Telling the Story of Climate Migration

Article In The Thread /
April 11, 2023

In his work, Abrahm Lustgarten, Class of 2022 New America Fellow and an award-winning environmental reporter, shines a light on forced migration as a result of climate change and how it threatens our shared future.

In this extended Q&A from The Fifth Draft — the National Fellows Program’s newsletter featuring exclusive content about and from our Fellows — Lustgarten talks more about his Fellows project on human migration in the age of climate change and why people-centered narratives are critical to telling the bigger story.

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Your fellows project centers on human migration as a major consequence of climate change. Why did you choose to write about climate change from this people-centered perspective?

I spend a lot of time thinking deeply about climate change — not just how to slow it, but how it will change how we live. I don’t think there is a greater way that warming stands to change the world we live in than by leading to dramatic shifts in where populations gravitate. That will then determine peace or conflict, wealth or poverty, even basic sustenance. And so, with many possible priorities to choose from, I just felt like this was the most important, and largest, human story that had to be told. And at its heart, it’s really about individual people full of hope and need and trying to find something better for themselves, which we can all relate to.

What considerations do you make when writing about the scientific aspects of climate change for a general audience? How do you balance technical language and compelling narrative?

I try not to use technical language at all! Sometimes it slips in. But the art or the goal is always to figure out how to put complex things in terms everyone can not only relate to, but stay engaged with. It’s the only way that anyone will actually read what you write. As for the narrative, the ideal (not easy to achieve) is a narrative that explains what needs to be explained without switching back out of it. But otherwise it’s a rhythm. You can write what feels right and switch gears to cover more difficult or science-y material when the story itself seems ready to shift. If the human narrative carries more momentum and is easier to read — often the case — then you can use it to paddle your story along, and then coast through a little [explanation], then paddle again.

In your cover story for the New York Times Magazine, you wrote in part about Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados and her interactions with the global community during the country’s economic and climate crises. What are the challenges of trying to get governments to work together on an international level? What are the potential areas of success?

Ah, well, a huge question. There’s the obvious challenge of getting governments to work together on anything. It works only a small portion of the time. But with this story it’s the added challenge of trying to get governments of unequal power and influence to work together in a fair and balanced way, and that’s really what that story was about. Barbados is a tiny country, with little influence on the world stage. And most small island countries or poor countries affected most by climate change are the same way. So how can they have a seat at the table with the United States and Europe or China? How can they work with the International Monetary Fund in a way that gives them more voice and is less dismissive and patronizing than it has been historically. Because there really is very little incentive for the powerful nations to cooperate with the weak ones, but it is the right thing to do.

With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, Congress committed $369 billion to addressing climate change with the aim of increasing renewable energy production and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. What are the next steps in addressing climate change, and how can Americans advocate for these improvements?

The challenge larger than passing the Inflation Reduction Act is going to be implementing it. All that bill did was create the opportunity to now go ahead and address climate change, which means acting to both slow it down by cutting emissions, and adapt and prepare for the changes already locked in. For that bill to make a meaningful difference the government will now have to speedily choose the right ways to spend the money, do it extremely efficiently, with the help of the brightest minds, and try not to waste the opportunity. Then, every other country in the world basically needs to do the same thing. Then we all need to do it again.

Use of fossil fuels needs to be cut to negligible levels, including for power generation. Use of renewables has to increase substantially. I think a greater reliance on nuclear power will be a key component. Household appliances — including heating and cooling, and EVs for transport —– will be crucial and need to be ramped up faster than fast. Buildings need to be insulated and improved for energy efficiency, and vulnerable places need to be hardened against risks, whether rising seas and flooding, or wildfire, etc.

You have long researched and reported on environmental issues and the climate crisis at ProPublica and elsewhere. As climate conditions worsen, how has your reporting changed?

That’s almost too big a question to answer. I’ve always focused on investigative reporting with clear wrongdoing and accountability. That’s easier when talking about pollution or the destruction of the environment, than with climate change. Climate change is sprawling, intensely depressing, and until very recently [it] has also been mostly focused on the future. It’s been difficult to do classic investigative work about the future. I’ve gone through stages of evolution as I’ve switched gears, and also as climate change has become more mainstream in the news media. Most recently I’ve responded to the enormity and overwhelming nature of it by gravitating towards very big projects, more conceptual and what my editors like to call “intellectual scoops,” where I try to pay attention to the things that no one else is covering and connect the dots across issues in very complex ways. That gets overwhelming in itself though, and so I’m on the lookout for the classic climate crime investigation now all over again.

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