Investigating the story of the century

In the second installment of our series, we look at the environmental impact of government rules, foreign aid, and carbon credits

By James Fahn


The public sector obviously plays a vital role in determining the extent to which all of us, including private companies, address the challenge of climate change. Most investigative journalists should already be on the lookout for ways in which vested interests like fossil-fuel companies are influencing government policies.

But they may not be aware of all the arcane ways such lobbying affects climate change. It could be through the passage of restrictions on the development of renewable energy for example, or relaxing rules on safety and other forms of pollution in order to make fossil-fuel production cheaper.

One area that generally does not receive enough attention is how government subsidizes the industries, particularly fossil fuels, that cause greenhouse-gas pollution. One study in the journal World Development estimates such global subsidies at over $5 trillion per year, and that doesn’t take into account the support for other polluting industries, such as cattle ranching. Many of these subsidies are damaging in other ways, too. For instance, governments often support their fishing fleets by providing them with cheap petrol, damaging fish stocks as well. So, is your government trying to prevent climate change, or actually making it worse?


Journalists need to keep track not only of what goes on in their own countries, but also what their governments are doing abroad. In the United States, for instance, even as coal-fired power plants are being shuttered, coal exports have grown rapidly in recent years. Similarly, China is planning to reduce its use of coal at home, but Chinese interests are involved in more than 200 coal projects around the world.

The OECD has set up rules to guard against providing export credits from wealthy nations for the construction of coal-fired power plants, but there are some allegations that they’re being skirted. Similarly, vows by the multilateral development banks that they will follow the Paris Agreement and not back dirty development have to be monitored.


Even when governments are able to put good rules in place, it is a struggle to enforce regulations and monitor compliance. Most greenhouse gases are invisible and odorless, so polluters can be tempted to hide their emission or provide false reporting. In recent years, for instance, we’ve learned that some of the world’s most reputable car companies, when they were not lobbying for relaxed fuel efficiency standards, installed software in their cars aimed at deceiving monitors about how much pollution they’re emitting.

There have also been alarming reports recently about cheating on the emission of ozone-destroying substances, with suspicion falling on Chinese practices. We can imagine similar scandals arising if ever the world gets serious about limiting greenhouse-gas pollution. Rules about measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) are the subject of intense negotiation and disagreement at UN climate treaty talks. The question of “who does the accounting” for green- house gases is relevant in any country which is claiming progress in reducing emissions.


Just as emissions of greenhouse gases need to be monitored, so do the offsets designed to counter those emissions. Offsets, sometimes known as carbon credits, allow polluters to compensate for their own emissions by supporting emissions-cutting or carbon-storing projects elsewhere. Since the atmosphere is a global commons, the logic behind it seems impeccable, but critics argue they are inherently unfair in allowing the wealthy to pollute more.

Some projects have been derided as “greenwashing,” while others are said to have little impact, or even cause more harm than good. Then there are the cases of outright fraud. Once again, the question is: Who’s doing the counting of how emissions are “offset?” The answer varies from nation to nation, but identifying the government or private agency responsible for overseeing carbon credits or offsets is often the first step toward determining their legitimacy.


Reporting on the impacts of climate change can be tricky, because linking climate change to, for instance, specific weather events is notoriously difficult. Even when attribution is possible and the science of determining attribution is getting better all the time in most cases we can only determine that a particular event was exacerbated by global warming, not caused by it.

By and large, the media has been doing a better job over the years of reporting on climate change impacts, and has even started reporting on secondary or “knock-on” effects, such as how climate-induced migration and resource stress is causing conflict in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. This needs to be explored more in other regions, too, such as Central America.


The enterprising journalist needs to investigate the many factors, including but not limited to climate change, that can lead to catastrophic weather-related events. For instance, the conditions that created the wild-fires which have torn through California in recent years have certainly been exacerbated by climate change, but they’re also due to forest management practices and to development patterns that have been building more houses deep in the woods. Sources can include scientists who are researching such phenomena, but also others—such as insurance companies—that keep track of the data that lie behind such events.

