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NPR correspondent Nathan Rott speaks on California's changing environment and the war in Ukraine

KCBX host Kim Foster spoke with NPR environment correspondent Nathan Rott to discuss California's changing environment and his reporting in Ukraine.

Kim Foster, KCBX host: Huge state to cover, lots of things happening in California — most recently the weather. I mean, how much have you been reporting on the weather and everything that's been happening in California lately.

Nathan Rott, NPR climate and environment correspondent: So I'm on NPR climate desk, and a big part of that is covering weather. Covering when it's raining, snowing, sunny, or there's smoke in the air, you name it. A lot of what I've been doing lately is covering the atmospheric rivers that we've been getting kind of slogged with, one after another all winter. Also reporting on the rockslides and debris flows that come with the flooding.

I live in Ventura now, on the Central Coast, as some of you know, we’ve been just getting hammered with a lot of this stuff. It's convenient, I guess in that way. I don't have to travel a whole heck of a long ways to do my reporting. I've been doing a lot of that, and just talking about what the effects are. I then also just spell out for people the climate connection, whether or not climate change is playing a role in any of the more intensive events that we're seeing all across, California every year.

Foster: So, the news is coming to you.

Rott: Yeah, as it turns out. Not something you usually want, but it's been a pretty wild winter and we had a really wild one last year too. It kind of seems like one after another, and that’s just, par for the course in California. Going from one extreme to another, it seems like.

Foster: Exactly, we even had tornadoes up here, which we've never had really within the last 20 years. It's so interesting. How much is this contributed by climate change?

Rott: Atmospheric Rivers, It's a lot more complicated, than it is with events like wildfires for example. For things like wildfires and droughts, there's a ton of peer-reviewed science making it very clear, that human caused climate change is making wildfires worse and making droughts more frequent. With the atmospheric rivers, it's complicated. I've spent a lot of time talking to the folks at scripps at UCSD, about a lot of the research that they've been doing. I’ve also talked to other folks at, the University of Arizona, and they’ve done some good research on it as well.

The general consensus is that, we know that hot air holds more moisture. We know that the air is hotter, because of all the emissions that we put in the atmosphere by driving our cars, heating our homes, and doing all that. This means that there's an expectation that atmospheric rivers are gonna get more intense, and are gonna hold more moisture, and drop more rain over time. However that has not been observed yet.

I know a lot of research that's going on currently, that is probably going to show that connection. Because of that, when I get on the air I could day, “Hey, these atmospheric rivers are getting more intense because of climate change”. However, because there has not been a body of peer reviewed science, yet, that explicitly spells that out, we try to be careful about saying that. Just because we want to be as accurate as possible, and make sure that people are getting the right information.

Foster: You have some unique experience, having been a firefighter. Seeing the increase of Fire and Fire storms, especially here in California. I mean, have you noticed since you've been reporting on fires that things have changed?

Rott: I talk to many firefighters, and I've talked to Buddies who are still in it. I used to work on an initial attack crew in Montana, through college and a little bit after. We would put out everything from small acre fire to something the size of your living room. Basically, the quick starts, we try to get out and Tamp down before they get too big.

The thing that I hear repeatedly talking to Firefighters now is that, the conditions are such that fires just get so much more intense so fast. A big thing that I hear a lot is that, at night time, that used to be kind of the time where you could do night operations. Meaning, if you're trying to build a line around the fire or get some heat out of a fire, night is a great time to do it. Because relative humidities go up, the temperatures typically go down.

The fire activity really kind of hampers down, and that just isn't happening like it was before, because it’s hotter at night. The relative humidities are not recovering like they usually do, so it's still dry. You still get some pretty aggressive fire Behavior. This is a thing that, I think a lot of people are dealing with.

I miss Wildland firefighting a lot. It was a great job, but I definitely feel bad for the guys and galls that are still doing it, because it's gotten really difficult.

Foster: Yeah, and fire can create it’s own weather. That's why you have those unique firestorms the weather conditions and the Santa Ana winds, and all those other things that contribute to it, can make getting out of a fire, an already dangerous situation, more difficult.

Rott: I covered the Thomas fire, that happened down here in Ventura County and LA County. I covered the Napa fires in 2016. I mean we've been lucky, the last two years have not been quite as crazy as some of the years that we saw before. I know that's a big concern that people had earlier this winter just because of the lack of snow pack, which is being resolved right now with all the atmospheric Rivers we’re seeing.Fire Behavior has changed and it's creating all sorts of stressors for the folks that are trying to put these things out, and the managers that are trying to deal with them.

Even energy providers that are trying to figure out, what to do with their power lines and all that. It's really changed the dynamic for folks, and causing a lot of stress for people too. I mean think about how many people get evacuated every year because wildfires, and how many people suffer from power outages because they're transmission line gets knocked down.

Shoot, I did a story with some colleagues, last year about just the insurance picture in California, and how hard it's getting for people to get homeowners insurance now because of the Wildfire risk. It's a big deal, you can't sign a mortgage for a house if you can't get it insured. So it's a really big issue for people.

