Q&A: Guardian Climate Justice Reporter Nina Lakhani Asks Who Should Own the Climate Narrative

What would it look like to bring the climate story down to earth—and moreover to center our stories on those who are most vulnerable?

An indigenous man takes part in a demonstration to demand justice for the murder of Berta Caceres, the coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, in front of the Supreme Court of Justice in Tegucigalpa, on April 6, 2021. (Photo by Orlando SIERRA / AFP) (Photo by ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP via Getty Images)

As the world lurches toward climate action, leaders often hail opportunities for justice and equity. Less often, however, do we see either of these principles in practice. What would it look like to bring the climate story down to earth—and moreover to center our stories on those who are most vulnerable? Nina Lakhani is the senior climate justice reporter at The Guardian in New York. Covering Climate Now spoke recently with Lakhani about her approach to the justice beat, the necessity of covering Indigenous climate solutions, and how the language that journalists use in climate stories might inadvertently favor the status quo—or even give the conversation over to some of the people who got us here in the first place.

The conversation, with CCNow deputy director Andrew McCormick, is part of a regular series of Q&As in which CCNow speaks with journalists about their experiences on the climate beat and ideas for pushing our craft forward. Lakhani’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Nina Lakhani

How did you come to the “climate justice” beat, and how do you view the role?

I joined The Guardian full-time in 2019, as the paper’s first environmental justice reporter. Before that, I’d spent seven years as The Guardian’s stringer for Mexico and Central America. And although I didn’t frame stories at the time as “environmental justice” or “climate justice” stories per se, covering that region is all about access to land, water shortages, and Indigenous struggles—so in many ways, I was already covering the impacts of the climate crisis.

A significant portion of The Guardian’s funding comes from philanthropy, and it was philanthropic money that funded that environmental justice position, for a year. After that, I spent some time focused on food and water systems. And then I started in this “climate justice” role, which is a permanent position not dependent on philanthropic money, in 2022. The Guardian’s climate coverage has expanded significantly in recent years, and this role, I think, represents a decision by the paper that justice is something we need to invest in and talk more about—which increasingly mirrors global discussions, in social movements, academic literature, and policy spaces.

What the beat is about for me is looking at the causes, impacts, and solutions to climate change, all through a justice and equity lens. I also want to think about how the climate story intersects with—and often exacerbates—other forms of inequity, such as economic inequality, racism, misogyny, and unequal access to education and healthcare. Because the uncomfortable truth is that we are not all in this together. We didn’t all contribute to the climate crisis equally, we’re not all feeling its impacts equally, and we don’t all have equal access to adaptation measures and solutions resources.

Was there a specific story in Mexico or Latin America that emphasized to you the importance of applying a justice lens on climate?

I wrote a book about a woman called Berta Cáceres, who was an Indigenous leader from Honduras who, in 2015, won the Goldman Prize [a prestigious award given to environmental activists]. She’d been leading a campaign against the construction of a hydroelectric dam on a river considered sacred to the Lenca people, and less than a year after she won the prize she was murdered—which fits in with a broader trend of criminalization and killings of environmental defenders globally.

Cáceres was an amazing woman. She had no formal education, but she’d spent a huge amount of time traveling and learning about Indigenous struggles all over the world, and she was so good at understanding and explaining local struggles in regional and global contexts. This dam, which had international financing, was being constructed near a collection of communities where there was no electricity, where people lived off the land and off this river—and certainly the electricity generated by the dam wouldn’t be going to this community. For opposing the dam, Cáceres was ostracized and labeled as “anti–renewable energy.” But that wasn’t the case at all. Her point was that if we impose clean energy projects on marginalized communities in the same way that we’ve imposed fossil fuel projects and mines on them, the end result for those communities will be the same.

That story, more than any other probably, taught me how central justice is, and it gave me sort of the key to how I approach my job now. History and economic context matter on the climate beat. And a lot of the major climate stories, whether they’re in the US, Canada, Chile, or Zimbabwe, feature the same power structures and struggles at play: Who has access to the land and water, and who has control?

Do you view the beat as a corrective in any way—for example, in response to too little focus on justice in climate storytelling?

It’s a corrective on a few levels, I think. We need a huge correction in the media in terms of who we consider experts and valuable sources of perspective. Climate justice is about Indigenous people, for example, having a seat at the table and truly being listened to on questions of climate policy. It doesn’t mean just bringing them onstage at the UN in traditional clothes, hearing about how awful it is where they live, and then carrying on as usual when they’re gone. Justice is not a box to check.

We need to have the humility, both on the world stage and as journalists, to understand that there are different experiences out there and different ways of thinking. There are different kinds of knowledge and expertise, and they don’t all come from Ivy League schools. We need to go into these environmental justice communities and be willing to learn. Which takes time! Frankly, I’m probably slower than some of my colleagues, because it takes time to listen and take in all this information and figure out where it fits in the broader historical and economic context—enough that what you write will resonate with readers.

