Deaths from the coronavirus pandemic foreshadow another global disaster, one that will not be eased by a vaccine or masks: the climate crisis. And like Covid-19, the calamities of climate change will not be experienced equally. The wealthy will escape the brunt of environmental destruction, while much of the world’s poor will be forced to migrate, fall ill, or die. The United Nations warned last year that the world is rushing toward “climate apartheid.”
Climate change will kill 250,000 people every year between 2030 and 2050 by malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress alone, and by 2050, it will displace 140 million people, according to predictions from a 2019 UN report.
In a climate apartheid world, said Philip Alston, the former UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, “the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict, while the rest of the world is left to suffer.” A similar dynamic appeared in the early days of the pandemic, when many rich New Yorkers decamped to second homes and the sheltering-in-place middle class in the city paid others, mostly black, Asian, and Latino men, to deliver their meals.
The question for those of us left in the news business is: Are we prepared to cover a collective threat with such disproportionate impacts? If the coronavirus is a test for gauging the media’s readiness, the results are discouraging.
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Before statistics revealed that the pandemic was killing black and Latino New Yorkers at more than twice the rate of the state’s white residents and that infection rates in Navajo Nation were higher than in all 50 states, one might have thought, based on news coverage, that Covid-19 was mainly a crisis of embarrassing Zoom malfunctions, bored children, and homeschooling nightmares. Although media attention rightfully covered the lack of vital equipment at hospitals, initial warnings about the underpinning inequalities that would later show themselves in a death count were largely ignored.
On March 19, shortly before shelter-at-home orders were issued, the Economic Policy Institute estimated that only 16 percent of Latinos and 20 percent of black people nationally could work from home, compared with about 30 percent of whites and 37 percent of Asians. A week later, when only 4,700 New York City residents had tested positive for the virus and 121 had died, Comptroller Scott Stringer released a report on the city’s frontline workers that showed that about 75 percent were people of color, 60 percent were women, and more than 50 percent foreign born. His recommendations included providing child care to all frontline workers, making hotels available to minimize risk to family members, and ensuring everyone could access health care. The proposals, mostly ignored by the city, received little attention, except in a few reports after Stringer’s mother died from the coronavirus. As of early June, about one in every 400 New York City residents have died from Covid-19, and more than 120,000 people in the United States are infected.
Not only were the most at-risk people usually missing from early reports of the pandemic; their absence resulted in a distorted narrative of both the threat and the policies needed for mitigation. Only after the death rate shot up and the demographics of the dead revealed immense disparities did the press start to cover structural and discriminatory factors. But people shouldn’t have to die to receive media coverage.
If climate change is the existential crisis of our time, then it ought to provoke a reckoning for the news media. More than simply altering the practices of individual journalists or newsrooms, the threat of climate apartheid should challenge the news industry to confront a media worldview that, as we saw with the early pandemic coverage, too easily defaults to the perspective of an affluent, white citizen within a wealthy nation.
“Along with the country as a whole, the press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective,” wrote the authors of the 1968 Kerner Commission report. Fifty years later, little has changed, as evidenced by a recent memo by Los Angeles Times executive editor Norman Pearlstine to his newsroom: “We can be faulted for focusing on a white subscriber base even as the city became majority non-white.”
Defaulting to a white, wealthy worldview in the United States is not limited to national publications. A team of researchers from the University of North Texas and Southern Methodist University found that coverage by The Dallas Morning News centered coverage on elite whites, who are in the minority in Dallas, while stereotyping the city’s majority black and Latino residents. “It’s not just who’s telling the story; it’s from what perspective is being told,” Tracy Everbach, a professor at the Mayborn School of Journalism and one of the study’s authors, told me.
There are early signs in newsrooms from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles that the media is beginning to acknowledge the racism and inequity in the industry—part of a nationwide accounting following the killing of black men and women, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, by police officers. Although much of the media scrutiny has centered on the dismal representation of black reporters and editors in journalism, the undercurrent to coverage remains a media worldview centered on middle-class and elite whites.
Without an understanding of the pervasiveness of this outlook, members of the press risk becoming agents of a worldview that ignores or discounts affected populations and writes off their suffering as a consequence of culture.
Neglecting certain groups of people signals that they are unimportant, an erasure that media scholars call “symbolic annihilation.” This became especially obvious with the pandemic when, seemingly overnight, the least paid and most exploited workers were rebranded “essential workers.” Forced to concede the invaluable service of the working class and confront a linked destiny across racial and class lines, the middle and elite classes of New York City now celebrate essential workers with nightly applause. Yet little has been done to improve their material conditions. The press ought to be a bulwark against mistaking such superficial gestures of gratitude for action and allowing the affluent to define which people matter and when.
To take another example from the early days of Covid-19 in the United States, when Elmhurst, Queens, was the epicenter of the virus, news reports typically described a hard-hit “immigrant neighborhood,” where 153 languages are spoken and people live in poverty. None of this was untrue, but by itself, the description told us nothing about the staggering death toll.
