John Upton

johnupton@gmail.com | @johnupton

John Upton is a journalist focused on science, climate and the environment with more than a decade of experience writing for newspapers, magazines and digital outlets. He has worked as a senior science writer since 2014 at Climate Central, which employs scientists and journalists. Based in New York, Upton covers global and domestic climate policy, delves deeply into far-reaching bioenergy policy flaws, and combines science and field reporting to reveal heavy impacts of rising seas on coastal American communities.

Pulp Fiction, a three-part Climate Central exposé about the growing use of wood as fuel for electricity in Europe, was recognized with an Online News Association award for explanatory reporting. It was also a finalist for the John B. Oakes Award, which the Columbia School of Journalism awards for excellence in environmental journalism.

Upton studied ecology and geography at James Cook University in tropical eastern Australia and he has a master’s in business from Victoria University. He has reported from around the U.S. and the world, writing for the New York Times, Pacific Standard, VICE, Slate, Grist, Nautilus, Modern Farmer, 7×7, SF Weekly and Audubon Magazine.

John Upton illustrated by Perry Shirley.
John Upton illustrated by Perry Shirley.

The Injustice of Atlantic City’s Floods — Climate Central, 2017

A driver plowed a sedan forcefully up Arizona Avenue, which had flooded to knee height during a winter storm as high tide approached. The wake from the passing Honda buffeted low brick fences lining the tidy homes of working-class residents of this failing casino city, pushing floodwaters into Eileen DeDomenicis’s living room.

“It wasn’t bad when we first moved in here — the flooding wasn’t bad,” DeDomenicis said on a stormy morning in March, after helping her husband put furniture on blocks. She counted down until the tide would start to ebb, using a yardstick to measure the height of floodwaters climbing her patio stairs. She was tracking how many more inches it would take to inundate the ground floor. “When somebody comes by in a car, it splashes up. It hits the door.”

DeDomenicis has lived in this house since 1982, a few hundred feet from a bay. She used to work as a restaurant server; now she’s a school crossing guard. Her husband walked a mile to his job at Bally’s Casino until he retired in January. They’ve seen floods worsen as the seas have risen, as the land beneath them has sunk, and as local infrastructure has rotted away. “It comes in the front door, the back door, and then from the bottom of the house, in through the sides,” DeDomenicis said. “You watch it come in and it meets in the middle of the house — and there’s nothing you can do.” Continue reading …

Pulp Fiction: The European Accounting Error That’s Warming the Planet — Climate Central, 2015

SELBY, U.K. — The heavy power lines and narrow roads between the steam-billowing towers of three of England’s biggest power plants traverse an energy industry in upheaval. Shuttered coal mines are flanked by emerald pastures. Towering wind turbines and solar arrays have taken root in windblown cereal fields.

In the middle of the transition is the Drax Power Station — Western Europe’s largest coal power plant, as big and powerful as many nuclear stations. The 4-gigawatt facility was built in the 1970s and ‘80s in this bucolic Yorkshire parish to burn the fruits of a local coal-mining boom. Droves of miners arrived in double-decker bus loads at a region known as Megawatt Valley. Continue reading …

The Emu Has Landed (in India) — Audubon Magazine, 2014

On a moonlit night, 150 miles from the Arabian Sea, a truck screeched to a halt along a monsoon-drenched highway. A farmer emerged from his wooden hut to investigate: Men’s hushed voices. Clanking, as clandestine cargo was unloaded. The roar of the engine and the fading throttle of scofflaws as they fled the scene of an unusual wildlife crime. Then the tranquility of the jungle returned, ringing until dawn–a dulcet cacophony of dripping water, insects, and wailing jackals.

Half a mile away, Vajesing Mama awoke in the same house where he had been born more than six decades earlier. During a lifetime in Narukot Village, Mama had watched a veritable Jungle Book strut past his humble house–everything from peacocks to wild boar, panthers, and sloth bears. But he had never seen anything like the gangly gray birds that sashayed through the steamy rain on that August morning.

