Interview: Jemima Kiss wants to be part of the solution to climate change

This week, in light of our recent climate partnership with Stripe, we decided to get to know one of Substack’s climate writers better. We sat down with Jemima Kiss, who writes about taking action in her climate newsletter, Hothouse Solutions.

Jemima shares stories of people tackling climate change, how it relates to our daily lives, and practical tips for reducing your carbon footprint, using a solutions-oriented approach to her writing. This interview has been lightly edited for length.

You seem like the perfect person to talk to about actionable solutions to climate change. How did you find your way into climate journalism in the first place?

I've been a journalist for nearly 20 years, including 10 years at The Guardian covering technology, media, and culture. As head of The Guardian’s technology team, it was really hectic. I left to freelance and became really preoccupied with the plastics problem.

I had a personal experiment of trying to cut out plastic at home. It helped me get an understanding of the issue, because when you are actually mindful about how much plastic waste you're producing, you then extrapolate and realize how massive the problem is. Observing what happens in your home helps you change your mindset and change your behavior.

Observing what happens in your home helps you change your mindset and change your behavior.

It felt quite good to be doing something about a huge issue like climate change, which has so many facets to it. Plastics are just one part of it, but they're a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Eventually, I started writing columns for The Guardian about plastic pollution and what we can do about it in our own lives.

What led you to start your publication, Hothouse Solutions?

I was having coffee with a friend of mine, Mike Coren, who's now the co-founder of Hothouse. We were having a “state of the world” kind of chat. There was a pause in the conversation, and we both sort of looked at each other and went, “But what I really want to do is this.”

It turned out that we had a very similar idea for a climate publication that would combine journalism with practical advice and action. Hothouse is a systematic, methodical look at lots of topics around climate change. It bridges the gap between this overwhelming global issue and the simple things we can all do at home, and that mission motivated me.

There's the question of how much individual actions move the needle. Is okay if we’re not doing the most high-leverage things to address climate change at home?

We think about this a lot. A lot of climate doomers are like, “Well, it's so terrible that there's no point doing anything.” If the argument is that our actions don't change anything therefore we shouldn't do anything, that's rubbish. Every action ripples out to people. There are friends of mine who have now changed their attitudes towards plastics at home because of things I’ve told them and showed them.

It's like voting. We all think our single vote doesn't matter, but in aggregate of course it matters. It's billions of micro-actions that have gotten us into this mess, and it’ll be billions of micro-actions that will get us out. If we've got a thousand readers, and everyone spends $20 a year donating to a local food waste charity, that's a significant bump in funding. As an individual and as a citizen – because we are citizens before we are consumers – that is the power that you have. In aggregate, these actions really matter.

It feels like part of it’s about the visibility of saying, “I'm doing this thing,” and that in itself encourages someone else to do something.

I think that taking action in your personal life is kind of a gateway drug to leveling up. A local dentist that we interviewed recently started with zero waste, and she’s now writing organized letter campaigns to support public policy and climate change motions that address plastic waste. Taking personal action is a really important motivator and a bridge between yourself and this bigger issue. If you've got kids, you're setting a good example for them in saying, “Look, this really matters.” The ripple effect is incredibly powerful.

Sometimes, it seems that the first response to disaster is apathy, mistrust or denial. It feels almost paradoxical. Why are people still slow to take action on climate change?

We're on the right path – we've just got to move a bit faster. If you look outside the window and there are blue skies and birds tweeting, there doesn't seem to be a problem. There's a cognitive dissonance between what you read and what you're experiencing day-to-day. It's very hard to connect the two, and you just carry on because you can't see the impact of what you're doing. We can know intellectually what the problem is and still jump in our car to do that extra drive we didn't need to do, because that's what we've been doing for ages.

One of the many challenges with the climate crisis is that a lot of it will be determined by public attitudes and behavior around what feels right. We're already seeing people's views on flights changing slightly. In the UK, if you get a short-haul flight and there are other really good options like fast trains, there's a little bit of, “Hmm, you're flying?”

