“If you want to go somewhere, figure out a story that will take you there.”
Ysabelle Kempe received this piece of advice from a journalist at The Boston Globe while she worked as a reporter for the paper this spring.
A couple months later, Kempe purchased an Amtrak ticket and packed her bags.
She had come up with an idea: She would chronicle the stories of people in cities across the United States who say they have been affected by rising temperatures, natural disasters, and other environmental effects that scientists have linked to climate change.
“Climate change is more and more becoming an intense issue,” says Kempe, who is studying journalism at Northeastern. “There are so many different subcultures in the United States, and I wanted to explore the different impacts that localized climate change is having and how they are responding.”
Kempe interviewed dozens of people in six states over 18 days in August, including a biology professor in Alabama, an owner of a seafood market in Seattle, and a seventh-grade science teacher in Texas. She catalogued her conversations on Instagram @achangingnation, where she wrote vignettes about the people she met.
A retired artist in Chico, California, recalled how he had lived at six different addresses after his house burned to the ground in a deadly wildfire that scorched 153,000 acres of land in Paradise, California, in November. He lamented the loss of his material possessions, including his grandfather’s guitar, which was more than 100 years old.
“When you talk to people about the losses, you’ll always hear ‘Oh, it’s just material things.’ No question about it, it is material things,” the retired artist told Kempe. “But in those material things included small treasures.”
A man in New Orleans described how a freshwater swamp known as the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle had turned into a saltwater marsh. Most of the wildlife that inhabited the swamp is gone, he told Kempe.
“I had friends that used to go out here,” he said, “and they used to hunt animals.”
A biology professor in Birmingham, Alabama, gave Kempe a tip for talking about climate change: Don’t talk down to people. “I don’t lecture about the facts like I am a scientist who is using jargon they don’t understand,” he said.
Kempe says she didn’t interview any people who denied the existence of climate change, but she did meet a few people who hesitated to link climate change with human activity.
“I was going to places with a lot of farmers,” she says. “Climate change isn’t just asking them to switch to a reusable straw, but to change their entire way of life.”
Kempe returned to Northeastern in September, after traveling 4,000 miles in just over two weeks. She says she wants to continue reporting on how climate change has affected people across the country and plans to visit cities in the Northeast and the Midwest next.
“I think the best thing journalists can do in their reporting on climate change is to make it more human,” says Kempe, whose trip was partially funded by a grant from the University Honors Program at Northeastern. “The more you put a human face on this issue, the more successful you’re going to be in getting people to care about it.”