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CLIMATE CRISIS: ‘Is the role of media to make people more hopeless? We have to turn helplessness into solutions’

BANGKOK | 13 November 2023

Welcome to the podcast of Reporting ASEAN, a space for talking about things that are truly Southeast Asian. Today’s conversation, though, is about an issue that is both local and global – the climate crisis – and how the media and journalists report on it.

The takeoff point for my conversation with Kunda Dixit, publisher of ‘Nepali Times’, is the publication of the third edition of his book ‘Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered’ (in our e-Library).

The book first came out in 1997, when climate change and global warming were thought of as topics for the alternative media and too far-off to make the news of the day. 

We go down memory lane a bit because back then, Kunda was my director and editor at Inter Press Service Asia-Pacific and I was regional correspondent. After he left and later set up Nepali Times back home in Kathmandu, I became director of IPS Asia-Pacific.

Kunda makes the case for the media needing to connect events that we experience not only to the global climate context, but to how, the world has been pursuing a brand of development that first, has, built into it, dependence on fossil fuels and the destruction of the natural environment, and second, one shaped by forces that were in play even before the Industrial Revolution, all the way to extractive economics and its roots in colonialism. 

The media, he says, are there not to make audiences numb or feel helpless, but to be useful in our responses to a crisis that we are all part of.

Here’s our conversation.

Johanna Son, Reporting Asean: When I was going through the new edition, I found myself remembering how it felt to be, like, covering at the time. And that, and I’m sure you’ll remember that at the time, people would say things like, ‘oh, global warming’ – at the time, it was still largely called the global warming thing, right – ‘global warming – it’s not for us,’ the other journalists would often say, ‘it’s for you, people who are in alternative news.’ Right?

Kunda Dixit: Yes (laughs).

That was kind of strange to me.

Kunda: It was, I guess, because we were so strong in covering environmental issues that we saw that all the indicators were that this was going to get worse. Right? The carbon dioxide build-up, the economic models, the decision-making processes, the status quo in the economy and politics, globalization – all these things were going to just make things worse, because it was, you know, the whole carbon crisis was driven by global capitalism. And in those days, that was the mantra, right? After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was the end of history, there was triumphalism about the economic model and there was, I would say at that time, optimism about the future. So there was no time to worry about things like global warming. So that’s why people didn’t want to listen to us, when we said these things at that time. But it gives us no pleasure to say that we told you so.

Exactly. At the time, there was a lot of discussion, for example there was talk of sustainable development, right? But now, it has sort of come back to it, with the backdrop of climate reality today. So now the mantra is sustainability, right? So it has kind of built on the old ideas of sustainable development. And the other thing was that in the late 90s, etc, you saw a lot of media outlets come up with like environment sections, environment  pages, the green sections, but now it’s still environment, but it’s also larger than the environment.

Kunda: In those days it was, you know, plastics and recycling and things like that, which today seem to pale into insignificance compared to, you know, 1.3 degree [Celsius] global average temperature [rise], especially in the last two years. I think whatever was happening till 2022 just got much, much worse in the last two years – the heat stress, the hurricanes and typhoons, the ocean surface temperature, the collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet, Greenland melting, Himalayan glaciers receding, the Alps. 

Less ice on the Alps over four decades, in these photos from Dixit (shown at the Alps in 1978.)

It’s apocalyptic, what you see happening in the Alps just in two years, you know, 15 to 20% of ice mass loss, just in two years. And this process is just… the last two years have been a real, real shocker. I mean, no one – look, when they met in Paris in 2015, they said, ‘[Rise in] global average temperatures, we should cap it at 1.5 [degrees Celsius]. It might go to 2, but we must try to keep it at 1.5.’ It’s already 1.3.

Correct, and things are already like this…. 

