In 2015, the Media Council of Kenya invited me to contribute an opinion-editorial for their quarterly magazine, Media Observer. I wrote about the many challenges faced by science and environmental journalists, in newsrooms where editorial managers and other decision makers openly show preference for hard political stories.
At the time, most environmental stories that got to see the light of day in this region were not a result of deliberate newsroom priorities, rather they were a result of the forces of nature, I wrote. Bernard Mwinzi, then-Features Editor at Kenya’s Daily Nation told me: “Stories on climate change, droughts, El Nino, are a hit-and-miss affair, often taking a dramatic angle on a looming disaster or following a disaster.”
The need for in-depth reporting on the impacts [of climate change] and potential solutions to mitigate them has never been more urgent.
Yet, as environmental degradation and the climate crisis continues to extract a toll on East Africa, sustained and insistent coverage is the need of the day. Africa is grappling with extreme weather phenomena: scarce rainfall, and when it does rain, it pours, leading to floods that leave havoc in their wake. The seasons are unpredictable, and for a people who mostly rely on rainfed agriculture, the land has been rendered bare, leading to prolonged droughts as is currently being experienced from Kenya’s Turkana County to Ethiopia and Somalia, putting around 20 million people in East Africa at risk of severe hunger.
At the same time, the region is grappling with myriad other challenges, from rising sea levels to biodiversity loss to increased human-wildlife conflict. The need for in-depth reporting on these impacts, potential solutions to mitigate them and key obstacles to action, has never been more urgent.
Yet, seven years after I wrote that “environmental reporting is not for the fainthearted,” there’s still plenty of room for improvement, in this region and across the broader media landscape.
Legacy media in East Africa, as indeed elsewhere in the world, is grappling with the loss of revenue due to audiences moving to online platforms. Most are struggling to offer continued training to their staff or to fund ambitious on-the-ground reporting from regions that are on the frontlines of the intersecting environmental and climate crises.
Indeed, a new International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) global survey, released earlier this month, found that only one in four journalists believes the media in their country is doing an adequate job of covering the climate crisis. Less than 6% claim they have had access to dedicated training, although over 81% are “very concerned” about climate change.
To help fill these gaps – so clearly highlighted in IFJ’s survey – and to strengthen the capacity of East African journalists, I moved from being an active journalist in the field, to a media trainer and now to a project manager, leading Internews’ Earth Journalism Network’s East African project on environment, wildlife, conservation, and climate change journalism.
Journalists of every kind must be empowered with knowledge to implement solutions, to help the continent adapt and build resilience.
To improve the quality and quantity of journalism on “one of the major challenges of our time,” EJN provides story grants and fellowship opportunities, offers mentorship and training, and produces thematic webinars and tipsheets to enable journalists to produce accurate, science-based environmental and climate stories for their audiences, often in local languages.
Through media grants, this project has supported local media organizations and helps strengthen local networks of environmental journalists such as the Kenya Community Media Network and the Rwanda Environmental Journalists Network.
We have thus far supported the creation of 10 regional geojournalism platforms; in Africa, these include InfoNile/Water Journalists Africa and Oxpeckers, which seek to empower journalists to tell compelling data- and map-driven stories.
In this context, media development organizations like Internews, DW Akademie and BBC Media in Action do have a critical role to play. And indeed, there are promising signs of change.
While preparing for an upcoming media workshop scheduled for later this month, I contacted senior editors in the major newsrooms from Kampala, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam to Kigali. My ask was simple: Can you invite your science/ environment/ climate change editor to join a weeklong journalism training at Fort Portal, Uganda? Although I was told there was no such desk in most of the newsrooms, most outlets had feature desks which encouraged the coverage of science and environment as well as other beats such as health, education, arts, and culture.
Increasingly, there is a large pool of journalists and reporters in the continent who are committed to telling the science and environment story. Many of them work under difficult circumstances, often with little support from their newsrooms, but they are driven to improve the quality and quantity of environmental journalism.
One of them is Bernard Mwinzi, who today is the Managing Editor, Weekend Editions and Science and Health at the Daily Nation. A champion of science stories, he jumped at the opportunity to participate in the training workshop despite his knowledge and experience. He told me he believes that any journalist on this beat must keep sharpening their skills to better grasp – and communicate – the complexities of environmental degradation and climate change.
