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Current Climate: Kendra Pierre-Louis on Saving the Planet and Finding Joy

Climate reporter Pierre-Louis, who says “gloom is my beat,” strives to empower others to take meaningful climate action individually and collectively through her podcast, How to Save a Planet.

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Last month, President Joe Biden signed into law the landmark climate bill that is already drastically shifting U.S. policy toward meaningful action to combat climate change. The Inflation Reduction Act puts billions of dollars toward renewable energy, fighting extreme disasters, and incentivizing individuals to purchase electric cars and other climate-friendly technology. How significant is this legislation, really? DAME asked climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis, who currently co-hosts Gimlet’s How to Save a Planet podcast, to break down the bill and share her own thoughts about the current climate. Pierre-Louis talks about the bill’s contradictions, the challenges of climate reporting, and how she finds joy.

DAME: Congress just passed a landmark climate bill investing billions into combating greenhouse gas emissions and promoting renewable energy efforts. The legislation is historic, but it also comes on the heels of decades of struggling to get lawmakers to invest in serious solutions to address this global crisis. Can you walk us through your thoughts on this new bill’s promises?

Kendra-Pierre Louis: The most important thing to understand about the Inflation Reduction Act is that it’s a first step in a race we’re already quite behind on. So it’s both this landmark piece of climate legislation and it doesn’t do enough. It’s a necessary first step, but we still need to push for more change.

In terms of what’s good and bad, we chronicled a lot of this in a How to Save a Planet episode produced by my colleague Rachel Waldholz. The pros include a ton of investment in renewable energy, not just wind and solar but battery storage and improvements to the grid. These are things that we need to invest in to get off of fossil fuels.

There are incentives for people who need to drive to help them afford an electric and incentives to install heat pumps into people’s homes, which are a more efficient way to heat and cool a building. There is an incentive to get low-income people off of gas stoves and onto induction stoves, which use electricity, but they are not your old-fashioned coil stove, they use magnets. Induction stoves have a lot of benefits… even bigger than being better for the climate they’re better for your lungs. There’s also $60 billion set aside for environmental justice.

What are some of the bill’s pitfalls?

On the bad side, there are concessions to the fossil fuel industry, such as continuing to offer leasing to oil and gas companies on public lands and waters. The models from organizations like Rhodium Group and the Energy Innovation group suggest that from a climate perspective the pros of the bill outweigh the cons. Assuming the models are true, that’s little comfort to people in frontline communities that live downwind of this infrastructure—people whose air and water will continue to be polluted.

There’s this expression in Haitian Kreyol that goes, lave men, siye atè, which means, “wash hands, dry them on the floor”. It describes kind of a futile endeavor, or undermining your own actions. You wash your hands because they are dirty, but if you dry them on the floor they stay dirty. You might as well not have washed your hands at all. I’m not saying that’s totally true when it comes to the environmental justice dollars in the Inflation Reduction Act versus the handouts to the fossil fuel industry, but there’s an element of that there. So even while the bill on one hand allocates money for environmental justice, the same text perpetuates a status quo based on fossil fuel extraction that is harmful to those same communities. Lave men, siye atè.

How is mainstream environmental reporting on this legislation and other environmental issues contributing to the public’s misconceptions surrounding climate change?

[Beyond the IRA], the biggest issue with climate reporting is still treating it as a distinct issue instead of one underlying everything. And treating it both as an alarmist thing but paradoxically one without a sense of urgency.

You’ll often see stories talking about the effects of extreme weather—say a heat wave—but the story won’t mention climate change. You have to read a separate story about climate change to make that link. The industry has gotten better at knowing that extreme weather stories should include a sentence or two about the climate link, but we aren’t where we need to be yet.

At the same time, we often limit climate stories to impacts that are easily seen. At my last job I got an email from a reader that was like, “I don’t live on the coast, why should I care about it and have my tax dollars go to solve climate change?” The thing that stood out to me was he lived in an area of California, which is extremely susceptible to drought, but somehow hadn’t connected that dot. Flooding is not just a coastal impact. Hurricane Irene in 2011 absolutely drenched Vermont, which has no coast, and inland areas of New York state. Lafayette, Louisiana is 35 miles from the coast, and it was flooded due to extreme rainfall in 2016. There was massive flooding in Columbia, South Carolina in 2016 and again this year. There is no aspect of life on this planet that our atmosphere does not touch, so climate change will affect everything about life on this planet, but it’s easy to not know that if you’re not steeped in the literature. We have to do a better job of conveying that—and the impacts.

