It’s Getting Easier To Have Climate Stories Greenlighted

I’ve been trying to write climate stories for 30 years. Now editors are getting on board

Clive Thompson

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A photo of someone sitting on a wooden park bench, with their legs crossed, holding up a broadsheet newspaper. The newspaper covers their face; only the top of their head, with short black hair, is visible
Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

I was a teenager in 1988 when James Hansen gave his congressional testimony on climate change.

It was the first time I’d seen the dangers of greenhouse gases laid out so clearly — and alarmingly. Being a science nerd back even then, I dove into the nascent literature about CO2 and other heat-trapping gases, and it scared the living crap out of me.

So when I became a freelance magazine journalist in the mid 90s, I decided I wanted to write about climate change and energy as much as possible.

As it turns out, I didn’t often get a chance. Back then, most editors were skeptical about approving many pitches on global warming. As they noted — correctly — the stories were brow-furrowingly complex: Lots of molecular science, atmospheric physics, all material that thrills science nerds but is a harder sell for others. Plus, the subject of energy wasn’t on the front burner, editorially. (Back then, you read about it more often in the business pages, if at all.) Worse, global warming was simply a bummer, certainly compared to the other hot tech story of the day, the rise of the Internet.

On top of it all, the danger of climate change was still decades away. That made it even harder for them to greenlight stories on the problem.

To be clear, I’m not really blaming these editors for turning down these pitches! They too cared about global warming, often quite deeply, on a personal level. But on an institutional level? These magazines were nearly all for-profit enterprises, and they were already losing advertising and shrinking in size as they faced ever-more competition from jazz-hands online ventures. They couldn’t risk boring their audience with stories the audience didn’t want to read — and back then, honestly, too many people didn’t want to read climate stories.

Either way, for the first 25 years of my journalistic career, I published very few energy or climate pieces. Instead, I wound up writing a ton more about the Internet, culture, and how technology affected our cognition. (Which, to be fair, was a subject I truly loved.)

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net