The Office of Climate Facts

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The Office of Climate Facts

By Mitch Sullivan

I’m so nervous.

It’s the first time I’ve ever been on television. I was always going to get here one day, but I didn’t expect it to blindside me like this. One minute, I’m at my desk at the Office of Climate Facts, working my way through a stack of contact papers from this department and that governor and the other congressman, riffing on a thousand ways to say “remain calm.” The next I’m being tapped by the Office Director himself.

Jake, Director Francis said in his big boss voice. Maryanne’s been grounded in Sacramento. Fill in for her?

You don’t say no to an opportunity like that, no matter how unprepared you are. Maryanne’s grip on the spokesperson gig is as tight as her pulled-back ponytail. And she’d never let anything as trivial as “being unprepared” stop her from going on TV. She’s the face of the Office of Climate Facts, and a voice the people trust. Filling in for her is as prestigious as it gets.

Of course I said yes.

Who’d have thought the storm I’ve been fielding panicked phone calls about all day—the storm that’s been nothing but a headache for me, if I’m honest—would gift me something like this. I even tried to warn Maryanne before she left. I said, there’s no need to actually go to California. That’s what the internet and the telephone are for. She’s stubborn, though, and charged off anyways. Apparently made it as far as Sacramento before the storm forced her down. So stupid. She knows how fickle these storms are, licking out in all kinds of directions without much notice. They swell up and simmer down out of nowhere. 

Not that there’s anything to worry about, though.

This is just weather. 

Not climate.

I’ll have to hit that note a few times when I’m on television today.

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The morning shows are the easiest. Maryanne always says that. They’re the ones getting the wave of overnight news, and it’s their job to spoon it out to everyone in a digestible way. The production crew are running around, all somber and stressed out, and there isn’t much to chat about before the cameras start to roll. The hosts are too busy with their stacks of paper. That’s okay. I have papers, too. Papers full of talking points, and Maryanne’s catch-all list of responses to the most usual ways these interviews go downhill. I have every bit of data on the West Coast storm anyone could ever want. 

What I don’t have is a tie without a coffee stain on it.

God damn it, how did I not notice the stain.

It’s big and blotchy and offensive, and it’s right in the middle of everything. It’s like someone measured me specifically for it—a tailored blemish. A customized bit of embarrassment built specifically for my first-ever appearance on TV. I think about tucking the tie into my shirt, or twisting it around, but every solution is worse than the problem.

The lights come up and I get my cue that we’re about to return from commercial.  There’s no time to fix it, now. Damn it, why do I never notice these things until it’s too late?

“On three!” the Director calls out, and counts up from zero.

The host’s name is Jo, and the guy beside her is Michael. I don’t know their last names.

Everything goes silent at once as Jo fixes the camera with a serious stare, like she’s disappointed in it. She doesn’t bother with a “welcome back” or an “if you’ve just joined us.” 

“As we return to the third day of our rolling coverage of the West Coast hurricane,” she says, and I just barely manage not to click my tongue, “we’re joined now by Jake Greatly, Communications Officer at the Office of Climate Facts. Jake, thank you for being here.”

The camera’s gaze is a physical feeling on my skin. I can see my face in the monitors dotted around the studio—well made up, precise hair, clear skin, clean teeth. Fucking stained tie. Still, the camera forces you to smile, so I smile. Jo doesn’t return it because she’s setting a mood. 

“Pleasure, Jo,” I say in a perfectly warmed-up voice, and seize on my chance. “Can I pick you up on something real quick?”

This trips her up, because she has a prompter to read and I’m inserting myself. It’s not exactly polite, but I feel like this is a good chance to show her and Michael that I know my stuff. That even though they wanted Maryanne, and they’re stuck with me, they’re still going to get their booking’s worth out of me.

Her head ticks ever-so-slightly sideways and she invites me to continue.

“It might seem like it,” I say, “but the storm we’re dealing with here isn’t a hurricane. It’s technically not even a tropical storm. It’s all to do with the wind speeds, see. For this to be a hurricane it’d need to be a lot windier. Under the definitions that were drawn up three years ago, what we’ve got here is a Pacific Depression. Another word for ‘lots of rain.’”

She’s looking at me in the same miffed way she was looking at the camera earlier, so I lighten things up. 

“My first climate fact of the day,” I say, and laugh. “Got a whole office full of them.”

It’s a tough crowd in here though and I get nothing back. Fair enough—they’re setting a mood. Or maybe they’re distracted by the stain. Jo hasn’t looked directly at it yet, but I’m sure Michael has. They know it’s there.

