In September, at an event hosted by the New York Times, Farhana Yamin, a longtime climate negotiator and former adviser to the Marshall Islands, had a bone to pick with John Kerry, the US climate envoy. “What will you be doing to step up and actually put money into loss and damage?” Yamin asked, referring to the proposition that wealthy nations primarily responsible for global heating should support poorer ones financially when climate disaster strikes. “What will you be doing to stop the inaction?”
Visibly irritated, Kerry responded brusquely. “You tell me the government in the world that has trillions of dollars, ’cause that’s what it costs,” he said. “I’m not gonna take to feeling guilty.… You think this Republican Congress, where we couldn’t get one vote for [climate legislation], is going to step up and do loss and damage? Good luck. I’m in the zone of reality.”
It wasn’t the first time Kerry had been pressed on loss and damage, which made his reaction surprising and, to many, disappointing. He’ll almost certainly be pressed on the subject again at this month’s COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. For more than two decades, developing countries—which stand to suffer most from climate change, though they’ve emitted far fewer greenhouse gases than their industrialized peers—have argued in UN forums that climate change, posing a uniquely existential threat to them, necessitates some form of restitution when lives are lost and infrastructure, economies, and ways of life are irretrievably destroyed.
“The phrase ‘loss and damage’ is a negotiated euphemism for the more taboo terms of ‘liability and compensation,’” says Saleemul Huq, director of the Bangladesh-based International Centre for Climate Change & Development. Rich countries, especially the United States, which is the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, buck at the latter terms; they worry that overt acknowledgment of liability will unleash a deluge of crippling lawsuits. But even the comparatively antiseptic phrase “loss and damage” receives determined pushback. Last year, at COP26 in Glasgow, vulnerable countries pushed for the establishment of a dedicated loss-and-damage fund, but wealthy powers would only agree to a loosely defined and nonbinding “dialogue.” Huq, long a fierce advocate for the Global South in climate negotiations, describes the US as by far “the most hardline” in its opposition to the fund and to discussion in general of loss and damage.
Separate from the question of loss and damage, in 2009, rich countries pledged $100 billion per year in aid, by 2020, to help developing countries adapt to climate change and rein in their emissions. Aid delivery to date has fallen dramatically short, however, and much of what has been paid has come in the form of repayable loans, not grants. Experts call it “a promise broken.”
This is where the press, in theory, would come in as an agent of accountability, Huq says. But in the Western media, he feels, climate justice hasn’t gotten its due.
Yet these issues are undoubtedly relevant to Western audiences. Apart from moral arguments for aid and loss-and-damage funding, there are practical, even self-interested, reasons to help other countries steel themselves against climate catastrophe, says Alice Hill, an energy-and-environment fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former Obama administration official. “Climate change means destabilized governments, food insecurity, and mass displacement,” Hill says. Further, there’s the risk that extremist and criminal elements will use destruction to make inroads, as they did amid the covid-19 pandemic. “It’s not hard to imagine these issues spiraling out of control.”
If Western journalists have tended to miss the boat—there are exceptions, of course—their Global South colleagues have not. Diego Arguedas Ortiz is a Costa Rican journalist who manages the Reuters Institute’s Oxford Climate Journalism Network. Every week, Arguedas Ortiz convenes a group of one hundred reporters from around the world—from developed and developing countries alike—to share their experiences on the climate beat. The aim is a mutually beneficial exchange, but Arguedas Ortiz finds particular value in exposing reporters from Europe and North America to colleagues from developing countries who are both reporting and living on the razor’s edge of the climate emergency. “Global South reporters feel deeply the global injustices of climate change,” Arguedas Ortiz says. “That shows in our coverage of climate assistance and loss and damage.” By improving awareness, he hopes the Oxford cohort can elevate reporting on justice and global climate finance across the board.
To that same end, Covering Climate Now, a joint initiative of CJR and The Nation, spoke with five journalists in the Global South—from Pakistan, the Philippines, Mauritius, Puerto Rico, and Peru—about what climate justice means to them and what that might entail for their colleagues in the West, at COP27 and beyond.
HAMID MIR – PAKISTAN
Hamid Mir is a longtime reporter and anchor for Pakistan’s Geo TV, where he hosts the flagship political talk show Capital Talk. He is a regular columnist for several Pakistani publications and for the Washington Post. He lives in Islamabad. Follow Mir.
In July, Pakistan’s monsoon season had only just begun, and already heavy rains had killed more than one hundred and fifty people. In a Washington Post column, Hamid Mir wrote that climate change had come to pose a worse threat to his country than terrorism. Rainfall had spiked dramatically in recent years, and experts forecast that rising seas would swallow major Pakistani cities in the coming decades. Mir warned the problem might soon grow worse. “Unfortunately,” he says, just a few months later, “that column was right.”