Research from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has shown that attitudes towards climate change are shifting, but existentially complicated threats are incredibly difficult to process. When people feel guilty or scared, they do switch into denial.

Attitudes towards climate change are shifting, but existentially complicated threats are incredibly difficult to process. When people feel guilty or scared, they do switch into denial.

It’s seeing people that you know and trust that changes your behavior to do things in a positive way. It's about motivation and inspiration and pointing out the benefits. On Hothouse, our tone is purposefully never judgmental or heavy-handed. We're always trying to suggest changes rather than demand them. That's an important part of our approach of solutions journalism.

Can you tell us about solutions journalism, and how it works with a big topic like climate change?

Solutions journalism is an approach that adds a very simple methodology to a story. You make sure that you clearly explain the problem, then you work through explaining the solutions, presenting the evidence for what works and what doesn't. Lastly, you give the readers a route to seeing how the solutions could apply to their lives and be a really positive thing. The piece does work of examining the options around a specific problem.

We've got one piece coming out about agriculture and food production. Organic food has been the poster child for environmentally-minded shoppers for a very long time, but it requires much more land and produces less. Farmers are looking at different solutions that are sustainable and environmentally friendly but at the same time can increase yields. We work through the different techniques that they're trying in a logical way, explaining the pros and cons to each of them and discussing where trends are going.

Are there similar kinds of methods that have inspired you, as you're thinking about how to structure your narrative and your voice?

That's a good question. When I was doing the series on trying to live plastic-free, it was written in a first-person style. Because Hothouse is trying to give people motivation and inspiration, it works really well to write in the first person. It's immediately more relatable. When we do profiles of people or companies or community campaigns, we're again focusing on the person at the center of it. I would say to write the human story in every story.

Because Hothouse is trying to give people motivation and inspiration, it works really well to write in the first person. It's immediately more relatable.

Whether we cover a technologist, a dentist, or you just struggling to figure out how to stop your kids from wasting food, that technique has been really central to us in finding the voice for Hothouse and making them want to engage. There's the old adage in journalism that if you write a story about a thousand people having car crashes, that's a lot – but if you write about one person with real color and sensitivity and insight into their experience, it's so much more engaging to read.

This year has been filled with learnings as to what happens when people experience large-scale catastrophe. What lessons can we learn from COVID that are applicable to climate change?

COVID has shown what it looks like and feels like when the whole world just has to stop for a moment and review what it's doing. On a practical level, we know that if we need to make really dramatic changes, we can do it.

If you look at the coverage of the pandemic, people haven't felt the need to bring in someone who thinks COVID is a hoax. There’s this concept of “both-sides”-ism in journalism where you feel that you want to be fair to people on both sides, and I believe in the climate debate that has been misapplied somehow. There are 99.99% of climate scientists who say that climate change is a fact, so when news programs have a debate with three people on it, I don’t think one of them needs to be a climate denier.

I do feel that COVID has kind of distracted from the coverage of climate. Climate change struggles in a way, because if you're covering it you constantly have to try to make news, whereas it's this massive overarching thing. It's definitely been overshadowed and set back a bit by the pandemic, like everything has.

We certainly felt that with the wildfires in the [San Francisco] Bay Area this year, where it was sort of one thing on top of everything else that was happening.

We launched the week of the red skies and a friend of mine said, “I take it this isn't some kind of PR campaign.” The wildfires kind of brought it home. What was once a sort of theoretical threat for a lot of people is now becoming much more real, whether it’s the flooding in the UK or the extreme heat and wildfires in California. This is only going to intensify, and that's the scary thing – this is the new normal. That's why our personal “new normal” needs to change.

Subscribe to Jemima’s publication, Hothouse Solutions.

If you’re a writer with paid subscriptions, learn how to contribute part of your revenue to carbon removal through Substack and Stripe's climate matching program. We’ll match your contribution.