Everyone knows.

We slog through the overnight reports of damages and missing persons and the death count, which I’m in a rush to add is unconfirmed and that people shouldn’t assume the worst about loved ones. Phones and networks are down. People are taking shelter. Electricity is hard to come by in a lot of places. Don’t panic, this is just a storm. We’ve had them before.

“Yes,” Michael finally breaks his silence. His voice cracks. He should’ve warmed up. “We have had them before. This is the second hurricane to hit—”

“Pacific Depression.”

Jo butts in. 

“Well, three years ago, Hurricane Foley hit the West Coast in similar circumstances. That was called a hurricane at the time, before the definitions were redrawn.”

Shit, I think. Here we go. 

“Now, at the time,” Michael picks back up, “your office said this was a once-in-a-century weather event. That hurricanes like it don’t usually hit the West Coast this hard, and that one forming so far north was a big fluke. And yet here we are three years down the line facing another one. Can you explain that?”

I take a deep breath and channel Maryanne.

“Well,” I say. “First of all, the conditions are not similar. Foley had winds of about 150 miles per hour. That makes it a hurricane under the old and new rating system. This PD is only just pushing seventy, which falls short of a hurricane by some—”

“Twenty-two inches of rain over the span of three days?” Jo says. “That’s not a hurricane?”

As my eyes flick back to Jo, I catch sight of myself in a monitor over her shoulder. There’s the stain. Center-chest. So obvious, right in the middle of my bright red, otherwise spotless tie. I almost wince. I can’t believe I let this happen.

“No,” I say, and it’s a bit louder than I wanted it to be. “Rainfall doesn’t come into it. Look, this is a big storm. It’s a big, long, heavy storm. But we have definitions in place for a reason. I know what you’re getting at, okay. But we can’t talk about what’s going on in California if we’re all talking about different things. We need to stick to the facts. That’s what our office is there for. Clue’s in the name, Jo.”

It was too forceful. I can tell right away that I overdid it, because Jo and Michael have their backs up.

“Okay, well,” Jo says, “what about the fact that we’ve had two once-in-a-century storms in three years? What does your office have to say about that?”

And then, like a bolt from the blue, the perfect response comes to me.

“Simple,” I say. “The counter reset after Foley. We’re getting the next once-in-a-century storm out of the way early.”

They don’t laugh because they’re setting a mood, but they know it’s a fantastic answer.

I always knew I’d make it to television.

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“The tie was a disaster, I know,” I say to Director Francis, and he assures me he didn’t notice. His stern school principal’s voice almost convinces me he’s telling the truth, but I know he’s not. “What did Maryanne think?”

“We haven’t been able to get through,” he says. “But it’s nothing to worry about. Phones and networks are down. People are taking shelter. Electricity is hard to come by in a lot of places. She’s probably hunkered down in the closest bar she can find.”

I laugh because yes, even at ten a.m., that’s probably true.

“You did very well,” he says. “You’re on air again in one hour, so keep on top of your game.”

“Absolutely,” I say, squeezing the freshly bought bright blue tie in my left hand. “I’ll do my best to make Maryanne wish she’d never gone to Cali. More than she probably already does, I mean.”

“Good boy,” he says, and the phone goes quiet.

I go back to trying to call my mother. It’s only four in the morning in Sydney, but she won’t mind an early-morning call if it’s about my first TV appearance. She doesn’t pick up after three attempts, though, and I go searching for live updates from Oz. Just in case something’s going on. Social media is absolutely gunked up with West Coast storm talk, of course, but I do manage to find a few posts about blackouts in New South Wales. It’s been pretty hot down there lately, and seems the electricity grid’s losing the battle against the rising temperature. I snort and shake my head. All those private contracts for eco-friendly emergency power stations and still they can’t keep their air conditioners going.

I hope Mum isn’t too uncomfortable.

I tap her out a text message.

Hey! I hear it’s scorching down under yet again!! Give me a call when you’re up, got some big career news.

I’ll have to email her links to my segments later.

She’s going to rip me to shreds over the tie thing.

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“As the death toll rises to thirty in the West Coast hurricane and damages skyrocket into the estimated hundreds of millions, America asks: why and how? I’m joined by Jake Greatly from the Office of Climate Facts to try and make sense of this mess. Jake, what the hell is going on?”

Fucking great start.

