Justin Gillis doesn’t seem like a typical journalist. His imposing stature, Southern drawl and close-cropped hair bring to mind instead a career military man.
In some ways, the environmental science and policy reporter for The New York Times is a warrior in his own right; he has fought traditionally weak climate change coverage with his 2009 series “Temperatures Rising,” a sequence of front page articles that thoroughly explained the science and effects of global warming.
Gillis brought the battle to Northwestern Tuesday with his lecture, “Hot Copy! Journalism in the Greenhouse.” He charged Medill and Northwestern as a whole with the duty of producing “climate-literate” journalists and students.
Gillis posed what he considered to be the main problem with the dissemination of climate information – the discovery of a “common language to alert the public to the reality of the situation they’re in” – to an audience of scientists, journalists and social scientists, and offered education as a solution.
Gillis began his lecture with a dramatic before-and-after comparison of the Arctic ice cap in 1979 and 2012. He then launched into a basic overview of the science behind climate change and the danger we are in. He cited projections for increased global climate temperature as the cause for possible catastrophic events, while conceding that “our best minds do not know how bad it’s going to get” but that they know we are “running a big risk.”
According to Gillis, the public does not understand the urgency of running such a risk, partly due to poor coverage of climate change. He described climate journalism as “tepid,” “shallow” and occasionally “nonexistent.”
“The science itself is so complicated that the average reporter has trouble getting the basics rights,” Gillis said. “We’re not connecting the dots for people even when the science is solid enough that there are dots to be connected.”
The solution to this problem, Gillis explained, is the education of journalists in the science of climate change so they can “translate the jargon” and clearly communicate to the public the dangers of our habits.
Gillis then called on Medill to help solve this problem, by challenging the “finest journalism school in the country” to “find a way to send every single journalism student out there with a grasp of the basics of this climate problem.” He also called for climate literacy to become commonplace in all disciplines across campus, claiming that he believes students “shouldn’t be able to graduate without knowing the magnitude of the risk we’re running.”
Despite this strong language, Gillis pointed out that many universities have made a “strong commitment” to sustainability because of pressure from the students, and encouraged the young people in the audience to continue their efforts by leading a round of applause.
The lecture ended with a Q&A session, during which attendees chimed in with their comments and questions about what they could do to help.
One scientist noted that Gillis placed a lot of responsibility on journalists, and asked what people in her profession could do to aid clear communication. Gillis responded that it is “critical that they learn the arts of rhetoric and learn how to get their points across.”
David Snydacker, co-director of the Northwestern Energy and Sustainability Consortium and a McCormick graduate student, said his organization is already beginning to heed Gillis’ advice, citing the two seminar series NESC is sponsoring this year “for all students within Northwestern to educate them on the technology and the business side.”
John Laing, a professor in the philosophy department who teaches a class in environmental ethics, invited Gillis to come speak to his class when it's offered in Spring Quarter.
“What I liked about Mr. Gillis’ approach was that he understands the policy and the implications of what he’s talking about, but he has a real visceral understanding of what the importance of this problem is,” he said.“It’s both accessible and in-depth. That’s a difficult combination.”