This column originally appeared in The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter by and for women in media. Subscribe here to join this community of trailblazers.
Being a climate journalist has never been so critical.
For the past 15 years, I’ve been reporting on environmental issues for Noticias Telemundo and I can tell you that this is the most important story of our times, the story journalists critically need to tell.
But it’s also one of the most difficult stories to cover. The challenges we’re facing today, with our planet changing at a rapid pace, can make the task of covering climate seem overwhelming at times. As a climate journalist, I have to report every day on storms that become monster hurricanes in a matter of hours. I have to cover fires that ravage the Amazon jungle, devastating everything. I have to witness the sorrow and desperation of people who are forced to leave everything behind after years of drought or report on the extinction of rare plants and animals.
We’re at a unique point in history, one of those crossroads that define fate, not only for us but for future generations. Leading scientists tell us we only have 10 years to turn around and create a carbon-neutral economy. That alone is a huge task. Achieving it will require a monumental effort to transform the way we live. This, in turn, will call for a lot of guidance and information. Climate journalists will clearly play a key role in that process.
Here is what I’ve learned over nearly two decades of crisis reporting about being effective:
Focus on the disproportionately vulnerable
When you’re out in the field it’s important to understand that even though climate change affects us all, it doesn’t affect everyone equally. Minorities, women and children and other disempowered groups are mostly affected by the impact of climate change. Ironically, these groups are also the ones that contribute to the problem the least. Additionally, women are most likely to be displaced by climate change. Women are also the primary caregivers and providers of food for their families and children, making them more vulnerable when a storm or a drought hits.
In the United States, Latinos are disproportionately more affected by our changing climate as half of the Latino population lives in the 25 most polluted cities in the country, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. As a consequence, Latino children are 40% more likely to die from asthma; Latina mothers are more likely to have premature babies; and, according to a recent Harvard study, people who live in polluted areas are more likely to die from COVID-19. These are serious implications that must be considered in our reporting on climate change, so we properly highlight the struggle of underrepresented communities.
Don’t let people look away. Demand accountability.
It’s clear that we need to change the way we live if we want a chance at surviving. But, most importantly, there are systemic changes that need to come from the top. Politicians, business leaders, and policymakers will be key to this transformation. They are the ones who need to create tougher environmental laws. They are the ones who need to innovate and create sustainable companies. And they are the ones who need to be bold and break the status quo to create platforms for the rest of us to live sustainable lives. As journalists, we have to hold these leaders to account. We have to question their plans, compel them to confront polluters and demand clear answers.
For example, this February I had the opportunity to moderate the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas. I asked former Vice President Joe Biden if he would hold the fossil fuel executives accountable for the damage made to our environment. I pressed him for a clear answer, specifically asking which companies would he hold accountable and how far was he willing to go. His answer was a compilation of his will to return to the Paris agreement, eliminate the subsidies for big oil and fight for environmental justice issues. Fossil fuel companies knew for decades that their products — oil, natural gas and coal — caused irreversible damage to our planet and did nothing to solve it and instead used deceptive practices to hide the truth.
I asked again: “What would you do with these companies that are responsible for the destruction of our planet?” Biden then answered that if the executives were lying, they should be able to be sued and be held personally accountable.
Hope comes from within
Sometimes this job can be pretty demanding. Last year I traveled to Ecuador to report on our melting glaciers. In the Andes, some glaciers have lost more than half of their ice within the past decades and will be iceless in the next five years. Immediately after, I went to Bolivia to cover the fire that devastated millions of acres of Amazon jungle. Walking through mile after mile of ash was absolutely heartbreaking. Seeing animals burned and stretched out on the ground gave me a feeling of hopelessness.
In times like these, I choose to focus on life. When I get home, I do yoga, meditate, surround myself with nature and spend time with the ones I love. I practice gratitude every day, and recognize the beauty and perfection of our planet. I see the big picture. Our planet is an amazing organism capable of sustaining almost 8 billion people and it has an amazing capacity to regenerate. Today we have the technology, the resources and the will of the people to change the way we live. The journey begins with the contribution of each one of us.
I know it won’t be easy. We will have to challenge politicians, polluters and even some newsroom editors. You will come home tired and heartbroken. You will feel the pain of the ones suffering the effects of climate change.
But at the end of the day, I promise you will go to bed with a great feeling of accomplishment that the job you do is actually having a powerful impact. Your stories will touch hearts and change minds. Your words and questions will travel distances. And when we all leave this planet and complete this great human experience, we will be able to say that the job that we did was so worthwhile. Because of it, children will breathe better air, oceans will be replenished with fish and new coral, animals will walk tall, and our beautiful planet will be renewed.
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