What’s Ahead on Climate Justice, Climate Crisis Beat

January 24, 2024
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Months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, Anna Torres and her six-year-old son Yahel (above) found themselves still cleaning up after the storm in the coastal town of Loiza. Photo: Preston Keres/U.S. Department of Agriculture, via Flickr Creative Commons (Public Domain).

Voices of Environmental Justice: What’s Ahead on Climate Justice, Climate Crisis Beat

By Yessenia Funes

Brace yourselves: This year may be even hotter than the last. We can’t know for certain what’s in store for 2024, but every environmental and climate journalist should have a sense of what to expect at this point of the climate crisis.

Already, media outlets are forecasting the climate stories to keep our eyes on in the new year. At POLITICO, sustainability reporter Jordan Wolman is watching ongoing environmental, social and governance policies in the public and private sectors. For The New York Times climate correspondent David Gelles (may require subscription), the U.S. presidential election will be a major story.

As for me, well, I’m always considering the environmental needs of and impacts on Black, Brown, Indigenous and other groups of color. What stories will matter most to their communities in 2024? What projects may add further pollution to their neighborhoods? What solutions are they developing as leaders in the space?


Every journalist needs to cover

the climate and ecological crises

we face through a human rights lens.


There are a few issues I plan to monitor — from global climate migration to Indigenous efforts to reclaim land — but I wanted to hear from other experts in the field. I spoke to other journalists on the justice beat, as well as policy experts, to paint a clearer picture. One point quickly became clear throughout my conversations: Every journalist needs to cover the climate and ecological crises we face through a human rights lens.

Here are some story topics to keep in mind as you jump into 2024.


Israel’s ongoing military operations in Gaza

Since the Palestinian extremist group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, the Israeli government has responded brutally. Now, the world has a newfound understanding of the heartbreaking realities innocent Palestinian families face under the more than 75 years of conflict.

Environmental and climate journalists have a duty to cover this issue, said Nina Lakhani, the senior reporter for climate justice at The Guardian. “The environmental and climate impacts of the genocide go hand in hand,” she said.

For instance, Lakhani published a story on new research finding that the Israel-Hamas war has resulted in 281,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. The emissions can be tied to Israel’s developing and exploding of bombs, as well as the fuel required by fighter vehicles and aircraft. The analysis does not include greenhouse gases like methane, so researchers believe their findings may be an underestimate.

Stories around water, agriculture and the land’s military presence are ripe for environmental and climate coverage. Even if Israel ends its offensive tomorrow, Palestine will need further media attention to fully measure the gravity of what’s happened in the months since Hamas’ attack.


Extreme weather impacts and recovery

Last year saw the deadliest wildfire in history hit Lahaina in Maui, Hawaii. Lakhani urged fellow reporters to keep covering disasters beyond the immediate aftermath. For instance, she will be visiting Maui soon to assess the ongoing systemic issues locals have faced since the wildfires devastated their community in August.

“What we’re all guilty of is not following up on stories,” she said.

Alongside past events, 2024 is sure to see its own slate of disasters. At Capital B, a Black-led nonprofit media site, climate reporter Adam Mahoney is prioritizing extreme weather stories — “but more so the servicey angle of extreme weather in terms of making sure that folks are prepared and have the skills and knowledge to survive these instances,” he said.

Mahoney wants to ensure readers, especially those in the South, know what to do when power outages happen. In Puerto Rico, the monthslong loss of power after Hurricane Maria in 2017 was estimated (may require subscription) to be behind some 3,000 deaths that followed the disaster.


Mahoney is interested in

keeping track of this year’s

migration patterns following

extreme weather events.


Mahoney is also interested in keeping track of this year’s migration patterns following extreme weather events. If hurricane and wildfire seasons ramp up, communities will be on the move. He’s particularly invested in the migration of Black families and individuals who are trying to rebuild after disaster.

Already, 2024 has opened up with a deadly winter storm in the eastern United States. At least four people were killed, and many states experienced power outages, leaving some 800,000 homes and businesses in the dark.

