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Paths and Pitfalls to Investigating Climate Change: The Story of the Century

Paths and Pitfalls to Investigating Climate Change: The Story of the Century

Climate change is shaping up to be the biggest story of the 21st century. And as with most environmental issues, it’s often the poor and powerless that suffer most from the impacts of climate change – and are less able to adapt to them.

That means climate change is not just an environmental issue, but also one tied to economics, social justice, security, health, food systems and, yes, our politics –making it fertile ground in which investigative journalism can flourish.

And although we all, to a certain extent, are responsible for releasing the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, clearly industries such as fossil fuels, heavy manufacturing, transportation and logging emit much greater quantities than others and benefit more from the activities that cause this pollution.

So when it comes to environmental topics, we don’t just follow the money, we also follow the pollution – where it comes from, who benefits and who suffers from it. What’s more, as climate change has gone from a vague environmental concern several decades ago to a confirmed global phenomenon that is today affecting virtually every aspect of our society, it has become ever more ripe for investigation.

Want to dig up the stories behind the story of the century? Here are 10 investigative paths worth exploring.

1. Fossil Fuels

PH gas pump
A gas pump in the Philippines / Photo by Gab Pili on Unsplash


As the main driver of greenhouse gas emissions, the coal, oil and gas industries are the most obvious target for investigative reports. There have been some good investigations of the highest-profile corporations, but there are many other companies, including some of the world’s largest, that have not been so thoroughly looked into. Check out state-owned petroleum companies like Saudi Aramco, Sinopec, China National Petroleum and Kuwait Petroleum, or giant private firms, such as Lukoil, Total and Eni that may be privately owned or publicly listed but still often serve as national champions.

Questions to get you started:

  • Are these companies or the trade associations they belong to lobbying for favorable laws, subsidies and regulations? (see related Climate Investigations Center report)
  • Are they financing politicians who support their industry?
  • Are they spreading disinformation? Or ignoring the findings of the scientists they’ve hired?
  • Are they fighting legislation that addresses climate change?
  • Are they backing groups that deny climate change?


Avenues for investigation:

  • Follow the money: These companies are often valued based on their stated fossil fuel reserves, but scientists tell us that much of these reserves will have to remain in the ground if we’re to avoid catastrophic climate change, potentially turning some of the reserves into “stranded assets.” See if these companies are overvaluing their net worth, creating a “carbon bubble” that could burst and possibly spark a new financial crisis.
  • Look beyond coal: In general, coal companies garner the most attention from the media — understandably, since coal is considered the most polluting of fossil fuels. Oil pipelines and fracking operations have also been subject to much scrutiny. Natural gas companies, on the other hand, get less attention, partly because burning gas is considered to be a less greenhouse gas-intensive fuel. But while methane, its main greenhouse gas byproduct, does not persist in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, it is four times as powerful a warming agent. And even though natural gas companies have recently been found to be leaking far more methane into the atmosphere than previously thought, many of them have been fighting regulations aimed at preventing such leakage — a factor that may be relevant in any country from which you are reporting.




2. Agriculture, Livestock and Logging

Agriculture, forestry and land-use change are responsible for somewhere between a quarter and a fifth of all the global emissions that cause climate change, yet they receive relatively little attention from the media given their impact.

Industrial agriculture, for instance, is heavily reliant on fossil fuels for the production of synthetic fertilizer, during which huge amounts of natural gas are burned. This type of production has been shown to be a significant producer of greenhouse gases, with more heat-trapping gasses released from soil bacteria when the fertilizers are put to use.

Questions to get you started:

  • Where does food come from?
  • What inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, etc) are used to produce it, and what are the impacts of their use?
  • How is food transported?
  • And how is that contributing to greenhouse gas emissions?


Avenues for investigation:

  • Explore the solutions: There are climate-friendly agricultural techniques that seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water use, or enhance crop productivity. Look into why these aren’t more widespread, especially since farming and food security are likely to be heavily impacted by global warming.
  • Livestock husbandry: The dairy and beef industry is responsible for around 8.5% of human-caused emissions(and in fact, cow belches are a bigger problem than farts, according to NASA). What’s more, a lot of tropical forest that could be used as vital “carbon sinks” – places that keep carbon stored rather than being released into the atmosphere – and as critical habitats for biodiversity is being cleared to make way for cattle ranching and soybean farms (especially in the Amazon) and palm oil plantations (especially in Southeast Asia).




3. Transportation

Traffic in Moscow, Russia / Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash

It is generally well-reported that air travel and the use of individual cars are major contributors to climate change. But other aspects of the transportation industry, including the mobility of humans and goods, have received far less attention.

