The Media Today

The untimely death of a masterful climate communicator

November 7, 2023
Saleemul Huq, a pioneering climate scientist from Bangladesh, poses for a photo during the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 8, 2021. Huq, who pushed to get the world to understand, pay for and adapt to worsening warming impacts on poorer nations, died of cardiac arrest Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023. He was 71. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali, File)

Two years ago today, I boarded a train from London to Glasgow to cover COP26, a huge United Nations climate summit, from a media perspective for CJR. Ahead of time, I was advised to call Saleemul Huq, a prominent climate scientist from Bangladesh who had recently written a newspaper column offering journalists and readers advice on how to think about the summit. (Do: look beyond the negotiations to hear from the activists and other civil-society actors descending on Glasgow. Don’t: obsess over photo ops involving world leaders.) When we spoke, Huq accused Boris Johnson, the host prime minister, of distracting the media with shiny objects and parts of the media, in turn, of having the attention span of a fly.

After I arrived in Glasgow, Huq seemed to show up everywhere I went. When I profiled a group of journalists from the Global South who were attending the summit on a fellowship, Huq was there talking to them about “loss and damage,” or the idea that poorer nations are already suffering immense, tangible harms due to climate change and ought to be compensated by the rich nations that disproportionately polluted the planet. As the summit drew to a close, Huq walked into the media center alongside representatives from Ghana and Tuvalu, who held forth on rich countries’ failure to meaningfully commit to such payments. They held aloft posters asking whether the US had kept its existing funding promises and answering “NOPE,” in the style of Shepard Fairey’s Obama “HOPE” poster. They were instantly thronged by reporters.

I wasn’t the only journalist to notice Huq’s ubiquity at the summit; the New York Times found him holding court under a giant inflatable globe, a can of Irn-Bru, a vivid-orange Scottish soft drink, in hand. Indeed, Huq was a fixture at COP summits in general—he attended the event every year after its founding, in the mid-nineties—as well as at similar gatherings of international climate officials and experts. Recently, Fred Heutte, a member of the Sierra Club, an environmental nonprofit, recalled chatting with Huq at a climate meeting in Germany as a stream of journalists came over to “say hello and for mini-interviews.” According to Heutte, Huq “knew them all well and just how to make a quotable phrase.”

I saw Heutte’s recollections in an online remembrance book—ten days ago, Huq died following a cardiac arrest. He was seventy-one. After the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, the Bangladeshi research institute that Huq led, announced the news, tributes quickly poured in, many of them from climate reporters who knew Huq. As Covering Climate Now—a group founded by CJR and The Nation, with which Huq often interacted—put it last week, journalists have lost “an invaluable source—a peerless guide to the insider maneuverings, power politics, and especially the moral questions at the heart of international climate negotiations.” More than that, the world—and the Global South, in particular—has lost perhaps its most talented communicator of the case for global climate justice. It has also lost a clear-eyed critic of the media’s worst impulses when it comes to covering the climate crisis.

Huq was born in Pakistan in 1952. According to a profile in Nature, when the eastern part of that country broke away to form the independent state of Bangladesh, in the early seventies, his parents, “who opted for Bangladesh, escaped capture by Pakistan’s military by travelling overland on a donkey to India through Afghanistan.” Huq’s parents were diplomats, and he had an itinerant upbringing; he studied botany in London before eventually returning to Bangladesh, where he cofounded a think tank to assist the government with environmental policy. Huq became increasingly involved with international climate policy, too. He contributed prominently to several influential assessments published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN body. He was a leading advocate not only for loss and damage payments—a euphemism, he told the Times in 2021, for “reparations”—but of the idea that the communities most directly affected by the climate crisis should lead efforts to adapt to it.

Huq understood and often emphasized the importance of the media in spreading these ideas beyond the confines of the global scientific elite. In the past, “there wasn’t really an expectation on scientists to have to communicate—scientists were, and many still are, enormously happy to just be allowed to get on with making their discoveries, inventing things, publishing their papers, teaching their students, and to not have to do public engagement, let alone advocacy,” Ehsan Masood, an editor at Nature who wrote its profile of Huq, told me. Huq was “boundary breaking,” Masood added. “Over time, he became more adventurous. And he was kind of made for social media.… It gave him a much bigger platform.” 

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In addition to being active on X (formerly Twitter), Huq was a prolific contributor to the traditional media: According to the Associated Press, he wrote hundreds of articles for both the popular press and academic publications. He had a regular column in the Daily Star, an English-language newspaper in Bangladesh, and wrote for international outlets, too, including CJR. Last week, The Guardian published an op-ed that he coauthored prior to his death with Farhana Sultana, a professor at Syracuse University and longtime collaborator of Huq’s. Sultana was “always amazed at his ability to sharply and with grace always make his point across to a wide array of people of different backgrounds, whether the youth in Bangladesh or the heads of nation-states,” she told me in an email. 

