Reflecting on a Year of Climate Coverage

After a year of our "Climate Connections" series, Robert Siegel talks with NPR Science Correspondents Christopher Joyce and Richard Harris. Both recall defining moments from the series, including Joyce's trip to the Fiji islands and Harris' meeting with an ecologist in Niger.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Well, it has not been a millennial experience, but our Climate Connection series has been on NPR now for an entire year. It's taken our reporters to every continent, and that includes Antarctica, and now it's ending. Over the past year we've heard evidence of past climactic events, forecasts of the future, and many accounts of what people are doing now in the present.

And joining me now in the studio are Chris Joyce, whom we just heard in that report. Good to see you, Chris.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Glad to be here.

SIEGEL: And science correspondent Richard Harris. Hi, Richard.

RICHARD HARRIS: Hello, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first to both of you, thanks for the entire series of Climate Connections. It's been a great year.

HARRIS: Well, thank you. I mean, we obviously can't take credit, just the two of us, but we feel really happy to be a part of it.

SIEGEL: Well, second, some concluding thoughts. Chris Joyce, your story just now was about the church's role in climate change. Did you get the sense that what you and so many other people at NPR have been working on for the past year is a spiritual movement? Is it a scientific movement? Is it something that people all the world are now engaged in? What do you say?

JOYCE: I think it's moving away from what it started as, which is a scientific idea and a scientific discovery, and moving towards something that's much more fundamental, something that people perhaps are going to be thinking about every day rather than once a couple months. One of the reasons the United Nations has approached this religious organization is because they realize that they're diplomats, they are scientists, they're economists, they have no idea how to talk to ordinary people, and they're coming to terms with that, and looking for help from who else but the church who has been changing people's minds for millennia.

SIEGEL: Richard, you in the course of this series traveled to some of the poorest places in the world in sub-Saharan Africa and also to very prosperous areas, in the American Southwest. Is the message to the world's poor please stay poor, please don't develop, don't start consuming more resources and burning more stuff?

HARRIS: Well, that really can't be the message because actually the poorest people in the world are essentially not contributing at all to the problem. And the real issue for them is they are most likely to be the victims, and the solution for them is probably to become less poor, to develop economic resiliency and so on. And the question is how to do that without harming the planet, and the answer seems to be not to ask them to hold back on development but to help them develop in such a way that they can take whatever comes. And we're not sure what they're going to be faced with, but clearly they're living a life right now that is - has very little margin for error.

SIEGEL: Not that your work or the work of NPR's science unit is finished with global warming by any means, but after this entire experience do you come away essentially encouraged about this movement to cope with climate change or discouraged?

HARRIS: Well, I'm encouraged a little bit, to the extent that people are more aware of it now. But I think the more we realize how huge a problem it is - and I must say I did not come away from this year more optimistic that we will find an easy way out of it this at all. When you look at the numbers, we need to reduce global emissions, not just ours, but China's and India's and everyone else's by 50 to 80 percent in the next few decades. That's a really, really hard job. I can't see exactly how we're going to do it.

SIEGEL: Chris Joyce?

JOYCE: I would to agree, although I think we are seeing the science of mechanisms that are people are inventing. I mean, I have a fair amount of faith in human ingenuity, and I think that once people grasp (unintelligible) and say this is really serious, I mean if they can begin to understand just how expensive this is going to be, then I would hope that human ingenuity is going to help us get through by inventing new ways to get around. There's also market mechanisms which we're seeing that would encourage people to say, hey, I can make money even doing this.

SIEGEL: Are there take-away moments that each of you finds themselves repeating and telling people that you've - things you've experienced in reporting on this over the past year?

JOYCE: One does comes to mind, and one of the first places I went was Fiji. And I wanted to talk to people in of South Pacific about the idea of sea level rising and what it means to their lives. I talked to a woman named Kinina Namata(ph), who's in her 50s, was aware of the science, was becoming part of an environmental movement, but she was an ordinary person in the clothing business. And she said, you know, you people come here and you - from the West and you have no idea what it's like how we live. We live in the ocean. We don't live on land. And she said I grew up on an island. You could walk across it in 10 minutes, no part is six feet above sea level. We're scared, and we have nowhere to go.

SIEGEL: Richard?

HARRIS: I think my most livid moment was probably meeting an ecologist named Larwanou in Niger. It was a hopeful story about the fact that people in Niger are planting trees, which is really helping them become more resilient to desertification and climate change and everything else. We walked into one area and we saw all the trees chopped down and his face dropped. And he said, I understand that, you know, I'm an ecologist, I'd like to see things green. But on the other hand he recognizes people have to eat, and they were chopping down trees to make room for more crops. It sort of summed up the complicated situation that Niger is facing. The population is growing, people need to eat, but they also need to be resilient.

SIEGEL: Well, Richard Harris and Christopher Joyce, thanks to both of you and to all of your colleagues and mine through a year's worth of Climate Connections.

JOYCE: Happy to talk with you.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Okay, Robert.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: You left something out there.

SIEGEL: I did, and we're listening to it right now.

BLOCK: It's the Climate Connections theme music. And you are not going to be hearing this music on this program. We can't vouch for any other program, but on this program this is the last time we'll be hearing this song.

SIEGEL: Mondays will never be the same.

BLOCK: Composed and performed by David Was of the group Was (Not Was)

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