This story here is not one I thought I would have the opportunity to write. After 20 months of focusing much of my climate and climate policy reporting on burning wood pellets for energy, I wandered into a side event at the 25th United Nations climate summit featuring the CEO of Drax, the United Kingdom’s largest weed-pellet-burning power plant.
Not coincidentally, the moderator of the event told the audience packed into the UK pavilion that there would not be time for questions — before the program started, and even though it wrapped up five minutes early. In other words, he didn’t want to make any of his guests uncomfortable by having to take difficult questions about the scientific reality of burning wood instead of coal to generate electricity.
But as soon as the program ended, I walked over to the riser as the Drax CEO was preparing to leave, introduced myself and asked him if he had a few moments for questions. He did. He was candid, slightly defensive, and clearly proud of his company. I also was able to balance the CEO’s opinions and remarks with the knowledge and insight of one of the world’s top climate scientists on the issue of wood pellets and energy.
The result is one of the most compelling and dramatic stories I’ve written from the six UN climate summits I’ve covered since Lima, Peru, in 2014.
This story here, my third of ultimately five stories from COP25 in Madrid, Spain, was truly a team effort. It also illustrates the challenge and thrill of journalism — learning a new topic from scratch, finding just the right sources you’ve never met before, working with an editor in Indonesia and one in Vermont to put together a complex and nuanced environmental story about an ecologically sensitive part of the world (North Sumatra) with an rare and endangered great ape (Tapanuli orangutan).
Thanks to Isabel Esterman, Mongabay’s Indonesian editor, and Glenn Scherer, my editor at Mongabay, for putting me on to the story, then assisting prodigiously in putting all the pieces together about an Indonesian hydroelectric company, a dam-in-the-jungle project, the Tapanulis’ habitat and a serious question over carbon emissions.
For the fifth consecutive year, The State of Things, WUNC-91.5 FM, has hosted me live from whichever United Nations climate summit I was covering. Here’s a link to my discussion with SOT host Frank Stasio,recorded live on December 13, 2019.
After arriving at the cavernous venue on the outskirts of Madrid, Spain, on Friday, December 6 (happy birthday, Dad) for my first day at the 25th UN Climate Summit, I wondered around in a jet lag haze until I received my credentials, got my bearings, and figured out the venue’s layout. Then I contacted a reliable source and said, “I’m ready to get started.” And he was ready to brief me and put me in touch with the exact sources I needed — including one (Bill Moomaw of Tufts) who I’ve been eager to talk with for nearly two years.
The story, linked here, is a follow up to my pre-COP25 story of a week ago, only this one is far more detailed, and in many ways far more accurate and realistic. It simply doesn’t seem to matter to the delegates and leaders of the world’s largest economies that they alone hold the fate of the planet in their hands. And they are utterly failing.
When we were making our coverage plan for COP25 in Madrid, my longtime editor at Mongabay, Glenn Scherer, made an unusual request: “Try to find at least one upbeat story. The site is filled so such much gloomy news about the environment, we could use it.”
I had written about the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative in September 2019 and knew representatives from the group would be at the UN climate summit. Over breakfast with IRI’s program director in Peru, Laura Vargas, the idea slowly emerged as we spoke that she was exactly the story Glenn was requesting. Here’s the story. What a remarkable woman.
“IRI has given me a goal of defending life and nature on a global scale, and a deeper sense of purpose.”
In the run up to covering my sixth UN climate summit, my fifth for Mongabay, my editor Glenn Scherer and I decided on a tighter focus for the stories I’d pursue in Madrid — forests, forest policies and related issues like impacts on indigenous peoples.
My pre-COP story linked here focuses on the highest priority of this meeting — unfinished rule-writing business from COP24 in Katowice, Poland. Already controversy is brewing, expectations are low and the stakes are just as high as ever. Stay tuned.
