Q&A with Grist: Covering Climate in 2021

Zan McPherson and Kate Yoder, Grist
August 16, 2021

Kate, tell us a bit about your role with Grist.

I’m an associate editor, which means I get to do a little bit of everything. These days, I’m mostly working on my own projects. I tend to write about climate change as it relates to language, culture, and history — some of my favorite subjects! My recent pieces have explored the changing definition of a heat wave, how food waste is getting commodified through a new wave of apps, and whether ancient climate change really caused societies to collapse. I also pitch in on editing here and there, especially for Grist’s arts & culture section. We cover a wide range of stuff related to our planetary predicament — book reviews, religion, and even the climate themes in Bo Burnham’s Netflix comedy special.


What prompted Grist’s rebranding this spring, and how did this reflect where Grist is heading?

Rebranding our website felt like putting on clothes that fit a lot better! If you read Grist, you probably know that over the past several years, we’ve been shifting our focus away from blog-town and more toward deeply reported pieces, with an emphasis on solutions and climate justice. That has meant deepening our environmental justice reporting, as well as highlighting and scrutinizing the various climate solutions that come down the pike. It also meant launching a program called Fix that convenes “Fixers” across the U.S. who are working on ways to address climate change and advance equity, often at the same time. And it meant doing more to support the diverse environmental journalists of today and tomorrow, who are critical to telling a better, more accurate story about the changing climate. Our new brand and website were an opportunity to better reflect our focus on “Climate. Justice. Solutions.” (that’s our tagline!) and introduce some of the work we do that our readers might not have known about.


Tell us about how Grist has shifted its reporting to center communities on the frontlines of climate change?

It’s been obvious for a long time now that climate change is disproportionately affecting poorer communities and communities of color here in the United States and around the world. Over the past few years, we have been building out Grist’s environmental justice desk, hiring reporters and editors who are dedicated to covering that beat. (Increasing the representation of people of color across the team, particularly Black and Indigenous staff, is one of Grist’s goals for 2021.) You can find our recent equity coverage here — I recommend Emily Pontecorvo’s piece about the policy discussions around defining the term “disadvantaged communities,” and Adam Mahoney’s article about why the number of Black Americans killed in car collisions increased during the pandemic. This year, Grist is working to expand Indigenous coverage, and also regional coverage — our stories about environmental injustice tend to be heavily place-based.


Speaking of regional coverage, do you have any favorite Grist articles or recommendations for Puget Sound readers?

Our video producers, Daniel Penner and Jesse Nichols, are both based in Seattle, and they’ve worked on some amazing stuff based in our region! Jesse has looked at how cities are reimagining old shopping malls like Northgate by turning them into parks and town squares. When the Alaskan Way Viaduct came down right next to the old Grist office in 2019, he explored what really happens when a city tears down a freeway. For something a little further afield in the Cascades, I really liked this video about prescribed burns, which goes into the history of Yakama Nation forest management and how the Forest Service suppressed wildfires.

On the policy side, I recently wrote about how Washington state finally passed a cap-and-trade bill after more than a decade of trying to put a price on carbon. The most interesting thing to me is that this system is supposed to contain a first-of-its-kind program to monitor and regulate air quality in order to address environmental justice concerns with cap-and-trade.


How has Grist’s programming changed due to the COVID pandemic?

Well, for one, we reported a lot on the connections between COVID-19 and climate change! Our readers have been really interested in those connections — like many people from all over, my interest in epidemiology went from 0 to 100 last year. It has become increasingly apparent that climate change is exacerbating many public health issues, from making asthma and allergies worse to expanding the territories of disease-carrying pests. I think the pandemic was a wakeup call that Grist needed to expand our coverage of public health in general. COVID also forced us to shift all of our events programming to virtual platforms, which was definitely a learning experience! But ultimately, those are good tools to have. We found way more ways to engage with our readers virtually than we would have otherwise.


Tell us a bit about the Grist 50 and what you find most inspiring about the 2021 honorees?

The Grist 50 is a list we publish each year of 50 emerging leaders in climate, justice, and sustainability. These folks make up our Fix community (which grows by 50 people each year!). Just to name a couple of examples, there’s an artist in Miami who uses murals to make the case for climate action, and a scientist working to make cow “emissions” less carbon-intensive. The 2021 Grist 50 actually included someone from Seattle, Grant Canary. He’s the CEO of Droneseed, which flies drones in after wildfires, like the ones smoking up our skies this summer and likely many summers to come. The drones drop seeds on burned areas to help trees start regrowing, with the goal of eventually sequestering carbon.


You have a new Entrepreneur in Residence — what is this program all about and how does it relate to Grist’s core mission?

A huge part of what we’re trying to do at Grist is to share the climate stories that need to be told. And supporting the next generation of environmental storytellers and media entrepreneurs is crucial to that. Last fall, we launched an Entrepreneur in Residence program to support a storyteller or entrepreneur working on climate storytelling. Our first resident is Darel Scott. She founded Earth in Color, a creative studio and emerging media platform focused on Black culture and the environment. It’s all about using storytelling and nature experiences to celebrate Black cultural connections to the natural world and help Black early adults lead healthy, sustainable lives. It’s amazing. You should read this Q&A with her to learn about her work with Earth in Color on Radicle Magazine.


Wildfires are one of the hottest climate topics nationally, and even more so for environmentalists in the Puget Sound region. How is Grist covering the 2021 wildfire season and the increasing threat of more severe, catastrophic fires throughout the west? 

Short answer: Subscribe to our limited-run weekly newsletter launching this week, The Burning Issue! (I’ve been holding onto that name for years, waiting for the right moment to use it.) We’ve always covered wildfires at Grist, but this year we’re going deeper — 2021’s already devastating fire season made the decision for us. The newsletter will provide weekly updates and analysis of wildfires all through the summer and fall, looking at different topics each week: fire science, forest management, evacuations, resilience, and more.


The Emerald Alliance works to increase focus and funding for protecting the region’s natural infrastructure — the essential foundation for building resilience to the impacts of climate change, equity & social justice, and the continued livability and well-being of people and communities across Puget Sound. What connections have you observed between the Biden administration’s infrastructure package, climate preparedness, and funding for nature-based solutions?

The big word in politics right now is “resilience.” As I’ve written before, it’s kind of a squishy term, but it’s one that politicians on the right and the left agree is important, whereas “climate change” kind of raises some hackles for many conservatives. So while the bipartisan infrastructure bill has been watered down from Biden’s original version, resilience is still a really big piece of it. Assuming some of the billions going toward climate resilience trickle down to the Northwest, this is what we could see, per the New York Times: funding for flood control projects on rivers and coasts, removal of flammable vegetation to reduce wildfire risk, relocating highways and drinking water infrastructure out of high-risk flood zones, and money for tribal nations to adapt to the effects of climate change and relocate out of climate danger zones.


How can people follow along with Grist’s work? 

Well, in addition to signing up for The Burning Issue (you already did that, right?), I’d recommend putting your email down for The Beacon, a daily newsletter with a healthy mix of good climate news and a few short “smogs” focusing on the bad, but important, news you need to know. You can also follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and of course, visit our newly revamped website!