Foster: Yeah, the coast of California as well, due to erosion. We've been having a lot of problems with that especially with the rain, I'm sure you see that in Ventura. The California coast is dwindling.

Rott: Since I moved to California— I grew up in Montana— I moved to California and thought, I'm gonna lose my mind if I don't find some way to get out and exercise, and do something cool. I picked up surfing, which I'm sure every Surfer is gonna hear this and say, “thanks great,Yeah another dude in the water.” But, it's wild just doing that and being out, and seeing how much the beach changes every winter with the sand being sucked away and redeposited. I mean in Ventura Surfer point, where I go all the time, you can see the parking lot there. They've had to close big chunks of it just because there's so much erosion that's happened there. All of the projections of what's gonna happen to the California coastline over the next 20 to 30 years are pretty dire, and pretty scary.

It's just gonna take away a lot of public beaches. It's gonna take away a lot of Public Access. It's gonna threaten a lot of homes and that's a bummer because, the California Coast is one of the prettiest places on Earth. It's a bummer to think that it's gonna be a very different and, denuded kind of landscape probably in the future.

Foster: We definitely see that here on the Central Coast for sure. What can be done? I mean does it have to come from the the national level, the state level, the local level or a combination of all of those? I know that Coastal commission here in California is trying to protect everything, but it's sort of a Race Against Time.

Rott: What I run into all the time, and I feel kind of stupid after a while saying it on the radio over and over and over again, but the easiest solution for a lot of these things — whether it's biodiversity loss, it's wildfires, or it's Coastal erosion— is to just quit contributing to climate change. Basically, trying to change our economy and figure out how to quit putting so many pollutants into the atmosphere through different gases like, methane, and carbon dioxide, things that are warming the planet.

That's the easiest solution. I mean, it seems like the most difficult, but it's also the simplest. If you quit contributing to the problem, you'll see less intense effects. There's a lot of heating that's baked into the system right now. We're gonna see climate change continue, even if we did miraculously somehow decide to cut all of our emissions tomorrow. The world is a dynamic place, and it's gonna continue to warm. Every Fraction of a degree warmer has very different implications for wildfires, and drought, and for all these things that we're talking about.

Foster: It must be interesting to report on it though. You're witnessing history.

Rott: It can be pretty darn depressing at times. I love our natural resources in California, and I love the natural resources we have in the US. I spend a bunch of time camping, backpacking, and fishing in the Sierra's, and just seeing how much those mountains have changed in the 10 years that I've been in California. It's crazy just the tree die off’s and the ecosystems not recovering from wildfires, in the way they used to. It can be a pretty humbling, and depressing thing to report on sometimes. You’ve got to try to stay optimistic, and try to find solutions that people are implementing. Whether it's on a local level or a national level, you have to try to take some hope from that.

Foster: You also report internationally as well, And I understand you’ve been to Ukraine for a while. You Reported on quite a variety of issues there, including the environment as well.

Rott: When the full-scale conflict erupted in Ukraine in 2022, NPR had a bunch of my colleagues on the international desk there. We had some other folks, and then over the last two years now, that full-scale conflict's been going on. NPR was cycling folks through that were willing to volunteer and do the reporting there.

I've always wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I think back when I was doing Wildland firefighting, and smoke jumpers are like the creme de La Creme. I was like, man I want to do that someday, and I never did.

I think with reporting and being a journalist, I've always thought being a foreign correspondent is the coolest. It's like the top of the game, sort of thing. It's something I've always wanted to do. It's sad to say that it's taken a giant war in Europe for me to be able to see some of that dream. However, it was a really cool opportunity to go over there. I've been there I think four times now, staying for about a month each, maybe a little more.

I've been over to Ukraine doing some reporting on the conflict there, and just trying to find ways to tell stories there that relate to people here in the US. The last time I went was last year over Thanksgiving in November. Anybody watching the news lately knows that Ukraine is not the top news story anymore in the world. So it's hard to find ways, sometimes, to find a story that resonates with people and make’s them think about what's going on over there.

You’ve got to get kind of creative in your storytelling and, figure out stories that you know might resonate with an audience back home.

Foster: You aren't worried at all? Being a journalist can be a dangerous job, over there especially.

Rott: Yeah, I mean being a journalist, sadly, can be a dangerous job now just about anywhere in the world. I think the way that I've kind of rationalized it and, the way I talk to friends and family about reporting in Ukraine is saying that It feels a lot like covering a wildfire in some ways.

It’s similar in that you kind of know where the fire is, you know where the danger is to an extent. There are missile strikes and air alarms all the time in Ukraine, which you don't have as much control over. However, you know where the front lines are, and you take your shots. There’s times where you go and you do some reporting that's a little more, fun, type 2 reporting. That’s where it's a little more risky. NPR's pretty good about having a setup with security advisors, So you're with somebody who has experience in Conflict zones.

Especially because I'm some climate reporter ‘schmuck, I don't know nothing’. Really the first time I went over there, I didn't know anything about artillery or how this works. But you get over there and you understand a little bit more and have a sense of the dynamics, as well as the places you can be that aren't as risky. You also learn what are the things you put in place to try and protect yourself, and protect your team, because you're not ever reporting on your own.

