How climate policy reporting changed, just as it was gaining momentum
By Jessie Sitnick
As climate risk and action have become mainstream business and investor concerns in the last year, it finally felt like climate policy journalism would start getting the serious space that it deserved. At last, climate considerations would shape national dialogue about our future and priorities.
Cue the dual calamities of the oil price crash and COVID-19. Suddenly, the momentum that seemed inevitable after Canada’s federal election was thrown into question. In this edition of Argyle’s #ChroniclingCOVID series, we talk to the Globe and Mail’s Adam Radwanski about the future of climate change reporting as Canada contemplates recovery. We also get a glimpse into his world covering the two of the greatest crises of our time—with a new baby and pre-schooler at home.
Argyle: In “normal times” your reporting focuses on the policy and politics of climate change. Do you think the shift in media attention from that crisis to this one will impede progress on climate action?
Adam Radwanski: I think, at the moment, the media is reflecting the level of public interest, or at least what we perceive that to be. Heading into the week when everything really started to shut down, back in March, I was working on a couple of longer climate-related features. When the oil price collapsed at the start of the week, I began working on a story about how clean-economy transition might fit into the economic response. By the end of the week, any focus on anything other than the immediate health and economic crisis felt beside the point and tone-deaf.
We’re now starting to get back to a point where the impact of this massive disruption on climate policy – including how clean-economy transition could fit into stimulus measures that are likely coming this year – will get more attention.
There’s no question that it’s going to take a long time to return to where we were just this past winter, when the media saw implementing the climate agenda (without further disrupting national unity) as the defining challenge of Justin Trudeau’s second term. That lack of pressure could contribute to it sliding down the federal government’s priority list. But I do think there will be a lot of scrutiny of Ottawa’s economic-relief measures and whether they make good on the opportunity for clean-economy transition.
Q: What advice would you offer environmental organizations and climate communicators about how to work with media on climate issues during this time?
My first suggestion, which might be more about messaging than media relations, is to avoid triumphalism about the troubles of the oil industry, or the way we’re all being taught to live lower-emissions lives. Fortunately, that’s mostly been avoided so far, but to the extent it’s happened, I think it comes off extremely unsympathetic toward people who have lost their jobs and is counterproductive.
When dealing with journalists In the next few months, you may face a somewhat different challenge in that pretty much everyone in the environmental space is going to be pitching their preferred policy lever as a necessary component of the coming stimulus plan.
To cut through all the noise, you’re going to want to make a compelling (and concise) case for why whatever you’re suggesting is specifically tailored to urgent economic needs, and isn’t just a rehash of whatever you were advocating pre-crisis. And, as when dealing with government, it might be helpful to provide specifics on things like price tags, timelines, job multipliers – and emissions reductions, of course.
Q: What’s been your best moment as a journalist during COVID-19? What’s been your worst?
I’ve been fairly happy with a couple of deeper dives I’ve gotten to do so far. One was about some of the big questions governments should be asking themselves, concerning what sort of economy they want to try to build on the other side of this, and how their short-term relief measures might set that up. The other was about what the reopening of the economy might look like. In both cases, I got to learn a lot from talking to smart people – from economists and Bay Street types, to infectious disease experts – which is always my favourite part of the job.
The toughest part was having to set aside the climate focus as this crisis ramped up. I was just reaching a point where I felt like my research and source-building was ready to pay off. Then I had to throw out a lot of the work I’d done because the world suddenly changed so much (though I’m now starting to try to get back on top of it).
Q: On a more personal note, congratulations on the newest addition to your family! What’s it like to balance work responsibilities with a new baby in the midst of all of this?
Thanks! We now have a four-year-old and a baby, who was born just before all this (in early February). In a way, we’re fortunate because my wife is on parental leave, so we don’t have to deal with both of us trying to both work our jobs while also parenting. Though that’s easy for me to say, since I’m the one who’s sometimes able to lock myself in a room to get a story done, which may be less stressful than solo parenting a newborn and a high-energy preschooler stuck inside.
The combination is still pretty tiring, and means you rarely feel like you’re doing either your very best parenting or your very best work. But I’m not going to lose sight of how many people have it a lot tougher at the moment. We’ve been taking walks, enjoying Toronto’s usually underappreciated greenspace. We always feel better coming back than we did going out.
Post-script: Since our conversation a couple weeks ago, Adam has been busy examining how Canada could weave climate policy considerations into economic recovery plans. Check out his recent story here.
About Argyle’s ‘Chornicling COVID’ series
Journalism is essential during a crisis – and harder than ever during a pandemic when a reporter can’t get close to their sources. That’s why Argyle is turning the tables by interviewing prominent Canadian journalists. We aim to learn how they are coping, staying on top of the 24/7 news cycle, delivering fresh angles and insight, and engaging with communicators.
About the author:
Jessie Sitnick is Argyle’s Vice President of Corporate and Public Affairs. She is recognized as one of Canada’s leading communicators on climate change and the clean economy.