On February 12, 2020, with a letter to “all persons of good will,” Pope Francis sought to reclaim the mantle of global environmental leadership he established in mid-2015. That’s when he the released of the first-ever papal encyclical (Catholic teaching document of the highest order) on environmental protection and climate change — Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home.
My story for Mongay here picks up that thread with Dear Amazon, a papal letter in response to the first-ever Vatican meeting in October 2019 to focus on a specific region of the planet — Amazonia. While topics at the so-called synod focused largely on environmental protection and the rights of the indigenous peoples who live in those jungles, the mainstream coverage of Francis’ letter focused almost solely on his decision to not allow priests to marry who agree to serve in the dramatically underserved Amazon regions spread across eight countries.
This left an opening for me to write a kind of exclusive about the pope’s environmental and social justice message, which makes up the vast majority of Dear Amazon. The story idea was pitched to me by my inimitable editor Glenn Scherer. I was glad for the opportunity.
I am fortunate to have a good friend working as a producer in Los Angeles on the popular noon public radio program called Press Play with Madeleine Brand on KCRW. I had worked with this talented producer previously when covering the last two UN climate summits in Poland and Spain. Recently, my friend accepted first pitch based on my story for Mongabay about Pachama, the Silicon Valley startup that will monitor the carbon offsets Microsoft to preserve forests in forests in North and South America.
The eight-minute interview is linked here. Press Play reaches much of Southern California. I hope it’s not my last time on the program.
Here’s my storybehind a Silicon Valley startup up with enormous ambitions when it comes to climate mitigation with a global client to match its lofty goals.
In mid-January, Microsoft made an astonishing pledge: a company that now emits 16 metric tons of greenhouse gases annually would become carbon negative by 2030, and by 2050, zero out all of the emissions it ever put up into the atmosphere since the company was founded by Bill Gates and Paul Allen in 1975.
Much of this effort would require “negative emissions,” or pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, not merely reducing its emissions from energy, transportation and infrastructure over its 12-country footprint. To do that, Microsoft will have to be heavily involved in protecting forests from deforestation to continue to act as a carbon sink, and contribute significantly to the reforestation of vast tracts of degraded land in order to pull more pollution from the sky.
My story focuses on the company, Pachama (Andean for Earth mother) that will do the high-tech aerial monitoring to verify that Microsoft’s carbon offset investments are intact and growing. It’s a critically important job if we are to get an accurate read on whether Microsoft, and others, are truly reducing their carbon footprint. I rarely get to write optimistic stories on climate mitigation, but this one certainly qualifies. It was a pleasure to interview the company’s smart and idealistic founder, Diego Saez-Gil.
The producers of The State of Things, the hour-long radio program of WUNC, invited me on the program on Jan. 14, 2020, to discuss the wood pellet series I co-authored with Saul Elbein and Richard Stradling for the News & Observer of Raleigh. Here is the link to my 10-minute discussion with host Frank Stasio. The program was broadcast from Triad Stage in Greensboro before an audience of about 50 people.
The series has drawn a lot of attention — positive and critical. Saul and I have also come under what appears to be a coordinated attack on our reporting and professional integrity by the pellet industry, including the CEO of Enviva in a commentary he wrote for the N&O. It is all validation of the accuracy and importance of our reporting on an issue central to climate change and climate mitigation. We are both proud of how the N&O editors and Pulitzer Center have stood behind us, our reporting and the fairness and accuracy of the wood pellets project. Funding from the Pulitzer Center made our reporting possible.
In April, Jon Sawyer, executive director of the Pulitzer Center, called me to offer an opportunity: the center had received a substantial grant to support local newspaper journalism. He wanted to know if I had a story or project in mind that would be valuable to a publication in North Carolina.
