The best climate change reporting drives solutions

Environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett standing in front of a body of water.

Cynthia Barnett is an acclaimed author and speaker, as well as environmental journalist in residence at UF's College of Journalism and Communications.

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Environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett was at the forefront of climate reporting and has seen the field grow exponentially in recent years. A critically acclaimed author and regular op-ed contributor, she now teaches future journalists and lectures widely. In this episode, she explains why doomsday reporting is not the answer. Instead, she recommends a balance of wonder and warning, and options for what can be done. Produced by Nicci Brown, Brooke Adams and James L. Sullivan. Original music by Daniel Townsend, a doctoral candidate in music composition in the College of the Arts.

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Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown. 

Our guest today is, in many ways, a pioneer. Twenty years ago, environmental journalism was a relatively obscure beat. Now, every major news platform is hiring science and environment reporters, and even entire climate teams. 

Cynthia Barnett was there at the forefront making the case that this was a portfolio that needed coverage and needed it urgently.

In addition to her contributions as a journalist, Cynthia is the author of four books, including the acclaimed “Rain: A Natural and Cultural History” and most recently, “The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans.”

She also has contributed to many other publications, authoring stories and op-eds in highly selective outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic and National Geographic. 

But her most powerful contribution may be through her role as environmental journalist in residence at UF’s College of Journalism and Communications and the work she does to guide future journalists, scientists and policy makers, among others. 

Obviously, we have much to discuss, so let's get to it. Cynthia Barnett, many thanks for being here. It's terrific to have you with us today.

Cynthia Barnett: Thank you, Nicci. Thanks so much for having me on.

Nicci Brown: So, let's talk about your early days. I'm very glad to share that you're a UF graduate and a Florida native, starting your career here at The Alligator when you were in our College of Journalism. You were a general assignment reporter at first. What led you to the environment?

Cynthia Barnett: It's a great question and it has so many different answers. I've answered it differently many times and one part of the answer is that I was working as a business and economics reporter for a very long time and every story seemed to come back to water. And there was a particular story where there was an epic drought happening in Florida and some developers had been told that they couldn't build a new housing subdivision because there wasn't enough water in this part of Florida to support that growth.

And it's quite shocking, as you can imagine, to have any place in Florida say that a new housing subdivision wouldn't be welcome. So, I started to think about this irony, that the same group that got rid of Florida's water in the first place, that drained Florida's water in the first place, had now become desperate to find water. And it was that kind of turning point that led me to start thinking about Florida's water history, and I actually came back to the University of Florida and earned a master's degree in environmental history.

And the reason I want to tell you that story is because there was a wonderful historian at the time, David Colburn, who has now passed away, he was a presidential historian, a Florida historian. 

He did not specialize in the environment, but he was a mentor to me. And when he saw what I was interested in, he created this incredible curriculum for me in independent study and had me reading Rachel Carson and all these people who I'd never been exposed to in the College of Journalism.

And as a teacher now, I often think about him and how amazing that was that even though it wasn't his personal interest, he really set out that path for me. So, I'm very appreciative of him. And when I teach now, I think about him a lot and the fact that, you know, I'm not foisting my own work on people as much as trying to figure out what they need and what their own interests are. 

So, I guess at the end, I would say I was lucky enough that my great interest lined up with a great need of the world. And that's what I really hope for, for my students as well.

Nicci Brown: Turning to your latest book then, “The Sound of the Sea,” what motivated you to write it?

Cynthia Barnett: So, I had written three previous books about water. I had written a couple of books about fresh water and I'm “rain's” biographer, as you mentioned, I think that's my favorite title. I mentioned during my master's degree here at UF, that master's thesis turned into my first book, which was called “Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S.”

And for my fourth book, I kind of  wanted to complete the hydrological cycle. I liked the idea of now turning to the oceans and I wasn't sure what that book would be. And I was speaking in a small seashell museum in Sanibel Island, it's called the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. And I went out to dinner with the director afterward and she told me this really disturbing statistic. She had done a survey of visitors to find out how much they already knew about shells and the survey revealed that 90% of their visitors who were mostly tourists and children visiting Florida, 90% of them didn't know that a shell was made by a living animal. Most people thought they were rocks or stones. And I was so disturbed by that idea and that disconnection from nature that I just tossed and turned in my bed that night. 