Lastly, a lot of people still think climate change is a future thing. Part of this is—and I do this too—we tend to default to the language of future projections because we normalize the horrors we are already living with. I’m a native New Yorker, and I still live here. We’re a transient city, and so people don’t always understand that our summers didn’t used to be this hot. That we had a proper spring and a proper fall. The reality is, if you’re under 45, you’ve never experienced a normal temperature year. Even my baseline for what was “normal” when I was a kid… is too hot.

So much of the conversation around climate action right now is steeped in negativity with phrases like climate grief, climate anxiety, or climate doom. Your podcast How to Save a Planet takes us a step forward, specifically centering on solutions and countering environmental pessimism with optimism. How do you empower your listeners to make their own change in the fight for environmental justice?

A lot of people already understand the depth and scale of climate change. They understand the problem—we burn too many fossil fuels, the heat waves, the floods, the droughts. This is something traditional news is very good at—telling us the problem. But it tells us almost nothing about how we can be part of the solution. It’s disempowering.

Imagine if I told you that your house is going to burn down. I even tell you when. But then I refuse to tell you anything that you can do to stop it or protect yourself… it’s almost like, “why did I bother telling you?” That’s what we’re doing with traditional climate journalism. This framework exists because a lot of news, especially national news, is geared toward political insiders. It’s not designed to make the rest of us better citizens or constituents. Instead it spreads the idea that politics, and by extension climate action, is a spectator sport—that our capacity to effectuate change is limited to who we vote for and maybe what we buy. And this is wrong. Democracy is for all of us. Climate action is for all of us.

What we do with How to Save a Planet is two-fold. First, we tell you some aspect of climate change that is a problem. For example, that food waste creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. But then we talk to people who are looking at solutions [such as] someone who is doing large-scale composting. Then we tell you ways you could potentially contribute. You walk away knowing an aspect of a climate problem and something you can do to help fix it. Our solutions generally aren’t like “use a reusable tote bag” because that’s an individual solution and we need systemic solutions. So, we look at ways that you as an individual can help shift that system a little, often by joining in with others. Maybe composting is not your thing. That’s okay. Every week we look at a different problem and another solution. We are an all-you-can-eat buffet of climate solutions.

The second thing that we do is give people a vision of the future of what a world in which we acted on climate might look like. Acting on climate is not just about sacrifice. Depending on how we choose to transition, we gain as much, or more, than we lose. Getting rid of fossil fuel power plants means the air is cleaner and that tens of thousands of us in the U.S. (millions worldwide) don’t die early deaths. Cities with fewer cars are quieter, safer. Climate smart homes are more comfortable. Getting people to envision this shift can mean helping to reframe things for them.

So, for example, I did this story on bicycling. And the genesis of the story was, in part, because I realized that the messaging on bicycling is often terrible. We’re told to ride a bike because it’s better for the planet than driving. And this is true, but it’s not exactly seductive, you know?

Car ads lure us in with images of partying in our car, or beautiful landscapes, or even with family time. And we’re told “ride a bike, save a tree.” I like trees, and I’m not sure I’d want to ride a bike just for that. But I do ride a bike, not because it’s good for the planet, but because I find driving stressful and because cycling is fun. That cycling is also good for the planet means I don’t have to feel bad about having this much fun. That is a win-win. And that’s what I wanted listeners to feel. I wanted them to feel the joy I have when I ride, and to understand that by centering society solely around the car this joy is being stolen from us. It’s a kind of a theft.

We’re doing pure service journalism. And I can say it’s working. We’re hitting our two-year anniversary and people have effectuated change in such clever ways. We have a birthday episode—produced by Anna Ladd with help from intern Janae Morris—that chronicles some of that coming out soon, and the thing that really hits you listening to these people is how enthusiastic and joyful they are.

What’s giving you hope right now?

I’m pretty transparent that nothing gives me hope. I am not a hopeful person. I do this work, and journalism in general, out of a sense of deep morality. We’re talking about maintaining a livable planet for humans. So you’re either doing something about climate change or you’re working against it. I want to be on the side that’s doing something about that. I know it’s reductionist, but harming the planet is baked into our socio-economic systems. If you’re not doing anything to shift those harmful systems, then you are reinforcing them. Because these are human systems. It’s a little bit like The Matrix: We are products of the system, but we also created the system. I want to be clear on something: A lot of things that aren’t traditionally framed as climate are actually related to climate—housing is a climate issue, racism is a climate issue. So when I say addressing the underlying system, it includes things that at first blush might not seem like climate but are interconnected. At How to Save a Planet, we try to show those connections.

So, I’ve said I’m not a hopeful person, which might sound kind of grim. But I am a joyful person. We laugh a lot [on the show]. If you wanted to ask what is bringing me joy, I would say being outside, especially with friends. I’m finding joy in crisp sunny days with a tinge of fall. I can’t wait to go apple picking. Fall hiking. Long bike rides.

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