For the fourth time in his papacy, Pope Francis has convened bishops in Rome for a synod, or special meeting. The one he called for Oct. 6-27, 2019, is the first one ever to focus on an ecological region — Amazonia. As my story for Mongabay details, Francis appears eager to reclaim the mantle of environmental leadership he staked out for himself in 2015 with the historic teaching document Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home.
This story in some ways connects to my last story — can religious leaders use their moral authority, and the strength of billions of followers, to pressure governments in places critical to the health of the planet to more urgently and forcefully protect the environment? So far, little has moved the leaders of the industrialized world to rise to the existential threat to human existence posed by the global warming already causing such damage with just 1.8 degrees F of warming. What happens when we get to the predicted 5 or 6 degrees F in the next 50 years?
At the close of the UN Climate Summit in December 2018 in Poland, United General Secretary Antonio Guterres was so discouraged by the lackluster outcome that he told world leaders that he would admonish them to increase their urgency and ambition for climate mitigation during Climate Week in New York City (Sept. 23-27, 2019).
Guterres is not alone. Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, in her inimitable way, has inspired millions of school-age children around the world to organize and rally to demand that world leaders treat global warming at the existential crisis that more and more scientists are finding it is.
Add to that an emerging group of faith leaders — the Interfaith Rainforest Iniative (IRI) — that aims to use its moral clout and power in numbers to pressure national leaders to enact policies to slow, reverse and stop deforestation in five tropical countries, as my latest Mongabay story describes.
This kind of religious political lobbying comes with challenges and obstacles, as I explain. But here’s the goal:
“This isn’t about churches planting trees,” said Joe Corcoran, IRI program manager with UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme. “We want to say clearly and definitively to world leaders: religious leaders take this issue of forests and climate very seriously, and they are going to be holding public officials accountable to make sure these issues are addressed.”
Because of widespread media attention over the past five years or more — who can resist a story that combines gold, organized crime, prostitution and environmental devastation of a pristine rain forest? — Madre de Dios in the southern Peruvian Amazon has become known worldwide as a kind of hell on earth.
But as my story for Mongbay explains, a lot can happen in a year. La Pampa, the worst but by no means only large-scale illegal mining operation, was raided and largely shut down by the national government in February 2019. And the previous month, Madre de Dios — a region about the size of South Carolina known as the most biodiverse place on earth — elected a governor who wasn’t a miner. Instead, Luis Hidalgo Okimura is intent on reducing mining, formalizing and taxing miners who remain, and rescuing his home region from further environmental destruction.
I got to interview Hidalgo with three of my students in his government conference room not far from our hotel in Puerto Maldonado. After an hour and a half, I knew I had the makings of a good story. Specials thanks to my colleague Cesar Ascorra, national director of CINCIA, for arranging the interview. CINCIA is a Wake Forest-led science project that has developed proven strategies to repair deforested tropical areas and mitigate the public health threat of 185 tons of mercury dumped a year in Madre de Dios.
It was also a pleasure to work again with Mongabay editor Morgan Erikson-Davis. She not only accepted my story pitch, she enhanced the story by both downloading and analyzing satellite images that showed expanding deforestation outside La Pampa.
I had been looking for an opportunity to write another story regarding woody biomass and the dubious United Nations policy that allows the accelerating pollution from burning those pellets for energy in the United Kingdom and across the European Union to be ignored in carbon accounting mandates. The opening came in mid-June when the UK announced plans to legislate that it would achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Many cheered the less-than ambitious goal; if serious greenhouse gas reductions aren’t achieved globally by 2030, the International Panel on Climate Change has warned, nature will not be forgiving as floods, heat waves, drought, sea-level rise, wildfires, ferocious storms, disease and dislocation morph from crisis to calamity.
This story in Mongabay, which my editor Glenn Scherer welcomed and enhanced, explains as clearly and fairly as I can the danger to the planet of implicitly encouraging deforestation to produce wood pellets to be burned for energy with no obligation to report those carbon emissions.