The August floods arrived with a fury, submerging one-third of Pakistan, an area equivalent to the United Kingdom. By boat and helicopter, Mir traveled province to province, documenting the devastation—homes demolished, roads and bridges washed away, and millions stranded, with little food and no escape. Under cloudless skies, the summer heat was oppressive. Disease was on the rise. And in the stagnant, fetid water, in some places more than a dozen feet high, snakes were rampant. “Not one or two snakes,” Mir says. “Dozens, everywhere. Ones that come right at you, racing atop the water.” In his reporting, Mir exposed how wealthy landowners had wielded influence with officials to channel flooding away from their homes and toward poorer, more densely populated villages. This earned Mir ire from the landowners and officials alike, and in Punjab, he learned a local gang had been directed to “teach him a lesson.” Mir’s source urged him to flee, and he did.
Such threats are old hat for Mir. In three decades as a journalist, he’s survived assassination attempts and a kidnapping during which he was tortured. His reporting has repeatedly taken on the government, resulting not a few times in Mir’s being fired or banned from television. And he’s covered wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Chechnya.
Even so, nothing in Mir’s career prepared him for what he saw amid the floods. From sun-scorched rooftops, people called out for help that Mir was powerless to give. At a waterlogged police station in Baluchistan, Mir pleaded with officers to release prisoners from their nearly submerged cells; there was nowhere for them to run, he reasoned. People everywhere were starving. Many were dying after drinking the contaminated water. In all his years, Mir had never cried while reporting, but in September, as he watched a mother weep over her dying son, he broke down. “My cameraman said, ‘Sir, I was with you in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and you never cried.’ I told him, ‘In war zones, we could see that it was bombs and bullets killing innocent people. But here there are no bombs or bullets. It’s the climate that’s killing people. We are citizens of a nuclear power, and that country has no power to stop this!’” The cameraman began crying. “We were all crying,” Mir says. “We were helpless people.”
During all this, journalists were a rare sight. Travel had become exceedingly difficult, and many Pakistani journalists were coping themselves with the floods—but Mir was disappointed at the absence, in particular, of Western journalists. There were exceptions—Mir commended Clarissa Ward’s work for CNN—but even that attention was short-lived. Compared with the mass deployment of journalists to Ukraine, Mir says, the Western media’s response to this crisis seemed a grim injustice.
Mir characterizes the coverage as an echo of the climate crisis’s broader global disparities. “Pakistan is not responsible for this problem, at the international level,” he says, “but we are the collateral damage.” He stops short of centering this global injustice in his reporting, however. He feels that diplomatic maneuvering and the science of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions won’t register with most of his audience: What’s diplomatic wrangling at the UN to people whose homes and livelihoods are underwater? Mir hopes Western journalists will run with the issue where he cannot. “Pakistan is not begging,” he says. “We are not a charity case, but a moral obligation. Today, climate change has reached Pakistan. Tomorrow, it will reach you.”
IMELDA ABAÑO – PHILIPPINES
Imelda Abaño is the founding president of the Philippine Network of Environmental Journalists. She also leads the Earth Journalism Network’s Philippines and Pacific Islands programs. She lives in Manila. Follow Abaño.
Imelda Abaño describes her country as “a laboratory of disasters.” “Name it, we have it,” she says. “And it’s getting worse.”
The Philippines’ geography, for one thing, has always meant relatively frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Increasingly heavy rains have made flooding common. And an average of twenty tropical cyclones or typhoons strike the country every year—storms that climate change is making stronger and more deadly. This past December, Typhoon Rai killed at least 410 people in the central Visayas region. More infamously, in 2013, Typhoon Haiyan killed more than 6,300. (In both cases, experts say deaths likely exceeded official tallies.) Haiyan ranks among the strongest storms ever to make landfall anywhere in the world; overland wind speeds reached 195 miles per hour, greater than the strengths combined of Hurricane Sandy when it hit New York and New Jersey in 2012 and Hurricane Katrina when it devastated New Orleans in 2005.
In Haiyan’s aftermath, Abaño reported in Tacloban, a major coastal city hit by the typhoon. Destructive weather is a matter of course in the Philippines, Abaño says, but the wreckage in Tacloban was something new. Not one building in the city appeared untouched; many were beyond repair. Abaño was struck by the volume of people displaced in the streets and the overcrowded evacuation centers. There was little water, and sanitation was abysmal. At night, she and fellow journalists slept in makeshift huts. “We felt strongly that we should do something powerful with our reporting,” Abaño recalls.
In recent years, as climate change has worsened, she’s seen a broader shift in the Philippines’ media landscape; outlets everywhere are covering climate with more urgency, because they’re seeing its dangers up close. Sharm el-Sheikh will be the fifteenth UN climate summit Abaño has attended, the first being COP13 in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007. Back then, she was a fellow with the Climate Change Media Partnership (CCMP), a program of Internews’s Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security that funds journalists from low- and middle-income countries to travel to the annual COP meetings. With eighteen years as a reporter now under her belt, Abaño is paying it forward by serving as a CCMP trainer for this year’s twenty-person class.