According to Sultana, Huq set up the Climate Tribune—a regular supplement of the Dhaka Tribune, another leading English-language paper in Bangladesh—as a vehicle for climate journalism. When I attended COP26, I met Shamsuddin Illius, a Bangladeshi climate journalist who serves as the Chittagong bureau chief for the Business Standard. Last week, Illius told me that, since connecting with Huq at the summit, he has also worked as a consultant reporter for ICCCAD, Huq’s group, and that Huq would regularly pepper him with ideas for climate stories. “I lost a guide on climate reporting, a teacher, and a mentor,” Illius said. “I think [the same is true] for all journalists in Bangladesh.” 

Huq also put the media on blast when he felt its coverage was lazy or unhelpful. He wrote (with Mark Hertsgaard, the executive director of Covering Climate Now) that outlets in the Global North have a blind spot when it comes to covering the devastating impact of the climate crisis in the Global South, and that they should pay less attention to the costs of climate action than the much greater costs of inaction; he even referred to sections of the media, including Fox News, as “climate criminals.” Writing for Time last year following a cyclone in Bangladesh, Huq praised that country’s media for long covering the climate “as a major news story that the public needs to know about.” He added that “our experience in Bangladesh illustrates that more and better news coverage is also an essential climate solution, because it fosters the broad awareness and public pressure on governments and powerful interests that’s needed to put the fire out.”

In that article, Huq urged US outlets to pay close attention to COP27, in Egypt, which was then coming up on the rails. In the end, that summit concluded with what appeared to be a significant breakthrough: wealthy countries agreed, for the first time, to pay into a loss-and-damage fund. Huq was hailed as a driving force behind the commitment. (It was in this context that Masood profiled him for Nature, as one of ten people who “helped shape science in 2022.”) Not that Huq was willing to rest on the pledge; his op-ed with Sultana noted that rich countries have yet to match their promises with detailed funding commitments—a key sticking point ahead of COP28, which will open in Dubai later this month. As talks on the fund continue, various scientists and activists have called for it to be named after Huq.

For those attending COP28, not least members of the press, Huq’s absence will leave a gaping hole. Not that he would necessarily want to be remembered as a denizen of climate talking shops. When we spoke ahead of COP26, he told me that COPs had become “redundant” as media stories. After his impromptu “NOPE” presser in the media center, I buttonholed him in a drinks line and asked what he meant by that. “The conference has value, I’m not saying it doesn’t,” he said, adding that journalists love “a hook.” But “the climate change story is not talking about doing something at the COP. The climate change story is tackling climate change on the ground, preventing millions of people dying.” This one death will hurt their cause more than most.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, shared the assessment that more journalists have been killed in the past four weeks in Israel, Gaza, and Lebanon than in any conflict in at least three decades—echoing a conclusion from the Committee to Protect Journalists that I wrote about in yesterday’s newsletter. In other news, Jazmine Hughes, a journalist at the New York Times Magazine, resigned late last week after signing an open letter accusing Israel of attempted “genocide” in Gaza; editors said that her signature violated the paper’s policies on “public protest.” And in France, bosses at Radio France, a public broadcaster, issued a warning to Guillaume Meurice, a satirist, after he made an on-air joke comparing Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, to a Nazi; Meurice said that outrage is a part of his job, and will appeal. 
  • Also yesterday, the board of the Pulitzer Prizes said that it will now accept primarily text-based entries from the websites of broadcast and audio newsrooms, citing “the multimedia nature of modern journalism.” In other news about the media business, Gannett hired a reporter to exclusively cover Taylor Swift, filling a vacancy that generated industry debate (including in this newsletter) when it was posted in September; Bryan West, a former TV reporter in Arizona, beat a flood of applicants (including “at least one very established White House reporter,” per Gannett) to the role. And the China Project, a US-based news platform covering China, said that it is shutting down, citing funding struggles amid “politically motivated attacks” on its coverage.
  • The far-right government of Hungary sacked László L. Simon, a former government minister, as head of the country’s National Museum after accusing him of exposing minors to the “display and promotion of homosexuality” in violation of a Hungarian anti-LGBTQ law. The museum recently hosted an exhibition showcasing winners of the prestigious World Press Photo contest, including images of an elderly LGBTQ community in the Philippines that were taken by Hannah Reyes Morales and initially published in the Times. Simon said that the museum barred under-eighteens from the exhibition but that he was fired regardless. The BBC has more details.
  • Representatives from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) delivered postcards and other messages of support to Belarusian embassies in seven cities worldwide to protest the continued imprisonment of Maryna Zolatava, the editor in chief of the independent news site, who has been jailed since 2021 and whose forty-sixth birthday was yesterday. According to Le Monde, dozens of RSF members blocked the entry of the Belarusian embassy in Paris, in the presence of Zolatava’s husband and two children. (ICYMI, Charles McPhedran wrote about the information war in Belarus for CJR back in 2021.)
  • And twenty years on from the death of Joan Kroc, the wife of the late McDonald’s tycoon Ray, the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi looks back on how an unexpected bequest in her will—totaling more than two hundred and thirty million dollars—transformed the fortunes of NPR. It’s not clear that Kroc actually listened to NPR, but her gift was “by far the largest in public broadcasting history and, at the time, the largest monetary gift to any American cultural institution,” adding up to more than twice NPR’s annual budget.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.