A New Way of Thinking About Climate Change

Introducing Atlantic Planet

photo illustration of climate change
Photo-illustration by Nico Krijno

I’ve been covering climate change for The Atlantic for five years, or nearly a sixth of the time I’ve been alive. That’s long enough to watch the world change around me. I covered America’s adoption of the Paris Agreement and our plan to depart it; in 2017, I warned that Democrats were shockingly unprepared to pass climate policy, then I watched the party unite around a new agenda.

Today, The Atlantic is launching Planet, a new section devoted to climate change, along with The Weekly Planet, a new newsletter. We’ve made them because we recognize—as you might too—that climate change is the backdrop of our lives and one of the moral crises of the century, a globe-spanning force reshaping how we work, how we play, how we shop, and how we vote. We hope to be your guide to living through climate change, a source of expert information and thoughtful analysis that’s less angel-on-your-shoulder and more friend-at-your-side.

Here’s what you can expect from Planet in the days and months to come:

First: We will cover climate change in the present tense—not as a distant threat, but as a force that is already reconfiguring business, culture, society, and life on Earth. This outlook doesn’t reflect our prediction about where the world is heading; we think a detached assessment of the facts allows for no other conclusion.

Second: We will recognize that the economy is made of real stuff—purring servers, fields of alfalfa, wind-spun turbines, muscle and bone. So we’ll also recognize that solving climate change and zeroing out carbon pollution requires getting elbow-deep in reality. A gallon of gasoline isn’t a price by the side of the road; it’s a physical reserve of fossilized sunlight, the refined residue of what was once 25 metric tons of ancient sea life. To leave fossil fuels behind, we must find a new source of energy to replace that prehistoric sun.

photo-illustration by nico krijno

Finally: We will understand that climate change is too serious to be taken seriously all the time. When Justin Bieber plays a laid-off oil-rig worker in a music video, it isn’t just an entertainment story; it’s a climate story. When one in four childless adults says that climate change shaped their reproductive decisions, it is of course a climate story, but it’s also a sex story. And when the government of Tulsa, Oklahoma, repaints its giant downtown statue of an oil driller to look like Elon Musk, and then doesn’t even get the Tesla factory it was angling for, it is very funny, in addition to being a scandalously pathetic use of tax dollars.

Planet might be new, but its approach to climate coverage has long been at home at The Atlantic. Our writers have covered aspiring mammoth cloners and would-be geo-engineers. Nearly 40 years ago, Tracy Kidder wrote in our pages that scientists were studying difficult questions raised by “the greenhouse effect.”

And in our first issue, in 1857, our founders wrote that the magazine would be of “no party or clique.” That famous line has appeared in our table of contents, off and on, for the past century and a half.

But another sentence followed it. The founders did not reject partisanship because they wished to avoid taking sides, or out of some faith in the journalistic “view from nowhere.” Instead, their dislike for clannishness flowed from their concern for nuance and a higher kind of truth. The Atlantic, the founders wrote, should “deal frankly” with people and parties—and it should always “keep in view that moral element which transcends all persons and parties, and which alone makes the basis of a true and lasting national prosperity.”

For the past few years, I’ve had those words taped to my desk on an index card. They paint a marvelous picture—of an invisible substance that molds each of us, permeates all our politics, hums with morality, and somehow implicates our abundance.

It’s just a metaphor, of course. And yet—in one of those gasps of historical foresight—the image suggests what we now call the climate.