What Kind Of Energy Journalism Do We Need?

by David Roberts, via Grist

Yesterday evening on Twitter, I had this exchange:

That’ll teach me to ask for homework! (If you’re not familiar with Jay Rosen, you oughtta be — he’s the smartest press critic going.)

First, as I’m sure Rosen knows, there is no singular “energy journalism,” only various tribes with various beats. A quick taxonomy couldn’t hurt.

There are finance and business journalists who cover energy as a commodity business, tracking global supply and demand flows, prices, futures trading, all that sort of stuff. There are business and tech journalists who focus on cleantech. There are environmental journalists, who tend to cover energy (when they do it) through the lens of enviros vs. polluters. And there are political journalists who cover energy as a campaign and/or policy issue, sometimes as a specialty, more often as part of a portfolio.

There are journalists who straddle more than one of these tribes, but they are fairly rare — mostly what you have is a blind men and elephant situation. Each tribe has its own ambit, tropes, and habits of thinking, which persist through sheer vocational inertia.

What I’d like to see in all these varieties of energy journalism is a little bit more systems thinking, a greater sense of context. Humanity’s relationship with energy is changing in fundamental ways and lots of the familiar frames for energy coverage no longer make much sense, or at least are woefully inadequate.

Here are the three great energy challenges of the 21st century:

  1. Maintain safe and reliable energy supply to developed countries, where demand is leveling off and infrastructure is aging.
  2. Supply energy to the developing world, where demand is absolutely exploding, and to the one in three people in the world who have no reliable access to energy at all (“energy poverty”).
  3. Rapidly and substantially reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels.

Lots of energy journalists, especially of the political variety, operate as though only No. 1 existed. Biz and tech journalists are more likely to grapple with No. 2. As for No. 3, that’s an “environmental story” and so it’s left to environmental journalists, a tribe that has traditionally been science-focused and keenly, self-consciously nonpartisan.

This is the situation in energy journalism these days, and it isn’t serving readers well.

The combination of No. 2 and No. 3 puts us in an incredible bind as a species.

But we are not used to thinking as a species, much less to planning and coordinating as one. Journalists talk to their readers in terms of economic and political jockeying among wealthy nation-states, not in terms of our shared fate.

If Nos. 2 and 3 were matters of altruism, like the proverbial starving kids in Africa, then inattention might be a matter for scolds but not a professional failing. But they aren’t. In the 21st century, how the developing world supplies its thirst for energy and how much of our “carbon budget” gets spent are going to directly shape the economies and social well-being of rich Westerners. There are now enough humans on earth, particularly enough rich humans, to affect basic global biospheric systems. And temperature, precipitation, agricultural yields, and disease vectors affect everyone. Neglecting those global effects is journalistic malpractice.

The age of easy, careless fossil-fuel abundance is over. But Americans aren’t hearing that. Energy journalists aren’t putting the pieces together. In their defense, politicians and other cultural leaders aren’t either. Nobody is taking climate seriously. We are sleepwalking forward together.

What’s needed, then, is a knack for synthesis, for pulling these facets of energy together into a bigger picture. Take the boom in U.S. natural gas brought about by hydraulic fracking. It affects the domestic market viability of coal and thus carbon emissions in the U.S. It also affects coal exports to Asia and thus Asian carbon emissions. It changes U.S. energy prices and the political incentives facing fracking states but might also diminish Putin’s political power in Russia. How should all this knowledge inform U.S. policymaking?

Following those threads requires a certain restless curiosity and dilettantism, what fledgling news site Quartz recently called “obsessions.” It requires unpacking the dynamic interplay of physical, economic, and political systems. It certainly requires going beyond the facts.

That is not necessarily something that comes easily to journalists, especially old-school reporters. Pushing climate change or energy poverty into a conversation where it hasn’t typically appeared and isn’t typically taken seriously can feel like advocacy or moralizing. It pushes against some quiet but insistent social and professional pressures. Right now, frankly, think tanks, NGOs, and bloggers are doing a better job of it. You’d have trouble finding conventional journalism, even magazine journalism, with the broad scope and empirical depth of The Oil Drum or Climate Progress.

But it’s still journalism that has the reach and authority to extend beyond various choirs to a broad audience. (Less so … but still!) Journalists involved with energy need to realize that they are writing in extraordinary times. The situation with climate change is dire — more dire than virtually anyone in a position of power in America understands — even as millions emerge out of poverty in the developing world and demand energy services. Surely the highest purpose for energy journalism right now is to help audiences understand these extraordinary circumstances.

David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can follow his Twitter feed at This piece was originally published at Grist and was reprinted with permission.

8 Responses to What Kind Of Energy Journalism Do We Need?

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    The biggest problem with journalists’ coverage of energy and climate is corruption of mainstream media. Key warming events are covered cursorily and with “balance”, if at all. In this context, the quality of reporting is not that relevant, since good energy reporters- such as Margot Roosevelt, formerly of the LA Times- get fired.

    Climate Progress, Skeptical Science, and Grist are all excellent, but yours is a small niche audience. The people who run this country are happy with you, because a little sliver gets to learn the science and blow off steam in the comments section. The big boys know the science too, but they don’t care, or at least not enough to stop drilling and burning as fast as they can.

    Addressing media negligence is not only our major problem with education, it is the single greatest impediment to changing the way we produce and consume energy. I’m working on a solution now, that will include monitoring climate coverage in all major media feeds via our own software, and then reporting on them. I can be reached at

  2. Leif says:

    This kind Joe. You are the man and two thumbs up.