Indeed, more than ever, journalists of every kind – from early-career to experienced, from print to broadcast to radio – must be empowered with knowledge and connected with scientists and policymakers working to implement solutions to help the continent adapt and build resilience. Additionally, these journalists must be empowered to move away from the traditional approach that focuses on sensationalist or doom-ridden takes. Instead of following old tenets such as “when it bleeds it leads,” they must focus more on solutions, breaking down the science while maintaining human interest in their stories.
Our experience at EJN show that investing in journalists with funding and training pays. Take this piece by Ugandan reporter Alex Tumuhimbise, for example. His story on illegal sand mining in Kakumiro district was discussed in parliament and led to the ban of sand harvesting by the government. Our global network is now 14,000+ journalists-strong and counting, and like Tumuhimbise’s, many of their stories have demonstrated on-ground impacts on public policy and behavior. From where I stand, comparing the media environment in 2015 to today, that’s 14,000+ reasons to believe the future looks bright.
The Earth Journalism Network (EJN) is a global network that works with journalists and media outlets to improve the quantity and quality of environmental reporting. The EJN trains journalists, develops environmental news sites and produces content for local media.
Andrew Heslop, Executive Director of Press Freedom, World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), talked to UNEP’s Dr Richard Munang about some of the notable achievements that Africa must continue to build on as we march towards COP 27 in Egypt.
Dr Richard Munang is the Deputy Regional Director and the Africa Regional Climate Change Coordinator at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). He is responsible for guiding the implementation of UNEP’s climate-resilient development strategy at national and regional levels in a manner that ensures human wellbeing, through coordinating the implementation of diverse projects in adaptation and mitigation. Dr Munang has led research programmes and guided several publications to inform climate change and development policies at both global and regional levels. He has participated in a wide variety of research projects and has published over 500 articles in international peer-reviewed journals and magazines. He has won several awards, including UNEP’s highest recognition award, the Baobab Award for Programme Innovation.
Was COP26 beneficial to the continent of Africa? What can we expect from COP27?
“If you want to know the end, look at the beginning.” This African proverb aptly captures the parallels seen during COP 26 Glasgow last year [31 October–12 November 2021], as nearly 200 parties agreed to a compromise to keep the safe 1.5°C warming threshold within sight, just as they did seven years ago in adopting the Paris Agreement. The pragmatic optimism that pulled the globe together in 2015 to adopt the Paris Agreement was a good beginning that laid the foundation to finally iron out pending issues that prevented full, ambitious implementation of the agreement – which is what the Glasgow Climate Pact achieved six years later.
COP 26 registered some notable achievements, which Africa must build on as we march towards COP 27 in Egypt [7–18 November 2022]. It is time Africa owned and drove the conversations, stories, and resulting narratives around climate change on the continent.
For example, while the planet was on course to a dangerous 2.7°C warming going into Glasgow, new announcements made during the conference could see warming this century limited to 2.4°C, or as little as 1.8°C if other such “commitments” from the private sector are included. In addition, parties agreed to revisit their commitments, as necessary, by the end of 2022, to put the planet on track for the safe 1.5°C warmings. To put this in perspective, estimates before the Paris Agreement in 2014 took the world to 3.7°C of warming this century! So, in the very short period from 2014 to 2021, predicted warming this century has fallen from 3.7°C to as low as 2.4°C or even 1.8°C. That is a very significant change. The conference also agreed to phase down unabated coal and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, all practical steps towards achieving the safe warming thresholds. And all this is actuated in a manner that justly transitions economies to low emissions pathways.
Why is it important for Africa to transition to green development pathways? What role can the media play in supporting the transition?