Avenues for investigation:

  • The overall impacts of aviation and shipping on climate change and the efforts to regulate these industries.
  • Housing policies, which are part of climate policy because of the way they affect transportation.




4. Real Estate, Infrastructure Development and Heavy Industry

The real estate industry deserves special mention here, not just because it uses a lot of concrete – the cement industry alone generates around 8 percent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions – or because housing policies have such a big impact on transportation options (and thus on emissions), but also because real estate and other infrastructure developers have such tremendous sway over climate-related policies, and have even played a role in influencing the way governments communicate the challenge of climate change.

There is little doubt that in states such as North Carolina and Florida that the real estate industry has supported destructive policies, including purposely ignoring scientific models that illustrate the impacts of climate change when determining coastal policies.

Journalists could also investigate industries relating to building and construction, such as steel, to uncover their sometimes surprising impact on climate change. What about other industries, like chemicals, air conditioning or refrigerants?

Questions to get you started:

  • Talk to regional planners and ask: How do you decide what amount of sea-level rise or weather-related risk to factor into zoning rules?


Avenues for investigation:

  • Coastal and flood-prone areas: Journalists need to be particularly vigilant in such areas since developers – not just of real estate, but also roads, bridges, seawalls, etc. – may be tempted to build and sell infrastructure they know will eventually be inundated.
  • Coastal housing bubbles: Just as a bubble could be forming in the overvaluation of fossil fuel companies, the value of coastal real estate could end up dropping precipitously if homeowners come to realize they can’t adequately protect or insure their homes.




5. Government Rules, Subsidies and Foreign Investment

The public sector plays a vital role in determining the extent to which all of us, including private companies, address the challenge of climate change. Most investigative journalists should already be on the lookout for ways in which vested interests like fossil fuel companies are influencing government policies. But they may not be aware of all the arcane ways their lobbying affects climate change – through the passage of restrictions on the development of renewable energy, for instance, or by relaxing rules on safety and other forms of pollution in order to make fossil fuel production cheaper.

Journalists need to keep track not only of what goes on in their own countries but also what their governments are doing abroad. In the United States, for instance, even as coal-fired power plants are being shuttered, coal exports have grown rapidly in recent years. Similarly, China is planning to reduce its use of coal at home, but Chinese interests are involved in more than 200 coal projects around the world.

Questions to get you started:

  • How do governments subsidize the industries, particularly fossil fuel industries, that cause greenhouse gas pollution?
  • In what other ways are these subsidies damaging the environment? For instance, governments often support their fishing fleets by providing them with cheap petrol, damaging fish stocks as well. So, is your government trying to prevent climate change, or actually making it worse?
  • Who does the accounting for greenhouse gases? This question is particularly relevant in any country that is claiming progress in reducing emissions.


Avenues for investigation:

  • False reporting: Even when governments are able to put good rules in place, they may struggle to enforce regulations and monitor compliance. Most greenhouse gases are invisible and odorless, so polluters are tempted to hide their emissions or provide false reporting. In recent years, reporting has revealed that some of the world’s most reputable car companies have installed software in their cars aimed at deceiving monitors about how much pollution they’re emitting.
  • Illicit pollution: There have also been alarming reports recently about cheating on the emission of ozone-destroying substances, with suspicion falling on Chinese practices. We can imagine similar scandals arising if ever the world gets serious about limiting greenhouse gas pollution. Rules about measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) are the subject of intense negotiation and disagreement at UN climate treaty talks.
  • Export credits: The OECD has set up rules to guard against providing export credits from wealthy nations for the construction of coal-fired power plants, but some environmental organizations allege that they’re being skirted. Similarly, vows by multilateral development banks that they will follow the Paris Agreement to curb climate change and not back dirty development have to be monitored.




6. Offset Schemes, Carbon Capture and Storage

An oil refinery in the United States / Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

Just as emissions of greenhouse gases need to be monitored, so do the offsets designed to counter them. Offsets, sometimes known as carbon credits, allow polluters to compensate for their own emissions by supporting emissions-cutting or carbon-storing projects elsewhere.

Critics argue that these schemes are inherently unfair by allowing the wealthy to pollute more. Some projects have been derided as “greenwashing,” while others are said to cause more harm than good. Then there are the cases of outright fraud.

On the other hand, offsetting aimed at increasing our capacity to store carbon can be a crucial component of our effort to prevent climate change. So far, this has mostly been done by trying to grow trees and protect forests – sometimes through offset programs like Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+).

Such projects can contribute significantly to forest preservation and the regeneration of degraded landscapes. But sometimes they conflict with the interests of forest-dwelling people, and their links to carbon offsetting efforts are not always clear, creating tensions and raising questions that are worthy of investigating.