Climate justice, including loss and damage, is top of mind for those journalists as they prepare to travel to Egypt. “These journalists are very eager to tell the story of the vulnerable countries,” Abaño says. “To tell their own stories.”
In recent weeks, Abaño and other trainers have encouraged fellows to contact their governments’ COP27 delegations and to study UN bureaucracy and lingo. Abaño is certain the experience will prove enriching for the fellows. But there’s a hitch: routinely at COP summits, Global North journalists who arrive with far more resources have an easier time securing interviews with the most in-demand leaders and experts. To boot, there are more Global North journalists because their outlets can better afford the travel. For these journalists, climate justice might be a question, but it’s less likely to be their first, much less one they’ll put to leaders repeatedly. A consequence of this imbalance, Abaño worries, might be short shrift for justice in the COP’s deliberations.
In the future, Abaño says, “we need more support and more resources for journalists on the front lines of climate change.” But at this COP, she’ll be glad for any sense of growing solidarity from the Global North. “That goes for countries, but it should also be true for journalists.”
DAVID CASIMIR – MAURITIUS
David Casimir covers climate change and general news for the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation. He will attend COP27 as a CCMP fellow, his first time at a COP. He lives on Mauritius’s Rodrigues Island. Follow Casimir.
In Mauritius, an African island nation in the Indian Ocean roughly two-thirds the size of Rhode Island, the sea is everything. Wide, white-sand beaches and pristine waters support a thriving tourism industry, which is integral to the country’s economy. And fishing is the lifeblood of coastal communities, a source of jobs, food security, and 20-some percent of nationwide export revenue.
So it’s alarming that sea level rise is progressing rapidly in Mauritius—by six millimeters annually on the main island, double the global average, and by nine millimeters annually on Rodrigues, the small, outlying island that journalist David Casimir calls home. “Sea level rise will affect almost everyone in my country,” he says. In the past decade, coastal erosion has carved up to twenty meters off some beaches, and the Mauritian government estimates that within fifty years, half of all tourist beaches will be lost. Add to that rising temperatures, increased drought, and now-regular flash flooding, and the climate outlook for Mauritius is grim.
Casimir pursued the chance to attend COP27 in part because he wants to help provide better coverage of countries like his. “In the global media, everything is linked to Europe and the US,” Casimir says. “It’s as if they think Africa will not experience climate change at all.” And when Global North outlets do cover climate in the developing world, he adds, they focus overwhelmingly on countries’ plights and not the solutions many are implementing to curb the worst impacts.
In Mauritius, for example, Casimir has covered the government’s suite of early warning systems and publicity campaigns designed to teach people how to keep safe during floods, tropical cyclones, and other disasters. “Mauritians know these things are vital, that our lives depend on them,” Casimir says. He speaks proudly of work Mauritius is doing to mitigate climate change. While developed countries drag their feet, Mauritius has moved aggressively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost green energy production. The country spends 2 percent of its annual GDP on climate-related initiatives, compared with 0.6 percent in the US and about 1 percent in many European countries.
If smaller countries’ adaptation and mitigation efforts were better represented in the Western press, Casimir argues, leaders of powerful, wealthy nations might better comprehend the support those countries need to scale solutions to keep pace with rising tides. “This is why it’s important that stories consider the African side,” Casimir says.
OMAYA SOSA PASCUAL – PUERTO RICO
Omaya Sosa Pascual is the founding codirector of Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism. Previously, she was a reporter for the island’s leading newspaper, El Nuevo Día. She lives in San Juan. Follow Sosa Pascual.
It wasn’t long after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, in September 2017, that Omaya Sosa Pascual knew the storm had changed her island irrevocably. “I am certain this generation will forever be marked by this extreme event,” she wrote that November in a reflection for Inside Climate News. “It is not overly dramatic to say that in our lives there will always be a pre-Maria and post-Maria.” Five years later, Sosa Pascual says, it’s likely that was an understatement.
“We all live with PTSD,” she says. The storm wiped out communications and electronics island-wide, and in the immediate wake of the storm, the only media outlet that remained operational was a radio station in San Juan. For days, people lined up outside its headquarters to have loved ones’ names read on air, in the desperate hope that they’d be found. At the Center for Investigative Journalism, at first, there was no way to know if fellow reporters were dead or alive. As the team there slowly reconstituted, Sosa Pascual recalls, they were all “on autopilot,” scrambling to make sense of the death and destruction around them while keeping their emotions at bay. “At the end of the day, though, we were all dealing with the same problems at home,” Sosa Pascual says. “What were we going to eat? How were we going to find fuel? Without power, there was no way to survive the heat inside our home without the windows open. But in Puerto Rico, you can die from mosquitoes. I had a four-year-old. How would I keep her safe?”
