How Many People Must Starve Before It’s News?

Climate change is spiking global hunger, but world media are absent.

A child displaced by drought passes rotting carcasses of goats that died from hunger and thirst on the outskirts of Dollow, Somalia. (Photo by Sally Hayden/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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When Islamic militants attacked the al-Hayat hotel in Mogadishu on August 19, the world’s biggest news organizations snapped to attention. Within hours, reports ran on leading TV and radio networks and newspapers around the world. Most of those outlets did not have their own journalists on the scene, so they relied on accounts and video provided by local stringers for Reuters, Agence France-Presse, and other news agencies. Analysts said the attack, which killed at least 30 people, demonstrated that the al-Qaeda aligned al-Shabab group remained a potent force in the Horn of Africa.

At the very same time, an exponentially larger number of people in the same region were on the verge of death from hunger caused partly by climate change. Their suffering has attracted virtually no international news coverage. 

Four years of failed rainy seasons in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya have killed millions of livestock and ravaged crops. The United Nations estimates that at least 22 million people in the Horn of Africa suffer “acute food insecurity,” a bureaucratic term for being on the edge of starvation.

Worldwide, 345 million people — roughly the same amount as the population of the United States — are in similar anguish. Yet this vastly larger humanitarian crisis is absent from the world’s TV screens, radio broadcasts, newspapers, and social media feeds. How can that be?

It’s not that difficult to put journalists on the ground to cover the hunger and climate story. Sara Creta works for The New Humanitarian, a nonprofit news site that “report[s] from the heart of conflicts and disasters to inform prevention and response.” A freelancer based in Europe, Creta flew to Ethiopia and made her way to rural areas near the city of Dire Dawa.

“We can’t call ourselves farmers anymore, because we are not farming,” Safumume Abdush, 35, told Creta. “Two months ago, we planted sorghum again. But without rain, we won’t harvest anything.” Rains are forecast to fail again this winter, Creta reported, which will double the number of people in the region needing emergency food aid to 17 million.

Worsening global hunger is one more manifestation of the onrushing climate emergency, as well as another reminder that those who’ve done the least to cause this emergency — the poor, especially children — suffer worst.

Unless we journalists bring this reality to the attention of the public and policymakers, the world’s response will inevitably fall short. We can tell the story best if we go to the scene of the suffering. If a nonprofit the size of The New Humanitarian can put a reporter face to face with the people living the hunger and climate story, surely the world’s largest news outlets can do the same.

The Climate Beat newsletter will be taking a break next week. 

Noteworthy Stories

 You’re not alone. Most Americans are concerned about climate change and think more should be done about it. But they think, mistakenly, that most of their fellow citizens don’t agree, a misperception that diminishes public pressure for action, according to a new study in Nature Communications. By Robin Lloyd for Scientific American…

In danger. More than 100 native tree species in the continental US are in danger of being destroyed as a result of invasive insects, deadly diseases, and climate change, but only a handful are federally protected, according to a new study. “We have a narrow and rapidly closing window to take action,” said Murphy Westwood, a lead author of the study. By Sarah Kaplan at the Washington Post… 

Repowering the West. Journalist Sammy Roth takes a road trip from a massive wind farm in Wyoming along the 732-mile path of a proposed transmission line that will carry that farm’s wind power to Los Angeles. Along the way, he profiles fascinating stakeholders who illustrate the tensions inherent in the transition away from fossil fuels. “This late in the game, [climate] solutions that do no harm are exceedingly rare,” he writes. By Sammy Roth at the Los Angeles Times… 

Extreme measures. Amid a record-breaking drought in China, the government is trying to increase rainfall by seeding clouds with chemicals. It also plans to spray crops with a “water retaining agent” to limit evaporation ahead of the critical autumn harvest. By the Associated Press via NPR…

Hate mail. For the last six months, journalist Joan Meiners of the Arizona Republic has been publishing a weekly story on how climate change is affecting life in Arizona and the Southwest. While some readers appreciate her work, she also receives hate mail calling her “a brainwashed moron” — nastiness, she reports, that other climate journalists also endure. By Joan Meiners at the Arizona Republic… 

“Katrina Babies.” Ahead of the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, a new HBO documentary looks at how children and teens who endured the 2005 catastrophe are coping today. The film’s director, Edward Buckles Jr., says “most of them are dealing with anxiety, trust issues and PTSD.” By Radheyan Simonpillai at the Guardian…

Nuclear Nightmare? Russian forces occupying the massive Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant have disconnected it from Ukraine’s electricity grid. This creates “an emergency situation, because to cool off the reactors the power plant still needs energy,” explains a former official in Ukraine’s energy ministry. Diesel generators on site can cool the reactors for up to a week — unless the Russians have diverted the diesel fuel. By Jessica McKenzie at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists…

Via YouTube

John Oliver, the host of Last Week Tonight, takes on corporate promises of carbon neutrality through “carbon offset” programs that may be exacerbating climate change. “On some level, you probably know that carbon offsets are bullshit… but exactly how offsets are bullshit is really interesting.” (Don’t miss Oliver wielding a chainsaw at the end of the segment!)

Free to Publish

The following stories deserve special consideration for republication by CCNow partners:

For partner outlets: The full list of stories available for republication and instructions to do so can be found in our Sharing Library. To submit stories for sharing, please use this form.

Events & Resources

Climate anxiety. The University of Queensland Mental Health in Climate Change Transdisciplinary Research Network is holding a webinar on supporting young people to cope with climate anxiety. August 29. RSVP here.

Coming soon. Carbon Brief, with the support of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network, has set up the “Global South Climate Database” to help journalists expand the diversity of sources they quote by contacting scientists and experts based in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific. Learn more.

Jobs, etc. 

Jobs. NPR is hiring a climate solutions reporter and a supervising editor, climate. The Baltimore Banner is recruiting an environment/climate reporter. Climate Nexus is hiring a temporary research associate, climate disinformation.

Grants. Earth Journalism Network is offering grants to boost reporting on renewable energy in India. (Deadline extended to Sept 5.) The Pulitzer Center is accepting grant applications from journalists in Cambodia for stories about the country’s rainforests. (Rolling deadline.)