Other initiatives are aimed at removing carbon from emissions or from the atmosphere and then either storing or re-using it. Many of these are backed by fossil fuel companies that are particularly keen on Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), a process that involves capturing the CO2 emitted during coal or other fossil fuel burning processes and storing it, typically by channeling it into underground storage facilities to prevent its release into the atmosphere. Such initiatives have been key to the industries’ claims of producing “cleaner” energy.

Despite talk of such efforts, CCS has so far mostly been relegated to dubious demonstration projects, in large part because it needs to be carried out on a huge scale and remains a relatively expensive process. Other engineering efforts aimed at removing carbon from the atmosphere also seem to be mostly in the pilot stage.

Questions to get you started:

  • Who’s doing the counting of how emissions are “offset?”
  • Efforts to capture and remove carbon from the atmosphere face much the same problem as renewable energy initiatives: funding. Who is going to pay for them when the price on carbon remains low or non-existent?


Avenues for investigation: 

  • Responsible parties: Identifying the government or private agency responsible for overseeing carbon credits or offsets is often the first step toward determining their legitimacy.
  • Help or hype? We are probably going to have to rely on carbon removal and storage to a certain extent eventually. But as with all proposed solutions, journalists will need to investigate whether they turn out to be more hype than help.




7. Biofuels

Biofuels are derived from vegetation and thus, in theory, consume as much carbon as they emit. Their development was once seen as one of the most promising alternatives to fossil fuels, but most biofuel initiatives require a lot of land and fresh water, resources that are increasingly in short supply and could potentially increase food security concerns. Biofuel development is also often expensive when compared to how much energy the fuel produced generates. This has led some critics to consider biofuels more of a subsidy for farmers than a way to prevent climate change.

Avenues for investigation:

  • The promise of biogas? Biofuel made from organic waste, or “biogas,” is generally considered a clean energy source. But what are its benefits and its downfalls?
  • Alternative inputs: There is hope that biofuels can become a more effective solution in the future, particularly if they can be derived from food wastecellulose or algae, which may require fewer inputs of land and water, or if they can be turned into aviation fuel, for which there are few alternatives at the moment. But as with carbon removal and capture, journalists will need to watch this space.




8. Activist Groups and Their Supporters

Global climate strike in Germany / Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The focus here has largely been on climate denier groups and how they operate. In the US, such action follows a long line of industry-funded groups that seek to obfuscate scientific findings related to the environment and public health, most notoriously those funded by the tobacco industry. They have been helped by relatively new rules that make it easier for “dark money” to support nonprofit groups.

But what about the activist groups fighting for stronger action to address climate change? There, too, journalists should demand transparency, and should be able to report on who is funding their activities. And what about the scientists?

One major difference is that climate action groups generally have science on their side, with 97% of climate scientists confirming that climate change is real and is being caused by humans. Climate deniers, politicians and some media pundits have taken to claiming they’re biased, too, because they get funding to do research on climate change. There have been several attempts to cast doubt on their actions, most notoriously when the private emails of some climate researchers were hacked and released to the public back in 2009. It was eventually shown that the researchers had done nothing beyond the ordinary peer review process. Indeed, the very questions they had of one another are the essence of the scientific method itself — a process that has been repeatedly exploited by those interested in undermining climate science. (On the other hand, the perpetrators behind the hacking incident have never been caught.)

Questions to get you started:

  • What are the goals of these groups and where do they get their financial support?


Avenues for investigation:

  • Dig into the arguments: The peer review process is generally considered an effective filter to help us reach scientific truth, as best we can understand it. Even when mistakes are made, they eventually get exposed and corrected. In recent years, for instance, there was a claim that global warming had gone on a “hiatus.” It was eventually shown that this was just a statistical mirage due to short-term events and a lack of data. All the more reason for journalists to keep a close watch on the latest scientific findings and stay in touch with trusted researchers.




9. The Solutions

Humanity’s response to climate change has on the whole been tepid. It will have to become stronger if we are to avoid its most catastrophic impacts. That means journalists also need to investigate the solutions put forth to prevent and adapt to climate change.

Avenues for investigation:

  • Can clean power be dirty? Renewable energy projects using solar, wind and geothermal power are becoming ever cheaper and more popular. But like any other infrastructure projects, they could be subject to corruption and abuse. 
  • Consider different perspectives: Some of the more traditional alternative energies – notably large hydropower projects and nuclear power plants– come with controversies of their own, and may in fact pit local environmental interests against global supporters of climate action.
  • Look at the big picture: Full, life-cycle analyses of a project’s emissions are needed to determine its impact on the climate.




10. Adaptation Efforts 

Humanity has a vast task ahead of adapting and responding to climate change, and the scale can seem scary. But there are a few key issues on which to keep a close eye.

