As an oil-funded war ravages Ukraine, climate coverage struggles to find its footing
As newsrooms grappled with how to cover the war in Ukraine, reporters covering climate change were facing an additional challenge: how to get a landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) into the news – and whether it would even resonate if it did.
“The article I did on the IPCC report – I wrote it on a whole night shift while doing live coverage on the war,” said Patryk Strzałkowski, a climate and environment reporter at Gazeta.pl in Poland, and a member of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network (OCJN), a programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
As the war raged in Ukraine, we reached out to members of our climate network to find out how their newsrooms have reacted to the conflict.
Two things hindered climate reporting in his newsroom, Strzałkowski said: the chaos and workload of covering the war and the influx of refugees into Poland, and the audience’s own focus on news about the conflict.
The rapid shift in workloads also affected OCJN member Jana Václavíková, a journalist at Czech news outlet Aktuálně, who frequently writes about climate change. Václavíková is one of four people at Aktuálně’s foreign news team, one of which was trying to leave Ukraine over the weekend, she said. Ahead of the release of the IPCC report on Monday, the fifth day of the invasion, there was no time to cover other topics.
“There was the question of whether I [would] even have time to write about the IPCC report,” she said. “In the end, I wrote it, because I prepared another invasion-related text during [the] weekend.”
For climate reporters, particularly those in former Eastern Bloc countries, the invasion brought back traumatic memories from the past, with war coverage overtaking all other topics over the last week. But as European dependence on Russian oil and gas supplies gained attention, reporters in multiple newsrooms were warning that the twin crises of war and climate change were deeply connected.
“It is remarkable how the two biggest threats to Europe today have suddenly come together: climate change and the hostile powerful neighbour on which we are dependent for energy,” says OCJN member Tomáš Karlík, the science editor at ČT24 in the Czech Republic. “Is the solution to both problems the same? Is it a move away from fossil fuels? Or will the situation escalate so that coal and gas will return, at least temporarily?”
The oil connection
On Monday, February 28th, the IPCC released its long-awaited Working Group II report, which focused on the impacts of climate change and how to adapt to them. Its publication was expected to spur a moment of reckoning just months after the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, and a previous warning from Working Group I last August that humanity is facing a “code red.”
The report, the first of its kind since 2014, warned that changes were occurring faster than expected and that the window is narrowing rapidly to avoid the worst impacts of rising temperatures. As the last lines of the report were being finalised, the Ukrainian team withdrew from the review process as they scrambled for shelter, according to Politico.
“There’s this connection. All the money for this aggression comes from oil, from fossil fuels. The more we use this, the more we sponsor this aggression,” Ukrainian climate scientist Svitlana Krakovska told journalists Zia Weise and Karl Mathiesen.
That link between climate change and the geopolitical risks of dependence on Russian oil and gas is now the most immediate angle for journalists covering the climate fallout of war, multiple journalists pointed out. In Europe, these risks are particularly high: around 40% of the bloc’s natural gas supplies and about a third of its crude oil come from Russia.
In response, the EU’s commissioner for Energy warned on Thursday that the bloc must take immediate steps to lessen its dependence on Russian energy. The German government also pledged to rapidly accelerate its dependence on renewable energy, just days after officially cancelling the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project that would have brought Russian gas directly into the country.
Other countries are also making enormous changes to their energy policies based on the invasion. Finland gets up to 65% of its overall energy from neighbouring Russia, says Marika Kataja, a health and science reporter at the Finnish public news broadcaster, YLE News, who has shifted beats to help cover the war.
“Now only after a few days, many of those politicians that have been against green energy sources before have turned to support them,” she says. “Overall, [the] consensus in Finland is that, due to national security, we need to pull the plug and free [ourselves] of Russian energy dependence.”
In Romania, which gets 20% of its energy supplies from Russia, the government has pledged that the country must become energy independent and accelerate its green transition, said Oana Despa, the editor-in-chief at Buletin de București in Romania.
There is also another energy angle to the conflict: not just the environmental risks of the war itself but the risk from Ukrainian nuclear plants now under attack.
After Chernobyl, Romanians are watching closely for the impact on Ukraine’s nuclear reactors, Despa said. On Friday, news organisations reported that Russian soldiers had taken control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in southern Ukraine, the largest in European soil.
Beyond Eastern Europe
The conflict’s impact on newsrooms extends well beyond Europe. At South Africa’s Daily Maverick, some journalists who focus exclusively on the climate crisis were asked to pivot and write stories about the invasion, said Ethan Van Diemen, a staff reporter focusing on climate and environment coverage, and a member of the OCJN.
This pivot made Van Diemen think about the relationship between how both conflict and climate change are covered internationally. “[This reminds me the fact that] the impacts of extreme weather are treated with much more concern when they occur in developed nations [versus] the Global North,” he said. “This happens despite the fact that people in the Global South are – and will be – the primary victims of the disastrous impacts of climate change.”
OCJN members also noted that coverage of the IPCC’s report was impacted even far away from the battle’s front lines.
“With most media outlets keeping a close eye on the conflict, I anticipated not many stories were going to come out after the report’s publication. This was indeed the case,” said Fermín Koop, a freelance climate journalist and regional editor at Diálogo Chino in Argentina.
While the war led to discussions over the role of the energy transition in Europe, “this wasn’t the case in Latin America, with the climate variable not added to the coverage,” he added.
While only a few outlets were starting to link climate change with the war, he felt this could be a good start: “These few stories in which we see a link between the conflict and the climate crisis might be a starting point for a different type of coverage in which we see a climate variable across the newsroom."
Parallels to the pandemic
For many journalists, the shock of the invasion drew parallels to the arrival of COVID-19. But their experience with covering the pandemic and its fast-paced rhythm of studies and policies might have provided climate reporters with an extra degree of caution about linking climate and Ukraine early on.
“Reporting on the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic was for me a lesson on how ‘hot takes’ and early analysis on consequences of a huge crisis quite often end up being just wrong. Reality changes fast and these changes have surprising consequences,” said Strzałkowski from Gazeta.pl. “So I’m in no rush to do such stories [on the intersection of climate change and the invasion]”.
The pandemic re-organised newsroom resources and priorities, and the parallels between COVID-19 and climate change inspired some newsrooms to invest more heavily in their climate coverage.
While short-term this intersection of war and climate might still be overshadowed by reporting on Russian shelling and Ukrainian refugees, the conflict might have a similar effect. Rather than pushing climate action off the agenda long-term, some reporters argue it will be even more important to convey the interconnection between climate change and conflict.
“It will also be important to strengthen and improve climate coverage despite the war,” says Karlík. “I’m afraid climate action on a global scale might become even more complicated now.”