Late Thursday morning, November 16, 2017, at a packed announcement in the European Union meeting room at COP23, environmental ministers from Canada and the UK offered perhaps the most promising news to come out of the 23rd UN climate summit. They announced a coalition of 19 countries and two US states pledging to phase out all coal burning by 2030. My editor Glenn Scherer agreed that it was a good idea to close out my coverage from COP23 with a more upbeat story. That’s what this is (link here). The story closes with a wrap-up of the work left undone.
Mongabay has been covering the story of his enormous new finding of peatland in central Africa all year. Editor Morgan Erickson-Davis, who has been coordinating coverage, asked if I could get a follow-up story from COP23. With assistance from Dave McGlinchey, the communications director at Woods Hole Research Center, and Melanie Gade, a communications specialist with World Wildlife Fund, they both pointed me to the exact sources I needed. Morgan added in some insightful context.
Here’s the link to my live interview from Bonn and the venue of COP23 with host Frank Stasio of WUNC’s The State of Things, broadcast from Durham, North Carolina. This is the third time the program has had me on regarding my coverage of these UN climate summits — live from Paris in 2015, just before leaving for Marrakesh in 2016 and live from Bonn in 2017.
The tech folks in the media center found the only land line in the entire area, pulled it out of a broadcast studio and set it up on an empty room between two busy newsrooms. At 6:05 pm German time (12:05 pm back in North Carolina), Frank welcomed me to the program. We talked for just under 12 minutes. From what others tell me, it turned out pretty well. Special shout out to my friend Jill Drzewiecki, who listened to the live feed on her phone while commuting home after work in Rome, Italy.
This story, which I spent an entire day reporting — from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. — came from the newest member of the Mongabay editorial leadership team, Willie Shubert. An experienced environmental journalist, Willie wondered whether the ever-present clash between developed countries (G-20) and developing countries (G-77) was being exasperated by the United States’ fundamentally different role at COP23. Good question.
Initially, it wasn’t a story I was sure I could pull off. My sources tend to be scientists, environmentalists and NGOs, not national delegates and negotiators. But I told my editor, Glenn Scherer, I would get an early start and work it and see what I came up with. Dean Scott, Bloomberg BNA’s lead climate change reporter, offered some great perspective before I started my reporting and recommended several sources. I attended a press conference early that was exactly the premise of my story. I lucked into some mid-afternoon interviews with a former president of a Pacific island nation and a member of the Australian national government, and finally, I found Harjeet Singh, an insider with ActionAid of London, who helped me pull all the pieces together. I started writing around 10:30 p.m. and finished around 2:30 a.m. I got the story.
Mongabay reporter and editor Mike Gaworecki also handles the twice-monthly podcast for the news organization that began about a year ago. I made by third podcast appearance on November 15 from Bonn, Germany and the 23rd Climate Summit. By shear luck and good fortune, the podcast also includes a fascinating interview by Mongabay founder Rhett Butler with primate legend Jane Goodall (who is on the Mongabay board). Pretty good company to be in all around. The link to the podcast is here.
It’s not easy to impress my three grown daughters. But when I told them I was on the same podcast as this living legend, they were pleasantly surprised and glad to hear it.
Here’s the link to my story about one of the most widely covered events at COP23. There is a YouTube video in my story that shows the protesters in action.
This was one of the weirdest, most bizarre and completely out-of-touch panel discussions I’ve ever covered or attended. It may have been the strangest in COP history. It was a circus of the surreal, from the two West Coast governors who denounced Trump in the room right before the president’s panelists took their seats, to the young people who stopped the event cold for seven long minutes with a song they revised, to the panel’s not once uttering the word global warming in an event that stretched nearly two hours, to the hostile questions and lack of answers during the brief Q&A. Oh yeah, there were hundreds of protesters chanting outside the room the entire time, denouncing the US president for making the US the only nation on earth to announce its intention to withdraw from the historic Paris Agreement.
Here’s the link to my first story from COP23, which posted Monday Nov. 13, 2017.
I arrived in Bonn, Germany in a sleep-deprived fog on Friday Nov. 10, 2017 to prepare to cover my fourth consecutive UN climate summit, this one hosted by the Pacific Island nation of Fiji.
