Almost a year after Trump was elected president of the United States, I joined the good news industry. That is to say, I took a job at a publication whose mission was finding and amplifying not the seemingly ubiquitous signs of civilizational crisis, but instead positive news stories about climate change.
As an optimistic person suffering from political depression, I was a willing recruit. The organization’s pitch was persuasive: Social science research shows that people tune out the psychologically unmanageable doom-and-gloom messages of the climate movement. (If the world is ending, most of us would rather not think about it.) That’s exacerbated by media focusing on all the most sensational apocalyptic scenarios, along with real-time climate disasters like wildfires and floods, while largely ignoring signs of progress.
My new bosses—earnest young women from a nonprofit based in São Paulo—believed that a focus on actually existing solutions would invite more people into the climate movement. The content was translated from the Portuguese, and someone needed to clean it up and make it readable for the global English-language readership. That was my job.
At the time, there was less climate reporting than there is now, and nearly all of it was dire and largely ignored, like a blaring, unheeded car alarm on a busy street. This site had, by contrast, a quiet, wholesome can-do tone. The sponsoring organization lacked the budget or staff for robust reporting, though, so our good news often lacked substance. We did not report skeptically enough on companies claiming to do business sustainably, nor on the efficacy of feel-good mass actions like tree-planting. There were a few good stories on policy—cities like Freiburg, Germany, that had become more livable and reduced car traffic; an Australian province incentivizing homeowners to install solar panels. But there weren’t enough of these policy-focused pieces. Due to the site’s nonprofit orientation, our definition of good news could be absurdly, even discouragingly, small-scale: one person leading a zero-waste lifestyle, an NGO distributing solar-powered stoves to poor people.
Despite these flaws, the site felt like a light in darkening times. It probably did inspire some people into action. But as soon as far-right climate denier Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil in late 2018, our editors found the site’s emphasis on positivity unsustainable and understandably felt their organization should focus its efforts on the urgent domestic crisis in Brazil rather than on this perky global media project.
Since then, many other players have jumped into the good news industry, with much bigger budgets and higher journalistic standards than my previous employers. In late 2019, The Washington Post launched its “Climate Solutions” vertical, which has rigorously reported Biden greenlighting California’s much-challenged climate limits on cars, a New Mexico community building climate-resilient homes out of trash, and much more. Grist’s daily newsletter always opens with a piece of good news; recent items have included Australia closing its largest coal-fired power plant, Biden creating a domestic supply chain for lithium batteries, scientists moving closer to finding a way to turn nuclear fusion into a viable energy source, and the United Kingdom plugging its two remaining fracking wells. National Geographic has also increased its attention to positive developments on the conservation front, often highlighting species that have bounced back (giraffes, for example) and the changes in human policy or activity that helped. For an added dopamine hit, this genre of good news often features a cute animal photo: highly recommended.
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As a project, however, good climate news can be fraught. It risks seeming insensitive: After all, humanity is facing a series of devastating mass extinction events. Many people are already suffering, whether from drought, heat, or major storms. The “good news” orientation can feel ghoulishly morally askew or tone deaf, like trying to find a silver lining in a genocide. Perhaps even worse, the desperation of small-bore unscalable good news—one community garden was saved from a bulldozer after a neighborhood organized for five years!—can just make us even more depressed, seeming to highlight the futility of fighting powerful industries. And we don’t want readers to become complacent, figuring that if Biden is doing some good things, all readers need to do is write checks to Democrats—or to nonprofits bringing solar stoves to Cape Town—and all will be well. Good news should encourage us to engage in the fight against the fossil fuel industry, not lull us into the delusion that we’ve already won.
Still, good news is crucial to winning the climate fight. Learning about solutions not only gives us hope, which we need if we are to muster the will to keep going, but also helps clarify our goals. Finding out what works in Norway can help us figure out what to demand as we protest in Missouri. It also helps address a fatal problem with climate journalism: People don’t want to read it, since it is mostly too much of a bummer. Good news can keep people engaged with the issue.
But the most important reason to cover good climate news, consciously and intentionally, is simpler: It exists, and there are plenty of systemic reasons that it’s often overlooked. The dearth of good climate news in the U.S. media reflects a morbid focus on national news at the expense of local, state, or global developments. Our national government is so hobbled by fossil fuel money and right-wing ideology that good climate news can be hard to find. That’s not the case in many state and local governments and certainly not overseas, either. Organizations with the capacity to cover foreign stories can explore how China built its high-speed rail so fast, as CNN recently did, with great photos and video. Some news sites have also covered the return of New York City’s municipal composting program. But the novelty of such stories reflects how little the media turns its attention either overseas or to our own backyards (or curbsides). Investing more in both the global and the local—necessary for so many other reasons—would make it easier to find and cover good climate news.
Americans are wired for an almost embarrassing optimism, which can be grossly misguided on an individual level. We think we’re going to be able to afford houses on our low incomes, consume lavishly without consequences, get rich someday. Still, collectively, we suffer from the reverse: a paralyzing cynicism and despair. The British economist John Maynard Keynes wrote that humans aren’t moved to act by mathematical probabilities, nor indeed by any rational calculation, but instead by something he called “animal spirits”: the optimistic, spontaneous urge to do something positive. We could use more animal spirits in our climate coverage, and to that end, the trend toward rigorously reported good news is a welcome one. I might venture to argue that it is good news.