Africa, however, holds the unenviable position of being disproportionately vulnerable. For a region that has contributed least to the changing climate, accounting for only 2–4%, Africa is already heating up twice as fast as the rest of the globe. By proportionality, the implication is that as the world crosses the safe target of 1.5°C, Africa could well be approaching catastrophic levels of 3°C. The implication is that the dire socio-economic consequences, where African economies already lose over $20 billion yearly – conservatively – because of climate change, will only escalate. It means the contraction of economic growth and the worsening of risks that are already at breaking point – be it the 257 million people experiencing hunger; the over 12 million young people who need jobs every year that remain disenfranchised through unemployment; or the up to 60 million children that are malnourished and costing the continent between 1.9% and 16% of its GDP. It means a slowdown of the COVID-19 recovery efforts. Africa was estimated to lose nearly 50% of all jobs, meaning dimmer prospects for the 7 to 8 million young people entering the labour market now.
Therefore, this disproportionality means that Glasgow’s successes, for example, may not have identical meaning and implications for Africa as they would for other regions worldwide. Hence the continent’s narratives and conversations need to be contextualised with people and media at the core.
Why is Africa facing a financial gap in tackling the climate change crisis? What role can the media play in bridging the gap?
While climate change is global, Africa is already a net sink. It is home to 17% of the global population but is responsible for less than 4% of global emissions. However, the region’s economies are currently the least productive – up to 20 times less productive than competitors in the global economy. This disproportionately low socio-economic base is the source of Africa’s disproportionate vulnerability. While climate change effects are global, the poor are disproportionately vulnerable because they lack the resources to afford alternative goods and services to buffer against the worst of climate changes. As a typical example, while other developed countries experience category five cyclones quite regularly, they do not experience the level of damage we see in Africa, as was the case during cyclones Idai and Kenneth, for example. A higher socio-economic base enables populations to be in a position to afford alternatives to mitigate their losses and risk, such as insurance. For example, it is reported that in Louisiana, one of the risk-prone areas in the USA that experiences hurricanes, home and business owners filed up to $10 billion in insurance claims for damage caused by hurricanes and tropical storms in 2020. By contrast, cyclones Idai and Kenneth caused a trail of losses, fatalities and damages exceeding $3 billion. There was no talk of insurance among the most vulnerable. Without the ability to afford alternatives, communities are constrained in their ability to respond effectively to escalating climate change risks.
Therefore, the implication is that efforts to address climate change in Africa must be those that unlock inclusive and accelerated socio-economic opportunities. The African media has its work cut out in ensuring relevant reporting that reflects these realities.
Another critical aspect is that, while calls for climate action are often directed at the government, it is high time to acknowledge that African governments have been leaders in policy. To cite some examples, Africa is the region leading the entire globe in ratifying commitments to tackle climate change, that are popularly called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), in line with the Paris Agreement. Accordingly, 52 out of 54 African countries have so far ratified their commitments. This is one of the highest ratification rates globally, if not the highest. As the process of submitting revised, updated, or second-round NDC commitments that started sometime last year continues, 42 African countries have submitted revised NDCs. This is once again one of the highest compliance rates of any region globally.
Furthermore, the African Union (AU) has a climate change strategy for countries across the continent to domesticate into local policy and legislation. At the regional level, regional economic commissions have their climate change policy frameworks, like the East African Climate Change Policy Framework for the East Africa region. At the national level, we have a number of African countries that have set up multiple dedicated climate change laws and policies – e.g. Mali with 26, Angola with 23, Senegal and Kenya each with 19, Zambia with 18, Nigeria and Morocco each with 16, Tanzania 15, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Mozambique each with 12, among many others, including at regional level, e.g. the East African Climate Change Policy Framework. Cumulatively, public spending on climate adaptation as a demonstration of government actions already covers up to 20% of current needs. As a proportion of GDP, this amount is estimated at 2%–9% of Africa’s GDP. It is high time we realise that just as it takes two to tango, implementing such policies calls for non-state actors to meet government policy efforts halfway. Non-state actors, including individual citizens, need to step up to the plate and start implementing policy provisions that are within reach, even as they generate empirical examples of areas that work to be an objective basis to call for more targeted policy incentives to expand on such successes.
The media narrative in Africa needs to underscore this dimension of “taking two to tango” as a core fabric of their messaging on climate change solutions in Africa.
What are critical steps needed to leverage Africa’s policy leadership to foster effective implementation?
Cumulatively, four key action areas are needed to take advantage of Africa’s policy leadership in driving impactful implementation, and these need to be the core priorities from now on.