And I think by the time I fell asleep, I knew I was going to write sort of an epic book of seashells that blended the life history and the human history. And what I love about it is this idea of shells as ambassadors, that seashells as perhaps the most beloved objects in nature could help connect people to life and to what's happening in the oceans.

Nicci Brown: There are many terrific stories in the book and we can talk a little bit more about them, but one thing that The New York Times wrote that it “remarkably spirals out… appropriately to become a much larger story about the sea, about global history and about environmental crises and preservation.” And that interconnection, not just of people and their immediate environments, but of the way we're all linked is just so important. How do you go about joining the dots?

Cynthia Barnett: I don't think of it as joining the dots so much as helping my readers or my students understand how everything is connected. So, in other words, I don't see myself making the connection so much as helping people understand the connection.

So, John Muir more famously said that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” And that's so true. So, one way the seashell book spirals out, for example, is in helping people understand that we can't fix environmental problems like, for example, overfishing without also working on the human dimensions of poverty and so on. So, those are the connections that I make in the book, but they're really connections that are already there.

And I think sometimes the problem in academe or in political circles is that we have separated things out so much, right? We're in silos. And the way we are going to solve problems is to be interdisciplinary, to put together science and humanities, for example. And so, that's the kind of work that I try to do in my journalism and in my work here at the university.

Nicci Brown: To really understand that balance between all things.

Cynthia Barnett: Yes, right.

Nicci Brown: You paint really exquisite word pictures of your subject matter, but your writing is also very approachable and at times quite funny. There was one passage in “The Sound of the Sea” where you are in the Maldives with your teenage son and there is an exchange about the weather.

And as a mother, I have to admit it made me laugh, but it also highlights the different way generations approach issues. Could you tell us a little more about the exchange and the differences that you experience between generations?

Cynthia Barnett: Yes, that's a good and interesting question. One thing I'll say about generations is how profoundly people respond to any generational story. I think generational stories are enormously important. So, I notice, whether I'm giving a talk or in my books, I notice that people really, they love it when I talk about my grandparents and they love it when I talk about my children.

I ended up opening the book with a scene. The scene is actually about a Neanderthal person collecting seashells, which is something that Neanderthal people were known to do even beyond for food but proving their aesthetic sense that they had. So, I imagined my daughter collecting seashells and that's similar aesthetic, and people really respond to that. I've been amazed.

I've had more response to this book than any other book I've ever written, and it's often these long letters from people who are talking about their memories. I've actually had several people send me shells and I've had people send me old things that they collected with a parent or a grandparent, and it's been quite moving.

So, I think to the extent that we can be relatable, be humane. Whenever I write as a mother, and I think the scene you're talking about, Will was just having a very teenager moment and rolling his eyes or something like that, and whenever you can be relatable that way, I think it really helps you connect to your audiences and that's terribly important for us.

Nicci Brown: You did quite a lot of travel when you were writing this book.

Cynthia Barnett: Yes, I traveled all over the world. I feel very lucky that I was finishing it just as COVID began. So, I had been already to the Maldives. The reason I traveled so broadly, in that case, was that I was sort of chasing the extraordinary story of the money cowry. So you, you sometimes hear these cryptocurrency guys say that cryptocurrency is the first global money; it definitely wasn't.

The first global money was a small shining  shell called... We now call it a money cowry because it had served as money for a thousand years, longer than any other coin or paper money in history. So, I followed this epic story to the Maldives where the little white shells were harvested en masse by a series of queens in the moonlight, and then followed their trans-Atlantic journeys and journeys all around the world. I ended up traveling to West Africa to tell the story of the cowries there, which is a really important story.

I feel really lucky that I was able to make those trips before COVID hit, because I know lots of other book author friends who were in the middle of reporting when COVID happened. So, it was still strange to finish writing it during COVID because that was such a worrisome time that it was very hard to finish and bring everything together, but  I did manage to make almost every trip that I had wanted to make. And it was a global reporting effort because the story of seashells is really a global story, and seashells are everywhere. They're at the tops of mountain tops and under our feet, and they are in every part of human history in this really incredible and profound way, and that's why it had to be such an expansive book.

Nicci Brown: And I remember you sharing with me that you had this sense of connection when you were in West Africa, going to those personal experiences and tying things together between human beings who may be in different parts of the world.