While that Friday was spent learning my way around the sprawling site — I walked five miles that never and never left the venue — Saturday was consumed with the rise of the US subnationals, a coalition of 15 states, 455 cities, 350 universities and 1700+ businesses.
Their central message: There is the United States and there is the Trump Administration. The latter does not speak for the former. Gov. Jerry Brown of California and former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, among others, stressed #WeAreStillIn — meaning, the equal to nearly half the US economy is still in the Paris Agreement, no matter what Trump says he intends to do. It was a stunning, blunt and blistering rebuke of a sitting president.
This is the first story of its kind I’ve written for Mongabay. I had already written a full story about the America’s pledge event, led by California Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. They pledged that an array of states, cities, universities, businesses and tribal nations had quickly formed a coalition after Trump announced June 1 his intention of pulling out of the Paris Agreement. Their goal — to keep the Obama administration’s carbon-reduction promises in the agreement.
There were so many so many compelling speakers, so many quotable comments that I could not get into the main story. So I put together a kind of photo essay with extended quotes that amplify and complement the main story. Read together, they tell a story all their own. My editor Glenn Scherer liked the idea and went with it. I’m glad he did.
I’m quite proud of this story for Mongabay, which for me represents a new part of the world, new ecosystems and new scientific sources with a news hook that sets up my coverage of my fourth United Nations Climate Summit — COP23 — in Bonn, Germany from Nov. 6-Nov. 17, 2017. Within a few days, it became hit the No. 2 spot on Mongabay’s Most Read stories list. Here’s how it came about:
When I met and began talking with Wake Forest biologist Michael Anderson in spring 2017 about his work in in the Serengeti of Tanzania, I realized there was this enormous ecosystem — savannas and grasslands — that I knew precious little about. I’ve had the good fortune, with the initial invitation of good friend and tropical ecologist Miles Silman (also of Wake Forest), of reporting from the cloud and rain forests in the Peruvian Amazon and from the Mesoamerican coral reef of Lighthouse Reef Atoll far off the coast of Belize. But savannas and grasslands, which cover more than 20 percent of the earth’s surface? I knew virtually nothing.
Getting into Tanzania proved too difficult on short notice, so Anderson recommended South Africa. He then put me in touch with a quartet of scientists at a top university in Johannesburg (Nelson Mandela got his law degree there), and three responded readily that they would be happy to meet with me and talk about their research in the bush. Through the help of London-based World Fixers, I was able to hire a videographer named Neil Bowen in Johannesburg to work as my fixer, helping to arrange interviews, plot logistics and make contacts near the world-famous Kruger National Park. When my good friend Bobby Amoroso agreed to join me as my photographer, we bought plane tickets for the 17-hour flight from Atlanta to Jo-burg and went on safari.
Over the course of 12 days, we observed, experienced and learned so much. I hadn’t expected to do a story on rhino poaching and the threat of species extinction in Kruger and the rest of the African continent. That story, which Mongabay posted in July, fell into our laps with the help of Bowen’s exceptional contacts. But this story here was my initial target: how do I understand the role of savannas and grasslands at two often conflicting levels — sequestering carbon in their soils and thus slowing the rate of global warming, and providing a home for the largest, most iconic animals left roaming the earth.
The essence of my story can be summed up in this quote from highly regarded researcher Bob Scholes (pictured with me below) when we met and spoke at a weekend event outside Jo-berg:
“If you want to keep global temperature rise under 2-degrees Celsius [1.8 degrees Fahrenheit; the Paris Agreement goal], then you need forests growing,” says biologist Bob Scholes, a systems ecologist at Witwatersrand University. “I love trees,” he adds. “But the fact is, for a lot of reasons, they are not always the answer.”
When two major and startling studies on climate change were released a few days apart — one by US scientists and the other by the World Meteorological Organization — I pitched my Mongabay Editor Glenn Scherer as news story tied to the Nov. 6 opening of COP23 in Bonn, Germany. He recommended get some outside comments and after a flurry of emails, I had compelling comments from sources at World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace and Corporate Accountability International. From the story, linked here:
Both reports undermine the Trump administration’s hostile denialist stance on climate action and take a toll on the international credibility of the United States, at least at the federal level, at a moment of escalating environmental crisis on land, air and sea.