Interviewing Luis Murillo, Colombia’s minister of the environment, at the headquarters of National Geographic. Photo by Enrique Ortiz, Andes Amazon Fund
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.
The stunning and disastrous election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president has sent shock waves through the 22nd United Nations Climate Summit in Marrakesh. Mongabay thought my story here was important enough that they had it translated into seven languages — a first. That happens when a purposely ignorant climate denier follows the first president, Barack Obama, to ever make climate change policy a major part of his legacy.
I arrive on Nov. 11, 2016 to cover my third consecutive UN Climate Summit, COP22, this one in Marrakesh, Morocco. Today, Nov. 8, 2016 — Election Day in the U.S. — I was interviewed on WUNC’s The State of Things of the significance of this summit and what’s at stake. The recording of my conversation with host Frank Stasio is here. Thanks to Anita Rao for her excellent preparation and production.
The reality of illegal gold mining: total environmental devastation in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by Rhett Butler of Mongabay.com
In the waning days of President Ollanta Humala’s administration in July 2016, Peru’s National Congress approved a set of innovative climate change-related policies designed to reduce deforestation, protect watersheds and biodiversity, and provide the tools needed to leverage international investment through UN programs such as REDD+ and the Green Climate Fund.
But a new administration has taken over and lawlessness is often the rule in the Amazon basin. My story for Mongabay.com looks at the new policies and the challenges for implementation. First time with with Mongabay editor Morgan Erickson-Davis, who did a great job with my story.
This story for Mongabay.com, one of two that got posted from Bonn, complements the previous blog post with far more details and graphics, thanks to my editor Glenn Scherer. The story link is here.
An excerpt: “And so, the declarations bounced to and fro, through the week, ranging between glowing optimism and gloom. The conference, which opened May 16, ranthrough May 26. Policies and complex particulars of the Paris Agreement, like financing for REDD+ (dealing with deforestation), and the Clean Development Mechanism (dealing with emissions reductions projects in the developing world), are all being debated in Bonn, though no real decisions will be made. Those must wait until November 7-18 and COP22 in Marrakesh, Morocco.”
Alessandro Baccini with Woods Hole Research Center Photo by Justin Catanoso
Here’s the summary of mongabay.com story on a significant advancement in making the policy REDD+ work as a tool between countries to keep critical tropical forests intact. Much credit goes to remote sensing scientist Alessandro Baccini at Woods Hole Research Center.
Critics have long argued that the inability of satellites to track deforestation with precision created a loophole that could allow tropical countries to cheat regarding their annual deforestation rates.
Past satellite imaging systems could not resolve objects smaller than 500 meters (1,640 feet) across. A new system developed by Alessandro Baccini and his Woods Hole, Massachusetts, research team can see objects just 30 meters (98 feet) across.
Satellite imaging, combined with imaging from airplanes, along with ground-truthing will help make observation of tropical deforestation rates and carbon offsets far more precise in real time, preventing cheating and under reporting.
Per Pharo, a kind of Nordic Santa Claus for the environment. Photo by Justin Catanoso
I truly stumbled on to this story. On Saturday, while finishing up an interview in a small conference room with an American NGO, he pointed out a serious-looking gentleman in the corner deep in conversation. “That’s one of the most important people at the COP,” the NGO said. “You should talk with him.”
Per Pharo is director of Norway’s Forest and Climate Initiatives. Given the billions of dollars he has at his disposal, his influence at UN climate summits is enormous. I interrupted his conversation, introduced myself and handed him my card. “Mongabay?” he asked. “Give me five minutes please to finish, and I’d be happy to talk with you.”
The interview went well. But the story grew far more interesting as I learned more about the world of contradictions that are Norway and climate policy. When you’re awash in oil money — oil burned elsewhere and contributing greatly to CO2 emissions — suddenly Pharo can be cast in a slightly different light. Influential, yes. Generous, absolutely. But with hands slightly soiled with oil profits. The story is here, perhaps my best of a busy week. Thanks to Glenn Scherer at mongabay.com for some amazing deadline editing and packaging.
Working for mongabay.com is such a pleasure. I have this great editor in Vermont, Glenn Scherer. He knows the issues cold. He make a good sentence great. He finds amazing photos to run with my stories. This is my last pre-COP21 story. The next one will be from Paris. Here’s Glenn’s summary:
Each nation participating in COP21 has made its own, self-determined commitment to the amount of carbon emissions it can trim from its economy.
Unfortunately, the total carbon commitments by all nations falls roughly 50% short of the cuts needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.
REDD+, a policy that allows industrial nations to keep burning fossil fuels while paying developing countries to preserve forests, may be part of the solution, though some argue it lacks the monitoring mechanisms needed to prevent cheating.
Entrance to the UN Climate Summit in Lima, Peru — Dec. 1-12, 2014. Photo by Justin Catanoso
As the United Nations climate negotiations in Lima, Peru, entered their second and final week, some progress – and thus some optimism — was claimed late Monday, Dec. 8. They were small steps. And because huge leaps seem impossible in grappling with this global crisis, even small steps take on growing importance. A big reason for the optimism is the incredible advances in scientific monitoring of carbon stocks and greenhouse gas emissions that simply didn’t exist a few years ago. It’s giving countries confidence to engage in this process. I explain why in this story on National Georgraphic online.
Tropical forests, like this one in Manu National Park in southern Peru, harbor most of the world’s biodiversity and provide an array of vital ecological services. (Photograph by Justin Catanoso)
I wrote this story for National Geographic NewsWatch following the UN climate change negotiations in Warsaw, Poland, which took place in December 2013. Chris Meyer, a policy expert at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., proved an excellent source. The story focuses on the slow-moving, much-criticized policy called REDD — “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation” — and my best explanation of how it could work (and also why it’s not working yet).
Excerpt: “I think we’re hitting a tipping point with REDD,” Chris Meyer told me. “A lot of countries are committing millions of dollars a year to REDD — the U.K, the United States, Germany, Norway. To invest all this money and then not link it to something bigger in the future, where an international climate structure is built, is very unlikely.”