The “dual crises” of Covid-19 and climate change were the subject of a panel session organized by the Earth Journalism Network at last month’s Society of Environmental Journalists’ conference held in Houston, Texas.
The Society of Environmental Journalists’ 2022 conference took place from March 30-April 3, 2022. The Gulf Coast of the United States is home to many fossil fuel companies and informed the conference’s primary themes this year: Environmental health and justice, energy and climate change and oceans and coasts.
The conference, in its 31st year, is an opportunity for journalists in North America to interface with scientists, government officials and other leaders in environmental fields to learn about new angles and research, develop story ideas and build relationships with peers and sources.
EJN has long had a partnership with SEJ – for instance, in working together to help support the launch of the Mexican Network of Environmental Journalists (REMPA) – and a presence at many of its annual conferences, organizing panels and other sessions.
EJN’s panel on April 1 focused on the intersections of Covid-19 and climate change and went on to discuss the intersections between environment and health more broadly. Moderated by EJN Program Associate Hannah Bernstein, the panelists included Dr. Maximea Vigilant from Harris County’s public health department; Rice University student researcher and advocate Annie Xu and Elizabeth Gribkoff, environmental and health journalist.
“This was a great opportunity to get stakeholders from different fields in one room to discuss how important it is for journalists to tell stories at this intersection of an unprecedented public health crisis and the ongoing climate crisis,” Bernstein said. “Panelists delved into a wide variety of topics, including how climate change affects disease vectors, the role of air pollution, environmental justice concerns, chemical contamination and more.”
Xu shared her research findings as the first author on a January 2022 paper correlating pollution, Covid-19 deaths and race and ethnic minority identity in Texas.
The study found that Texas counties with larger populations of Black or Hispanic people also had higher rates of Covid-19 infection and death. In Harris County, the most populous county in Texas (and where Houston is located), Xu and her co-authors were able to determine that the economic impact of Covid-19 deaths disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic county residents and exacerbated existing wealth distribution inequalities.
While the study found a statistically significant correlation between race and ethnic minority identity and the disease burden of Covid-19, it did not find one related to air pollution. At the panel, Xu said these results point to the need for more research on the outsized effects of environmental and climate issues on marginalized communities.
Vigilant, a disease transmission expert, introduced attendees to disease vectors, including the malaria-bearing Anopheles mosquito and the dengue-transmitting Aedes egypti mosquito, before delving into how climate change is slowly changing their habitats.
Research investigating that question is already appearing: One recent study estimated that by 2080, more than 60% of the world’s population could be at risk of contracting dengue. The reason, Dr. Vigilant said, has to do with the A. egypti mosquito’s unique abilities.
“This mosquito is interesting, because she can survive and adapt to environmental conditions,” said Vigilant during the panel. “Because we have globalization, we have urbanization...you have the movement of the Aedes egypti mosquito that now is not only living in the tropics, but it can move into other areas and over-winter.”
As the world warms, he said, regions previously uninhabitable to the heat-loving mosquito suddenly become habitable. Knowing how disease spread could change as the planet changes will be key for scientists preparing for the next pandemic – and for journalists gearing up to cover it.
Gribkoff shared her experience reporting on a wide variety of environmental, climate and health issues, including Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (better known as PFAS) contamination in everything from makeup and clothes to soil and water. These chemical compounds are linked to decreased vaccine efficacy, specific types of cancers, birth defects and other health impacts, according to this piece Gribkoff published in Environmental Health News in February 2022.
Takeaways for journalists
The main reason Xu’s study was limited to the county level was because that was the smallest-scale data available: Texas was not publishing neighborhood-level data that included race or ethnic minority identities. At the panel, she noted that having that data could have made the results more meaningful, or at the very least, more specific – something journalists should bear in mind when reviewing studies like these. Sometimes, the lack of data accessibility or transparency can be a strong story angle in its own right, and an important component of accountability journalism.
Gribkoff has also faced challenges accessing data for her stories, and she had some suggestions for journalists facing similar issues. She mentioned the importance of public records and understanding your country’s laws. For journalists in the United States, she recommended the FOIA Guide from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
EJN also has resources to help both new and experienced data journalists looking for information at this intersection, starting with our free online course on the environmental origins of zoonotic diseases and the accompanying data tutorial, along with our unique data resource, the Earth Journalism Data Compilation, that aggregates many sources of environmental data to inform journalists’ stories.
We’ve produced more than 60 webinars in the last two years, many of which have focused on the intersections between climate change and Covid-19, including governments’ commitments to a green recovery, the connection between the illegal wildlife trade and disease spread, One Health approaches to disease prevention and more.
During the audience questions portion of the panel, Bernstein pointed out that One Health, the methodology that emphasizes the need for stakeholders in human, animal and ecosystem health to collaborate in order to combat the spread of disease more effectively, is a particularly important facet of this story. How can this framework inform journalists’ reporting? As our new tipsheet discusses, journalists can lean into the One Health approach in their reporting by seeking out additional sources beyond the standard disease experts who can provide a more robust, cross-sectoral perspective on the issue, and by extension, more robust solutions as well.
You can view all of the materials from #SEJ2022 on the SEJ website.
Banner image: A plenary session on solutions journalism and environmental justice featuring Grist’s Yvette Cabrera as moderator and panelists Heather McTeer Tony of the Environmental Defense Fund, Dharna Noor of the Boston Globe, Bryan Parras of the Sierra Club and Mustafa Santiago Ali of Revitalization Strategies / Credit: Meaghan Parker, SEJ.