Maryanne always says Dirk Jansen’s a hard-ass, but where the hell am I supposed to go from there? He sounds like he’s mad at me. At Jake Greatly, shit-kicker from the Office of Climate Facts, who has got literally no control over the weather.

PM America is meant to be one of the more conservative hours on television, but Dirk’s really been pushing hard on the Office for the last couple of years for some reason. It can’t be pressure from the network. I can’t remember who owns it nowadays, but in general, if you have enough money to own a network, you’re on the side of real climate facts.

Not that we have any political leaning ourselves, of course—but come on. The conservatives traditionally softball it to us. 

I give him a half-hearted laugh. 

“Well, there’s a storm, Dirk,” I say. “A Pacific Depression, not a hurricane.”

“Recall three years ago,” Dirk says, eyebrows pinched together and voice up, like he’s come straight from the set of a legal drama and is still in character. “When your office declared Foley a once-in-a-century event. How is it that …”

And off he goes, retreading the same ground I just covered this morning. The worst thing about television, Maryanne says, is that you have to repeat yourself over and over and pretend like it isn’t driving you crazy. So I answer Dirk as politely as possible, and give him my killer line about the century rollover, and hope his hardline questions will soften up.

“It wasn’t so long ago that a hurricane forming this far north was considered impossible,” he said, and he doesn’t even give me a chance to interject and correct his terminology. “What do you have to say to the claims of a former IPCC Co-Chair that this is a direct result of rising sea temperatures, and that your office is suppressing that information?”

The scoff is out of my mouth before I can stop it. 

“Dirk, please,” I say. “You know as well as I do that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was a corrupt organization. It got caught red-handed peddling false claims and junk science to policy makers to try and skew decisions their way. You can safely ignore anything that comes from the not-so-good folks who used to work for the IPCC. Which Co-Chair? Was it Laghari?”

“Sahil Laghari, yes.”

“Are you kidding me,” I say, suddenly seized by indignity. “Windmill lover? Laghari was a proponent of the single worst health risk the developed world has ever seen. He put his crusade for renewable energy above the health and safety of thousands of children in the United States and Europe. He’s a disgrace.”

“His action group on climate change has data to back their claims.”

“Data from where,” I say, and I nudge the stack of paper on the desk in front of me. “The Office is the only organization that has the kind of worldwide scope to observe and assess the human impact on climate. We’re primary data gatherers, Dirk. We have the numbers. We have the tools. Laghari’s in charge of a group of political activists, not scientists.”

“He levels that charge at you,” Dirk says. 

“Yeah, well,” I say, and I lean back in my chair. There’s no hesitation now. Not when I’m being pitted against a crook like Laghari. Not when I’m wearing a brand new, stain-free tie. “He would say that, Dirk. Only one of us still has an office.”

There’s barely time before the end of the segment for me to remind everyone this is weather. 

Not climate.

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Maryanne’s phone goes straight to voicemail again and I push out a deep sigh.

I really hope she saw me on Dirk. She’ll absolutely flip when she finds out he’s drunk the IPCC Kool-Aid and is quoting Sahil-fucking-Laghari live on air. The whole reason I have a job with the Office in the first place is because of my role in bringing down Laghari. My first win in the battle against the fake and alarmist institutions that used to prop up the whole debate around climate. 

My only win, if I’m honest. Maybe I’ll take on Dirk next if he keeps up with this bizarre vendetta against the Office.

Mum’s still not picking up her phone. It’s past ten o’clock in the morning back home, and she ought to be awake by now. The blackouts must mean she can’t charge her phone. I snort, because I know she won’t like that. How are you supposed to spend all day texting when your battery’s dead?

Ah, well. 

I text a few friends to ask if they’ve seen me on air. 

Before they can write back, I’m rushed into makeup for the evening shows.

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My final appearance for the day is a last-minute booking on Marchant.

Even Maryanne doesn’t have a game plan for Marchant. She’s a narrative talker, smart as a son of a bitch, and her hour-long slot is like a fortress that she builds up segment by segment every night. It’s rare that anyone goes on Marchant looking to butt heads and gets away unscathed. The only way to win a fight with her, I figure, is to not fight in the first place.

The first twenty minutes of this hour have been dedicated to Foley, and how it prompted the redrawing of the tropical storm thresholds. Marchant’s version is really simple and straightforward. Leaves a lot of things out, of course, but it’s easy to follow, easy to swallow. The IPCC was disbanded because it was wall-to-wall corrupt—everyone knows that part—which led to the founding of the Office of Climate Facts. Just weeks later, Foley hits, and this apparently impossible storm prompts the newly created OCF to assert its relevance by setting new thresholds for what’s a Hurricane, what’s a Tropical Storm, what’s a Pacific Depression. It’s Cliff’s Notes stuff. Packaged so your grandma who’s never heard of the IPCC or the OCF can understand it.