There will still be some impacts that surprise. Some people living inland from the coast, for instance, may be surprised that they, too, are affected by rising sea levels as they push up the water table underneath their land, potentially causing more flooding. Also in recent years, there has been speculation that climate change has weakened the jet stream, thus possibly unleashing the polar vortex on regions to the south, although this is far from certain.

While there are still some areas that seem to be under- reported and worthy of more investigation ocean acidification, for instance, or the public health impacts of climate change there have also been cases when the impacts of climate have been overstated. This raises a fundamental matter in reporting on climate change:

As is common in the sciences, research findings on climate change impacts are always framed in ranges of like lihood and probability. Including such uncertainties may appear to undercut your claims, but in fact it generally serves to enhance your credibility. By demonstrating the underlying approach of the scientific method itself, and being open about the limits of scientific certainty, you are strengthening your own credibility as a journalist and a source, for the public, of scientifically-grounded information.


This list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the need to investigate activist groups working on climate issues, their goals and where they get their financial support. The focus here has largely been on climate-denier groups and how they operate. In the US, this has followed a long line of industry- funded groups who seek to obfuscate scientific findings related to the environment and public health, most notoriously those funded by the tobacco industry. They have been helped by relatively new rules that make it easier for “dark money” to support nonprofit groups.

What about the activist groups on “the other side,” those fighting for stronger action to address climate change? There, too, journalists should demand transparency, and should be able to report on who is funding their activities. One major difference is that climate action groups generally have science on their side, with 97 percent of climate scientists confirming that climate change is real and being caused by humans, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) making it clear that the issue is becoming increasingly urgent.

And what about the scientists? Climate deniers, politicians and some media pundits have taken to claiming they’re biased, too, because they get funding to do research on climate change. There have been several attempts to cast doubt on their actions, most notoriously when the private emails of some climate researchers were hacked and released to the public back in 2009.

But it was eventually shown that the researchers had done nothing out of bounds of the ordinary scientific process. Indeed, the very questions they had of one another are the essence of the scientific method itself a process that has been repeatedly exploited by those interested in undermining climate science. (On the other hand, the perpetrators behind the hacking incident have never been caught.)

More broadly, the peer review process is generally considered an effective filter to help us reach scientific truth, as best as we can understand it. Even when mistakes are made, such as when an IPCC report suggested that Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035, they eventually get exposed and corrected.

In recent years, for instance, there was a claim that global warming had gone on a “hiatus” that warming trends had slowed or stopped for a few years but again it was eventually shown that this was just a statistical mirage due to short term events and a lack of data. All the more reason for journalists to keep a close watch on the latest scientific findings, and stay in touch with trusted researchers.


Humanity’s response to climate change has so far been tepid on the whole. But eventually, it will have to become stronger if we are to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, and that means journalists also need to investigate the solutions put forth to prevent and adapt to climate change. Renewable energy projects using solar, wind and geothermal power are becoming ever cheaper and more popular, but like any other infrastructure projects, they could be subject to corruption and abuse.

Meanwhile, some of the more traditional types of alternative energy notably large hydro power projects and nuclear power plants come with controversies of their own, and may in fact pit local environmental interests against global supporters of climate action. Solely in terms of their carbon footprint, the reservoirs kept behind dams can release large quantities of methane due to decay of vegetation under water. And like other types of infrastructure projects, building and maintaining these facilities requires a lot of fossil fuels. Really, in order to judge any activity’s impact on the climate, full life cycle analyses need to be carried out.

Next month: Part III of “Investigating the Story of the Century”: Monitoring the proposed solutions.

James Fahn is Executive Director of the Earth Journalism Network at Internews. He is also a lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, where he teaches international environmental reporting. First published on the Global Investigative Journalism Network website. Reprinted with permission.