    I offer this from the main stream press. The NYT:

    and my letter in response:

    “The military has some of the best minds available, ~$700 billion/year in cash off the top of the Nation’s GDP and research abilities that defy imagination, and all for what? KILLING FELLOW MAN… Imagine that effort stopping the pollution of the commons and devoted to the well-being of HUMANITY! Terrorism would be cut off at the knees, instead of reinforced by the likes of Guantanimo and Abu Grab…

    The best thing the Military could do to prevent suicides is to quite getting involved in wars that are morally unjustifiable. Starting back with Korea, Viet Nahm, to the latest fiascos. Stop caring water for the Capitalistic system that in turn is destroying the Earth’s life support systems. Which, in and of itself, is morally indefensible. If the Military could “think for themselves” they would GO GREEN in TOOTH AND NAIL and deliver salvation to humanity…”
    ONE and ALL

    None of this atrocity nor the current ecocide of Earth’s life support systems would have happened with proper journalism in place IMO. Why give journalists a Constitutional “Freedom of the press” if they just sell out to the highest bidder. It sucks.

  3. fj says:

    Detail and explain the facts and critical paths to substantive solutions. Debunk the liars, charlatans, and badly informed.

  4. Joan Savage says:

    Who has the resources to do a Watergate or Big Tobacco level series on energy? I yearn for the investigative journalism that hits the road, gets primary source interviews, and brings immediacy to the deep background.

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    With the MSM as oligopolised and thoroughly Rightwing and propagandistic to the business model of human existence as it is today, I doubt that the exposes of Big Tobacco would occur.

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Corruption is a good term, but not necessarily merely from the pecuniary point of view, although protecting the wealth and power of the elite that own the MSM has always been a central, vital, concern. These days the problem is the same that plagues all our institutions since the global take-over by the morally insane Right. It is the moral and spiritual corruption of Rightwingers who, because of their psychological make-up and socialisation, actively distrust and dislike others, and, with regards to those most different to them in racial, sectarian, class and ideological terms, actively hate them and set out to do them ill.
    I can, if my blood pressure needs a pick-me-up, sit on the bus on the way to work, and read any of Mr Murdoch’s local rags, and be treated to a cavalcade of abuse, denigration, raw hatred and invective, in letters, opinion and editorials, all in the name of the sacred ‘Free Speech’. This ‘Free Hate Speech’. remains, it goes without saying, the prerogative of the Right, the business class and their hatemongering employees, only. To round out the propaganda picture, we must not forget the actual ‘news’, where total groupthink, lies, insolent propaganda and absolute suppression of inconvenient facts would have them dipping their lids in admiration at Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth.

  7. Dave Bradley says:

    There is so much ignorance (unintentional and intentional) to deal with with respect to energy in geeral and renewable energy in particular. And to most people, energy stuff is BORING. Add to that the fact that most politicians and societal leaders appear to be in the tank for those with money, which adds that special touch of hopelessness. Then there is the class warfare (by the rich on everyone not rich) aspect, where working class/poor/middle class people only see a future of decreased prospects/income/wealth, and that future energy and energy access will cost more and more… This is the downfall of the “carbon taxes”, which so many enviros are also in the tank for.

    There is the line about people not knowing that which their income depends on them not knowing (Upton Sinclair, I believe). So a lot of the press/”energy press” is that way. But one of the things rarely discussed is how to make renewable energy a massive job creation enterprise. Most of the suggestions involve massive tax avoidance for the super-rich and rich, which has little relevance for most people. Normal people don’t get a chance to have ANY ownership of meaningful renewable energy projects – even partial ownership – in the US. So why should we care, especially when job creation and economic opportunities in renewables are so pathetic given the need?

    It also helps that electricity pricing in the US is absurdly opaque, with so few people understanding that the prices paid to generators are so different than those paid by consumers. Prices that vary constantly by the hour and often without any connection to the cost to produce it also produce glazed over eyes for most people.

    Anyway, small stuff won’t cut it if you want to accomplish big things – it may be a nice supplement, the frosting on the cake, so to speak, but not the main refrain. Sure, heartwarming, but it’s not like a decent sized factory, a decent sized wind farm of commercial scale turbines, and lots of people employed in biomass cropping, usage and above all, people making renewable energy or renewable energy stuff en masse. Since we need to get the pollution out of electricity, where’s the plan to do it in a decade, and at a cost we can afford (mostly ruling out PV)? Where’s the plans to start employing people in units of MILLIONS in the US? It isn’t there, for all practical purposes. Where’s the plans to replace the 50 to 100 million natural gas/oil based residential heating systems with renewable electricity (mostly groundwater) based heat pumps in 10 to 20 years? Where’s the plans to replace imported oil (and by inference, most oil, since we don’t have that much crude oil in the US)? Where’s a serious effort to provide alternatives to gasoline usage in urban America, where most people live?

    And don’t worry about overseas so much. If we get renewable in energy in a serious way, lots will follow. That we don’t, well, we get imitated a lot, culturally. And in energy consumption ways, too.


  8. SecularAnimist says:

    David Roberts wrote: “The combination of No. 2 and No. 3 puts us in an incredible bind as a species.”

    Not really.

    For a fraction of what the world’s governments currently spend on the military, we can deploy mass-produced, cheap, distributed photovoltaics all over the developing world (and the developed world as well), providing carbon-free electricity to all humanity in perpetuity.

    Rural electrification with distributed PV is already happening in Africa, India and elsewhere on a small scale, with profoundly beneficial effects — and zero CO2 emissions. We have the technology (which gets better by the day) and we certainly have the resources for a massive and rapid scaling up of these efforts.

    Our only “bind” is that, as a “species”, we would rather devote our resources to dominating and killing each other than to doing that.