Investigating the Story of the Century

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GIJN, Global

At first glance, climate change may not seem the most obvious subject for investigative journalists to tackle. The science that underlies our understanding of global warming is complex, and so we often rely on technical experts to tell us, for instance, to what extent it exacerbates floods, droughts, hurricanes, heat waves, epidemics and health issues, coastal erosion, the decline of species and other phenomena.

But this is what’s shaping up to be the biggest story of the 21st century we’re talking about. As with most environmental issues, some people – usually poor and marginalized groups like women, youth and indigenous people – tend to suffer more than others from climate change, and are less able to adapt to it. And although we all, to a certain extent, are responsible for releasing the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, clearly there are some – wealthy consumers, fossil fuel companies, heavy manufacturing and transport industries, logging firms – that emit much greater quantities than others, and benefit more from the activities that cause this pollution.

That means climate change is not just an environmental issue, but also an economic and social justice one, making it fertile ground in which investigative journalism can flourish. 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 – our economy, security, health, livelihoods, food supply and, yes, our politics – it has become ever more ripe for investigation.

So here are 10 promising investigative paths (some of which admittedly overlap with each other, or expand into many sub-topics) that journalists can explore to dig up the stories behind what the editor of The New York Times suggests will be the “story of our time.” Even if some of these issues have been covered in some places, there are many countries or regions around the world where such coverage has been lacking.

The Fossil Fuels Industry

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, such as the extensive probe of Exxon for which InsideClimate News was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist. But there are many other companies, including some of the world’s largest, which have not been so thoroughly investigated, in particular some of the state-owned petroleum companies like Saudi Aramco, Sinopec, China National Petroleum and Kuwait Petroleum, or other mammoth firms like Lukoil, Total and Eni that may be privately owned or publicly listed but still often serve as national champions.

Credit: Pixabay

It would be useful to know if these companies, or even more likely the trade associations they belong to, are lobbying for favorable laws, subsidies and regulations; financing politicians who support their industry; spreading disinformation; fighting legislation that addresses climate change; backing climate denier groups; and ignoring the findings of their own scientists.

These companies can also be investigated to see if they’re inflating the hypothesized “carbon bubble,” a potential overvaluation of their net worth, which could burst and possibly spark a new financial crisis. These companies are often largely 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.” There is also a risk some of these firms could ultimately be held liable for the global warming their products are causing, much as the Master Settlement Agreement with the major US tobacco firms required them to pay massive penalties.

For more on this topic, see GIJN’s resource guide on covering the extractive industries.

In general, coal companies have garnered 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 of scrutiny, due to environmental risks like explosions, leaks and contaminated water supplies.

Natural gas companies, on the other hand, generally get less attention, partly because burning gas is considered to be a less greenhouse gas-intensive fuel, leading the industry to argue it should be used as a “bridge fuel” as we move towards renewable energy sources. But there is much yet to be investigated in the natural gas industry: While methane, the main greenhouse gas waste product of natural gas, 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.

Other Polluting Industries

Although the burning of fossil fuels deserves the brunt of the blame for climate change, there are many other industries that are ripe for more in-depth reporting. Enterprising reporters can come up with good stories by investigating the supply chains of just about any industry to uncover which processes involve the greatest release of greenhouse gases, but here are a few industries that are particularly relevant:

Agriculture, Livestock and Logging

Agriculture, forestry and land-use change is responsible for somewhere between a quarter and a fifth of all the global emissions that cause climate change, and yet it receives considerably less attention. Industrial agriculture is heavily reliant on the fossil fuel industry. The production of synthetic fertilizer, for instance, has been shown to be a significant producer of greenhouse gases by burning astounding amounts of natural gas and then releasing more heat-trapping gasses from soil bacteria. There are climate-friendly agricultural techniques available, and journalists should look into why they aren’t more widespread, especially since farming and food security are likely to be heavily impacted by global warming.

The impact of livestock husbandry on the global climate has often drawn snickers, mainly because it is funny to think that cow farts could be contributing to a global crisis. But the dairy and beef industry is responsible for around 8.5% of human-caused emissions (and in fact cow belchesare 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 habitat for biodiversity is being cleared to make way for cattle ranching and soybean farms (particularly in the Amazon) and palm oil plantations (especially in Southeast Asia).