Kunda: So I think [in] those innocent days 30 years ago, we were writing about illegal logging in Irian Jaya and Kalimantan – it was all linked, of course, because you know we were destroying the sinks for carbon, and we’re seeing the result of not doing anything about it at that time, now. We were writing about coral bleaching, but it wasn’t so serious. Now it’s, of course, it’s everywhere, and intensity of storms getting worse. There were always intense storms, but they would happen like once every 20 years.

And now anomalies have become normal.

Kunda: Yes, anomalies have become normal, exactly.

Sitting in Kathmandu – that gives you quite a perch. Can you tell us what you’ve seen? You see the mountains and it’s actually linked to, for example, rivers in Southeast Asia.

Kunda:  Exactly. So, you know, growing up in Kathmandu and since I’ve always been very fond of mountains, the outline of the mountains that you see from Kathmandu is like etched in my brain. I know it by heart. If you asked me to draw it, I can draw the outline of the skyline with each peak, and I think I can do it quite accurately. But compared to what those mountains looked like when I was 25 and today, there’s a significant change. 

It used to be much whiter, now it’s more rocky, and just in the last 10 years, you know, I have photographic documentation of this. I’ve been taking pictures of this one particular peak called Phurbi Ghyachu. It’s about 6,700 metres. It’s only 35 kilometres northeast of Kathmandu. It’s a very prominent peak. You see it from my house directly. So the summit has a ridge and even till 10 years ago, the ridge on the summit – and you’re talking about 6,700 metres high – it used to be a straight line. Today, it’s a jagged, like a sawtooth right on the top, which means that the permanent ice on the summit has melted at nearly 7,000 metres. And this is not snow – this is not your winter snow that has melted, it’s the permanent ice that has been there, you know, the blue ice.  And you can see this right across the Himalaya and not just in Nepal, but right from the Karakoram right up to the mountains of Yunnan, and you just have to compare some of the before-and-after pictures. 

All these new lakes [are] coming up and all that, and as you said, it’s not just a problem for us in Nepal. These mountains, the Tibetan plateau and the Himalaya – they feed rivers that flow down to, you know, irrigate countries with about 2 billion people, you’re talking about China with all the rivers that start in eastern Tibet, the Burmese rivers, the Mekong, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, Indus. So everything that empties to the Arabian Sea right up to the Pacific Ocean, these rivers start in the Himalayan region and with the permanent ice gone, it’ll mean that… and you know, the Himalayan mountains are the largest repository of water stored as ice outside the polar regions.  So it’s as serious as the North Pole and the South Pole losing its ice. But it actually makes a bigger difference, because there are more people are affected by it. Billions of people, in fact.

So we all know that everything’s related. Regardless of where you live, there’s only one atmosphere and there’s only one planet. So that in a sense, everything that you do that doesn’t help actually contributes to that burden – but everything that you might do that helps contributes to a solution. It probably even sounds – I don’t know what to say, not realistic for many or maybe that sounds like a slogan – but I think it’s also true. So why is it that the sense of urgency or the connections aren’t always in the news? 

Kunda: Well, you know, that’s why the book is called ‘Dateline Earth’. 

It’s sounds really very, very, very right today.

Kunda:  Yeah, I know, at that time, when we wrote it, it was just, ‘Wow, that’s a nice title for a book’, but now it’s like really relevant. And even the word ‘sustainability’ at that time, ‘sustainable development’ and the likes, it didn’t mean anything because it became a buzzword, it had lost all its meaning. It was all funded by the UN or something. You can write a feature about development and call it ‘sustainable development’. And these are boring stories, right? A lot of them. We tried to make it exciting, but they were boring stories. But now, today, sustainability is what it’s all about. How do you develop, how do you ensure human welfare and healthy economy, while at the same time paying attention to the ecology and nature without destroying nature, right? And that’s always been the dilemma, and to communicate that is the challenge. And when things get really bad as they are now and that bad news is so prevalent everywhere, it’s just all around us – and besides climate, there are also wars and all this negative, depressing stuff. 

