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.
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.
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.
I met the author behind the important research that makes up this story of mine during my first trip to the Peruvian Amazon in summer 2013. Richard Tito is a Quechua Indian who grew up poor and isolated in the remote Andean Mountains in the Amazon basin. We could not speak because his second language was Spanish, which I don’t speak, and he had no English.
But his determination to rise above any and all obstacles and become a biologist was apparent in the short time we spent together. I didn’t realize he was the author of this report until after I concluded its newsworthiness (as did my Mongabay.com editors). Richard is now Dr. Tito with a PhD from a reputable university in Brazil. His own story is as good as his research on the impact of rising temperatures on high-elevation tropical farming (shown above).
“I am a member of the local community and I know the study area, the local farmers and their rich traditional knowledge,” said Tito, who recently received his PhD from the Instituto de Biologia at the Universisdade Federal de Uberlandia in Brazil. “Because the population is skyrocketing, climate is changing and the impact on food production is a real threat, a real motivation for me in this research is to recommend effective management strategies.”
On Sept. 21, 2017, in Washington, D.C., I had the unique opportunity to interview one of the leaders of environmental protection in Latin America – Luis Murillo, the minister of the environment and sustainable development in the cabinet of President Juan Santos. Murillo was in DC that day for a ceremony sponsored by National Geographic honoring Santos for his aggressive action in doubling the amount of protected areas in his biodiverse country — from coral reefs to high-mountain rain forests — since taking office in 2010. My interview with Murillo preceded the event and was an exclusive for Mongabay. The story link is here.
In the weeks prior to my DC sojourn, I spent hours immersed in studying Colombian environmental politics, Santos’ environmental record, his controversial peace accord with the FARC that ended a 50-year civil war and earned him the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, and as much as I could about Murillo. Haley Weibel, a communications specialist with the Andes Amazon Fund in DC, was instrumental in providing key material for me to read. My good friend Enrique Ortiz, program director with the fund, provided critical insight about Santos, Murillo and the myriad challenges to their environmental legacy.
My time with Murillo was limited, so we wasted no time jumping into deep end of the issues I wanted to discuss. He was a pleasure to talk with. He spoke with great candor and insight, and never ducked when I asked him pointed questions. He knows what’s at stake in setting aside so much land in Colombia — land that just below the surface is rich with fossil fuels and precious metals. He made it clear that he believes his developing country has a moral obligation to not plunder these critical ecosystems for short-term economic gain. But he stressed that the world’s wealthiest nations should feel compelled to support Colombia financially so that it can actually protect and preserve all the land Santos has set aside for future generations. Extraction industrialists will only sit on the sidelines for so long. Deforestation in Colombia since the end of the civil war is already escalating. My interview with Murillo gets into such thorny issues and more. My thanks to Mongabay founder Rhett Butler for assigning me the story.