Last week in Boulder, CO, we held a meeting to explore philanthropy’s role in amplifying attention to our global environmental crisis. It was 25 degrees and snowing, but thankfully we didn’t have to walk far from our hotel to eTown, our gracious host for the daylong gathering. The day before, the high temperature reached a pleasant 68.

Not that we need any more reminders about the need to take climate action, right?

To the contrary, we know there has never been more urgency to act on reversing the terrible effects of climate change. In fact, 2020 will be a “super year” for the environment, said Justin Kenney, senior adviser on Climate, Energy and Environment at the UN Foundation, whose next global assessment of our global climate will be released in April 2021.

“I see 2020 as a chance to reaffirm what needs to be done, kicking off the most important decade for conservation in my lifetime,” Kenney said.

That’s why Media Impact Funders, in collaboration with the Environmental Grantmakers Association and Philanthropy Colorado, convened funders and media makers to explore the effectiveness of media efforts focused on the topic. It was an important opportunity for us to take stock of those efforts, and to discuss what more needs to be done.

Here’s some of what we learned in Boulder:

Young people are channeling their climate anxiety in powerful, inspiring and productive ways. 

He may not have excelled in science as a student, but as a climate activist, Vic Barrett—who opened our daylong meeting—is one of the most inspiring young voices we have ever heard. His call to action? “Tell stories that people need to see, not what they want to see.”

Barrett, now 21, was compelled to join the fight against climate change after experiencing it firsthand with Hurricane Sandy when he was a teenager. Six years later, Barrett now puts his energy into educating other young people about the intersections of climate and social justice.

Barrett was raised in rural upstate New York “in a 98 percent white conservative community.” As a Latinx, black, first-generation trans man, he recalled being “deeply aware of what injustice feels like because of growing up different in a community where everyone was the same.”

“This guided the way I move through the world,” he said. “I couldn’t sit idly by while people who looked like me were being attacked on all sides.”

When he was in high school, Barrett joined the Alliance for Climate Education (ACE), which has been delivering climate education in schools around the country since 2008. We were fortunate to hear from ACE’s executive director, Leah Qusba, who gave us some insight into the nonprofit’s program areas, of which storytelling and media are the core. And in 2016, ACE started testing a digital approach to reach more people where climate education is needed the most.

“I met Vic when he was 17,” Qusba said, “and he gives me tremendous hope. At ACE, we believe that it’s not enough to awaken a new generation to the climate crisis—it must be coupled with an immediate way to take action.”

That’s certainly what Barrett is focused on. He’s one of 21 youth activists suing the government in Juliana v. United States. The lawsuit asserts that the EPA set forth a plan in 1991 to scale back the effects of climate change, but never actually implemented it. It also asserts that the U.S. government has “violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.”

The plaintiffs’ stories are also documented in “Youth v Gov,” which has been following Barrett and others on their journey through the legal system. The film is set to release next year. Its impact campaign, run in partnership with co-producers Barrelmaker Productions and Vulcan Productions, will focus in large part on registering young voters and getting them to the polls in 2020; legislative actions; and educational curriculums. 

After dinner, we showed a few clips of “Youth v Gov” and engaged in conversation with Barrett, eTown co-founder Nick Forster, Lyman Smith, one of the film’s editor, and Alexandra Pearson, associate impact producer at Vulcan Productions.

Watch the trailer:

“Learning to tell my story has made me everything that I am today,” Barrett said. “We’re at a time where we need to be concise but also evocative to be able to teach people what’s going on.”

We need to look at climate change through an intersectional lens.

At the end of his remarks, Barrett said, “The best way to communicate [on climate change] is through an intersectional lens so we can reach the widest possible audience.”

More funders are opening up to that strategy, recognizing that climate change must be addressed regardless of any specific focus area.

“I see a rise in activism and voices,” said EGA Executive Director Rachel Leon, “and the beat is getting stronger. We’re going to be doing these meetings across the country so we can get out of these silos.”

But how do we broaden and grow a climate movement strong enough to solve the crisis, and how do we do it in time?

That was a question posed to us by the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., who leads the Hip Hop Caucus, which has been using multimedia—including its podcast, “Think 100%: The Coolest Show on Climate Change”—to raise awareness and action around climate change for the last 15 years. His answer? More storytelling.

“The Hip Hop Caucus has been fighting these issues for 15 years—climate, war, injustice—and the need for storytelling is based on this up-close perspective of engaging in this movement for so long,” Yearwood said. “We must win on climate.”

“We need as many creatives and media makers working on this as we have scientists and organizers and researchers and business people, policy experts, and engineers.”

There is strong philanthropic support for environmental journalism—on the local, national and international levels. 

In 2015, we gathered funders and media makers at eTown Hall to assess whether productions are moving audiences and policymakers to action, and how best to collaborate. “When we held this meeting in this room four years ago, the issues were the same, which is worrisome, but it felt a lot different,” said Kaitlin Yarnall, chief storytelling officer and senior vice president of National Geographic and also an MIF board member.

What’s different, of course, is the urgency with which we need to reverse climate change and to reinvigorate local news. When newspapers struggle financially, specialized reporting desks—like the environment—get cut first. Today, funders—and the journalism they support—are responding with a variety of local, national and international approaches.

We heard from Steve Sapienza, senior strategist with the Pulitzer Center, on Pulitzer’s Connected Coastlines reporting initiative, which is funded through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). Connected Coastlines has 35 newsrooms across the U.S. that are covering climate change in their regions, and Pulitzer works with those outlets to provide educational outreach, including working with school systems in those regions.

