Covering extreme weather events, the climate crisis and 2024 elections in Latin America

Extreme weather events were recorded in several Latin American countries in 2023: droughts in the Amazon, in Uruguay and in the Panama Canal; torrential rain in the Dominican Republic and in several regions of Brazil; and heat waves that affected almost the entire region. In Chile, forest fires recurred throughout last year and once again hit the country at the beginning of 2024. These events caused hundreds of deaths, material losses and disruption to the lives of thousands of people.

With human-caused climate change, the tendency is for these events to become increasingly frequent and intense, according to scientists. The year 2023 was the warmest on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The combination between the planet's rising temperatures and El Niño, a natural climate phenomenon that warms the waters of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, should make 2024 even hotter than last year, predicts the WMO. The first month of this year, in fact, was the hottest January on record, according to the European Union's Copernicus climate observatory.

In addition to being a year in which more record temperatures and extreme weather events are expected around the world, 2024 is a “super election year,” according to UNESCO. Election coverage will take center stage in several Latin American countries. Mexico, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Uruguay will have presidential elections, while Brazil will have municipal elections, which will decide the mayors and councilors of the country's 5,568 municipalities.

The consequences of the climate emergency affect all aspects of human life, and the topic, therefore, should not be addressed only in the environmental section of journalistic media, according to journalists who specialize in this kind of coverage. They have also stressed that journalists must be able to communicate how the climate emergency connects with the economy, politics, health and, certainly, elections.

The challenge is great: climate science is complex, and the connections between human action, rising temperatures and their consequences for humanity and the planet are not always simple to describe.

LatAm Journalism Review (LJR) spoke with Brazilian journalists Giovana Girardi, head of socio-environmental coverage at Agência Pública, and Manuela Andreoni, climate and environment reporter for The New York Times, as well as Uruguayan journalist Camila Méndez, environmental reporter at la diaria, about how these topics can be better addressed by journalists from any beat.

woman with gray hair and glasses smiling at the camera

Journalist Giovana Girardi, from Agência Pública. (Courtesy)

Girardi has been covering science and the environment since 2002. It was from reporting on the scientific reports of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that she began covering the climate emergency.

“Very quickly I understood that this would be humanity’s greatest common challenge,” Girardi told LJR.

Andreoni has been dedicated to climate coverage since 2018 and was previously based in Rio de Janeiro. She is one of the writers of the Climate Forward newsletter.

“I really like climate and environment coverage because it is both scientific, where you discover things and talk to people who are discovering new things, and it is very human. And it also has a lot to do with corporate responsibility. It brings together a lot of different things that interest me, and it has local and global implications at the same time. A very local story can have global implications, and I find that very attractive,” Andreoni told LJR.

Méndez, the Uruguayan journalist, dates her interest in covering the climate back to her adolescence in the department of Treinta y Tres, near the border with Brazil and surrounded by agricultural crops, mainly rice.

I remember hearing on a local radio the story of a rural worker who denounced a company for subjecting him to exposure to pesticides. As a result, he developed a disease that prevents him from breathing on his own and forces him to be connected to an oxygen tube 24 hours a day,” she told LJR. “I remember that, from that moment, I understood that environmental/climatic problems are part of the disputes over our health, bodies, territories and how we want to live in them.”

Climate policies and urban resilience in elections

While national elections could dictate the direction of climate policies in several countries this year, municipal elections in Brazil could bring changes to how cities prepare, respond and recover from extreme weather events.

“We are already in the ‘make or break’ moment,” Girardi said about countries’ climate policies and efforts to contain global warming. “If we miss this window [of action] in the coming years, it will be very difficult to return.”

Policies to combat deforestation and energy transition, for example, should be at the center of the coverage of presidential candidates' government programs, Girardi said.

“It is essential to look at the whole. If a candidate is promising something, [the journalist should ask] how does that fit into the general context [of the country]?” Girardi suggested.

woman in front of a tree smiling at the camera

Journalist Camila Méndez, from la diaria. (Courtesy)

Méndez emphasized the need to get concrete details from politicians regarding their climate policies.

“We must be careful with ‘greenwashing.’ It is useless for political parties' programs to promise that they will protect the environment if they do not explain how they will do so and what economic and technical resources they will allocate to it,” she said. “At the same time, when there are specific proposals, it is interesting to consult with independent experts to find out if they will really be effective. It is always necessary to maintain direct contact with scientists.”

Andreoni said the consequences of extreme weather events also need to be addressed in election coverage with the seriousness that lethal occurrences, such as floods and landslides in urban centers, demand.

“It has to be treated like anything else that kills a lot of people. Dengue kills many people; police violence kills many people; landslides kill many people; Basic sanitation that doesn't work kills many people. We have to treat it as something as important as these,” she said.

Andreoni highlighted that, although many politicians position themselves as “leaders on environmental issues,” they do not always prioritize basic issues such as housing policy, which is also linked to the climate.

“We have to check if they are doing what they say. (...) If you don't have a housing policy that works, that protects people from lack of basic sanitation, from landslides, I think it's difficult to say that your city hall is doing a good job on the climate, because that's basic,” she said.