One of the questions journalists are most commonly asked about climate change is, what can individuals do to help address it? Reporters can respond by investigating where our food comes from, how it is produced and shipped, and how that is contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Transportation

Another cause of climate change where individual consumers can make a difference is in deciding what transportation to use. It is generally well-reported that air travel and the use of individual cars is a major contributor to climate change. But there are aspects of the transportation challenge that have received far less attention: the overall impacts of aviation and shipping on climate change and the efforts to regulate these industries, for instance, or the fact that housing policy is a part of climate policy because of the way it affects transportation.

Cement and Heavy Industry

Indeed, journalists could investigate many industries to uncover their sometimes surprising impact on climate change. Few may know, for instance, that the cement industry generates around 8% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. If it were a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world. What about other industries, like steel, chemicals, air conditioning or refrigerants?

Real Estate and Infrastructure Developers

The real estate industry deserves special mention here, not just because it uses a lot of concrete, 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 clout over climate-related policies, and even the way government communicates the challenge of climate change.

The role of real estate interests in ignoring climate change has received less attention than that of the fossil fuel industry, but there is little doubt that in states such as North CarolinaFlorida and other places it has supported destructive policies, including purposely ignoring scientific models of climate change when determining coastal policies.

Journalists need to be particularly vigilant in coastal and flood-prone areas where 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. 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. Digging deeper, enterprising reporters need to talk to regional planners who face an agonizing quandary: How do they decide what amount of sea level rise or weather-related risk to factor into their zoning rules?

Government Rules and Subsidies

This brings us to the public sector, which obviously 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, for instance through the passage of restrictions on the development of renewable energy, or relaxing rules on safety and other forms of pollution in order to make fossil fuel production cheaper.

One area that generally does not receive enough attention is how government subsidizes the industries, particularly fossil fuels, that cause greenhouse gas pollution. At least one study estimates such global subsidies at over $5 trillion per year, and that doesn’t take into account the support for other polluting industries, such as cattle ranching. Many of these subsidies are damaging in other ways, too. 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?

Foreign Aid, Investment and Export Credits

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. The OECD has set up rules to guard against providing export credits from wealthy nations for the construction of coal-fired power plants, but there are some allegations they’re being skirted. Similarly, vows by the multilateral development banks that they will follow the Paris Agreement and not back dirty development have to be monitored.

Illicit Pollution and 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 emission or provide false reporting. In recent years, for instance, we’ve learned that some of the world’s most reputable car companies, when they’re not lobbying for relaxed fuel efficiency standardshave installed software in their cars aimed at deceiving monitors about how much pollution they’re emitting.

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. The question of “who does the accounting” for greenhouse gases is relevant in any country which is claiming progress in reducing emissions.

Carbon Credits and Offset Schemes

Just as emissions of greenhouse gases need to be monitored, so do the offsets designed to counter those emissions. Offsets, sometimes known as carbon credits, allow polluters to compensate for their own emissions by supporting emissions-cutting or carbon-storing projects elsewhere. Since the atmosphere is a global commons, the logic behind it seems impeccable, but critics argue they are inherently unfair in allowing the wealthy to pollute more. Some projects have been derided as “greenwashing,” while others are said to have little impact, or even cause more harm than good. Then there are the cases of outright fraud. Once again, the question is: Who’s doing the counting of how emissions are “offset?” The answer varies from nation to nation, but identifying the government or private agency responsible for overseeing carbon credits or offsets is often the first step toward determining their legitimacy.

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 over the years 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 and worthy of more investigation – 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.

"By demonstrating the underlying approach of the scientific method itself, and being open about the limits of scientific certainty, you strengthen your own credibility as a journalist and a source of scientifically-grounded information."

The enterprising journalist needs to investigate the many factors, including but not limited to climate change, that can lead to catastrophic weather-related events. For instance, the conditions that created the wildfires which have torn through California in recent years have certainly been exacerbated by climate change, but they’re also due to forest management practices and to development patterns that have been building more houses deep in the woods. Sources can include scientists who are researching such phenomena, and also others – such as insurance companies – that keep track of the data that lie behind such events.

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.

Which 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 it generally serves to enhance your credibility. By demonstrating the underlying approach of the scientific method itself, and 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.

