What will New York be like in 2050? Hot, wet and worried. Those are the findings of a week-long investigation into the effects of climate change on the city, conducted by public radio station WNYC and NBC 4 New York.
The multimedia-rich series highlighted the likelihood of deadly heat waves, heavy rainstorms flooding streets and taxing an aging sewer system, power shortages (video) and rising financial costs. Additional video reports covered experimental weather forecasting technology, flood-proofing public transit and public action to help.
In addition to short audio or video reports that accompany each main story, there’s also a 32-minute audio podcast that provides an overview of the series as a whole. And the package features an user-generated interactive that cleverly charts the range of community thoughts on climate change.
Find the full series on WNYC or on NBC 4 New York.
Q&A: WNYC Editor Shares Inside Story on ‘NYC 2050’ Climate Series
AdaptNY interviewed WNYC Senior Editor Matthew Schuerman about the extensive climate project.
AdaptNY: Tell us about the genesis of the project. What made it important to do right now?
Schuerman: We’ve been covering Sandy and the rebuilding process pretty intensively. But after a year and a half of that, we wanted to open up our coverage to broader environmental issues. We knew about the NYC Panel on Climate Change’s projections – they were included in former Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s “Stronger, More Resilient New York” report – and while they had been reported on superficially then, no one had really brought them to life.
The fact that our series followed the U.N. Climate Summit, the People’s Climate March and other Climate Week NYC events was fortuitous. But we did not even realize what a big deal all of that would be when we began to plan over the summer. We scheduled it for mid-October because it would arrive shortly before the Sandy anniversary — and we didn’t want to be overshadowed by our autumn fund drive, which starts right before the anniversary.
AdaptNY: Why the look-ahead to 2050, as opposed to an earlier or later date?
Schuerman: I wanted just one date for people to focus on, to make everything more real and clearer, rather than, as much of reporting on climate change is, as a series of dates (this will happen by 2020, this by 2050, this by 2080, etc.). And 2050 is far enough away that we can expect dramatic changes, but not so far away that many people today won’t still be alive then. We aren’t talking about what your planet will be like for your children or your grandchildren. We’re talking about what your planet will be like in your lifetime.
AdaptNY: As you said, much of the series was based on data from a report from the New York City Panel on Climate Change that came out in 2013. What was there new or surprising to you in its findings?
Schuerman: I had seen these numbers when they came out in June 2013 (they were later amended slightly), so they weren’t so surprising to me. But what made me be able to sell the series inside WNYC was the mid-range projection for sea level rise of between 11 and 21 inches (we approximated it for our broadcasting purposes to “about one-and-a-half feet”). That was astounding to people here to think that in such a relatively short amount of time, the sea level could be so measurably different.
AdaptNY: How did you decide on the central issues of the series – heat waves, rain, flooding, possible power shortages?
Schuerman: Heat is going to be the biggest problem in terms of potential mortality. Patrick Kinney, et al.’s research makes that clear. It’s the hidden killer even now. Sea-level rise is another obvious one. Rain was interesting because it’s not something we think about as a threat, but poses problems for our water supply (increased turbidity in our upstate reservoirs) and our wastewater system (which is already regulated by the federal government because we contaminate the waterways). Those three phenomenon are scientific predictions.
The other two segments we did – stress on the power grid and the financial toll – were answers to the question: Will those climate changes cause other changes in the way we live our lives? The answer is, we’ll need to manage power better if temperatures rise, and we will spend a greater portion of our budgets on preventing and recovering from severe weather.
AdaptNY: Several of the pieces used an explicit problem/solution format. Tell us why you tried that approach, which we don’t always see in journalism?
Schuerman: In a way, we needed to talk about what’s happening now because it’s hard to do journalism just about what hasn’t happened yet! And people are beginning to prepare. We can debate if they are doing enough, or the right things, or the right approach, but they are doing something.
Also, wouldn’t it be just too grim if we didn’t indicate that there are ways to adapt to climate change, don’t you think?
AdaptNY: The series featured a unique user sentiment chart. How did you come up with that, and what are you learning through it about your online community?
Schuerman: The genius of brainstorming. I wish I remembered who it was. I think it was my boss. No, I’m not just saying that. It was! But I think we bandied about a lot of ideas – NBC 4 New York’s digital editor Mike Clancy was instrumental also in helping us figure out what listeners and viewers would really connect with. Huge success. Lots of people putting themselves on the far right of the grid but just above the mid-line. That means they think climate change IS serious, they are doing a little, but they know that’s not enough. Even people who have hybrids or never drive, just installed solar panels, and never use plastic bags are very modest about what they themselves can accomplish. It’s a real testament to how climate change has become a populist, bread-and-butter issue. “The issue of our time,” as more than one commenter has said.
AdaptNY: For the series, you partnered with a commercial TV station, NBC 4 New York? Why? What did they bring to the table? What were the challenges and benefits of that kind of partnership?
Schuerman: We have partnered with NBC 4 New York before, and odd as it may sound for a big-time commercial outfit to be partnering with a somber public radio station, we’re both very satisfied by the arrangement. They brought great exposure to us and, since they were producing their own segments (we shared concept, materials and sources), they added some angles we missed, such as weather forecasting technology, more about what transit is doing, and a sorely needed segment on what you can do to help. We included each other’s content on our respective web sites and had appearances on each other’s shows. The biggest challenge was coordination! More meetings.
AdaptNY: How hard is it to report in multimedia about something that is steeped in numbers and data, and that not only has yet to take place, but is so far in the future?
Schuerman: I was hoping someone would ask that question. That was the most challenging part of the series, the “storytelling,” as we say in the trade. The data was, as I mentioned, old hat. We spent a lot of time calling around to experts, asking them about ways to illustrate what was going to happen or was already happening in our climate. Some of the ideas were things picked up along the way of our Sandy reporting – I had heard Columbia geophysicist Klaus Jacob joke before about how New York put all of its dead people in cemeteries on high ground and all the living down by the waterfront. So we went to Woodlawn Cemetery so he could demonstrate. Fortunately, they have an excellent historian there who was willing to come along and give the cemeteries’ side of the story.