I'm traveling with the driver, traveling with the translator, and I'm traveling with ukrainians who know the country and know the place. Making sure you're doing everything you can to protect them, because I want to tell a good impactful story. It's a good thing for me, It's a good thing for our audience, and that's what we're supposed to do.

However, you have a lot of responsibility for other people while you're there too. That's a thing I try to take really seriously because nobody's getting paid enough to get killed in a conflict.

Foster: Your wearing your bullet you're wearing your bulletproof vest, I hope!

Rott: Yeah, we're in the whole 40 pounds gear.

Foster: Yeah, it's not fun. What what kind of stories did you see there? I mean you must have seen Devastation, as well as hope, with the people hoping that this will end at some point.

Rott: I went in March of 2022 and full scale conflicts started in late February, so it was pretty early on. We went to Kiev not long after Ukraine had pushed Russian troops out of the area. We went to some of those places, we also went to Bucha and Irpin. Some of these towns and areas were occupied by Russian soldiers and it was hard to see. We saw dead civilians, I mean you name it, all the horrors you would imagine in the war zone are easy to see.

As I've gone back, I've tried to find stories that would resonate with people in the US. I cover biodiversity, and I cover climate change. When I was there I was like, “hey, let's do a story about some of the environmental destruction and degradation that's happened in the country”. We visited a national park down on the coast of the Black Sea, where they've been seeing washed up dead dolphins. We’d go into Forest areas where the artillery strikes have caused forest fires and, have burned big areas.

Last time I was there, we went to Sloviansk, Scoutside, which is Far Eastern Ukraine. We went and hung out with some folks with the environment Ministry of Ukraine, and they're doing water monitoring and finding heavy metals in some of the water there. Which is unsurprising, given all the artillery and all the ordinence thats been expended there.

It’s doing some stories like that, and also doing stories about the electrical grid and the energy grid. That was a big thing that Russia tried to do in the first winter of the war, and this winter too. They’ve tried to target energy infrastructure, to try to make life just miserable for ukrainians and break the will of the country. The idea of having a power outage is something that people in California have to deal with all the time, when we talk about wildfires or atmospheric Rivers. I do think that hearing a person deal with that in ukraine, even if the cause of it is completely different, it just it kind of builds a bridge. It helps understand some of the things that people are dealing with there.

I think the last trip there was difficult in a lot of ways, because it's two years of war people are tired. People are exhausted and not really sure If it's going to end, and how it's going to end. I think that reality was sobering and hard just talking to people and feeling for them. I'm a journalist, I'm not here to fix the thing, I'm not here to tell people how it’s going to get better. However, in some ways you end up kind of having to be almost a counselor for people when you talk to them.

Foster: How important is it that we are there, that Western journalists are there? You're the eyes and ears showing us back home what's happening.

Rott: I think the conflict in Gaza, right now, is a good example of it. There's just not as many reports. I mean, you can't get in and out as a reporter. There's been some groups that have been able to do it, Either on an embed with IDF, The Israeli Defense Force, or with NGO’s. I think people need to understand the consequences of political decisions, and the consequences of what's going on.

The way to do that is to have journalists there and in this day and age, a lot has changed. I feel like I learned a lot about the role of social media being in Ukraine and reporting on it there. Every soldier's got a smartphone, and they're taking videos or they’ve got a GoPro on their helmet. Just the sheer amount of content, and I use content Loosely, but just the amount of information that's being shared through some of these new channels, that's a huge thing with Gaza.

What we're seeing there and in Israel, it's a lot of this. A lot of that is not, “journalists” it’s citizens, just recording stuff and sharing it. It's up to journalists to verify it to try to locate and do all the the leg work to prove that what we're seeing or hearing is valid. I think it's hugely important and, being a reporter is an interesting job in the US. I don't think at any point in history, People were like “Man, journalism is the coolest job and that is such an important thing in the world!”

But you go to Ukraine and, holy moly people are excited to talk to you and, they understand it's important that the US understands what's going on because we've been supplying them with a lot of aid over the last two years. They know it's important that Americans are getting information about what's happening, and then can decide politically whether or not we want to continue to support them.

I think it's an incredibly important thing, and it feels good. You leavema trip like that feeling like you did something good. Which is what we want to feel in journalism all the time, like were educating people that, and that we’re helping people understand the world around them. We’re going to places that are hard to get to or dangerous to be in, like Ukraine, I think it's just hugely important.

Foster: Well, that's why we're having you come to the central coast, To talk all about this in depth, with everyone. We're really looking forward to having you, and looking forward to hearing more stories.

Rott: I love SLO. There's no amount of time I can spend in SLO that's enough. I'm excited to be here and excited to talk to you, and meet with some folks and answer questions. Hopefully I can help people understand what it is we do.

Kim Foster Carlson is an award-winning broadcast journalist with decades of experience in radio and television news. She came to KCBX as a substitute announcer in 2021 after many years at stations such as KCBS, KGO and KQED. When she's not traveling, visiting her grown kids or hanging out with her dogs, you will likely find her in a swimming pool. She was a six-time division I All-American swimmer at Florida State University and Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.