In the Middle East and Africa, the challenges are lack of access to scientists, competition with other environmental and economic crises, and undertrained reporters, said Dalia Abdel-Salam, environment editor at Al Ahram Hebdo in Cairo, Egypt. She recently conducted an informal poll of her journalism colleagues in the Middle East and Africa and discovered these conditions: climate change stories get short shrift in Ethiopia as they are not thought to be “sexy;” a lack of interest among top editors and readers as well as a lack of trust in Malawi among journalists and government organizations with data; a lack of climate-change education and experts in Tanzania; a lack of national and regional data and uncooperative sources in Egypt; and, most importantly, a lack of sources, resources, and information in the Arabic language in Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. Abdel-Salam urged reporters to keep their stories about climate change clear and understandable to lay people.
In other parts of the world, reporters literally risk life and limb to cover environmental issues, said James Fahn, the Thailand-based executive director of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, a non-profit organization that trains journalists in developing countries. Fahn said the journalists he works with in Asia face threats, suffer from violence and have been imprisoned as a result of their work. Onche Odeh, a science reporter at the Daily Independent in Lagos, Nigeria, who is currently in the U.S. on an MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellowship, said he had a good idea for a story about Lake Chad in northeast Nigeria but worried that traveling to the region could involve being “cut up in a religious crisis.”
There is a huge information gap on the topic of climate change and energy, and science literacy is a global problem. In the U.S., a recent scientific survey of 1,001 adults found that four in ten Americans cannot name a fossil fuel, five in ten thinks nuclear energy causes global warming, and six in ten cannot name a renewable energy source, said Jean Johnson of Public Agenda, a non-partisan polling and voter-education organization. But rather than railing against the sorry state of scientific literacy or the failure of U.S. voters to “get it” when it comes to the interrelated issues of climate change and energy, scientists and policymakers should engage citizens more effectively in public discourse, she said.
In developing countries, the information divide may be even worse. “The people most at risk from the impacts of climate change tend to be those who have the least information about it,” said Fahn. His organization has set out to fill that gap, training more than 1,000 journalists in recent years and focusing lately on covering environmental issues in Vietnam. In 2006, there was no coverage at all of climate change in that country, he said. Now, there is a steady rise in coverage with locally sourced material.
Fahn, Abdel-Salam, and Roosevelt stressed the value of local reporting to make climate change relevant and accessible to residents. Fahn recommends finding case studies to bring home the scientific messages, as well as relying on strong graphics, photographs and social media to help tell stories. “Connecting these issues to real people and places is a good point of any improved journalism,” he said.
Climate change in parts of Asia has moved from the back page of newspapers to the front page, Fahn said. “This topic is a lot of gloom and doom, but in the twenty years since I started covering this process, we have made tremendous progress in covering climate change…It’s important to recognize the gains that have been made.”
Editor’s Note: Russell organized and moderated the AAAS symposium on “Covering Global Climate Change and Adaptation from the Ground Up.”