‘The Story of Our Lifetime and Our Planet’ — Environmental Journalism in Troubled Times
By Tara Lohan
Journalist Meera Subramanian wants to tell you a story about the environment….
That's getting harder and harder, though. The media landscape has become a version of "The Walking Dead," with newspapers around the country closing, being acquired by hedge funds, or cutting their editorial staffs to the bone.
What's a journalist to do in a world where people are polarized and persuaded more by beliefs and opinions than objective facts?
For many, the answer is to dig deeper into storytelling.
That's what Subramanian did in her award-winning InsideClimate News series, "Middle Ground: Conversations Across America." Published in 2017 and 2018, the series told deeply personal and character-driven stories as it tracked climate effects in conservative communities.
In the process, the series revealed a far richer and more complex story than we often hear in narratives diluted to simply climate deniers versus believers.
Subramanian has made a career of unearthing stories that give people a better understanding of the natural world and each other. Her work has been widely published and anthologized in collections such as Best American Science and Nature Writing. She's the author of A River Runs Again: India's Natural World in Crisis from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka. And she's currently the Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron visiting professor in the environment and the humanities at Princeton University.
In December she carried her experience to a new arena as president of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), which works to support professional journalists and increase the public's understanding of environmental issues. It's a job that seems to get harder each day, with newsroom budget cuts and threats to journalists' safety.
The Revelator talked with Subramanian about the challenges and opportunities environmental journalists face today, and how to deal with an inbox full of bad news every morning.
As president of an organization that helps support environmental journalists, what’s most concerning for you right now?
A number of things. We're seeing more restrictions domestically in terms of press freedoms and access to information. SEJ has been really active working to defend the Freedom of Information Act.
And then there are safety issues for journalists. On the international level, it's a frightening time. People who are covering the environment are increasingly being targeted by governments. This is happening online in terms of social media harassment, doxing and that kind of activity. (Editor's note: Shortly after this interview, the Department of Justice announced arrests of violent extremists in four states who had made threats against American journalists.)
But it's more than that. Just last month SEJ was writing letters to help free a Mongabay editor who was detained in Indonesia. And you're hearing about journalists, some of them not just being detained, but being murdered, for their activity exposing environmental stories. So there's personal-safety issues for journalists.
I think the other huge challenge is that just being a journalist has always been demanding and financially challenging. Now more than ever. We also have a 24-7 news cycle you're constantly responding to. It's harder to do the slow-burn stories — the stories that are not as immediate as the entire continent of Australia being on fire but are just as critical to put those stories into context.
What do you see as some opportunities?
I feel like we're at a very interesting point because the climate change issue is affecting so many realms. People are thinking about covering energy and the environment in a very different way than they did even five years ago.
There's a lot of opportunity there in terms of other beats that are not traditionally thinking about the environment. There's climate fiction happening in the arts section. The business pages are writing about BlackRock divesting. There are journalists who didn't do environmental stories before and now they do. I think that's really positive.
It seems like every week we read stories about newspapers shutting down, layoffs and consolidation in the media industry. What are the risks to our understanding of environmental issues?
Shrinking newsrooms and these expansive news deserts are getting even worse. The mission of SEJ is to inform the public on environmental issues and to keep them engaged. And that can be challenging when there are newsrooms in particular states that don't have a single environmental reporter.
But when there are these news deserts, hopefully journalists who wouldn't normally be thinking about environmental issues can come to SEJ and can find the resources to figure out how to cover those stories better.
I've also seen a lot of responses to the news deserts. The Knight Foundation is putting money into getting people in newsrooms. SEJ has the Fund for Environmental Journalism to support journalists who would otherwise not have the funding or the institutional publishing support to do these stories.
Each time there seems to be a crisis within journalism, there are creative responses that rise up to try to deal with it. Sometimes it's hard to tell if you're fundamentally gaining ground in terms of getting good, robust journalism out there in the world. But people are still trying to figure out new models to make this work.
I think that there has to be a recognition that there will need to be a continual process of being creative, of figuring out what works and what doesn't. And then don't get too used to it, because it will change.
As environmental journalists we constantly face bad news, and this can be emotionally tough, as The Revelator has covered recently. Do you feel the weight of that?
Yeah, I feel it. I've been amazed at how much I'm hearing it from other people as well.
I'm teaching now, so I'm also hearing it from my students who are 20 years old and they've got a lot more life ahead of them than I do. And it's looking really precarious in many respects. If you have watched the lack of action happening for decades, it's totally understandable that they don't have much faith that something is going to shift.
But on the other hand, there's also been incredible activism coming from the younger generation in terms of just getting engaged with these issues. And I'm completely impressed with how many of my students are interested in journalism and are eager to do it, despite the challenges.
I feel like there's a whole new generation of journalists who are coming up who are thinking about these issues in a different way than prior generations. They are thinking about how it's not just a science issue or a policy issue. But it's about human rights and equity. They're thinking about all these much more integrated ways of looking at a problem. That gives me great hope.
What drives you to keep doing this work?
It can be hard staying up to date on all the information. And it's mostly bad news, pretty much every morning, in your inbox. So that's not easy.
But I feel like this story is really the story of our lifetime and our planet. It's the story that crosses every boundary that we humans have artificially put upon the world. Anybody who can be engaged in dealing with it, on any level, should do that. And so, being a journalist, I feel it's my responsibility to tell these stories.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
<div id="7aab6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4bff71c40172c15736f73fe73ed18078"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1330967606585593857" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Today, I’m announcing the first members of my national security and foreign policy team. They will rally the world… https://t.co/bAisIQk5P6</div> — Joe Biden (@Joe Biden)<a href="https://twitter.com/JoeBiden/statuses/1330967606585593857">1606162380.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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