And you hope, when your stories do include that sort of context, that it will help readers reconsider or evolve their understanding of the climate crisis. Other times, I think it can be enough just to represent the stories of people who aren’t used to being listened to. I always tell sources: “I don’t know if this is going to make any difference in the way that you’d want, in terms of policy.” What I can do is listen and convey their story in a respectful, truthful way. And that itself, I think, can be hugely valuable.

You could also say that my job is a corrective in the sense that the conservation and environmental movements have historically lacked—and probably continue to lack—diversity and don’t always meaningfully consider issues of equity. Historically, these movements were always very much about an imposition of views and an imposition of solutions on poorer countries and communities.

Speaking of a seat at the table, what would you tell other journalists about the need to cover Indigenous climate solutions?

What I’ve learned in my decades in the Americas is that the only reason we and the planet are still here at all, fundamentally speaking, is because of Indigenous people—because their relationship with the land, with water, with resources was never about extraction, exploitation, or profit. The marginalization of Indigenous people, meanwhile, is why, in a very short period, everything has totally gone to shit.

People often ask me what gives me hope. It’s the fact that solutions to climate change are out there, in the hands of people who’ve been practicing sustainable farming and land and water use for ages. That’s why it’s so important to get out there and do those stories about farmers in Puerto Rico or Hawai‘i or wherever. Yes, it’s Black, brown, and Indigenous people who are the most impacted by the climate crisis, which they’ve also done the least to cause, but they’re not just victims.

On the flip side of this coin, we should be very cautious of the solutions conversation being co-opted by the same industries that caused and continue to cause global heating. There’s practically no evidence, for example, after 20 years, that carbon offsets have made any difference for the climate; in fact, there’s good evidence they’ve caused some harm. Yet they’re a mainstream part of the global solutions conversation. And something like half of all Chevron’s press releases in recent years have touted the company’s green credentials, while less than one quarter of 1 percent of its capital expenditures goes towards renewables.

On the global stage, including at UN COP conferences, there’s routinely significant disparity between rhetoric and action when it comes to support for poorer countries on the front lines of climate change. What does successful coverage of these negotiations look like to you?

The UNFCCC, the United Nations Framework on Climate Change Convention, doesn’t use—and powerful countries aren’t willing to, either—words like “reparations,” “liability,” and “compensation.”

My reaction to that is: “Okay, you don’t have to use those words, but that doesn’t mean we can’t as journalists.” We’re not obligated in the press to repeat the language of government leaders—and we shouldn’t treat leaders as if they’re the owners of the language and the discourse.

When you talk to organizers, community leaders, and Indigenous groups, they do use those terms. And to them, a central tenet of climate justice is that polluters must pay for the damage they’ve caused. So the reality of global climate negotiations, at COPs and elsewhere, is that the discussions at hand are much bigger than the people in suits in the negotiating halls. Language in our reporting should reflect that.

We had some internal debate about this at The Guardian last year, before COP27—some felt we shouldn’t use the word “reparations,” for example, because it isn’t an official part of the UNFCCC process—and we did a big analysis piece looking at the advantages and disadvantages of such terms. My view is simply that it’s not up to me to say, “Oh, well, this isn’t official” or “It’s probably never going to happen, so we shouldn’t report on it.” Look at “loss and damage.” Demands for loss and damage funding, especially from small island nations, have been around since the eighties, and only just in the last few years has the loss and damage concept become central to the climate conversation. The fact that a loss and damage fund was ultimately agreed upon at COP27 goes to show that, as journalists, we shouldn’t count ideas out.

In the US, where a lot of the current climate conversation revolves around the Inflation Reduction Act’s rollout, what climate justice plotlines are on your radar in the coming months?

A major aspect of the IRA’s climate provisions is the electrification of vehicles, while there’s almost nothing in the bill that aims to build up public transit. In some ways, the bill says to Americans: “Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep driving your cars. Keep getting bigger cars. We’re just going to go electric, so you don’t have to change one thing.” That’s hugely problematic for me, as are the batteries required for vehicle electrification. Lithium mines are vile. They’re dirty. They cause huge amounts of land and water damage. And we’re already seeing things like forced evictions of communities to make way for them.

Most people in the world don’t have cars. Many don’t even have electricity. So how is this just?

To my mind, the fewer and smaller cars on the road—and the more public transportation options we all have—the better. That is a key justice consideration: access to transportation. Yet there’s nothing in the IRA about this.

In general, I think reporters across the US would do well to think a bit more regionally and globally when we approach this story. Because, in fact, an electrification policy for Boston does have global implications. I totally appreciate that we all have deadlines and we’re all under pressure to be out there breaking news, but we have to take the time, when we can, to connect the dots between these big, exciting energy projects and the lives of people on the ground, both here and abroad. We should watch, for example, where clean energy projects will be developed and who will be negatively impacted by their construction. Because in many cases, it will be the same environmental justice communities that have already suffered due to fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure. If we miss this, we’re not telling the whole story.