Wildfires, droughts, floods, extreme storms: we are living in a time when climate change should be the biggest story of our time—yet, as the recent federal election proved, all too often it doesn’t even make the headlines. As the new Wayne Crookes Professor in Environmental and Climate Journalism with UVic’s Department of Writing, Sean Holman hopes to bring a more human dimension to the climate crisis.

An award-winning journalist whose appointment began September 1, Holman brings his research expertise in the areas of freedom of information, institutional accountability and climate journalism. Previously an award-winning public affairs and legislative journalist, Holman—a UVic alumnus—comes to UVic from Mount Royal University, where he was a journalism professor.

In addition to his teaching duties as the Crookes Professor, he is co-leading the first-ever survey of journalists and scientists regarding climate change media coverage, as well as working with at least nine other different Canadian journalism programs to launch a “climate disaster survivor” memory vault.

In this Q&A, Holman discusses his concerns and goals, as well as his intention with the climate disaster survivor memory vault.

What is the media doing wrong—and right—when it comes to reporting the climate crisis?

The news media has extensively reported on the environmental, economic and political dimensions of climate change. But journalists have struggled to humanize that phenomenon—something Greta Thunberg pointed out in a recent interview with the New York Times. She said the news media hasn’t been telling the stories of “people whose lives are being lost and whose livelihoods are being taken away” by climate change.

As a result, global warming can often seem like it’s a remote phenomenon that’s happening elsewhere or in the future, rather than something close at hand and already harming people and families around the world. That dampens the urgency to act on climate change. And it means those who have been harmed can feel alone in their experiences, rather than being supported as part of a shared community of climate disaster survivors—a community we are all part of.

How do you propose to solve that problem as the Crookes Professor?

I’m working with a consortium of journalism programs and talented colleagues at post-secondary institutions across the country to create the climate disaster project. This project will amplify the stories of those who have experienced such disasters.

With their permission, those stories will be shared with news media partners, as well as preserved in a climate disaster memory vault, similar to other important oral history projects that have humanized the impact of natural disasters and humanitarian crises around the world. In doing so, we hope to better understand the commonalities in those experiences, launching investigative journalism projects that can surface these shared problems, and solutions to them.  

Donor Wayne Crookes (right) speaks with Sean Holman at UVic

Why wasn’t the climate crisis a bigger issue in the federal election?

I think a large portion of the blame for that rests on the problems my colleagues and I hoping to help solve: the need to humanize the costs of climate change, the need to create a community around the shared experience of climate change, and the need for journalists and scientists to work together to improve coverage of that phenomenon.

In this new age of disaster, climate change should be the biggest story of our time: it should be the biggest political issue of our time—and what to do about it should be the top ballot-box question. Because if we answer that question wrong, everything that we have built together as a society and everything we could build together will be put at risk.

Are there any other ways climate change coverage can be improved?

I think there are. But this is also a question I think scientists and other journalists should be talking to one another about too. Both professions have a lot in common: we are part of a shared community that contributes to evidence-based decision-making by the public and policymakers—but its members need to be speaking with one another about climate change communication more than we are right now.

So my colleagues and I will be starting more of those conversations by surveying journalists and climate scientists and asking them what they think about environmental coverage and how it can be improved. And the first phase of that survey project is scheduled to launch in advance of the November global climate change negotiations in Glasgow.

How will your background as a freedom of information researcher factor into researching and teaching environmental and climate teaching journalism?

As a freedom of information researcher, one of my focuses has been on better understanding why we have historically valued information in democracies. And one of the conclusions I’ve reached is that we do so for two reasons: control and certainty.

With information, we can better understand the past and present, as well as anticipate the future. And we can then use that understanding to make wiser decisions in our personal and political lives, thereby exerting some measure of control over the world around us.

But, in the current post-truth era, that process has broken down. Instead, people have sought other kinds of control and certainty in the form of denialism, authoritarianism and conspiracy theories.

As a result, many governments have failed to effectively respond to the pandemic, just as they have failed to effectively respond to climate change. In other words, climate change isn’t just the result of greenhouse gases, in the same way the pandemic isn’t just the result of a virus—it’s the result of a failure to use information in the way we would expect to in a democracy.

So, if we want to address the climate crisis, we need to figure out how to reinforce the value of information while finding other means of affecting change.

The Crookes Professorship in Environmental and Climate Journalism was created in January 2021 through a gift of $1.875 million to the University of Victoria by Vancouver business leader and political activist Wayne Crookes.