When Hurricane Fiona hit this September, everyone Sosa Pascual knew went into fight-or-flight mode. “We all had that panicked feeling: ‘People are going to start dying again. I’m going to lose my job. I must protect my family.’” Fiona’s power was only a fraction of Maria’s five years before, but still, destruction was widespread; a month later, thousands remained without power.
Compare that with Florida, where Hurricane Ian hit one week later, with much greater force, and electricity was restored for most within twenty-four hours. Particularly after the high-profile trauma of Maria, the consistent carelessness shown by the US government toward Puerto Ricans—American citizens who pay US federal taxes—is scandalous, Sosa Pascual says.
The US press has done little better. Puerto Rico is more populous than twenty US states. “But my experience is that there’s just no interest in us,” Sosa Pascual says. “I never see national outlets ask the president or Congress questions about Puerto Rico. We’ve got to have a major disaster to make headlines, and even then, attention moves on quickly.” What coverage there is is often exoticizing and offensive, she says; and then there’s that word, resilient, which is so often ascribed to Puerto Ricans. “Everyone hates that word right now,” Sosa Pascual says. “It’s become an excuse for government negligence. It makes citizens responsible for the safety our leaders should be providing.”
Given their apparent incapacity to cover a US territory effectively, Sosa Pascual is skeptical that powerful outlets are committed to covering climate impacts in the developing world. “Climate justice is about powers responsible for the problem assuming responsibility for fixing it and protecting the most vulnerable,” she says. “Isn’t it journalists’ job to hold governments accountable for human life?” Instead, she finds the national press mindlessly devoted to piddling political controversies. She urges her US journalist colleagues to zoom out and reevaluate the stories they consider important. “I wish they would value life,” she says. “Because so many lives, and even the existence of smaller countries, are on the line.”
XILENA PINEDO – PERU
Xilena Pinedo covers science, health, and the environment for Peru’s investigative OjoPúblico. She will attend COP27 as a CCMP fellow, her first time at a COP. She lives in Lima. Follow Pinedo.
When Xilena Pinedo was a kid, she dreamed of becoming an environmental engineer. As she got a little older, though, she realized that for that to work out, she’d have to like math. Pinedo was more attracted to writing and storytelling, so she resolved to become a science and environmental journalist.
The problem was that Pinedo didn’t see much environmental coverage in Peru’s press, much less coverage of climate change, which ranks worldwide as a top issue for Pinedo’s generation. For advice on getting started, she reached out to environmental journalists she admired across Latin America. When they got back to her, she says, “it felt like talking to celebrities.” Every journalist she spoke with said that it was on people like her and them to convince editors of the environment’s importance—and to show them how climate change unites beats, including many of the ones that dominate front pages, like politics, economics, and even sports.
At OjoPúblico, well known throughout Latin America for its public-service journalism, Pinedo covers key climate stories, including: Peru’s melting glaciers, which in recent decades have shrunk by nearly half, threatening a source of drinking water and irrigation for millions; the Amazon, which in Peru, like in neighboring Brazil, faces widespread deforestation; and the country’s Indigenous people, whose perspectives are critical to understanding the climate story, Pinedo says, and who are often killed for defending the environment. “The politicians and business leaders in my country think about nature as a way to make money,” she says. “But if we listen to Indigenous people, we can know that we’re all a part of nature.”
That interconnectedness is a theme Pinedo would like to see represented more often in the global press. There’s plenty of coverage about the mere facts of environmental disasters, she says. “But the stories don’t go into why these storms are happening. They don’t explain that there’s a responsibility for this.” And better coverage wouldn’t take much, she adds; as little as one paragraph or sentence could help audiences in the US, Europe, and elsewhere understand disasters, in part, as the consequences of their countries’ decisions playing out on a global scale.
At COP27, Pinedo views her responsibility and that of journalists from other developing, climate-vulnerable countries as twofold. First, they need to push their countries to strongly advocate for support from developed countries. Second, Pinedo says that journalists from the Global South should hold their countries accountable for putting forward detailed plans for what they would do with that financial support; climate finance and loss and damage aren’t as simple as money being handed over, she explains, and audiences in developing countries deserve to know exactly how the money will be used. “We need to know that our countries are serious about helping us adapt and keeping us safe,” Pinedo says.
Coverage of last year’s COP26 was often credulous, Pinedo believes. “Leaders at these COPs know they can say nice things and then forget, because the media will also forget,” she says. This year, it’s incumbent on journalists everywhere to do better. What is the world’s plan to stop climate change? Is it credible and in line with the science? And is it just? “These are questions that belong in every story,” Pinedo says. “Every one.”