Avenues for investigation: 

  • Fresh water: Much of the focus will be on its availability, its lack thereof, and its role in floods, storms and drought. Preparing for and recovering from more devastating weather-related disasters will also command a lot of attention.
  • Spending and decision making: Trillions of dollars are likely to be spent on adapting to climate change – from building seawalls to restoring sand marshes – and it seems unlikely all the money will be spent responsibly and efficiently. Journalists will need to keep a sharp eye on spending and on how politicians and planners face choices about whether to build “hard” defenses or “soft,” or whether to plan for 2 feet of sea level rise or more.
  • The winners and losers: Even those issues may pale compared to the potential costs of massive human migration. Only the most wealthy of places will be able to pay to protect themselves. The next best scenario for people living in harm’s way will be “managed retreat.” But let’s face it, most of the time it won’t be well-managed. It will be chaotic and probably bloody. Journalists will need to watch carefully who’s making what decisions regarding which communities get saved.




What to Watch For

Unexpected or Under-Reported Impacts

Reporting on the impacts of climate change can be tricky, because linking climate change to, for instance, specific weather events is notoriously difficult. Even when attribution is possible, and the science of determining attribution is getting better all the time, in most cases we can only determine that a particular event was exacerbated by global warming, not caused by it.

By and large, the media has been doing a better job of reporting on climate change impacts and has even started reporting on secondary or “knock-on” effects, such as how climate-induced migration and resource stress is causing conflict in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. This needs to be explored more in other regions, too, such as Central America. And there are still some areas that seem to be under-reported– ocean acidification, for instance, or the public health impacts of climate change. But there have also been cases when the impacts of climate have been overstated.

The enterprising journalist needs to investigate the many factors, including but not limited to climate change, that can lead to catastrophic weather-related events.

Wildfire in Oregon
Wildfire in Oregon / Photo by Marcus Kauffman on Unsplash


The conditions that created the wildfires that have torn through California in recent years have certainly been exacerbated by climate change, but they’re also due to forest management practices and development patterns that have led to the building of more houses deep in the woods. Sources can include scientists who are researching such phenomena, as well as businesses that keep track of the data that lie behind such events, such as insurance companies.

There will still be some surprising impacts.

Some people living inland from the coast, for instance, may be surprised that they, too, will be affected by rising sea levels as it pushes up the water table underneath their land, potentially causing more flooding. Also in recent years, there has been speculation that climate change has weakened the jet stream, thus possibly unleashing the polar vortex on regions to the south, although this is far from certain.

And that raises a fundamental matter in reporting on climate change: As is common in the sciences, research findings on climate change impacts are always framed in ranges of likelihood and probability.

Including such uncertainties may appear to undercut your claims, but in fact, they generally serve to enhance your credibility. By demonstrating the underlying approach of the scientific method itself, and by being open about the limits of scientific certainty, you are strengthening your own credibility as a journalist and a source for the public of scientifically-grounded information.

The Future: Geo-Engineering

Climate change is actually an unplanned geo-engineering experiment on a vast scale, and humans are carrying out several of them. The jury is out as to whether we’ll be good planetary engineers, but the evidence so far isn’t looking good.

It’s quite possible some country, bloc, corporation or other powerful entity might one day decide to enact some purposeful geo-engineering, with the goal of protecting itself from the onslaught of climate change.

Some of the schemes that have been most talked about include distributing aerosols into the atmosphere or solar shades into space to slightly reduce the sunlight falling on the Earth. But there are concerns that this could also end up reducing agricultural output, and it wouldn’t do anything to prevent acidification of the oceans. Right now, we even lack opportunities to talk about the possibilities since there are few governance mechanisms for global decision-making on such matters.

If all this sounds outlandish, bear in mind that 20 years ago, it was virtually taboo in environmental circles to talk about adaptation, because it was seen as distracting the world from the main goal of preventing climate change in the first place. That is roughly the position geo-engineering sits in today – it is considered a “moral hazard” – but who knows what desperate measures countries may turn to if some of the most dire predictions come to pass.

Journalists should want to know, and would be well advised to keep an eye on, any such initiatives, (some of which could be developed in secret.)

As indicated by this long but far from exhaustive list of topics for journalists to investigate, climate change and all its manifestations is altering everything and it’s beginning to touch every part of our planet.

Scientists, economists and people working close to nature can help explain how we are changing the world around us. Our job as journalists is to explain the science and investigate the human responses – in many more places around the globe – that have made this the story of our time.

James Fahn is Executive Director of the Earth Journalism Network. He is also a lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, where he teaches international environmental reporting. This toolkit originally appeared as a feature on the Global Investigative Journalism Network.

Banner image: Glacier Perito Moreno, Argentina / Photo by Agustín Lautaro on Unsplash