Cynthia Barnett: Yeah. That was my favorite trip for this book was definitely going to West Africa. And I did take my son along. At the time, he was in high school and we both loved being in West Africa. And one profound thing about being there was just how familiar it felt to both of us. We are from the South, and we you know we have both been exposed to really Southern food.

People in my family farmed peanuts and make all these peanut dishes. And we grew up eating black-eyed-peas and many other foods that were really similar in West Africa and so delicious there. And it's just this profound realization that enslaved Africans brought many of those recipes to the southeastern United States.

So yes, there's incredible connection and depth, and I hope to return. It was definitely a great trip, and I'd like to bring back the whole family. We have a student now whose done reporting in Africa and I hope many of our other students have the opportunity to go as well.

Nicci Brown: Well, speaking of your students, could you tell us some more about how you craft your courses so they are positioned for success and how do you help them to understand the past so that they can speak to the future in this really compelling way?

Cynthia Barnett: I'm glad you asked me about the past. Since I studied environmental history, I do start environmental journalism classes with the history of environmental journalism itself. And I take them back actually to the 17th century London during the rise of the Industrial Revolution, where there's this great writer named John Evelyn, who was really advocating to move smokestack industries out of central London.

This is a time when the air is just black and there's obviously a lot of disease. There are a lot of cancers from people being around these toxic industries and he was doing very much what we would do today. He's exposing the problem, he's writing a lot about it and he is advocating solutions, you know "Move the industry out of the city." He recommended mass planting of sweet-smelling flowers to get rid of some of the stench. And that is what eventually happened. Industry got moved out of cities, unfortunately, in ways that harmed people who were less fortunate. 

So, I start there, and I think it's very important to help students understand history and, especially, the things we have gotten right in the past. So sometimes students feel really overwhelmed by and depressed by topics, especially climate change and what's happening to the earth and its life. So, one thing we talk about are things in American history that we did right on a large scale and I'll give you an example. Right now, I'm teaching a class around the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, which is this year in 2022. 

So, in 1972, the United States really came together and did this amazing thing. We passed the Clean Water Act of 1972. Before that, sewage ran directly into bays, industrial pollution ran directly into rivers. Every bay in Florida was extremely polluted, bereft of seagrass. We had more fish kills than any place else in the country. And that law really changed Florida's and the nation's environmental fortunes. We cleaned up bays and rivers and cleaned up industrial pollution, and it was a big deal. And now things are heading in the other direction, the pendulum is swinging the other way. You know, we're losing seagrass again and losing manatees and pollution has really gotten bad again. So, this series of stories kind of looks at that history and what we did right and now asks, you know, what must we do now?

So, the way I structure the class is always to teach it around a hands-on project. In the College of Journalism and Communications, we think of ourselves as having a medical school model of teaching so that students are doing journalism as they learn journalism. And it's a really great way to get experience, but also to graduate with a great portfolio. So, this project that is analyzing statewide water quality for the anniversary of the Clean Water Act is being funded by the Pulitzer Center. And it will be published here on WUFT platforms, but also on other statewide professional platforms. And so, it's a great opportunity for students to do important work that they take the whole semester doing and then come out with some really terrific stories under their belts.

Nicci Brown: Well, as you mentioned, there is this need though to balance wonder and warning. Would you talk a little bit more about that and maybe give an assessment of where you think things stand right now, because there are a lot of dire messages out there?

Cynthia Barnett: Right. So, we know many audiences will shut down when the news is too grim, or sometimes in my field, we talk about this as climate doomsday reporting. There is definitely a branch of the profession that does report in a doomsday fashion. And we actually know from communications research that many audiences shut down when they read something really grim. They even know from eye-track research, they can watch people's eyes when they turn away from grim news. And so, we know that.

On the other hand, one doesn't want to be pollyannish or I think it's called toxic optimism, some people call it, right? It doesn't serve anyone to be overly optimistic or pollyannish either. And so what to me feels really important is to balance the warnings that scientists are giving us with options, with solutions, with things that we're doing right, with inspirational stories of scientists and others who are making a difference around the world on new research that's coming out. And in my case, another thing that's really important in this balance is to just remind people of the wonder of nature, because I think that's part of it. And you know that's also a reason behind the seashell book that there are these wondrous, mysterious animals inside seashells that build these beautiful works of architecture.

