Powerful climate stories with journalist Sara Peach
By Flannery Winchester
CCLers know the power of stories. We integrate them into our lobbying sessions because numbers and facts sometimes fail to connect people, but personal stories often build bridges. Sara Peach is working to bring that storytelling to the public.
Peach is the Senior Editor of Yale Climate Connections, a broadcast radio program sharing stories about how climate change is already affecting our lives. She appeared at CCL’s Southeast Regional Conference earlier this year to share some of those stories. “Climate change has the potential to affect virtually everything that we care about: food, health, economy, national security, and the viability of our communities. The stakes are enormous,” she explains. “There’s still time to prevent the worst consequences of climate change, but doing so will require a transformation of our entire energy system.” Stories—powerful ones, told well—can help get us there.
A present threat
“I’ve spent the past 20 months traveling the U.S., listening to people’s experiences with climate change. And even though I’ve been covering the issue for about 10 years, during my travels I’ve been shocked by how much it’s already affecting U.S. residents,” Peach says. “I’ve visited several coastal towns in the Southeast where it’s now a routine event for streets to flood during king tides or after a burst of rain—which is a symptom of sea-level rise and higher-intensity storms. I met one woman in Miami Beach who now keeps rain boots handy for wading out to her garage.”
That new reality is not just an inconvenience, Peach points out—it’s often a health risk. The woman from Miami Beach attributes her problems with high blood pressure in part to constantly worrying about floods. “I’ve heard stories like that everywhere,” Peach says. “Whether they call it ‘climate change’ or not, many U.S. residents are having more trouble with floods, droughts, and diseases, and they’re stressed.”
The stories she’s found underscore the reality that climate change is a close, present issue, rather than the distant, future threat many people imagine. “My hometown of Durham, North Carolina, is a great example of that. Durham is relatively far from the coast, so I used to think of it as somewhat isolated from threats like intensifying hurricanes or rising seas,” she admits. “But when I looked at the data recently, I found out that it’s not immune to changes. Extremely hot days are now twice as common in Durham as when I was born in the 1980s. According to one estimate, Durham’s mosquito season has lengthened by about 40 days in my lifetime. And I’m not that old!”
A window into the future
Next, Peach will gather these stories into a book that will focus on how climate change could affect people during the next 30 years. She explains, “In each chapter, I take you to a place I call a climate window, which is a place that offers a preview of how climate change could affect all of us.”
The first chapter, which she’s calling “Family Dinner,” features a research farm in Illinois where scientists are artificially heating crops in the field and adding carbon dioxide to the ambient air. “That allows them to mimic the conditions that real-life farmers could experience across the Midwest by 2050—and gives us a window on the impact of climate change on our food,” Peach says.
In another chapter, called “Doctors Visits,” she details the 2012 West Nile fever epidemic and the story of one triathlete who was paralyzed during that outbreak, which offers a window into the health concerns of the future. (A version of this story appears in Huffington Post.)
A better approach
In college, Peach majored in environmental studies. After a few years, she says, “I realized that climate change was the biggest, baddest environmental problem of all, one that will overwhelm other concerns such as species conservation and air pollution. If climate change isn’t addressed, it will make it much harder to prevent extinction, protect human health, and combat other threats that could harm the quality of life for people everywhere.” When she went back to school for journalism, she decided to focus on the climate beat.
Her training and her work in the field have helped her understand both the problem and how people engage with it. She hopes to steer folks away from apocalyptic fears about climate change—not because the problem isn’t serious, but because there are more helpful ways to approach it. “What I’ve learned from my work is that it’s probably more useful to focus on how we can prepare for changes and help each other,” Peach explains. “For example, when it comes to food, the U.S. has an enormous advantage. Our farmers produce such a vast quantity of food that a lot of climate/agriculture experts believe America will be in a good position to offer food aid to other countries.”
That’s a conversation we should start having, she says. “For me, reframing the conversation around climate change from ‘Are we doomed?’ to ‘What can we do?’ has made the topic less depressing and more energizing.”