First, the climate action narrative in Africa needs to divest from projecting liabilities and risks alone to projecting investment and socio-economic opportunities. This will work best if we embrace what I call “mitigation powering adaptation”. Across Africa, including the majority – up to 70% – of countries, climate commitments in NDCs front clean energy and agriculture as the leading priorities. Clean energy is the leading mitigation priority, while sustainable agriculture is the leading adaptation priority. What is needed is a change in narrative from presenting actions in these areas as socially driven, where returns are measured as social impact, to one where actions are premised as a financial investment – where returns are measured in financial dividends. For example, decentralising the climate action solution of solar dryers or solar cold storage solutions as a mitigation action to agro-value chain actors to cut their postharvest losses, where Africa faces up to $48 billion in losses, means not only a preservation of ecological resources that are otherwise expended in producing food that ends up lost, but also the creation of income opportunities. Solar dryers can increase crop yields’ shelf life, enhance market opportunities, and increase earnings by up to 30 times. This is just one dimension. Cumulatively, we can tap up to $48 billion in diverse income and enterprise opportunities when climate action is premised as a solution to such losses. Making this narrative the norm at all levels of decision-making is needed to have communities embrace these climate action solutions as an investment that will enhance their financial bottom line, rather than as social actions for consumption.
Second, convert NDCs and other policies into investments. It is estimated that up to 70% of Africa’s NDCs have not been translated into investments, demonstrating a return on investment in taking prioritised actions. This is a missed opportunity because implementation action needs input from both state and non-state actors, including the informal sector that constitutes up to 80% of the working population in Africa. The only way to tap investments from these constituencies is by presenting the clear financial return on investment that acting on the priorities presented will provide.
The third is skills retooling. The average national climate change literacy rate in Africa of 37% is much lower than in Europe and North America – where the average is 80%. This is to say that the majority are not aware of the opportunities that implementation presents. It is estimated that human capital is up to 15 times the value of natural capital and up to 4 times the value of manufactured capital. Africa’s most significant resource to drive implementation is an appropriately skilled and inspired population, capable of devising enterprises that turn climate challenges into income opportunities in implementing Africa’s climate priorities. The examples above are accessible clean energy solutions, like decentralised solar dryers to cut postharvest losses in agro-value chains – a 30 times increase in incomes – which translates to more resilient communities and economies. This is just one dimension. Higher-order actions of clean energy-powered cold storage solutions, logistics solutions in the form of clean transport to close market gaps, etc., will all result in more opportunities. But we need to get the right skills, mindsets, motivations, and passions among the population – especially the youth, who form over 60% of Africa’s population – to get this human capital dividend.
Fourth is data for policy. Data of what has proven to work at the ground level is critical to inform targeted policy, to ensure that incentives are targeted at actions and actors that have proven most impactful. This active feedback loop of what has been empirically proven to work is critical to ensure incentives are targeted at upscaling proven success stories.
Missing the above paradigm shifts might mean more of the same disproportionate vulnerability for Africa. The media has its work cut out – as the voice of the voiceless – in driving these value-added narratives and holding all to implementation accountability.
The Congo Basin forest is the second largest rainforest in the world. A source of food for more than 60 million people, this basin, a home to a rich and diverse biodiversity, is unfortunately threatened by logging, mining, agriculture, poaching, land grabbing, and many other extractivist activities.
Given this context, and considering that environmental issues have become a global priority, the African media, similar to its peers in other regions, has understood that it has an important role to play in the fight against climate change and environmental destruction. To demonstrate this growing interest, several media integrate and schedule content in their programs that regularly deals with environmental themes.
The African media has understood that it has an important role to play in the fight against climate change and environmental destruction.
This surge of awareness is spreading in many editorial offices where we find more environmental journalists prioritizing and covering topics related to the forestry sector, ranging from deforestation, exploitation of natural resources or pollution, and even topics considered sensitive. And to reach a larger number of people, environmental information is now being translated into local African languages and distributed widely across the region.
