The Visuals of Climate Change: The NYT Greenhouse Part 2

Today the New York Times hosted its second digital climate change event, The Greenhouse, to talk about climate change stories using visual elements—and how the simple technology of a photo has helped transform the climate change discussion over the last few decades.

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”

This week’s climate change zoom call with New York Times employees proved that point. The second digital event from The Greenhouse was a discussion between host Whitney Richardson, Global Events Manager for the NYT; Josh Haner, NYT staff photographer; and Derek Watkins, a NYT graphics editor.

Storytelling with visual elements can really make someone feel something—just think about art exhibits or your favorite photo that sparks a flood of emotions. Josh Haner and Derek Watkins rely on their visual creation skills to tell the stories of climate change and give people insight into the reality of the topic with more than just words and data.

Here is an inside look into how the conversation went:

Since Earth day launched 50 years ago, there’s been a huge shift in how the world views climate change. Reporting has begun to include photojournalism. Why did you choose to approach climate change with drone technology?

The answer is somewhat simple. Traditional visual elements around climate change until the early 2000s were largely turn-offs for viewers, even for those who really cared about the environment and seeking change. For Josh, cover photos like that from Time Magazine’s Artic Meltdown did less to draw him in and learn about climate change and more to push him away. The image was depressing, and he was tired of the common, sad images about polar bears and their melting environments.

Photojournalism, drones and new photography approaches allowed people like Josh to re-envision their climate change stories. Really, this allowed people like John to tell the climate change story using different images around the world—not just those of the melting arctic.

Josh and other team members have developed quite a few projects on climate change, and one on Greenland took years to make, massive amounts of drone footage and freezing temperatures. Josh traveled to Greenland with the U.S. ambassador of Denmark, took a plane to the top of one of the largest ice sheets in the world and joined researchers to begin his project. These researchers collected data on the ice sheet and the many ways climate change was affecting the sheet.

In addition to his Greenland project, Josh has traveled to a number of places to focus on various climate change stories. After collecting his footage and working on the front lines, he sends it to Derek Watkins.

Here is one of the best examples of Josh’s work: incredible aerial footage that tells a story of not just global warming and climate change, but about the people and communities who are directly affected.

Graphics, Maps and Geography

Derek’s specialty is using Josh’s footage and relating it to the bigger, geographical picture through virtual maps and interactive graphics. He has worked with Josh on many projects in a number of locations on various topics including: the melting ice sheet in Greenland, rising sea levels in the Pacific Islands, desertification in China, Lake Poopó in Bolivia (which is slowly drying up because of climate change), issues in Easter Island and underwater biodiversity in the Galapagos.

A few years ago, climate change was presented as kind of a distant problem, Derek said. But after doing this work over the last few years, “it became very obvious very quickly that climate change was a problem of here and now—affecting people right now,” he said.

Communities in the Pacific Islands are living six feet below sea level. Desertification efforts in China are displacing entire communities. Lake Poopó in Bolivia is almost completely dried up, leaving fishing boats beached and the nearby community desperate for other forms of income. Climate change has many faces, and it can no longer be treated as a distant future, Derek agreed.

The two even did a project on Yellowstone National Park and the ways climate change is affecting the area. Even though they were not allowed to use drone footage, their maps and visual elements tell a story of its own.

How have these technologies affected the way you report news, especially in crises or huge developments (like coronavirus)?

Both Josh and Derek agreed: these visual technologies have helped them turn thing around quickly to get information out. Especially related to the coronavirus, their popular graphic on the spread of the virus shows just how quickly the virus hit all parts of the world based on China’s travel activity.

While many viewers were eager to hear about Josh and Derek’s calls for climate action, both admitted that their jobs are to tell visual stories. “Our job is not to change policy,” Josh said, but to equip readers with knowledge and stories and visuals to help them make their own decisions.

What would you say is the most important way to approach this topic with photojournalism—especially since climate change is such a wide, misunderstood topic?

Josh said he has learned to be very intentional with imagery, especially that very first one a reader sees before reading a piece. Because his projects use very immersive imagery at the top of an article, Josh asks himself, “how do we make that one image, that first image, a thesis image that makes the reader want to read the story?”

For Derek, it has shown him that all the stories of climate change are “character driven.” You can’t read one story and understand all of climate change because it’s just so large. It’s important to focus on the smaller stories, the people who are affected, to better understand it.

Where do you see your work taking you?

There’s no question that climate change is far from over. In fact, the time is not for some pretty pressing action. Josh knows his job involves visual storytelling, and helping people make decisions.

Still, “I would love to begin working on solutions,” said Josh.

You can check out more of Josh’s work here and Derek’s work here. In case you missed it, check out part one of EP's coverage of The Greenhouse. Tune in next week for EP’s next experience and part three.