Activists gather input from Cameroonians about the challenges and opportunities of climate change. PHOTO/ Younoussa Abbosouka/African Center for Advocacy
By SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
As the climate crisis intensifies and the global impacts of rising temperatures increase, climate journalists are faced with mounting pressure to both report facts accurately and convey the depth and scope of the communities affected. With researchers from the Global North dominating funding and garnering more media attention, reporters worldwide scramble to better represent scientists and stakeholders from affected regions.
A new Global South Climate Database could bolster efforts toward more accurate, equitable climate news coverage. The database connects journalists with experts from communities that are the most affected by climate change.
“These are experienced journalists, and they don’t need training in how to report. What they need are resources, access, and connections,” said Katherine Dunn, content editor of the Reuters Institute’s Oxford Climate Journalism Network (OCJN), which gathers feedback from climate journalists around the world. Such feedback varies somewhat by geography, with journalists’ issues articulating a North-South divide.
According to science news publication EOS, in the Global South, journalists reported frustrations over access to reliable climate data. For instance, Dunn said, “one journalist from Nepal was telling us how frustrating it is not to have access to good local climate data—despite the fact that the Himalayas are extremely important for the climate and stability of South Asia as a whole.” (At least one organization, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, is based in Nepal and provides access to climate data from agencies such as NASA and NOAA.) Another journalist from Nigeria reported difficulties finding Nigerian climate sources for a drought story. A third, from Burundi, waited months for basic weather data from the republic’s government.
Meanwhile, “Global North outlets tended to use nonlocal sources and miss nuances and subtleties, including when disasters were actually not necessarily tied to climate disasters but were a case of governments using climate as a way to brush over what local journalists recognized as poor planning and shoddy infrastructure,” Dunn explained.
Journalists in the Global North also reported struggles in finding local or regional experts for stories about the Global South. The local experts who were consulted were frequently underutilized, often only asked about issues pertaining to their home nations, even when they had broader expertise.
“There’s no reason a climate expert from the Global South…should be confined to only being quoted about their home country when their expertise may well be global energy systems or global carbon trading or another region entirely,” Dunn said, noting that because audiences tend to trust scientists more than politicians, access to local experts is especially important.
Recognizing an Array of Experts
The Global South Climate Database is the brainchild of Ayesha Tandon, a science journalist for Carbon Brief, a nonprofit website focusing on the science and policy of climate change. In 2021, Tandon penned a bleak demographic analysis of the gender and country of origin of scientists contributing to 100 highly cited climate studies from 2016 to 2020. Fewer than 1% of study authors were based in Africa, she reported, and fewer than 12% of lead authors were female. No studies had a first author from Africa or South America, whereas 90% had at least one author from Australia, the United Kingdom, or the United States.
“Basically, I found that women and scientists from the Global South are really underrepresented in highly cited climate science research,” Tandon said. Among prestigious journals, “the vast majority of authors were men from the Global North.”
Today, the publicly available Global South Climate Database “aims to ensure that journalists from all over the world can contact climate experts from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Pacific,” according to Carbon Brief. The climate experts include scientists, researchers, and advocates who study climate, policy, and energy throughout the Global South.
The database was created with support from OCJN (a think tank unrelated to the Reuters news organization), which provided funding for four Global South journalists—from Argentina, India, the Philippines, and South Africa—to compile lists of 50 scientists from across their regions. These initial lists were populated with an eye to geographic diversity, gender parity, career level, and expertise. After the lists were finalized, scientists were invited to submit their own listings to the database.
Soon, the scope of the database widened to include not only scientists but other experts, including Indigenous authorities and Traditional Knowledge holders, whose expertise is often excluded from academic circles. Today, any scientist or expert can submit their contact information. The Global South Climate Database team review submissions to ensure every scientist in the database exists, is in the Global South, and is directly involved in the study of climate change; they exclude activists.
Journalists welcome the database and hope it will continue to expand. “I am planning to use it for my journalistic pieces,” said climate and environmental journalist Aatreyee Dhar of northeast India. “But I see experts from marginalized communities missing from the list.…We need voices from people who are affected the most.” Too often, Dhar explained, upper-caste, male experts are treated as saviors while Indigenous Knowledge and lived experiences are ignored.
Elevating Global South Voices
The demographics of a 2021 “Hot List” of influential climate scientists also drew attention to the disparate influence of climate scientists from the Global North and South. This widely circulated list ranked scientists on the basis of peer-reviewed publications (as in Tandon’s analysis) as well as how often those papers and scientists are mentioned by the “lay press, social media, policy papers, and other outlets.”
“When Reuters put out that list of 1,000 best climate scientists, they had five from the whole continent of Africa, and four of them were white,” said Melba Newsome, an independent science journalist in Charlotte, N.C.
African people, whether scientists or community activists, are often patronized in traditional climate reporting, Newsome explained. “Even though they are the people who are most impacted, they aren’t treated as if they have any say in the matter.”
Younoussa Abbosouka, the Cameroon Oceans Campaigner with the Environmental Justice Foundation in Yaoundé, Cameroon, added his name to the database after hearing about it from a colleague returning from last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27).
Abbosouka said Cameroonian voices in the media are typically limited to government officials. Ignoring the voices of economically vulnerable coastal communities that are already working to address climate change—fishers in Cameroon have self-imposed restrictions to allow dwindling fish populations caused by climate change to rebound—can also mean ignoring on-the-ground innovations from these communities.
“They are the ones who are the most impacted, and they are the ones who have a solution to their problem,” Abbosouka explained.
This echoes what Newsome said she often sees in reporting on Africa: coverage portraying African people as victims, rather than sharing work done by African scientists and policymakers. “The African people are doing tremendous work on climate change,” she said, “particularly when it comes to adaptive measures, and there are many environmental activists who work for change, often at great risk to themselves.”
