I learned in early September from a close friend and good Catholic that Pope Francis would release an addendum to Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home. That historic and landmark encyclical on the defense of the planet, excoriated the greed, consumption and bad policy decisions that were driving climate change and damaging “God’s creation.” I knew immediately that I would be returning to a favorite beat of mine, the intersection of faith and climate action. With Laudate Deum, just 13 pages (compared to 180 pages in Laudato Si), Francis emerges again as perhaps the strongest, most authoritative voice in the world for aggressive environmental protection while unsparingly identifying those who are standing in the way.
This story here reports the breaking news from the document, release October 4 by the Vatican on the Catholic feast day of St. Francis, the pope’s nature-loving namesake. I will follow soon with an in-depth global reaction to Laudate Deum and an analysis of how faith leaders are — and are not — meeting the pope’s challenge to protect natural places, reduce consumption and pushback against political leaders who seek to enrich themselves and their allies at the expense of their communities, the poor and the planet itself.
From Laudate Deum, the pope writes: “Eight years have passed since I published the Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, when I wanted to share with all of you, my brothers and sisters of our suffering planet, my heartfelt concerns about the care of our common home. Yet, with the passage of time, I have realized that our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point.”
This story about the 20th anniversary meeting of a pioneering tropical research coalition came about for two reasons: 1) my first grandchild, Simon Catanoso, made his entrance into the world more an a week before his due date, thus opening the way for me to head to Peru, and 2) the 10th anniversary of the Andes Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group (ABERG) was the start of a new journalistic career path for me — climate change and climate policy — that ultimately led me to Mongabay.
A Spanish language version of the story, published on Mongabay LATAM, is here.
Since my first trip to Peru in 2013 at the insistence of my Wake ForestUniversity colleague and collaborator Miles Silman, a top tropical ecologist and co-founder of ABERG, I’ve returned nearly a dozen times. Once to cover COP20 in 2014, the UN climate summit that set the stage for the 2015 Paris Agreement, which I covered for Mongabay, with funding support from the The Andrew Sabin Family Center for Environment and Sustainability at Wake Forest. Later, I returned multiple times as a communications consultant from Wake Forest for an influential NGO, CINCIA in Puerto Maldonado, founded in part by Miles with grants from USAID and World Wildlife Fund. In 2018, Miles and I developed a four-week summer program in tropical ecology and science writing and have brought four groups of Wake Forest students to the Amazon since then. Wake Forest featured our program online and in print.
Along the way, I’ve climbed a learning curve in climate science, forest and ecosystem mechanics, and biodiversity necessity that has enabled a late-career pivot to environmental journalism, mostly for Mongabay, that I simply could not have imagined when I left newspaper journalism in 2011. I am beyond grateful to Miles and host of environmental scientists, NGOs and forest campaigners over the past decade for assisting me in my immersion into covering parts of the most important story on earth, bar none — the existential threat to human life on earth wrought by human-induced climate change.
At ABERG10, held in the Andean village of Pisac, not from from Cuzco, I knew so little I was reluctant to interview the top tropical ecologists from around the world who gathered for that meeting, even though I was the only journalist there. Still, my coverage of ABERG10 was published in National Geograpic Online, as well as radio stories in WUNC and WFDD in North Carolina.
Ten years later, at ABERG20, many of those same scientists have become trusted sources, the issues they discussed and findings they presented are now familiar, and the context of complexity in their data gathering is something I’ve witnessed myself many times. The lead investigators and graduate students who make up ABERG are contributing to one of the most unique and vital longitudinal research projects in the global tropics across a range of topics.
My goal with the story here was to capture the essence of ABERG, its amazing transect, and its overlapping studies while highlighting a few of the scientists whose devotion to understanding the impact of warming temperatures on a warm and globally vital ecosystem remains strong and growing stronger.
ABERG’s study field for more than 20 years, off in the distance. My photo from 2013.
In my story, I describe the unique transect that Miles planned and oversaw the installation of starting in 2003 — more than 20 1-hectare plots on a single slope of the Andes stretching down from 12,000 feet to lowlands near sea level. This 2013 photo of mine accurately captures the ruggedness of each plot. What you can’t see is just how difficult these plots are to access, located as they are on a single, rough trail carved by Incans more than 500 years ago and used only by scientists and cocoa smugglers.
