Expert insights into the past progress and vital future of environment journalism

EJN Climate Change Media Partnership Fellows, including Pierre Fitter from India, Gustavo Bonato from Brazil and Pia Faustino from the Philippines, interview a Danish wind energy executive.

Climate Change Media Partnership Fellows from India, Brazil and the Philippines interview a Danish wind energy executive (credit: James Fahn)

How do journalists who cover the environment cope with the relentless flow of depressing information? Should they strive for neutrality or become advocates for action on issues such as climate change and the biodiversity crisis? And how can these journalists stay safe when powerful forces want to silence them, and too often succeed?

These are some of the questions I posed to a distinguished panel at a recent event celebrating the 15th birthday of the Earth Journalism Network (EJN), a programme created by Internews to improve the quality and quantity of media coverage of environmental issues around the world.

My relationship with EJN dates back to 2007, when I was working at the International Institute for Environment and Development. Together with colleagues at Panos, we set up the Climate Change Media Partnership, which took 40 journalists to the international climate change negotiations for a fellowship programme that has repeated every year since.

More recently, I have been helping EJN manage its Biodiversity Media Initiative and a project supporting journalists who are investigating illegal wildlife trafficking. So, I was very happy to be invited to moderate the discussion at EJN’s anniversary event.

The panellists were: James Painter, research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford; Mona Samari, a fisheries expert and independent consultant who ran an EJN project supporting journalists covering fisheries in West Africa; Navin Khadka, Environment Correspondent for the BBC World Service; and James Fahn, EJN’s executive director and a lecturer at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Among other things, we discussed whether media outlets should drop ‘climate change’ in place of ‘climate emergency’, whether biodiversity is still the poor cousin to climate change in terms of coverage, and whether media outlets are ever legitimate targets of climate change protestors.

We also talked about what ‘quality’ means in terms of environment journalism, whether or not overdramatic stories erode public faith in science, and what the future holds for media coverage of the environment.

We could have talked for hours, but had just 60 minutes to pick through these and other topics. You can watch the full discussion here:

Wanted: Climate Heroes. No experience required

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There is a monster at the door and I need your help to fight it. It is a universal enemy, a threat that can connect and unite us all. It doesn’t care if you are left-wing or right, urban or rural. It is coming for us all. Defeating it is our only option.

The monster is climate change and it is already claiming lives. The slower we react, the worse it will get. Tackling it will benefit our health, our societies, our economies and our wider environment. But, so far, the response has been pitiful.

If we don’t transform the world in the next few years, we will trigger widespread misery. We have to be clear about this. But we must also be clear that is it not too late to join the fight. And that the more people who do, the faster we will slay the monster. We need a legion of everyday heroes, winning with acts large and small.

I first heard about climate change in the late 1980s, and I’ve spent the last 20 years learning and communicating about it. Part of me used to think it would all be okay, that our leaders would fix it. But they have badly let us down. So now we must step up.

Powerful forces have misled us

As we fight the climate change monster, we must not forget those who summoned it, who feed it and protect it. They are few dozen companies and their investors whose profits are built on the loss of our planetary life-support systems. They are a small number of billionaires and bad-faith politicians. They are the media outlets that played down the problem for fear of losing advertising revenue, and failed to report on the true costs to society of high-carbon businesses.

These groups have long known the problem and have actively delayed action. They knowingly misled us. For decades. They told us climate change does not exist or that human activities are not to blame. They have told us that our actions are too little or too late to make a difference. They allowed millions of us to believe we should not act.

Many people still believe that. Many others are aware but are trapped in states of shame or hopelessness and so rarely even bring themselves to think about climate change. There are many ways our minds can work against us. In a powerful article that I urge you to read, Mary Annaïse Heglar says it is time to snap out of our collective denial.

We need both individual and collective action

“In order to face climate change, to truly look it in the eye, we have to grow up,” she says. “We can’t pretend that some unnamed cavalry is coming to save us. We are the adults in this room.” She’s right. No doubt you have heard by now of Greta Thunberg. But if you think this young woman is going to save us, you are wrong. We will find the heroes we need looking back at us from our bathroom mirrors.

Getting involved does not imply becoming a hermit. As Max St John says, “we’re being fed — and feeding each other — a lie” that ‘now’ is as good as it gets, and that a cleaner, greener future must entail hardship. “The lie,” he says, “is that letting go of our current way of living is a bad thing.”

Nor does joining the climate fight require great wealth. The simplest actions involve learning about climate change, talking about it and using our voices and our votes to demand change. We need a mix of personal efforts to reduce our carbon footprints and collective action that forces governments to hold polluting businesses to account.

What we will gain by taking action now

With public pressure and bold leadership, in just a few years we could have limitless supplies of green energy and decent jobs for those who used to work in the fossil fuel sector. We could have growing forests that don’t just lock away carbon but also support secure livelihoods and protect wildlife. We could have cleaner air and fewer deaths from air pollution. We could have peace and equity and prosperity for all, not just those at the top of the tree.

These are things we can and must demand of our leaders. They are dreams we can summon into our waking lives. Climate change may be a monster to slay, but in fighting it now and with vigour, we can gain so much.

This is no pipe dream of utopia. It is our only viable option. Failure to address climate change fairly, productively and fast will diminish the futures of all but the wealthiest minority. They are already pulling up the drawbridge. They would abandon us in an eyeblink.

Fighting climate change is our only option

One of two futures awaits us. In one, people will look back and asked how we allowed ourselves to fail, how we allowed ourselves to destroy our only home. In the other, people will look back and hail the heroes who came together and, through acts large and small, saved humanity and the living world on which we depend.

We are at that crossroads. Whatever life may throw at us, there is one important decision before us all: do we act for the climate and a secure future, or against the climate and a secure future. It’s not really a choice. We need to start organising for — and celebrating — a new birth, not a death.

It will be hard. There will be tragic losses on the way. But not beating climate change is not an option, and the sooner we all realise that and get to work, the better. Mary Annaïse Heglar in another article I recommend, says: “We need to become many Davids against one big, bad Goliath.”

The good news is that almost anyone can be a climate hero. While some people will lack the means, or have more urgent needs to attend to, most people will not and can get involved today. Here are 20 things you can do right now to join the fight. We will always need more heroes, so please share this. And let’s all team up and defeat this monster.

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Related post: 20 things you can do right now to join the climate fight