That storm system left Julian Brave NoiseCat — a policy expert, writer and filmmaker whose first documentary, “Sugarcane”, will be premiering at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival — stuck in New York after a flight was cancelled.

He’s already thinking ahead to wildfire season. In the West, the winter has been alarmingly calm so far. Experts are calling it a “snow drought.” Brave NoiseCat worries this may signal an intense fire season given the lack of moisture and what may turn out to be an even hotter year than the last.

“The omnipresence of the climate and environmental crises is going to be increasingly felt by all sorts of people, particularly by Black, Brown, Indigenous, working and poor people,” he said.


Local impacts of the clean energy transition

To meet the climate challenge, governments across the globe will need to replace their fossil fuel energy sources with renewables. However, solar panels, windmills and electric vehicle batteries can leave their own toxic legacies if companies and regulators aren’t careful.

“Whenever mass-scale infrastructure needs to be built out, it usually comes at the expense of certain groups over others,” Mahoney said.

While Mahoney is focused on the impacts on U.S.-based Black communities, Jade Begay is a climate justice advocate who’s focused on Indigenous rights globally. As renewables expand, she’s curious how the media will guide conversations around critical minerals and the mining conflicts that are sure to accompany major clean energy projects.

“What do we do when this green revolution requires so much mining, and mining in places that are already vulnerable to climate change like Alaska and the Global South?” Begay asked. She anticipates that resistance and activism in these places will increase as projects grow. And Begay hopes more journalists will be watching alongside her to tell these nuanced stories.

The shift to renewables is inarguably a good and necessary thing — but how it happens is crucial for reporters to unpack and investigate. That part may not be so good. We can’t shy away from these hard truths.


U.S. presidential election

As much as I personally hate politics, there’s no ignoring how important this year’s election will be when considering the future of global climate policy. The United States sets the stage for everyone else.

Since President Joe Biden passed the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022, the administration has appeared to put climate and environmental justice issues in the backseat, Brave NoiseCat said. Biden didn’t attend last year’s international climate negotiations known as COP28.

“I just really wonder whether there is an electorate in 2024 that is concerned about the climate and environmental justice issues,” Brave NoiseCat said.


‘Where is the disconnect there

in the way that we are writing about

and talking about the climate

and what people care about?’

                           — Julian Brave NoiseCat


He recognizes the key role the media plays in making the climate crisis a priority among politicians and the public. “Where is the disconnect there in the way that we are writing about and talking about the climate and what people care about?” he said. “Where does the media fit into that very bizarre equation?”

Meanwhile, Begay hopes that the media is compelled to cover the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act, which will influence the clean energy transition in the United States and beyond. She hopes that journalists are motivated to write about the environmental successes of the Biden administration — and what could happen to that progress in vulnerable communities if another president enters office.

“We need to be really discerning and really diligent about how we are highlighting the climate success of the past four years,” she said.


Tips to spotlight environment, climate justice stories

There are always more stories, but the above topic areas are a good place to start. In the meantime, here are a few other quick tips to ensure environmental and climate justice take a front seat in 2024:

  • Report on the ground as much as possible. These reporting trips allow us to identify local stories that have national resonance.
  • Follow up. In the justice world, the most severe impacts sometimes come months or years after the major event — be it an extreme weather event or a government corruption scandal.
  • Pay attention to regions and groups others ignore. The Midwest may be an interesting place to watch this year. What demographics didn’t you interview enough last year?
  • Center local advocates, policy experts and organizers in your stories as experts — not social media influencers and communicators.

[Editor’s Note: For more on environmental and climate justice reporting, check out our Topic on the Beat: Environmental Justice page, which links to more than two dozen SEJournal stories and environmental justice headlines from EJToday.]

Yessenia Funes is an environmental journalist who has covered the justice beat for nearly a decade. She publishes a creative climate newsletter called Possibilities. Funes has written for publications like Atmos, Vogue, The Guardian, Earther, HuffPost and more. Her approach to storytelling amplifies the voices of those on the frontline of our present-day ecological crises. Her reporting has taken her to remote Indigenous communities in Nicaragua, the hostile desert of the American Southwest and post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 4. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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