I briefly told Jon about the stories I had been writing for Mongabay for well over a year regarding the growing use of wood pellets in coal-fired energy plants in the United Kingdom and the European Union, the loophole in carbon accounting policy that allowed these enormous emissions to go uncounted (thus threatening to undermine the goal of the Paris Agreement), and to his interest, that the majority of these wood pellets were coming from North Carolina forests — millions of tons per year. Morever, the vast majority of North Carolinians, including legislators and policymakers, know nothing about the industry or its impact. Jon was interested and connected me with a Pulitzer grantee, Saul Elbein, who had published a deeply reported story for Vox.com on this issue of wood pellets.
Saul and I talked, agreed to team up, and developed a Pulitzer proposal that was readily approved; Pulitzer’s support was invaluable. I then reached out to John Dresher, the former News & Observer of Raleigh editor and acquaintance now at The Washington Post. He generously connected me to N&O managing editor Jane Elizabeth, who also, after careful consideration and plenty of questions, gave Saul and me the green light to get started.
It’s important to note that Enviva Biomass, the world’s largest maker of wood pellets with four of its eight plants in North Carolina, was not happy when it learned that Saul and I were working on this project. The multi-billion-dollar public company hired a crisis PR manager in Seattle who tried to talk Jane Elizabeth out of working with Saul and me; he tried to undermine our professional credibility based on our previous reporting on the issue, and he vowed that no one at Enviva would cooperate with us (none did). Since publication, Saul and I have been attacked by name on an industry-sponsored web site, and in an op-ed by Enviva’s CEO.
Not surprisingly, the N&O, still one of the Southeast’s most prestigious and influential news organizations, stood by Saul and me and the story we proposed. It assigned an experienced staff writer, Richard Stradling, to work with us, as well as an exceptional editor, Dave Hendrickson, to shepherd the ambitious and exhaustive six-month, multi-part, multimedia project to publication in print and online in early January 2020. Since the personal attacks online and in print, the N&O and Pulitzer Center have stood squarely behind my and Saul’s integrity and professionalism in fairly and accurately reporting on a highly controversial story.
Below are the links to the first-ever, indepth series by an independent news organization about an industry and international carbon-accounting policy that a broad consensus of international scientists, environmentalists and public health advocates has serious concerns about in regards to aiding and abetting the accelerating global calamities of climate change:
That’s not what hope looks like, is it? But those empty chairs, as soon as I saw them outside the main plenary hall at #COP25 in Madrid, I recognized a metaphor for this disturbing and deeply disappointing climate summit (story linked here).
Listen to Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, whom I interviewed after a panel discussion in which he participated:
“In the last 10 years following the climate talks, they have never been as bleak and disappointing as this conference. The science is staring us in the face and school children are taking to the streets in their millions, and yet at the global climate summit countries are blocking progress and watering down climate action. It’s disgraceful and politicians are simply not doing their job of protecting the planet.
“We need to see countries committing to new and improved climate plans next year. That regular review and ratchet mechanism was what made the Paris agreement an effective tool for reducing emissions, but countries are dragging their feet and they are putting us all in danger.”
My final story from my sixth climate summit details what happened and didn’t happen, and in the final section, explains why. It all comes down to leadership. And until the U.S. reengages in this process in a positive, not destructive way, hopes for the Paris Agreement coming close to achieving its climate mitigation goals will be remote.
This story linked here came about a bit on a lark. My new friends in the Italian press corps told me they were attending a late-afternoon press conference with leaders of the European Union and parliament. I decided to go, sat near the front, and tuned out the obligatory chatter about progress near the end of the summit (there was none). Instead, I had just one question and made sure the moderator called on me.
When he did, I mentioned that the top priority of the EU is about accuracy in carbon accounting, and yet it allows, as a matter of policy, for biomass (wood pellets) to be burned instead of called and being considered carbon neutral. As a result, biomass emissions, which studies have concluded pollute more than coal, are not counted by the nation burning them. So much for a commitment to accurate carbon accounting.
The two ministers paused before answering my question. More than 100 foreign journalists crowded the room. I thought they might ignore it. But they didn’t. And their answers surprised me enough, and the NGOs I ran it by, that I realized I had credible story to write on one of the high-profile issues I will continue to cover in this climate emergency saga.
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.