So people want to escape from it all. So they go to TikTok and they go to other social media where they just share happy things with friends. So we really have to be careful as media not to, first of all, not to panic people too much because if they go into panic mode, then they become fatalistic and people will think, ‘Well, what can I do? What can one person do? What I do or not do will not make a difference to the planet’, that kind of thinking. And the other is climate anxiety, which is now actually becoming a syndrome. Eco-guilt and climate anxiety is a psychiatric syndrome. A lot of young people, when they are exposed to all these apocalyptic images and news, with all these graphs going up and down, especially in the last two years, then they really have this numbness about them and they actually need to go and visit and see counselors to, you know, bring their spirits up. And I see, and you really have to be conscious of that if you’re teaching climate to students – you really have to make sure that you don’t panic them or you don’t make them too depressed so that they feel, ‘well, there’s nothing we can do about it’. 

We have to turn it into solutions and there are plenty of solutions, things are happening. It’s just that media, because of the way the media is formatted — mainstream media especially – tends to gravitate towards the negative, sensational and now because of competition from social media, it has to imitate social media in terms of clickbait and headlines. So, and all these news about Antarctic collapse and shrinking glaciers and rising temperatures, it’s just making people helpless. We have to turn that into solutions. And I think communicating those solutions would be what we were doing 30 years ago, you know, we’re trying to say, ‘Okay, this is how development should happen without sacrificing nature’ and that’s exactly what we should be doing now as well and using authoritative voices, using genuine people who are actually working with solutions, trying to find solutions, interviewing scientists.  

Here [in Bangkok], I don’t know if you noticed, there are electric buses. You talked about like, reporting solutions and providing solutions as well, and now it’s becoming popular, this phrase called ‘solutions journalism’.

Kunda: I know, I try to keep away from labelling it like that.

I know, I remember you say there’s just good and bad [journalism], that’s it.

Kunda: I think the thing is, if you call it ‘solutions journalism’ then it all sounds very goody-goody and then it hurts your credibility that people who come to you think, ‘Oh, this guy only writes about the good stuff, and he’s trying to hoodwink us or make us not feel too bad’. They shouldn’t be feeling that way. They should be feeling that what you have to say is credible, that you are pointing out what the problems are, but you’re also saying that there are people who have solutions and we have to listen to them. Because otherwise, is the role of media to make people more hopeless? And you know, without any, any kind of hope for the future, then you might as well just give up. What’s the point? 

It seems at least when I look at, for example, Southeast Asian media outlets, that a lot are still, you know, if you look at the sections on the pages or on the websites, they’re still largely around the topical divisions, and also the challenge I’ve seen, also editing journalists’ copy, is that like, I think they’re not sure sometimes how to make the connection, and how authoritative that connection can be between, for example, a typhoon in the Philippines, and then the larger climate context. And also there’s the traditional newsroom division of ‘that’s your beat and that’s my beat, I’m not a climate person, I’m not an environment person’. But I think that connecting them to daily issues is probably a good way of making you make the connection between – what I say, what I like to say – the personal and the planetary.

Kunda: Yeah, exactly. You know, and I think I’m too old to change, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. So I still look at it in the beat way – I still. . . for me, it’s still environment and politics. But since I stepped down as editor, I see that my successors –they are covering it in a different way. They are, when they cover a story, let’s say on air pollution, which is really getting much worse in South Asia, or even, you know, receding glaciers and what climate change is doing to the Himalaya.  They’re always trying to link it to policy and political decision-making on the economy. 

So the root of the problem is actually bad policy, you know, the policy that is dictated by continued fossil fuel use, right? And unless that policy is changed, and for that you need political will, you’re not going to find the solution. So the problem is politics – and the solution is also politics. 

If you can find that link so that the environment story, the story on tax rebates for electric public transport, whatever, does not go into some inside page that is called ‘environment’. But it belongs on page one as an economic and political story, and especially something like air pollution because it affects all of us, it affects our health, it affects our lifespans. And yet it’s buried somewhere in the middle of the paper or either the back or on the webpage you can’t even find it, and it’s under the drop-down menu called ‘environment’ or something. 