In contrast, a Rolling Stone article, one of the precious few to describe systemic issues, reported that Elmhurst was the city’s third-most-crowded neighborhood, which made social distancing difficult. Residents’ speaking a language other than English doesn’t explain the infection rate, but a March 13 report by The City wisely noted that the city’s text messages about the virus were offered only in English. Citizenship status is relevant, but requires context: After ICE agents rolled through Queens in an armored vehicle resembling a tank late last year, many immigrants were likely discouraged from seeking help.
As with the pandemic, the framing of climate stories is critically important, and there is a global divide in how the news media covers the crisis. Last year, researchers at the University of Kansas analyzed press coverage from 2011 to 2015 in 45 countries and found that GDP was the strongest predictor of which climate change facts would be reported. Coverage in wealthier nations, they discovered, focused on domestic politics, while the media in poorer countries emphasized international relations, environmental degradation, and natural disasters. Not only does the global crisis look different depending on where one is getting their news, but the worldview shapes whose stories matter. In rich countries, the media has decided it is not those directly affected by calamity whose accounts should be told; it’s the politicians’.
This may explain why the US media fixates on political infighting over the Green New Deal, but pays scant attention to the basics of global warming. This point of view assigns news value—and awards prizes—to narratives of misery in the wake of climate disasters, but neglects the systems of oppression that drive the devastation. It deems as newsworthy debates about whether almond or oat milk causes more environmental damage, but not the thousands of people living in a tent city in Puerto Rico following an earthquake.
If the policy imperatives are to reflect the complex effects of our crises, covering climate apartheid—and the disparate impacts of a pandemic—requires confronting the perspectives of a news industry in which white journalists make up 80 percent of editorial staff. It also means dismantling traditional reporting silos: The media needs to abolish the notion that there is a race story, an immigration story, and an environment story, and that each is somehow distinct.
“We should have more diverse voices and representations overall not just pertaining to a specific beat,” said Perla Trevizo, a former environmental reporter who recently joined a joint partnership between ProPublica and the Texas Tribune. “Don’t make it a one-reporter thing; make it part of the coverage of all the sections, not just immigration journalists writing about immigrants or minorities writing about minorities.”
The benefit of reporting across normally separate coverage areas is perhaps clearest at the intersection of climate crisis and migration.
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This became apparent to me in December when I came across a toddler crying for his mother in a migrant camp. I was reporting on the thousands of asylum seekers who are made to wait for their cases in Matamoros, Mexico, under a policy called Migrant Protection Protocols. Within seconds, his mother appeared, and I asked her why she was here with her son—a question with an immigration framing.
She explained that the smuggler said arriving with a child would ease her way into the United States. Her answer seemed to confirm assertions by government officials, and amplified by some news reports, that migrants were exploiting policies that protect children by allowing for quicker release from detention. But her answer described only how she migrated. When I asked her why she left El Salvador, the story immediately changed. She explained that political upheaval brought on by the new populist president made her living situation dangerous. The first question centered the story on US immigration politics while the second attempted to understand the context for her migration, which resulted in a more nuanced and complete picture.
The difference between a wealthy worldview and a climate apartheid worldview is brilliantly illustrated in a long-form article from December 2019 by Carlos Dada, cofounder of the El Salvador–based El Faro, which publishes in English and Spanish. Dada does not identify as an environment reporter. When I asked him how he was covering the climate crisis, he responded by telling me, “I cover poverty and violence.” The piece, “The Last Journey of Mr. Ngu,” begins soon after the body of Cameroonian teacher, Emmanuel Cheo Ngu, washes up on a beach after his ill-fated effort to reach Mexico. Dada retraces Ngu’s route, and in following the migrant trail along the Guatemala-Mexico border, he uncovers Guatemala’s failure to enforce regulations even as the wealthy expropriate natural resources. Ngu was escaping political violence in Cameroon, but Dada’s story vividly shows how structural factors make the working poor vulnerable to climate change and how that contributed to Ngu’s death.
One farmer in Guatemala, Porfirio Escobar, explained that the free trade era of the 1990s ushered in vast banana plantations. Multinational companies built dams that flooded subsistence crops or diverted water from smallholder farms, often with the tacit support of the government. Dada notes that agribusinesses that service US markets rerouted 50 rivers along the southern coast. Then, said Escobar, “Hurricane Stan came and took the little we had.”
In Dada’s piece, affected people are not simply sources of emotional stories; their insights reveal injustices that reach the highest levels of government. His narrative connects farmers to a company accused by environmental groups and federal agencies of “ecocide” and violating labor laws and to an international anticorruption unit investigating the Guatemala’s US-backed president. What emerges is a portrait of economic degradation, social instability, and political corruption that implicates the United States. It’s the opposite of how the New York Times editorial board condescendingly described the same crisis: “Basket-case governments in several nations south of the Rio Grande have sent a historic flood of migrants to our southern border.”
