Climate Chroniclers

Co-founders of The Narwhal, Emma Gilchrist and Carol Linnitt. Photo courtesy of Emma Gilchrist and Carol Linnitt

As the climate crisis worsens, B.C. media outlets stress the importance of covering environmental issues

By Lucas Jornitz

On June 29, 2021, the village of Lytton, B.C. was hit with the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada: 49.6 degrees Celsius. The following day, 90 per cent of the village burned to the ground in a wildfire. Two people were killed in the blaze.

Temperatures on the days leading up to the wildfire, June 27 and 28, also broke records amidst a heatwave that affected much of western North America from June to July. Months later, in November, most of southern B.C. was devastated by severe flooding from atmospheric rivers, which caused mass amounts of heavy rainfall. The flooding resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to local crops, livestock and properties.

But 2021 was not the first year that B.C. has been ravished by wildfires or flooding. In 1946, up to 300 millimetres of rain fell on villages in southwest Victoria over three days, resulting in what is now known as ‘The Big Flood.’ Two years later in 1948, an excess of melting snow caused the Fraser River to overflow, prompting the evacuation of approximately 16,000 people.

The effects of climate change have been discernable for decades now—but for a long time, there were few news outlets dedicating substantial space to covering environmental issues. Emma Gilchrist and Carol Linnitt are two journalists helping to change this narrative, which led them to found The Narwhal in 2018. 

Having a strict focus on environmental journalism, The Narwhal has risen to prominence over the past few years with its innovative model of independent, donor-
funded news.

From the very beginning, Gilchrist and Linnitt have worked to develop a concept that differs from local mainstream outlets. According to Linnitt, The Narwhal isn’t just about environmental journalism; it’s about covering the topic in a compelling way that attracts a dedicated audience.

“Our environmental issues in Canada are not boring. They’re some of the most pressing, urgent, important, exciting, and shocking issues of our time,” says Linnitt.

Gilchrist says that when they started The Narwhal, the environmental beat was marginalized in such a way that the general public didn’t comprehend it as a news sector. When Gilchrist would tell people she was an environmental reporter, they would assume she was an activist.

Each with a diverse background, Linnitt and Gilchrist walked winding paths on their way to building their own publication. 

Linnitt graduated from York University with a master’s in English. Before going into journalism, she was a researcher focusing on human rights issues in countries where the freedom of press was being undermined. After that, she worked as a research assistant for a conflict resolution mediator that was working to settle a natural rights dispute between Indigenous groups and the B.C. government.

Gilchrist began her career as a copy editor at the Calgary Herald but soon got her own weekly lifestyle column called “The Green Guide,” focused on how to live more sustainably. After witnessing a round of layoffs, she began to question the viability of her career at the Herald and moved on to working for the Pembina Institute and other environmentally focused NGOs.

Linnitt and Gilchrist continued their journalism careers working for an investigative climate change blog called DeSmog, which served as an incubator to what eventually became The Narwhal

Linnitt and Gilchrist’s varied backgrounds help them tell stories about environmental changes, and connect their readers to the communities most affected by those changes. Gilchrist says an important factor in making this connection is achieving credibility through trust by maintaining high journalistic standards, and featuring diverse voices in The Narwhal’s stories.

“That might be fishermen, oil and gas workers; it might be ranchers, miners, real people who are also deeply impacted by changes to the natural world,” says Gilchrist.

Being a non-profit and a start-up newsroom has enabled The Narwhal to report on these issues in a new way that can catch and keep the attention of a diverse audience. 

Traditional news outlets have been adding more environmental beat reporters to their staff, but outlets like The Tyee and The Narwhal have been pioneering the growth. Journalism students now take specific classes on environmental journalism, as climate reporting impacts all beats and has connections to the vast majority of news stories.

Long-time journalist Sean Holman made his name covering political corruption on his B.C. online outlet The Public Eye. He has also written for a number of newspapers, including The Globe and Mail, Vancouver Sun and Toronto Star.

When Holman changed his focus to environmental journalism in 2017, he says that traditional news media was failing to connect the forest fires to climate change. Today, Holman is a professor of environmental journalism at the University of Victoria and works in tandem with other journalism programs across the province on the “climate disaster project”—an
initiative that seeks to humanize the impacts of climate change in journalism and move the story beyond its political and economic aspects. 

“So if climate change is going to happen, and if that is a fact, let’s deal with that fact—and what does that mean for journalism? What does that mean for democracy? What does that mean for society?” says Holman. “There is going to be a massive disruption in how our society operates.”

According to Holman, journalists will have to be at the forefront of the discussions surrounding environmental issues. Holman says he is concerned at how governments might respond to what he sees as a major oncoming crisis.

“If the current trends continue, how do we live through it as an equitable society?” says Holman.

If climate change affects our society in as major a way as Holman believes it could, the world will see a spike in issues such as authoritarianism, food scarcity and xenophobia, according to Holman. 

As these concerns heighten, journalism will become an instrumental tool for commenting on and ultimately dealing with the complexities of a warming world.

Through his work with the climate disaster project, Holman hopes to spark thoughts on how society will live through this crisis and adapt to its effects. An important component of this is sharing stories that connect people and bring them closer to environmental issues.

Despite the doom and gloom that some climate news brings, Holman says the news must also be solutions-driven. Part of covering climate change, he notes, is providing tools and information to the reader so as to not make the audience feel helpless, but instead, to feel empowered in the face of these changes.

In Holman’s view, covering climate change is also a reminder of why journalists do what they do. The growing importance of the climate beat for many media organizations is due largely to the fact that it influences all sectors of our world.

“There are a bunch of beats that are going to be impacted by climate change. And we’re just not talking about that right now,” says Holman. Using every journalistic outlet possible to talk about climate change is the first step towards making its coverage mainstream. 

As for The Narwhal, Emma Gilchrist says that the common perception about it is that because it’s independent, it’s alternative. But that doesn’t mean it can’t also be mainstream, she adds—which she and Linnitt believe it has been from the start.

The Narwhal opened an Ontario bureau in the fall of 2021 and recently hired reporters in Alberta and Manitoba. Competing with larger news outlets has been a longstanding goal of Linnitt and Gilchrist’s, they say, and both credit The Narwhal’s success to its audience and the team they have built to better inform its readership.

With plans to be fully national in the next five years, The Narwhal is growing rapidly as the need for climate journalism grows just as fast.

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