However, some issues remain. Environmental journalists have difficulty accessing data and quality information, and the same applies to official sources and even experts in the field. Moreover, the lack of financial resources that is typical of several media in the sub-region does not facilitate the work of environmental journalists. When they are supported by an institution to conduct their field research, they are called upon to meet that institution’s requirements and directives. This compromises their independence and objectivity.
This is where initiatives that finance environmental journalistic productions shine. Among these initiatives is the Rainforest Journalism Fund, an initiative implemented by the Pulitzer Center and funded by NICFI, which provides grants to journalists who seek to report on underreported topics or angles concerning rainforest issues.
As many journalists are not familiar with this opportunity, the Pulitzer Center, through the RJF, regularly organizes online and face-to-face capacity building and refresher sessions. Supported projects benefit from coaching and support from the coordination and advisory committee guidance.
Convergence of environmental issues
The different countries of the Congo Basin are facing the same realities and problems – they also share solutions. RJF encourages journalists to collaborate on converging themes. This collaboration allows them to investigate deep-seated social issues, go into the field, elevate the voices of forest stakeholders, and verify the accuracy of facts, figures, and assertions about certain forestry issues, such as deforestation, illegal mining, land grabbing, and the environmental consequences of industrial activities.
Circumventing the risk to the environmental journalist
In-depth research on issues that affect the major interests of corporations, governments or influential people puts environmental journalists at risk and at the same time exposes them to potential corruption. To deal with this, journalists should be trained in how to stay safe in the field.
Investigating in a collaborative approach not only makes an impact but also reduces intimidation and pressure. Recognizing the importance of safety requirements in place, the Pulitzer Center organizes training sessions for its beneficiaries in order to equip and prepare them.
Professional journalists must elevate the level of their knowledge about the sector and find the right, simple words to explain issues to the wider public.
The future of environmental journalism in the Congo Basin
The future of environmental journalism relies on journalists and media, who must become more aware than ever of the role they are called upon to play in keeping institutions and policymakers accountable for their responsibilities, raising public awareness of environmental issues, alerting the public to threats, and promoting resilience solutions. To fully play their role, professional journalists must elevate the level of their knowledge about the sector and find the right, simple words to explain issues to the wider public. To improve their investigative work, they should use the available open data, data journalism and geo-journalism. Journalists will have to think about digitizing their data collection and media productions, using dynamic and interactive data visualization tools. The ecological journalists of the future should specialize in the sector.
And to get there, Pulitzer Center remains a major ally for journalists. The Pulitzer Center raises awareness of underreported global issues through direct support for quality journalism and a unique program of education and public outreach.
Image credit: The village of Nkala, DRCongo. Image by Peter Yeung/Los Angeles Times. Congo, 2020
Climate change is a reality in Africa. The continent remains especially vulnerable to its consequences despite its low contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Today, climate change-induced drought ravaging Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia has more than doubled the number of people on the verge of starvation since last year, from 10 million to 23 million according to the United Nations. The State of Climate in Africa Report 2020 emphasizes that Africa is warming more and at a faster rate than the global average. The human and economic toll has been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The reality of the crisis has driven media attention in Africa, with climate change and environmental issues starting to receive more media coverage. Climate change has made it to many front pages over the last few years.
While African journalists are increasingly taking an interest in environmental journalism and climate reporting, they remain dogged by myriad challenges that limit their reporting capabilities.
Getting meaningful and localised climate science information for specific localities is a challenge, yet communities and local audiences are interested in knowing how the climate is changing and the effects this has at the local level.
Making the scientific jargon and concepts understandable and simplified for the common African remains a big problem for journalists. Although the kind of climate reporting has changed over the last decade from reactive to in-depth analysis, the language and tone of reportage hasn’t changed much. It is common to find articles in the media where reporters will mention one scientific concept after another without taking time to break these down. This, to some extent, has had ripple effects on the population. According to a 2019 report from Afrobarometer, four in 10 Africans said they were unfamiliar with the concept of climate change.
Journalists also lack specialized training on how to report on climate and environmental issues. While many young journalists are interested in covering climate change, they lack the skills, knowledge and techniques on how to cover the topic. Some media organizations and nonprofits offer specialized training but these are few and require journalists to have a certain level of experience to be considered. Yet journalists need the training to better understand the link between the environment and human life, in order to be able to break down these concepts for their readers. African journalists also tend to have less access to opportunities than reporters in the Global North.
