What's Actually Interesting About Covering Climate Change

While climate change may be complex and difficult terrain, rediscovering our industrial infrastructure is compelling.

A coal mine in Utah (Reuters).

The Rio+20 UN summit is just around the corner, the latest in a decades-long string of international meetings that attempt to address one of the world's greatest and most global environmental problems.

What's that? Your eyes have already glazed over? Well, you're not alone. I just spent the last couple of days in Seoul for the Global Green Growth Institute Summit, where I spoke during a session on green journalism. A common refrain from both the speakers and the audience was that that people were tired of hearing the same jeremiads about greenhouse gas concentrations, sea level rise, and government panels. Even people who care deeply about the environment are fatigued. This is a particularly acute problem on the Internet where the distribution of a story largely depends on readers to share the narrative with their friends through social media. The standard climate change narratives are not shareable.

But to me the most interesting stories to tell about climate change have never been attempts to elucidate the worst-case scenarios. As an organizing narrative, what climate change offered me was a reason to rediscover and reimagine the world's basic infrastructure. Want to radically improve the efficiency of the transportation system? Well, first you have to understand how and why Americans built the system that we have. You have to ask: What problems were our forebears trying to solve?

For people who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, this is a fascinating topic because we came into a world that had effectively covered its tracks. By the logic of the system, making the industrial processes that power the world opaque was good, so we don't see them in our daily lives. As an early 21st century American, it is easy to be completely ignorant of the basic systems -- food, water, energy -- that make modern life possible. You just don't have to know.

I think there's a perception that people don't want to read stories about the innards of industrial life, but I've never had a hard time getting people to look at and share these narratives. Take a look at Reddit's Today I Learned section. Among the miscellany, you often find factlets about how the 20th century's big technological systems work.  Which makes sense because there is just so much to know about the complex networks that deliver what we need. When you really think about everything that needs to happen for a piece of coal in Wyoming to become the electricity that flows into your phone, it's stunning. It doesn't make me mad or depressed, even though burning the coal emits carbon. Rather, I'm filled with awe about the achievements of previous generations, and maybe with some hope that our generation can accomplish something equally ambitious.