Introducing BASELINE

Telling the story of the climate crisis beyond a human lifetime

There’s a problem (OK, many problems…) inherent in the way journalists have been telling the story of climate crisis: We don’t live long enough to actually see it. Academics call this “generational amnesia” or “shifting baseline syndrome.” Wonky terms, sure, but they hit on something big and true. The climate emergency plays out over decades and centuries. We journalists — I’ve been a journalist at CNN for a decade — tend to work by the hour or minute. Often, we’re so caught in the churn that we are totally missing the BIG BIG story of the century. Over time, events that now feel extreme will come to feel normal. That’s already happening, and it raises the prospect the public may never truly be alarmed by the climate emergency. (And, yes, I know there’s some alarm at the moment. But we’ve been doing this for 30 years).

This “Baseline” project will explore antidotes to our collective climate amnesia. With a grant from the National Geographic Society and support from Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, I’m developing a “Baseline” documentary series and am working with a handful of climate-frontline communities to collect visual evidence of changes that span decades and generations. Think of the doc as the environmental version of the “Seven Up!” series by Michael Apted. The filmmaker interviewed a bunch of seven-year-old kids in the 1960s, and then returned to talk with them again every seven years. The “kids” are now in their 60s, and the project is still going. I plan to do something similar through the lens of climate, repeatedly returning to a handful of communities over coming years and decades. The goal is to make visible and emotional the massive environmental shifts that are happening all around us.

To be clear: This is a LONG HAUL, multi-generational effort. I want this project to outlast me, and I’m 30-something now. It’s a wild idea, and I’ll certainly need your help and support and interest in order to make the “Baseline” project work.

Sign up here for occasional (monthly-ish) updates on the project, and for ways you can help “Baseline” succeed. And thank you for your time! —John


This newsletter is written by John D. Sutter, director of “BASELINE.” Sutter is a National Geographic Explorer and CNN contributor focused on the climate crisis.