Cristine Russell
Cristine Russell

By Cristine Russell

Cristine Russell is a Senior Fellow with the Environment & Natural Resources Program at the Belfer Center. Reach out to Cris at or follow her on Twitter @russellcris.

As an academic year like no other gets underway, the world is confronting the twin global catastrophes of COVID-19 and climate change. At HKS, concern about human-caused climate change and what can be done about it has moved front and center among faculty, staff and students I’ve worked with for more than a decade. During this time, the science of climate change has become frighteningly clear (#climatechangeisreal), despite desperate attempts by climate denialists to debate the evidence. As I have written, dozens of alarming reports warn of growing dangers to the oceans, to vulnerable species, to human health, and to global inequality unless nations of the world take stronger actions to reduce carbon emissions.

But the politics have become ever more divisive in the Trump era, with an American President and Administration that have shown disdain for science writ large and promoted climate disinformation (and, not surprisingly, COVID-19 disinformation as well).  This has contaminated forthright climate communication, presenting a challenge to journalists and experts alike to get the correct information out to the general public. The world is in need of HKS-trained students equipped with the skills to dissect, critique, and communicate about all aspects of climate change.

I first came to HKS as a journalism fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, studying the declining state of science journalism at a time of severe media cutbacks. I have spent a long career—more than four decades—covering science, public health and the environment, working for newspapers like the Washington Post and later doing freelance writing. When I became a senior fellow at the Belfer Center’s Environment and Natural Resources Program, we launched a series of public events on climate, energy and the media to increase understanding of the importance of accurate, fair journalism in informing and influencing the public discourse. Partnering with the Shorenstein Center and student groups, we have brought countless journalists to HKS from the Washington Post, New York Times, the Guardian, Time, and other news outlets, as well as climate experts like Penn State’s Michael Mann. This year’s offerings will be virtual but still provide an opportunity to tackle important topics like environmental justice, which is finally getting long overdue media attention.

I also designed and taught a new course for nine years on “Controversies in Climate, Energy and the Media: Improving Public Communication” that drew a diverse group of international students eager to better understand the media and improve their own communication skills. In our closing role-play exercise on the Arctic—“The Big Melt”—students portrayed politicians, environmentalists, business leaders, scientists and journalists in creative ways. Think President Trump versus Greta Thunberg.

Climate activism has grown more vocal at HKS and across Harvard and will push forward this year despite the COVID-imposed barriers. I’ve enjoyed speaking to campus-wide groups like the Climate Leaders Program, started in 2018, and mentoring individual students interested in journalism and communication about climate and clean energy.

Since the project’s founding in 2018, I’ve had an opportunity to work with the Belfer Center’s Arctic Initiative on research programs and events. The Arctic Innovators program brings HKS students together with students from Iceland, Greenland, Norway and other Arctic countries to seek novel solutions to Arctic problems. I’ve been to Reykjavik, Iceland four times for the Arctic Circle Assembly, accompanying HKS student delegations and organizing sessions on the Arctic and the media that emphasized the need to bring more Indigenous voices into media coverage. COVID meant cancellation of the planned spring 2020 HKS trip to Greenland, but the Initiative put together an impressive virtual event with HKS and Greenland students. This fall the Arctic Innovators Program will go ahead on Zoom.

A new student-run podcast series on the Arctic is being organized now (check here to apply). Climate Week NYC is now underway with dozens of virtual programs on climate and energy, including a session tomorrow at 1 p.m. on “Arctic Permafrost Thaw: Science & Policy” featuring HKS speakers. I’m currently writing about the dire state of the “new Arctic”—we’ve been bombarded all summer with alarming news of record-breaking temperatures in Siberia, shrinking sea ice, and more disintegration of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

For the foreseeable future, HKS, like the rest of the world, will need to adapt to living in a COVID-threatened world. But we need to go beyond gloom-and-doom and look for innovative ways to communicate about current crises by presenting possible solutions as well. It’s vital to keep climate at the forefront of the public conversation.

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Copyright: © 2016 Ed Ritger. All Rights Reserved.

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