.
What are some disadvantages of the bill?
On the bad side, there are concessions to the fossil fuel industry, such as continuing to offer leases to oil and gas companies in public lands and waters. Models from organizations such as the Rhodium Group and Energy Innovation Group suggest that from a climate perspective, the bill’s advantages outweigh the negatives. Assuming the models are correct, this is a bit of a relief for the people in the frontline communities who live downwind of this infrastructure – the people whose air and water will continue to be polluted.
There is this expression in Haitian Kreyol that goes, Nice guys, siye atèWhich means “Wash your hands and dry them on the floor.” It describes some sort of futile endeavor, or undermining your actions. You wash your hands because they are dirty, but if you dry them on the floor they remain dirty. You may not have washed your hands at all. I’m not saying that’s entirely true when it comes to environmental justice dollars in the Inflation Reduction Act for grants to the fossil fuel industry, but there is an element to that. So, even while the bill on the one hand allocates money for environmental justice, the same provision perpetuates the status quo based on fossil fuel extraction that harms those same communities. Laugh men, siye atè.
How do mainstream environmental reporting on this legislation and other environmental issues contribute to public misperceptions about climate change?
[Beyond the IRA], the biggest problem with climate reporting is still treating it as a separate issue rather than everything fundamental. And treat it as something worrisome but ironically no sense of urgency.
You’ll often see stories about the effects of extreme weather – say a heat wave – but the story won’t mention climate change. You have to read a separate story on climate change to make this link. The industry has gotten better at knowing that extreme weather stories should include a sentence or two about climate correlation, but we’re not where we need to get to yet.
At the same time, we often limit climate stories to easily visible effects. At my last job, I got an email from a reader who was like, “I don’t live on the coast, so why should I care about it and go with my tax money to solve climate change?” The thing that caught my attention was that he lived in an area of California that’s very drought-sensitive, but somehow it didn’t make that point. Floods are not just a coastal effect. Hurricane Irene in 2011 completely devastated Vermont, which has no coast, and the interior of New York State. Located 35 miles from the coast, Lafayette, Louisiana, was inundated with heavy rain in 2016. There were massive flooding in Columbia, South Carolina in 2016 and again this year. There’s no aspect of life on this planet that our atmosphere doesn’t touch, so climate change will affect everything about life on this planet, but it’s easy not to know if you’re not awash in the literature. We have to do a better job of conveying that – and the effects.
Finally, many people still believe that climate change is something of the future. Part of this – and I do this too – we tend to fall short in the language of future expectations because we normalize the horrors we already live with. I’m a Native New Yorker, and I still live here. We are a city in transit, and so people don’t always understand that our summer wasn’t that hot. We had a proper spring and a proper fall. The truth is that if you are under 45, you will never be exposed to normal temperatures. Even a baseline of what was “normal” when I was a kid… pretty hot.
Much of the talk about climate action right now is steeped in negativity in terms like climate sadness, climate anxiety, or climate doom. Your podcast How to save a planet It takes us a step further, namely focusing on solutions and confronting environmental pessimism with optimism. How can you empower listeners to create their own change in the fight for environmental justice?
Many people already understand the depth and scale of climate change. They understand the problem – we burn a lot of fossil fuels, heat waves, floods, droughts. This is a very good thing about traditional news – telling us the problem. But it doesn’t tell us almost anything about how we can be part of the solution. It weakens the force.
Imagine if I told you that your house was going to burn. I’ll even tell you when. But then I refuse to tell you anything you can do to stop it or protect yourself… It’s almost like, “Why did I bother telling you?” This is what we do with traditional climate journalism. This framework exists because a lot of news, especially national news, is geared toward political insiders. It is not designed to make the rest of us better citizens or voters. Instead, it propagates the idea that politics, and through climate action, is a spectator sport – that our ability to effect change is limited to who we vote for and perhaps what we buy. This is a mistake. Democracy is for all of us. Climate action is for all of us.
what we do with How to save a planet twofold. First, we tell you some aspects of climate change that are a problem. For example, food waste produces methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. But then we talk to people who are looking for solutions [such as] A person who fertilizes on a large scale. Then we tell you the ways you can contribute. You give away knowing one aspect of the climate problem and something you can do to help fix it. Our solutions are generally not like “using a reusable bag” because this is an individual solution and we need systemic solutions. So, we look at ways you as an individual can help change this system a little bit, often by joining in with others. Composting may not be your thing. Good. Every week we look at a different problem and another solution. We are an all-you-can-eat buffet with climatic solutions.
The second thing we’re doing is giving people a vision of what the world in which we’ve worked on climate might look like. Climate action is not just about sacrifice. Depending on how we choose to move, we gain as much or more than we lose. Getting rid of fossil fuel power plants means the air is cleaner and tens of thousands of us in the US (millions around the world) don’t die early. Cities with fewer cars are quieter and safer. Climate smart homes more comfortable. Getting people to visualize this shift can mean helping to reframe things for them.
So, for example, I wrote this story about cycling. And the genesis of the story was, in part, because I realized that bike-related messages are often terrible. We were told to ride a bike because it’s better for the planet than driving. And that’s true, but it’s not exactly seductive, you know?
Car ads attract us with pictures of partying in our car, beautiful landscape, or even with family. We are told, “Ride a bike, save a tree.” I love trees, and I’m not sure I’d want to ride a bike just for that. But I ride a bike, not because it’s good for the planet, but because I find driving stressful and because cycling is fun. Cycling is also good for the planet, which means I don’t have to feel bad about having that much fun. This is the win. This is what I wanted the listeners to feel. I wanted them to feel the joy I have when I drive, and to understand that by focusing society only around the car, that joy is being stolen from us. It is a kind of theft.
We do pure service journalism. I can say it works. We are approaching our 2nd anniversary and people have made a difference Such as smart ways. We have a birthday episode – produced by Anna Ladd with the help of intern Janie Morris – listing some of what’s coming soon, and the thing that really amazes you while listening to these folks is how excited and happy they are.
What gives you hope now?
I am very transparent because nothing gives me hope. I am not an optimistic person. I do this work, and journalism in general, out of a deep moral sense. We are talking about maintaining a livable planet for humans. So either you do something about climate change or you work against it. I want to be on the side doing something about it. I know it’s reductive, but harming the planet has become part of our social and economic systems. If you don’t do anything to change these malicious systems, you’re strengthening them. Because these are human systems. It’s a bit like the matrixWe are the product of the system, but we also created the system. I want to be clear about something: a lot of things that have not traditionally been framed like climate are actually related to climate – housing is a climate issue, and racism is a climate issue. So when I say address the platform, it includes things that may not at first glance look like climate but are interrelated. in How to save a planetwe’re trying to show those links.
So, I said I’m not an optimist, and it might sound a bit bleak. But I am a joyful person. We used to laugh a lot [on the show]. If you want to ask what brings me joy, I’d say being outside, especially with friends. I find joy on sunny days with a tinge of fall. I can’t wait to go pick the apples. Autumn hiking. Long bike rides.
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