A lack of resources and funding to cover climate change issues is also a problem. While media houses are interested in the topic, few have designated budgets for environmental coverage which makes it hard for reporters to cover these issues. Editors tend to give priority to the politics of the day compared to environmental issues. Resources where journalists can apply and get funding for these stories are increasingly available but remain competitive. This is why it is also hard for local journalists to attend and access climate conferences like COPs.
Identifying and finding experts on environmental topics is equally a challenge, especially for journalists without a good database of sources. Finding information and experts – especially women experts — in the environmental and sciences fields, in particular, can be a tall order. Journalists have to make conscious efforts to seek out female experts for more balanced gender stories.
Journalists’ security also remains an issue when it comes to covering environmental issues. Some environmental stories are political and involve influential political figures, which makes reporting about them dangerous for journalists, who can be targeted and potentially have their lives put at risk. Safety and security for journalists therefore may prevent coverage of certain environmental issues.
There is limited access to information, especially from government sources on environment issues. Emails and information requests to governments at times will go for months without response. This has been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which in turn delays articles. At times, government officials deliberately withhold information from journalists.
Every journalist in Africa should be a climate journalist so that they incorporate climate and environmental sustainability into their beats.
However, amidst all these challenges, journalists have an important role to play in the climate change discourse. Local journalists are particularly well placed to cover climate change from a local perspective because they have lived the experiences and understand local issues better. Every journalist in Africa should be a climate journalist so that they incorporate climate and environmental sustainability into their beats. Amplifying local voices and giving a voice to those most vulnerable to climate change is important as these often poor communities are most at risk, yet their views generally go unreported in the global coverage of climate change.
Whilst Africa’s leaders gathered inside the conference room of COP 26 it was Vanessa Nkate, a 25 year-old climate activist from Uganda, who captured the world’s attention. Wrapped up in a trenchcoat and black wooly gloves to fend off the Glasgow cold, she spoke out to thousands of cheering protestors. “Another world is necessary; another world is possible … let us have faith in the future” she urged whilst describing the climate crisis that her fellow Ugandans faced back home. Vanessa’s story challenges narratives of Africans as helpless victims and can inform constructive climate coverage of the continent. Constructive reporting is journalism which clearly outlines the significant challenges Africa faces, but also points to local action and possible solutions for a sustainable and equitable future.
Constructive Institute is a centre set up to support journalists and news organisations around the world in implementing constructive journalism. In March this year, we partnered with the Danish Embassy in Nairobi and the Kenya Editors Guild and I developed a series of meetings in Nairobi to explore the possibilities, limitations and use cases of constructive journalism in East Africa. We gathered some of the region’s news industry leaders and innovators to discuss whether it could be a useful approach for local newsrooms when covering important and intertwined issues such as climate change.
Thirteen percent of the news was focused specifically on political violence, civil unrest and armed conflict.
So how does the African media cover Africa and climate change currently? Africa No Filter, an organisation set up to counter harmful and stereotypical narratives about the continent, looked into these questions. They found that local media falls into many of the same pitfalls as international news organisations when reporting on their continent, with 81% of the stories analyzed classified as “hard news” – for example conflicts and crises driven by events and largely political in nature. Thirteen percent of the news was focused specifically on political violence, civil unrest and armed conflict. In a subsequent report they discovered that conversations around climate change in Africa were not led by Africans but by international organisations with “disaster tweets” dominating rather than discussions around mitigation or policies.
This is a problem because climate change in Africa is a big story. The whole vast continent of Africa contributes less than 4% of global emissions, in comparison to China, the world’s biggest emitter, which contributes nearly 30% of the global total. Despite this, Africa will be one of the regions most affected by climate change and its environmental impacts. The State Of Climate in Africa report, last published in 2020, showed that it is not just the beautiful East African glaciers of Mt Kenya, Mt Kilimanjaro and the Rwenzori mountains that could be lost. Africa has warmed faster than the global average and unless action is taken it is estimated that 118 million of the poorest people will be facing droughts, floods and extreme heat.