What the meticulous work of evaluating the impact of climate change on 1255 tree species along the transect looks like. My photo from 2013.
Miles Silman, ABERG co-founder and architect of the elevational gradient/transect, organized ABERG20 and opened the conference with a brief history of the group’s origins and aspirations. My photo from June 2023.
In preparation for covering my seventh United Nations climate summit, I spoke at length with my editors Glenn Scherer and Willie Shubert about the stories on which I should be focused — especially the first story that sets the scene for COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. Here’s the story. Here’s how we arrived at it: given the amount of reporting I’ve done on deforestation in both tropical and boreal forests, I looked into how the land sector was holding up as a natural sponge for greenhouse gases, which slow the rate of global warming.
In doing so, I was reminded of a scientist I met in Bonn, Germany, at COP23, Bronson Griscom, who had just published a landmark study in PNAS about how “nature-based solutions,” if enhanced, could significantly boost carbon sequestration, which when coupled with dramatically reduced usage of fossil fuels for energy and heat, could help nations meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement to hold temperature rise to 1.5 degree C from pre-industrial times.
Four year later, it turns out (spoiler alert) we can no longer take for granted that nature will provide the natural buffer she’s been providing in a range of ecosystem services. We agreed that that should be my COP26 opener, especially as it related to Article 5 of the Paris Agreement, which in the first time in an international agreement, called for the protection and enhancements of forests as carbon sinks and reservoirs. I was fortunate to, among other scientists, interview Griscom for the story.
This story here came to me in November as a tip from a source in Scotland who is familiar with my reporting on the growth of the biomass industry for energy production. This one has a new twist in that it doesn’t focus on wood pellets for energy, but rather soy for biofuels — in a part of the world rarely discussed but critical in size and scope for biodiversity protection and climate change mitigation — French Guiana.
With lots of research reports, government documents and exceptional sources in both Paris and Cayenne, French Guiana, the story started to take shape. With a population of just 300,000 almost entirely along it’s northern coast, French Guiana is in need of expanding and upgrading its energy system from diesel-powered plants to renewables. The problem, however, is the France wants the department to grow its own soy — the most common source for biofuel — to power five new energy stations. To grow enough soy would require a staggering amount of Amazon jungle to be clearcut — by one estimate, an area three times the square miles of New York City.
My story details what’s at stake with this unusual proposed policy change for a country and president, Emmanuel Macron, recognized for their sensitivity to climate action and ecosystem protections. Activists in French Guiana are mobilizing to stop the policy proposals, preserve their densely forested department (which is the size of Indiana) and promote true renewable energy sources like expanded wind and solar installations.
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.
This broad-leafed plant in the rubiaceae, or coffee, family was spotted at 8,000 feet elevation in the Amazon basin of the Peruvian Andes. Such species are not normally seen at such high elevations. Photograph by Justin Catanoso
Excerpt: “As I learned in my reporting last summer, (2013) in temperate or cold climates, trees and plants are adapted to wide temperature ranges and can migrate to latitudes for many miles north to stay in their ecological comfort zones. In the tropics, where most of the world’s biodiversity exists, trees and plants live in extremely narrow temperature ranges. To survive, they will need to reproduce in higher altitudes where space is far more limited and upslope soils might not be accommodating – hence the possible threat to coffee growing in the future.”
The view from 13,000 feet in Manu National Park, Andes Mountains, southeastern Peru.
This radio report (7:17 minutes) for WUNC-North Carolina Public Radio overviews my climate change reporting in summer 2013 from the Amazon basin of Peru. It discusses the implications of upslope tree migration in the Amazon jungles as a result of warming temperatures.
The second recording (12 minutes) is of Wake Forest biologist MIles Silman and me on the afternoon news program at WUNC, The State of Things, with Frank Stasio, discussing the same topic.
Wake Forest biologist Miles Silman in the Peruvian cloud forest.
Tropical plants are migrating due to climate change, but can they move fast enough?
Tropical biologists are coming to understand the impact of of global warming on our warmest climates. Given the enormous importance of tropical forests in places such as the Amazon basin of Peru, where I spent more than two weeks in July 2013, to influence weather patterns, the water cycle and carbon storage from greenhouse-gas emissions, there is much at stake. My story here on National Geographic News explains.