Melissa Milios Davis, vice president of Strategic Communications & Informed Communities at the Gates Family Foundation, talked about Gates’ support of the Water Funder Initiative. The initiative is a funder collaborative dedicated to partnering with experts on water sustainability issues and elevating that expertise to journalists covering environmental issues in their communities. One project of the Water Funder Initiative is the Water Desk at the University of Colorado, Boulder, which re-grants some of the funds. “Our mission is to increase the depth and value of water reporting,” said Water Desk director Mitch Tobin. “Hopefully we can be a model for environmental reporting. We see our role as a re-granter trying to mobilize this philanthropic capital.”

Yarnall then shifted us to a conversation about national and international reporting efforts.

James Fahn, global director of environmental programs at Internews, and the executive director of the Earth Journalism Network (a project of Internews), shared his organization’s strategy for augmenting environmental coverage on the global stage. The Earth Journalism Network has 10,000-plus journalists from developing countries around the world who are working to cover the environment more effectively. But Fahn added that what the Earth Journalism Network is doing is a “drop in the bucket. We need nonprofit funding of environmental media. The market by itself is not sustaining the kind of coverage we need.”

“We need to do a better job of emphasizing how climate change is affecting public health and the economy,” he added.

One of EJN’s grantees is the Mesoamerican Reef Reporting Project—led by science journalist Lucy Calderón Pineda—whose goal is to increase news coverage and raise awareness of the vital reef ecosystem that stretches across the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. Also supported in part by the Summit Foundation, the project “gives local journalists the opportunity to investigate, produce and disseminate accurate, reliable and trusted information about the effects of climate change and environmental degradation on the reef system through the distribution of story grants.”

Another interesting initiative is Climate Central’s Climate Matters reporting resource program, which aims to help meteorologists and journalists report the impact of—and solutions to—climate change. Led by former meteorologist Bernadette Woods Placky, Climate Matters has a community of 900 meteorologists and 350 journalists and produces science material with strong news hooks “so we can meet people where they are,” Placky said. “We are a living, breathing network doing outreach and support. Our goal is to introduce climate change in stories that are already being told, and inspire new storytelling.”

Just as important as new storytelling is who’s telling those stories. By 2044, more than half of the U.S. population will be people of color, so it’s crucial that our media ecosystem comprises newsrooms as diverse as the communities they serve. Andrew Simon, director of content for Grist, is focused on diversifying the environmental justice movement. Grist’s Environmental Journalist of Color Network aims to increase the talent pipeline to create more opportunities for environmental journalists of color.

“The talent is out there,” Simon said. “This is about creating opportunities for that talent to flourish so we can reshape environmental storytelling.”

There are a number of media projects that are igniting change.

Paris to Pittsburgh”—Lindsay Firestone, an associate with Bloomberg Philanthropies (former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s charitable organization), talked about her organization’s data-driven approach to moving the needle on the climate crisis. “Paris to Pittsburgh,” which celebrates how Americans are demanding and developing real solutions in the face of climate change, is set against the national debate over America’s energy future. The film’s name comes from President Trump’s decision to exit the Paris Climate Agreement.

“We saw immediate response around the country,” Firestone said. “It looked like America didn’t care, but actually people were committed to taking more action.”

Water Warriors”—We learned that the fight for indigenous rights is intertwined with the fight for environmental justice. For example, deforestation rates are lower in areas with lands that are recognized as having indigenous land rights. We also heard about a new film, “Water Warriors,” which documents a community’s successful resistance against the oil and gas industry. “Water Warriors is an indigenous story but also a multicultural story [because] people came together from different communities to fight for their water,” said the film’s producer, Rachel Falcone. After touring the film for two years at more than 75 film festivals, “Water Warriors” just made its debut on PBS’ POV.

We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast”—Would you give up eating meat at one of your three meals per day if you knew it could help save the planet? That’s the gist of author Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, “We Are the Weather,” in which Foer takes a close look at his own habits argues that the future of our planet depends largely on sacrificing our immediate comfort. The book’s impact campaign was supported by EJF Philanthropies, and aims to reach influencers and people with large social media followings to help shift consumer demand because companies respond to what consumers want, explained Simone Friedman, head of philanthropy and impact investment at EJF. “Jonathan’s book attempts to de-politicize the climate issue,” she added.

eTown is a nonprofit, nationally syndicated radio broadcast/podcast, multimedia and events production company. Learn more.

Want more environmental storytelling? We’re inviting funders to join us Jan. 15, 2020, in Washington, D.C., for the National Geographic Storytellers Summit, where MIF will be hosting a pre-conference funder gathering. Request an invitation. 

About the Author
Nina Sachdev

Nina Sachdev

Communications Director

Nina Sachdev brings more than 15 years of journalism, news editing and marketing experience to her role as the communications director for Media Impact Funders. She cut her teeth in journalism at The Dallas Morning News, where—as an intern on the copy desk—she was tasked with editing the obituaries of famous people who hadn’t yet died. Since then, Nina has worked at The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, The Philadelphia Daily News and The Philadelphia Weekly in almost every editorial capacity imaginable, including senior editor, A1 editor (when that used to be a thing) and slot (does anyone remember that being a thing?). Nina is the creator and editor of the award-winning The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse, which exposes the reality of healing from the effects of sexual abuse. Nina holds an M.A. in journalism from Temple University.