Credit: Shutterstock

Activist Groups and Their Supporters

This list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the need to investigate activist groups working on climate issues, their goals and where they get their financial support. The focus here has largely been on climate denier groups and how they operate. In the US, this has followed a long line of industry-funded groups who 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.

What about the activist groups on “the other side,” those 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. 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 being caused by humans, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) making it clear that the issue is becoming increasingly urgent.

And what about the scientists? 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. But it was eventually shown that the researchers had done nothing out of bounds of the ordinary scientific 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.)

More broadly, the peer review process is generally considered an effective filter to help us reach scientific truth, as best as we can understand it. Even when mistakes are made, such as when an IPCC report suggested that Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035, they eventually get exposed and corrected. In recent years, for instance, there was a claim that global warming had gone on a “hiatus” – that warming trends had slowed or stopped for a few years – but again 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.

Monitoring the Solutions

Humanity’s response to climate change has so far on the whole been tepid. But eventually, it will have to become stronger if we are to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, and that means journalists also need to investigate the solutions put forth to prevent and adapt to climate change. 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.

Meanwhile, some of the more traditional types of alternative energy – 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. Solely in terms of their carbon footprint, the reservoirs kept behind dams can release large quantities of methane due to decay of vegetation under water. And like other types of infrastructure projects, building and maintaining these facilities requires a lot of fossil fuels. Really, in order to judge any activity’s impact on the climate, full life-cycle analyses need to be carried out.

Some of the other proposed solutions also must be closely monitored:

Biofuels

The development of biofuels — derived from vegetation and thus, in theory, consuming as much carbon as they emit — was once seen as the most promising alternatives to fossil fuels. But the bloom is off the rose for several reasons. Most biofuel initiatives require a lot of land and fresh water, resources that are increasingly in short supply, potentially increasing food security concerns; and the development of biofuels is often expensive when compared to the energy density of the fuel produced. This has led some critics to consider biofuel development a boondoggle, more of a subsidy for farmers than a way to prevent climate change.

Biofuel made from organic waste (also known as “biogas”) is generally considered a clean energy source. And there is still hope that biofuels can become a more effective solution in the future, for instance if they can be derived from food waste, cellulose 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 all proposed solutions, journalists will need to investigate whether they turn out to be more hype than help.

Carbon Removal, Capture and Sequestration

Increasing our capacity to store carbon is going to 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. On the other hand, they sometimes conflict with the interests of forest-dwelling people, and their links to carbon offsetting efforts are not always clear, creating tensions that suggest abundant potential for journalistic inquiries.

There are also other initiatives aimed at removing carbon from emissions or from the atmosphere and then either storing or re-using it. Many of these are supported or promoted by fossil fuel companies that are particularly keen on Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). That is a process which 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 promises have been key to the industries’ claims of producing “cleaner” energy.

But despite all the promise, CCS has so far mostly been relegated to dubious demonstration projects, basically 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 thus far. In effect, it has faced the same problem as renewable energy initiatives – figuring out who is going to pay for them when the price on carbon remains low or non-existent.

That said, we are probably going to have to rely on carbon removal and storage to a certain extent eventually. We have already wasted so much time in trying to reduce the world’s carbon footprint that the world will probably overshoot the Paris targets aimed at preventing catastrophic climate change, which means we may well need the “negative emissions” that carbon removal can generate. As with biofuels, journalists will need to watch this space.

Credit: Pixabay

Adaptation

Humanity has a vast task ahead of itself adapting and responding to climate change, and the scale can seem scary. A deep look into all the resilience, and the reporting, that is going to be required could be as long as this piece. But there are a few key issues on which to keep a close eye. Much of the focus on resilience will be about fresh water: 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.

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 that, and on whether politicians and planners face choices as to whether to build “hard” defenses or “soft,” whether to plan for 2 feet of sea level rise or 5 or more, and so on.

But even those issues may pale compared to the potential costs of the massive human migration we’re likely to see. 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 whose communities get saved.

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 too 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 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, as 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, which could in theory 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. It’s beginning to touch every part of our planet, from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the atmosphere, as well as every aspect of humanity’s economy and society.

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 Networkat GIJN member Internews. He is also a lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, where he teaches international environmental reporting.