Global South Climate Database sources cover dozens of countries, as shown by this map from Carbon Brief. PHOTO/AYESHA TANDON/CARBON BRIEF
Newsome has already used the Global South Climate Database to find climate scientists in Africa with perspectives that take into account not only local impacts but the latest science.
“Making an Individual Effort Slightly Less Daunting”
In the time-strapped world of journalism, “you’re on a deadline. You call the people you’ve always called because you know they’re going to respond,” Newsome said. As media revenues decline, growing workloads and declining pay make it that much harder for journalists to dedicate time to develop relationships with researchers around the globe.
Tandon hopes the database offers time-starved reporters a way to quickly connect with experts in the Global South. Every expert in the searchable database speaks English, and each profile shows additional languages spoken, contact information, social media handles, and specific areas of expertise.
The Global South Climate Database launched virtually on 31 October 2022 and now features more than 850 experts from more than 100 nations. Of more than 70 languages spoken by listed experts, the most popular after English are Spanish, Hindi, French, Portuguese, and Urdu. Tandon found that a number of journalists (and sources like Abbosouka) learned of the resource and began using it during COP27.
The database isn’t just for journalists in the Global North; diverse sourcing is a global issue. “Just because I’m in the Global South doesn’t mean I know every expert in the region,” said science journalist Rishika Pardikar of Bangalore, India. “The mere fact that such a database exists is an acknowledgment of how pervasive the blind spot is.”
Journalists source what they see, according to Pardikar. That can mean reaching out to scientists who publish often or are already quoted by various media outlets. With publishing and research funding skewed to the Global North, the North-South imbalance is deeply ingrained.
An individual journalist’s efforts to find deeply sourced local or regional expertise aren’t enough to address such systemic bias, Pardikar said. “The problem of sidelined Global South expertise definitely needs spotlighting, but how do you resolve it with limitations of individual capacity?” she asked. “The database helps by making the individual effort slightly less daunting.”
“Scientific Results Will Always Reflect the Society They’re Produced In”
Pardikar’s dilemma was echoed by other journalists.
“A common theme [among journalists responding to the OCJN inquiry] was the struggle to find sources from neighboring countries, neighboring regions, and how difficult it was to just find local experts,” explained Diego Arguedas Ortiz, a climate change reporter and network manager who leads OCJN and collaborated with Tandon on the database. “But also how frustrating it was for [journalists’] sources in the Philippines, in Mexico, in Ghana, when they saw their topic of expertise in their regions being discussed by experts from Europe and the U.S.”
“Scientific results will always reflect the society they’re produced in, the cultural views of the person who’s producing them,” Tandon said. And that sociocultural baggage can obscure the communities most affected by those results. One study analyzing global climate research found a geographic imbalance, for example: Climate researchers tended to investigate the Global North nations where they lived, instead of the countries with the most severe impacts.
This bias toward the “seen” also influences the type of stories editors accept. Navroz Dubash, a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, a think tank in New Delhi, studies energy policy and the climate crisis. He said Global North media outlets, especially those in the United States, tend to avoid reporting on requests from the Global South that more developed nations cut energy consumption—a growing demand from nations that are still developing their infrastructure and can scarcely afford to limit energy use without stalling economic development.
“The database ideally should be used to get more voices in. But then secondly, there needs to be the patience to hear out those voices and follow some of the stories that they suggest rather than only reinforcing the stories that reporters come in with,” Dubash said.
Climate research from scientists who hail from the regions they study can offer broader, deeper, and more contextual reporting. “Scientists on the ground, scientists in the country where, for example, research is being conducted are going to have a more in-depth knowledge of the issue at hand. They’re going to be able to provide a more nuanced opinion,” Tandon added.
A Host of Resources Expands Media Coverage
The Global South Climate Database joins a host of resources established with the aim of expanding the range of expert sources in all types of media coverage. NPR launched a Diverse Sources Database. The organization 500 Women Scientists compiled a list of female and nonbinary experts. The Asian American Journalists Association created a list of Asian American and Pacific Islander journalists, scientists, and experts. Members of the organization 500 Queer Scientists have contributed to more than 1,700 published stories.
Among scientific specialties, new organizations boosting the visibility and professional success of minoritized professionals have also become resources for journalists. The nonprofit Black in AI, for instance, was founded to provide mentorship and a platform for collaboration among Black and African American researchers in artificial intelligence. The MacArthur Foundation granted Black in AI $300,000 in 2020, its third grant to the nonprofit. The success of Black in AI spurred the formation and growth of organizations like Queer in AI, Indigenous in AI, and Latinx in AI.
Even as finding sources becomes easier, identifying experts across continents and time zones remains a challenge for time-crunched journalists.
“A lot of it is just knowing how to find people and not waiting till the last moment to find sources,” Newsome said. “If you’re calling up somebody new, that’s going to take a while. You’re probably not going to be able to connect with them, get a quote, and all that within 30 minutes.”
Still, the Global South Climate Database is in its infancy, and momentum is growing.
In Cameroon, Abbosouka said he’s been contacted just once since adding his name to the database in November—for this article. But he hopes that the voices of economically disadvantaged northern Cameroonians, in particular, will make their way to the mainstream media in a way that acknowledges the complex relationship between local communities and government officials, giving voice not only to scientists but also fishers and farmers in the climate-stressed country.
Such an outcome would not only aid his own advocacy but help bring fresh cultural perspectives and scientific voices to the global conversation around climate change.
“These are larger inequalities and questions about what can make climate journalism better,” Dunn said. “Climate is a global issue, and there’s value for everyone to make clear that climate expertise at all levels is global, too.”