The High Stakes, High Risk Work of Covering Climate
Veteran reporter Janet Babin knew covering fieldwork in polar regions would take her outside of her comfort zone. She just didn’t realize quite how far. In fact, she
seemed surprised at her own grit as she related the story of her first field expedition to a polar region.
“I’m not exactly outdoorsy and when I told my friends I was going on this trip, their eyes would become like saucers and be like, ‘Really, are you sure you want to do this?’”
Babin was absolutely sure.
“This is a project I feel is important and I was going to find a way to tell it either way, ” said Babin. The multi-part radio series about her expedition was broadcast on Public Radio International (PRI)’s The World late last year.
During the summer of 2017, Babin spent seven days and six nights with a science team on the Greenland ice margin. She followed a team led by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory polar scientist Nicolás Young and University of Buffalo researcher Jason Briner into the wilds of Greenland, and worked side by side with them from the end of July to the beginning of August. Babin’s commitment to the story saw her through many an uncertain moment. She remained steady even when she read the list of warnings which included preparing for unlikely but still terrifying worst-case scenarios, from animal attacks, to catastrophic weather, to being stranded without emergency care.
“It was quite daunting,” she said. But despite widespread rumors that all reporters covering stories in polar-regions must first have their wisdom teeth, appendix, and tonsils removed, this is not true. The National Science Foundation’s Peter West says the agency only requires a good health report, because the nearest hospital is an eight-hour flight away — at the minimum. None of the risks threw Babin off course, but after a long first day of traversing the ice margin with the team, their camping habits gave her a jolt. The team’s practice is to pitch tents about a football field away from each other.
“I just remember saying ‘Wait a minute. Shouldn’t we all be close in case something happens?’” But the team assured her that after 12 or 13 hours of hiking together, she would be grateful for her privacy. Ultimately, she was.
“At the end of the day, all you really have the energy for is changing out of your dirt- and dust-covered clothing, contemplating the sun and drifting off to sleep. Though, for the first few nights, I was listening intently to sounds outside my tent — I thought every brush of the wind was an Arctic fox coming to check me out!”
The midnight sunlight enchanted her and the work itself fascinated and amazed her. It involved collecting sediment cores from the glacial lakes and from rock formations on the margin. Excavating cores from deep under lakes and land, she learned, enables them to capture a record of ancient climates. This way they can trace the Greenland ice sheet’s past, informing science about its possible future scenarios.
“They are looking at how the Greenland ice sheet could melt and how quickly it could melt and when it can melt. That sort of information and how that could make a difference in sea-level rise here in New York City and up and down the eastern seaboard and for the whole world is crucial. And the science is unfolding as we speak. Research is happening now that will be so important to all of our futures, so I thought there was a void and I wanted to fill it. “
Babin is, in many ways, filling a deep void with this reporting. She is an outlier because few reporters have the resources to pull off such coverage, as shrinking budgets constrict newsroom allocations for this kind of time and travel-intensive reporting.
“The limitation is around the opportunities. It is not a question of reporters interested and willing to go,” said Beth Parke, founding executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ). SEJ is dedicated to granting a small number of news operations salaries for climate reporters and also gifts a number of smaller “one-off” grants in support of expedition reporting. Parke said that for editors and journalists the desire to cover these stories is very high. However, the cost is prohibitive.
Even as potential angles on stories about global warming’s impact are multiplying — climate intersects with politics, global water and food security, economics, real estate values, agriculture, the fishing industry, tourism, civil wars — few newsrooms have a designated climate reporter on staff.
It’s difficult to estimate how many full-time climate reporters are working today. The NSF, the Society of Professional Journalists, SEJ, various editors, as well as the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, Climate Communication, and Media Matters all said their organizations haven’t been tracking the numbers but they wish to know. Anecdotal answers suggest there are perhaps 100 full-time climate reporters in newsrooms around the country and that there is a growing desire to add climate reporters but, with the upsurge in American political news dominating coverage and the ongoing news media budget cuts, many organizations must rely heavily on freelance writers to do the heavy lifting on climate. Babin was working freelance for PRI.
Freelance journalist John Wendle has made climate science field coverage a mission and a duty. He came to it after years of reporting on brutal, deadly conflicts, the fighting unfolding before his camera. He covered unrest in the former Soviet Union and Afghanistan for TIME and other major publications beginning in 2005.
“After five years in Afghanistan, I was really burnt out. There were a few very heavy things that happened to me or people I loved,” he said. These “heavy things” ranged from kidnappings and a bombing to brushes with snipers.
Wendle’s career pivoted towards the nexus of conflict and climate change in 2015, by way of a Lamont-Doherty research paper that drew wide media coverage and Wendle’s interest. The scientists’ research posited that the drought in Syria, which climate change contributed to, spurred social turbulence when it destroyed crops, killed livestock, and displaced as many as 1.5 million Syrian farmers. That displacement led to unrest, and, eventually, civil war. Wendle read about the study in National Geographic, Scientific American, and other mainstream science publications, but what stood out to Wendle was that the science was highlighted, but no one had talked to the farmers, and now refugees, to see if it was true. He pitched Scientific American with a plan to go to the Greek island of Lesbos, to catch refugee farmers in transit.
“When I got down there it was just awash in refugees,” he said. “My interviews backed up what the scientists at Columbia were saying.”
When Wendle realized his report had made a measurable difference to the discussion, he was hooked. “I felt I could put a human face on the science and really help people understand.” But he also noticed a frustrating similarity to his former beat.
“When I was doing conflict reporting I felt that nobody was listening, and I wasn’t making a difference. And that’s true of climate science reporting. There are definite parallels.… As the planet gets warmer, we’re ringing a bell and nobody is listening.”
Wendle recently covered a Lamont-Doherty expedition to the remote northeastern corner of Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole known for its rugged, remote terrain of glaciers and frozen tundra.
“I wasn’t quite aware of what I was getting into,” said Wendle. “We spent ten days sailing up the west and north coasts of Svalbard.” A rapid wind shift, he explained, could push the Arctic ice pack south, locking him and the crew on their sailboat into the fjord. “Without enough food — and it’s really not close enough to be reached by helicopter —there were serious risks there.”
The area is also known for polar bears. In fact, the Norwegian government has issued a decree requiring people who leave Svalbard’s population centers to have “a sufficiently powerful weapon at hand.” They caution, “Human fatalities have occurred in Svalbard when people have defended themselves against polar bears with weapons of insufficient caliber.”
Although Wendle’s group didn’t see any polar bears, “the day before we left, a[nother] scientist doing research had been attacked and mauled by a bear,” he said.
Despite the hazards that come with the job, Wendle thinks it’s worth it. “Personally, I think journalists need to pivot from covering conflict to covering climate change because this is the new war. It is happening before our eyes, but people need to learn about it. They need to be told.”
Editor’s note, 13 March 2019: This post was updated to clarify the low risk of polar bear attacks in the region Janet Babin visited.