Basically true. Factually shaky. 

I watch from the sidelines, soaking in the atmosphere. I’m so used to it already. Nobody’s walked me through it, but I know what most of these people’s jobs are. Lights guy. Sound guy. Director. Assistants. Hair and makeup. I’m a natural at this. 

I always knew I would be.

My phone buzzes in my pocket—Director Francis calling—and I tap the assistant next to me. Do I have time for a call, I mouth to her. She whispers back to me, three minutes, and so I step outside and answer it.

“Hey, boss,” I say. “I’ve got three—”

“Jake, got some bad news,” he says in his booming voice. “Maryanne’s dead.”

At first, I assume he’s joking. He’s got a really dry sense of humor, and this is how he’s decided to tell me that I’ve got Maryanne’s job permanently. That I’ve done such a good job on TV today they want me to take over full time. Any second now, he’ll add the words “to me” or “to America” or something like that. Turn it into a joke. That’s just how he is.

“We still want you to go ahead with Marchant if that’s okay,” he says. “But I wanted you to hear it from me before it got to the media.”

No, that isn’t right. That’s not funny.

“Wait a second,” I say. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I don’t want you to cancel on Marchant if at all possible,” he says. “Bookings are valuable on her show and—”

“Not that,” I say. “About Maryanne. We can’t possibly know for sure. Phones and networks are down, right? People are taking shelter. Electricity is—”

“She was in a car,” the Director cuts me off. “It got caught in floodwaters. When she opened the door to get out, she fell down an open manhole cover. No way she could have seen it, too much water. The other passengers in the car say she disappeared in a flash. They found her two miles away. She’s gone, Jake.”

I open my mouth. Close it again. Open it. Close it.

This isn’t how it works. This isn’t in Maryanne’s talking points.

People don’t just die like that. Not in a Pacific Depression! It’s the lowest tier of storm you can get. The weakest of the weak.

“Jake, look, I need you to do Marchant. Can you?”

“Ah … yeah,” I say. “Yeah, I mean … I guess it’s my job now, right?”

“That’s right,” Director Francis says. “We’ll sort out the particulars when you get back. Just keep doing a good job like you have been all day. You’ll be fine.”

He hangs up.

I’ve only got sixty seconds to get back inside.

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Straight after commercial, Marchant does what all the other shows do. She updates the damages. Updates the forecasts. And updates the death count. I almost miss my cue when she finally introduces me.

“We’ll come back to the storm in a moment,” Marchant says, shuffling her papers. “But let’s focus on you for a little bit. You started working for the OCF shortly after it was formed, yes? Right after the IPCC was disbanded for …” and she shuffles through her papers like she’s forgotten. “Corrupt behavior,” she says, stressing it like it’s supposed to be in air quotes.

I try my best to smile.

“Yes, that’s right,” I say. “About three years back.”

And on she goes. About my resume. About my education. She wants to know why I started a degree in quantitative life sciences but then suddenly switched to communications and public relations. She wants to know when, exactly, I met Salvatore Francis, who is now the director of the OCF. She wants to know if he funded my degree. She wants to know details of the comprehensive study we used to bring down Sahil Laghari and the IPCC three years ago, and whether or not we stand by the claims about infrasound’s link to severe health effects. She wants to know if I’d care to comment on the fact that the author of that study has since withdrawn his name from it.

But it’s rolling off my eardrums. Bouncing away.

This is all just noise.

She’s in the middle of asking me if I know anything about Director Francis’s financial ties to the energy sector when I drop my palm to the table. Maybe a little too hard. It echoes around the studio and startles a few people. Startles me.

“You realize someone has died, right?” I say. “You want to talk about all this right now?”

Marchant looks confused and points to the in-studio monitor.

“Latest reports say sixty people have died, Mr. Greatly.”

I grit my teeth and want to scream.

Maryanne’s dead, and all anyone wants me to do is talk politics.

I don’t know how I do it, but I make it through to the end of the interview. Director Francis tells me I did okay in the circumstances.

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It’s got to be nearly nine o’clock at night in Australia.

I’ve spilled scotch on my beautiful blue tie.

Mum still won’t pick up the phone.

Next Story: Losing What We Can’t Live Without, by Jean-Louis Trudel

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