Few places call for intertwined coverage of public health, climate change, racism, and poverty like the Rio Grande Valley. With its daisy chain of cities and small towns along the US-Texas border, the region is—at least for now—the last swath of Texas Gulf Coast untouched by oil and gas drilling and its dense web of pipeline infrastructure.
East of the city of Brownsville, a proposed natural gas project threatens to make the region a major source of carbon emissions. This project will transmute natural gas into liquid form, and when combined with another project further up the Gulf Coast would double the state’s natural gas exports to markets in Asia and Europe. And the Brownsville LNG export terminals, along with others slated to open in Texas and Louisiana, will produce half-a-billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year by 2030, according to a study by researchers at the University of Texas–Austin. That’s equal to the emissions from 131 coal-fired power plants. Systemic discrimination, including historic red-lining and segregation, has made black and Latino residents more likely to live within a mile radius of oil and gas sites.
The Valley has the highest rates of poverty in the state, and will be among the hardest hit by climate change, according to a report by McKinsey. It is also where the federal government has waived dozens of environmental regulations. New sections of the wall are planned for Starr County, one of the counties with highest rates of poverty in the state. Experts say the wall, which runs along the Rio Grande, will aggravate flooding when it traps debris, allowing water to collect behind it. And the LNG project, according to the government’s environmental review study, will have a “significant” effect on air, water, and habitat. In addition, government approval of the pipeline grants eminent domain authority to companies involved in the project, empowering them to seize public land and force private owners to sell their property.
Describing the stakes of the LNG project, Rebekah Hinojosa, the Valley organizer for Sierra Club, told me, “We are facing these 100-year floods, asylum-seekers who are waiting on the international bridge, the border wall, and the looming LNG project, and it’s all connected.”
Covering the climate crisis should be about understanding these connections. Not sticking to traditional beats helped Gus Bova, an immigration reporter for the Texas Observer, come upon the LNG story, which had been ignored by national news outlets and most of the state press. “I was basically talking to a lot of activists in the Valley. When you cover the wall, you end up talking about the environmental damage, and people kept talking about the LNG project,” he said.
In the September 2019 article, “Bridge to Nowhere,” Bova punctured the idea that the project would create jobs for a region that desperately needed them. It was the promise of jobs that convinced federal regulators and local officials to support the LNG export terminals. But by examining industry records submitted to the county, Bova discovered that thousands of the promised construction jobs are temporary and that the permanent jobs for engineers and other skilled professionals would mostly be filled by outsiders. His reporting was strengthened by approaching local sources as experts about their community, not just characters. “How many of those jobs are for the people from this little town in the Valley?” asked Noe Lopez, a fisherman interviewed in the story. “Nobody’s qualified for shit like that.”
Missing was an explanation that discrimination, among other factors, has meant that only a small fraction of Latinos complete college or that they earn half the median income of whites; context that challenges a perception of that poverty is an endemic feature of Latino people and the border. Still, Bova reframed the story from a clichéd hard-hats-versus-habitat piece and made the it about economic livelihood, citing a Texas A&M University report estimating some 6,000 local jobs depend on ecotourism. By incorporating information from different silos of coverage—border issues, poverty, business, and local government—Bova provided a comprehensive and critical look at the promises and costs of the so-called energy boom.
In November 2019, the LNG project finally managed to attract the attention of Texas-based publications after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the project. News reports rightly focused on the dissent by Commissioner Richard Glick, who faulted the commission for failing to consider the 9 million metric tons—minimum—of greenhouse gases that the LNG project would generate.
But greenhouse gases alone don’t tell the full climate apartheid story. Pieces by the Texas Observer and a partnership of three Rio Grande Valley publications—The Monitor, The Brownsville Herald, and the Valley Morning Star—revealed that a similar LNG project 300 miles up the coast in Freeport had turned a beach community into a ghost town. Construction workers had replaced local families, and the company had bought out homeowners. Through the prism of climate apartheid, the Valley LNG no longer looks like a story of emissions, jobs, and a boom. It now resembles the migrant trail as described Dada—a narrative of inequity, government complicity with industry, and working people responding to the decisions of those in power.
If the Texas border seems distant from New York City’s Covid-19 outbreak or the climate crisis, consider that in response to the pandemic, Texas’s governor has allowed oil and gas operators to apply for waivers to exempt them from regulation. At the same time, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has shortened the review period for granting waivers. NBC News reported that the Trump administration has also used the coronavirus crisis to roll back requirements that “climate change impacts be considered in environmental reviews of most infrastructure projects.”
The pain and consequences of racial injustice can be heard in neighborhoods ravaged by the coronavirus, among the thousands of asylum seekers waiting at the border, in the public outcry over police shootings of black Americans, and amid the backlash to America’s largely white newsrooms. These stories of inequity stretch across the world, and the media needs to make these links clear. Journalists, and not just those on certain beats, should endeavor to reveal how structural racism, indifference, and government policies can make a pandemic, climate change, policing, or any other global catastrophe more lethal for some than others. As Dada, in his El Faro article, observed about Ngu and other migrants’ failed journeys north: “Soon after they died, they began to reveal truths of global dimensions.”