It’s kind of like years ago when people talked about global warming, and they would say “oh but it’s not something that’s going to happen tomorrow.” These slow-onset things, they’re not any less real, like air pollution, how it shortens life.

Kunda: And now we have to say that it all started happening yesterday – and we didn’t cover it and that’s why we’re in the state we’re in now. So I’m really glad to see that the second generation of journalists are aware enough about these political links to make that connection and to give the stories the prominence that they deserve in the media outlets, and then also making the delivery—because they are very savvy with technology. They’re using the social media for dissemination, using all the multimedia tools they have at their disposal, to make the stories, to summarise it in this visual interactive way. So that it’s not just massive text that we use to write, a thousand-word feature. It is all illustrated with graphics and visuals, which explain, because it’s all about explaining right? And we used to explain with words – we still need words but explaining with visuals is much more effective.

So to go back to the book a bit, what would you say are one, two biggest additions or updates that you made?

Kunda: Well, the main update is climate and already – this book, the third edition came out in, when was it, May because it was on Press Freedom Day, May 3rd, that we launched it – since May till today, you already need updates. Records have been broken for heatwaves in Australia, in Europe, in Southeast Asia, China.

But I have one beef about this thing, which is that a lot of the news reports that you read – they can be global and then a lot of coverage goes to for example, the Western summer, the record summer, July, August, September. And I was saying to some journalists, but actually, do we realise that we had our worst summer too? But it doesn’t get as much [coverage], you know, I read a scientist saying, ‘Oh, but the fires in Indonesia are releasing so much carbon and this is actually a bigger contributor to that’ than some – I can’t remember which particular smaller forest fire in North America he cited, or was it Europe. 

Kunda:  Exactly. I mean, the first edition talked about the global media imbalance because we used to, remember, work for Inter Press Service, which was trying to be an alternative news service to the big Western wire services and outlets. So we were trying to do journalism differently by focusing on the areas of the world, the periphery, which wasn’t covered enough by the Reuters and APs and AFPs of the world and on that score, not much has changed. So you’re right. 

I mean, the Kalimantan fires this year has been the worst in the last 10 years and yet, I didn’t see any reporting on that on CNN, or BBC or AFP, until Singapore started getting haze again. And in the first edition of my book, I actually talk about flying into Singapore and my flight to having to be diverted to KL because the visibility was so poor, this was 19-whatever, you know, ’92 or something. So those things have gotten worse. But the Canada fires, the California fires still get more attention, and more news. But the destruction is much worse, in Southeast Asia or in the tropical forests, because of the loss of biodiversity, because those forests in the northern hemisphere are all mostly, you know, like, there’s not much undergrowth, the biodiversity is not as rich as in the Amazon or in the Indonesian forests – and the process of globalisation that’s driving this: the demand for palm oil.

That flavour that I think would really help. I think some of these things would really be useful tools too so that people don’t think ‘It’s for that side [of the world], it hasn’t reached my backyard yet’.

Kunda: Those stories also don’t get covered. The fact that it is Western consumption and the need for these raw materials from the plantations that is driving certain countries to clear their forests to make palm oil plantations, or that China’s carbon footprint is much bigger than it should be because it’s the manufacturing base for the world. So it is manufacturing almost just about everything you buy in Europe or America – it’s manufactured in China, and that needs energy, and that’s calculated as China’s. 

Those have to be explained. You know, if you look at the map of who has the largest carbon footprint, China is the biggest – but then a large chunk of that Chinese footprint is actually Western consumption.

Interesting, so actually even doing the traditional analysis by per capita isn’t exactly right, either.