“Nobody in the village knew what they were,” Mama said during a visit late last year. “Everybody came and looked.” Continue reading …

World Unites, Delivers Hopeful Climate Deal — Climate Central, 2015

LE BOURGET, France — As the world’s hottest year on record nears an end, a new approach to fighting global warming under the guidance of the United Nations was agreed upon here Saturday, ushering in an era of hope that the world can limit the devastating impacts of climate change.

After decades of failures to cooperate to slow the release of climate pollution, the Paris Agreement is a global framework crafted to transition away from fossil fuel-based economies toward cleaner energy supplies, and to protect the forests and other ecosystems that help keep the planet cool.

Aiming to curb warming well below the low level of 2°C that many see as critical but unlikely, the new pact will rely on the individual efforts of nearly 200 nations striving in their own ways to reduce their impacts on the climate. No penalties will be imposed on those who fail to live up to their promises. Continue reading …

A Bold Plan to Reshape the Central Valley Flood Plain — New York Times, 2012

Jacob Katz stood shin-deep in a flooded rice paddy that is often dried out at this time of year. He thrust his hand into a writhing mass of baby salmon in his net and plucked three of the silver fry from the wind-whipped water’s surface.

In late January, five acres of this farmland in Yolo County was flooded and stocked with thousands of weeks-old Chinook salmon. It was the beginning of a three-year experiment that conservationists and government officials hope will provide scientific data to help guide a sweeping transformation of riverfront lands throughout the Central Valley, California’s prolific farming region. Continue reading…

You’re Already Eating Algae — Slate, 2014

You may have heard that we’re entering an algae farming boom. Biofuel produced by algae reared on greenhouse gases is supposed to replace fossil fuels with a climate-friendly brew. But if you try to refuel your car, tractor, or Cessna using this vaunted energy source, you’ll quickly realize that hype alone cannot stroke an engine. Algae biofuel isn’t for sale. At least, not unless you can get your hands on experimental samples being produced in laboratories. After more than 35 years of federally funded research, the cost of producing algae biofuel is a lichen-covered cliff that separates it from the ocean of cheap fossil fuels.

Despite algae biofuel’s economic shortcomings, though, there’s a feast of good news for supporters of slime-driven climate action. Algae are being cultivated commercially, and in growing volumes. They are being grown in waters enriched with carbon dioxide, climate-changing waste gases that can be pumped into algae ponds from mines, power plants, and factories. Continue reading …

Fear the Fungus — Slate, 2012

Our single-celled ancestors darted around the world’s vast ocean a billion years ago, propelling themselves with tiny flagella tails and feeding on primitive plants, algae, and one another. Around this time, two groups of these ancient creatures branched into what would become two of life’s most successful kingdoms. One group developed into animals. The other became fungi. Animals and fungi both breathe oxygen and replenish their energy by eating food. Their cells are similar. The two closely akin kingdoms have occupied the Earth through most of their histories in an awkward fraternal tussle. When environmental conditions change quickly, fungi turn into opportunistic parricides, attacking and feasting on their enfeebled animal kin. Deadly fungi are thriving today amid environmental tumult, wiping out nests of bumblebees, colonies of bats, and hundreds of species of frogs.

And they are coming for us. Continue reading …

Prisoners of the Cosco Busan East Bay Express, 2009

When Liang Xian Zheng took a job working as the boatswain on the Cosco Busan, the seasoned seaman knew the $29.50-a-day gig would send him out to sea for six to ten months. He also knew it meant undertaking a wearisome 1,000-mile journey from his home in Beijing, China to the port of Busan in South Korea, where the container ship was based. But what Zheng couldn’t have known was that, two weeks after boarding the cargo ship and ably performing his duties as a lookout during a crisis, he would be trapped in a foreign land on an exotic legal warrant, in misery and legal purgatory, until months after his seafaring expedition was supposed to have ended. Continue reading…

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