Andreoni said it may be relevant to connect local issues with global debates on climate resilience – involving preparation, recovery and adaptation to climate impacts –, as extreme events have affected populations around the world.

Get closer to everyday life and cover solutions

Despite more than two decades of experience, Girardi said she still “bangs her head” and finds herself struggling with doubts about how to communicate to the public the size of the challenge posed by the climate emergency.

“It's very difficult to talk about something so dramatic. We're talking about things that aren't exactly comfortable. We're not making an allegation about something that a person might be horrified about but doesn't have much to do with their life. It has to do with all of our lives,” she said, adding that these challenges and dilemmas affect all journalists who dedicate themselves to this kind of reporting.

And even those who are not specifically dedicated to climate coverage need to bring this topic up, she said.

“You can’t talk about losses in agriculture or the energy crisis without considering this. (...) It's not just coverage about the environment and science, it's coverage of economics, politics, other subjects. When I understood this, I started thinking of coverage differently, because I also think that this can attract people more. They understand the relationship that rain or drought or the loss of the Amazon will have with the increase in the price of coffee or the electricity bill,” Girardi said.

Méndez also said the climate crisis should touch all parts of the newsroom.

“The climate and ecological crisis has repercussions on the economy, politics, health, and culture,” she said. “All journalists should know the basics. However, it is also necessary that there be specialized journalists and a dynamic of dialogue between colleagues when doubts arise.”

In addition to the relationship with everyday life, coverage needs to bring possible solutions, Girardi said. Simply emphasizing the size of the problem discourages public engagement, both with the news and with the possibilities for action to mitigate the climate crisis and its impacts on humanity and the planet.

Connecting extreme events to global warming

One of the questions that may arise when extreme weather events occur concerns the connection between these phenomena and the increase in temperatures caused by human action. There is an expected variation in climate, and climate events such as droughts, torrential rains or heat waves do happen periodically in certain places on the planet.

“What climate projections show us is that events like this tend to become more common, more frequent and more intense” as global temperatures rise, Girardi said, citing the responses she usually receives from climate scientists on this topic.

“If we look at data from the last 30, 40, 50 years, we can see, for example, that this type of event that used to happen once every 50 years now happens once every 10 years,” she said.

For immediate coverage after an extreme climate event, it is not possible to establish the cause/consequence relationship between global warming and such a phenomenon. However, it is possible and essential to present the public with available information about historical timelines and expected or unexpected frequencies of such events, the journalists say.

They mentioned that some groups of scientists have been working on rapid analysis of these phenomena to determine their relationship with climate change. A recent example is the study by the organization World Weather Attribution, published at the end of January, which concluded that the drought that hit the Amazon in the second half of 2023 was mainly driven by climate change.

Connecting extreme events to the climate emergency is important to communicate to the public that we are already dealing with the consequences of the warming planet, Girardi said.

“It's different from saying 'in the last 60 years these events have become more frequent,’ because people don't remember the last 60 years. Now, when talking about last week's or last month's event, it helps to communicate and make [the impact of the climate emergency] more palpable. A problem with communicating changes in the climate is that people tended to look at it and think 'this is a problem for the end of the century, I'm not even going to be here.’ When people start to understand that this event here is already [a consequence of climate change], perhaps it will help to increase awareness and alertness,” she stated.

Avoid scientific jargon and focus on people

Andreoni highlighted that transparency and care in communicating about the climate emergency is also important to avoid denialism.

woman with long blond hair and glasses looking at the camera in front of a white wall

Journalist Manuela Andreoni, from The New York Times. (Courtesy)

“There is science and data of all kinds. We have to be very careful with how we communicate the reliability of each thing, because we are talking about a field of science and public policy that is highly contested. We always have to be careful, and especially in a field that has become an object of so much polarization, we have to be even more precise in relation to what we really know and what we don't know,” Andreoni said.

In this sense, it is also necessary to avoid scientific jargon, which is often repeated in coverage without it being clear to the public what it means – sometimes not even to journalists. Many of these expressions seek to “translate extremely complex things,” Andreoni said. “Our greatest care must be to explain [the climate emergency] as briefly and clearly as possible,” she said.

One way to do this is to humanize climate coverage, putting the focus on the people who are being affected by the impact of the climate crisis.

“We have to get away from the jargon, the standard climate message, and talk more about people,” Andreoni said. “This is a challenge for many outlets that don’t have the resources to go to the places where people are encountering these issues, but it is essential so [coverage of the climate emergency] doesn’t turn into an incomprehensible thing that no one cares about.”

Méndez also emphasized the importance of consulting scientists, but communicating technical concepts “in a way that is understandable to everyone.”

She said journalists must take the extra time to go where the problems are and tell local stories.

“It is not the same to coldly tell in two paragraphs that neighbors demonstrated against the pollution of a river, than to go to the place, talk with them, understand their emotions, stories and memories there,” the journalist said. “This allows us to understand their motivations and, perhaps, move the reader. It takes longer, but it makes a difference in the quality of the article.”

Translated by Teresa Mioli
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