Kunda: Even that, because then you have to minus what is made for export and then calculate that back to where that export is going like the US or Europe or maybe even India. China is India’s largest trading partner. So why should what the Chinese are manufacturing for India be calculated as China’s footprints? Those things have to be explained and they’re not they’re not being explained enough. And China you know, because now of the new Cold War with the West, is really villified on everything, including on climate action. But the way the Chinese have moved on the energy transition, it puts everyone else to shame, including the West. I mean, when we wrote the book, remember, the air in Beijing was unbreathable. 

I remember those days, yes, yes, we had these stories.

Kunda:  [In] Chengdu – the birds were dying in the sky, as in dropping out of the sky. Air pollution was the story in China, But look at China now, even in winter, Chengdu is all cleaned up. Beijing has got clean air, except when the dust comes in from the desert and in international fora like the COPs, you know, like COP 26, 27, and now 28, China is no longer saying, ‘Oh, pay us for historical emissions and compensate us’. India’s saying that. China’s stopped saying it, China is looking to the future, a green future, and for them green doesn’t just mean ecology. Green means greenbacks. They’re cashing in on the energy transition, whereas the rest of the developing countries are stuck in this blaming historical emissions. Of course, there is a lot to blame for, right? 

Also we have to remember that the seeds of the current climate breakdown, especially from greenhouse gas emissions, doesn’t just go back to 1850 and the invention of the steam engine and the start of the use of fossil fuels. It goes back to the start of colonialism, which is the 17th century and the extractive economy where European countries went forth and extracted natural resources, spices – whatever they had plundered large parts of Africa, Asia, South America, Latin America for those products – and decimated indigenous peoples and their cultures for those products and got rich. So that historical fact has to be there, but you can’t keep blaming everything on that and not do anything for today.

I’m reminded of something I read, which is a saying from somewhere – I don’t remember [where] but it did stick with me – something like: ‘Today’s problems might be huge, but it doesn’t free anybody, anyone of us, from the responsibility to do your own bit.’

Kunda: Exactly, and I think that’s what we need to do. I’m here in Bangkok for a conference that is trying to look at scenarios for the next 10, 20 years. Our little group was looking at climate scenarios. I couldn’t help reflecting since there are all these wars going on at this time, that perhaps in the next 20 years, the climate breakdown and the climate crisis will not be in the headlines anymore because it’ll be superseded by the starting of the collapse of industrial civilization, and famines and wars and mass migration of millions of people, both inside and trans-border, because of heat stress and ocean expansion, and everything else. So because the crisis will be so immediate, people will not be looking at the causes so much, which is climate breakdown, because they’ll have to be dealing with conflict. . .

Kind of back to survival mode.

Kunda: So when we presented this scenario, some of those people were saying, ‘Oh, that sounds like science fiction’. Well, it’s not science fiction. It’s probably ‘cli-fi’ as they call it, climate fiction. But it’s not even fiction. It’s going to happen. You might as well get used to it, especially mass migration. There’s this new book that came out last year called ‘Nomad Century’ and if you saw it, it’s by this Australian-British author named Gaia Vince. She says, ‘Look, migration is going to happen.’

It’s already started, actually.

Kunda:  It’s already started and it’s going to pick up pace, it’s going to be accelerating. More and more people, millions in fact, are going to start moving to higher latitudes or higher altitudes, just because it’s going to be cooler – and also, they’re going to be fleeing sea-level rise. One-third of Bangladesh is going to be underwater. Maldives, is going to disappear. So where are those people, where are those people going to go? So there’s going to be mass migration and there’s no point being, like paralysed with fear about this. Human history is all about migration. We all came from some other place.  So it’s nothing new – and we might as well get over the current fears of outsiders and migration, which is driving politics in many European countries today, and sort of start looking for accommodation and living with mass migration. 

Besides, these western countries are losing their populations anyway – you know, they’re into decline, population decline. They need workers, they need populations to pay taxes, right? So might as well open up your borders and take them in. So there is a positive way to look at the mass migration that is sure to happen in the coming decades.

Okay, thank you, Kunda – thank you.

Kunda: Thank you.

(END/Reporting ASEAN)

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