And so, I think helping people understand the wonder of the planet that remains and the animals that we share the earth with is all helping people to understand what's happening and to feel inspired to live differently and to help work on this big, big problem that we face.

Nicci Brown: And perhaps feel less helpless.

Cynthia Barnett: That's true. That's a very good point. Helplessness is the worst. Another thing that happens, sometimes you'll be reading a story, a doomsday story, and it just leaves you with nothing to do. And so, that's another thing that's known from the communications research. We know, for example, that even if you have a little box in your story that says how you can help, people will stay on that story longer than if there's no box saying how you can help. So, people really do want something to do and they want to be able to respond.

Nicci Brown: You also want to find ways to elevate the environment and sustainability above politics. Do you think that's possible? And if so, how do you do that in such polarized times?

Cynthia Barnett: I do want to lift stories of the earth, of animals, of life, of climate change above politics. I think that's got to happen. And many, many journalists cover politics and they do a great job, it's just not the area that I find the most satisfying and I'm also not sure that it's the area where we are going to move the needle. In my estimation and observation, the really important thing that needs to happen is a changing ethos among people.

So, if you look back, again, over American environmental history, when we got to these points, these turning points always happened when people said, "This is no longer okay." It was an ethical change. And you can see that in everything from civil rights; civil rights change happened in the courts, but only after the populace reached a turning point of, you know, seeing these things on the news and saying, "This is not okay."

It was the same with the environment. People reached a point of saying, "It's not okay for rivers to catch fire and to lose every fish living in Tampa Bay, and so on." So it really takes that large ethical change before elected officials do their part. They are influenced by their constituents and by the overall feeling of the populace.

And you really saw that with President Nixon during the Clean Water Act, you know, and other big things that happened at that time in our history. So that's what I mean by trying to keep this work elevated on this other plane. I think the important work is to help people understand what's happening and give them hope and inspiration and tangible ways of changing the story.

Nicci Brown: My last question asks you to look into the future, which is a little unfair, but I'm going to ask it anyway and I apologize in advance. How do you see things evolving in terms of our planet and the steps we need to take to protect it? Is the message getting through to those in power as well as the so-called man on the street?

Cynthia Barnett: Yeah. That's a really good question. That's the question I think about all the time. We know that the public ethos is changing on climate change and that belief. I am putting belief in quote marks, you can't see that, but science really isn't a belief it is a fact, but nonetheless. So, we know that belief in climate change is becoming much, much broader over time.

So, for many years, I've watched this survey that comes out of the Yale Program on Climate Change, and it asks people how alarmed they are, and it's on a scale from very alarmed to dismissive. And it used to be many people didn't believe at all or never worried about climate change — just 10 years ago, the dismissive category was very large. Today, the dismissive category is quite small and the alarm category is quite large. And so, the public is really coming to understand climate change.

It often happens when people are impacted where they live. So, for example, increasing hurricanes here in the Southeast or flooding in Miami or greater wildfires in the West, but that's actually not happening fast enough. It really needs to happen much faster. So, earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reporting on the scientific consensus with the approval of all the world's governments stressed that, we must make quote “immediate and deep cuts in emissions to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis."

So, the problem is that yes, more people are coming to understand, but not fast enough. Not fast enough to make the changes that scientists are advising and urging need to be made sooner rather than later. And that's where I hope that this generation of students can come in and young people and again, not just journalism students, but I think across the campus, there is so much interest in climate change and environmental sustainability.

I speak in classes from religion to, you know, all kinds of classes across campus that are focusing on climate through the lens of their own discipline. And I think there is a great deal of interest in that this generation will be the ones to help get us through this crisis. And I hate to put it on them and I want to make sure that I'm there with them with my sleeves rolled up as well, and I tell them that. But I do feel optimism about our students and the generation coming up.

Nicci Brown: Well, it's good to finish on a positive note like that. Cynthia, thank you for all that you are doing and thank you so very much for joining us today. It's been a true pleasure to have you here and to speak with you.

Cynthia Barnett: Thank you so much for having me on, Nicci. It was really nice talking to you.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode of From Florida. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is James Sullivan. I'm your host, Nicci Brown. With the semester drawing to a close, we'll be pausing production of From Florida for a while. In the meantime, we invite you to check out past episodes on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting

From Florida April 27, 2022