Our podcast: amplifying the voices of climate experts from the Global South

In this episode we look at a project to improve climate coverage by making scientists and experts from overlooked regions more accessible
Testing soil health in Western Kenya

Testing soil health in Western Kenya. Georgina Smith / CIAT

10th November 2022

The subject

In this episode of our podcast we hear about a unique collaboration to elevate the voices of climate experts from all regions of the world. We hear from two people involved in creating the Global South Climate Database about how climate scientists outside of North America and Europe are not sought for their expertise, and how this database aims to address the problem.

The speakers

Diego Arguedas Ortiz is the Network Manager at the Oxford Climate Journalism Network. His work has been published by BBC Future, MIT Technology ReviewLe Monde Diplomatique, Univision and Anthropocene. He has covered several UN climate change conferences, the Panama Papers, and founded and edited Ojo al Clima, Central America's first climate news outlet.

Ayesha Tandon is a science journalist from Carbon Brief. Ayesha holds an MSci in natural sciences, specialising in climate science, from the University of Exeter. She previously worked at the UK Met Office as a climate science communicator.

Eduardo Suárez is the Head of Editorial at the Reuters Institute. He is co-founder of two news startups and an award-winning senior journalist with experience in Europe and the United States. He oversees publications and communications at the institute. 

The podcast

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The transcript

On the lack of diversity in climate reporting 

Eduardo: Ayesha, I’m going to start with you. The origin of this initiative can be traced actually to an analysis, a post about the lack of diversity in climate science and expertise that you published in October 2021. So I’m sure that our listeners would be interested, what did you find back then?                          

Ayesha: Absolutely. As you say, the wheels started turning with this project, if you like, about a year ago when I published this analysis. We at Carbon Brief were running a feature week on the topic of climate justice, and the piece that I contributed to that I wanted to look at the lack of diversity within climate science. I wanted to look at how climate papers get out there and who are the people that are writing these papers.

So I looked at the 100 most highly cited climate science papers over a five-year period, so this is papers in highly prestigious journals like Nature and Science, and I analysed who was writing them. This involved manually going through 1,300 authors [laughter] to see their gender, to see what country they were from, and I found –                          

Eduardo: My goodness, how long did it take? It must have taken ages –              

Ayesha: Oh, it took many, many hours, more time than I want to admit to. [Laughs] Probably not the most efficient way to do this analysis. But basically I found that maybe unsurprisingly, 90 percent of the authors came from the Global North, so North America and Europe. And less than one percent came from Africa. I was expecting an inequality but I wasn’t expecting it to be this big, you know?

So what I did was I talked to lots of scientists about why they thought this was. I spoke to experts from the Global North and from the Global South, men and women, and I just spoke about what barriers they faced in introducing climate science. And there were a huge, as you can imagine, a huge number of issues that they brought up. There were things around funding, funding for equipment, funding for grants. There was the power imbalance of even if you do manage to collaborate with someone from the Global North who has funding, that reduces this power imbalance in the way that your research is conducted. There are language barriers, publishing in English is really, I don't want to say needed, but English really is the most popular language for people to read climate science, and all of the really prestigious journals are in English, so there's a language barrier.

Anyway, so many issues that people raised, and this really highlighted to me how important it is to try to get some more diversity into our work and make it a little bit easier to just overcome a few of these barriers that Global South experts are facing.

Eduardo: I guess, Diego, from the other side of this problem, you are the manager of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network, and you’ve been in permanent contact in the last year or so with 200 journalists from all over the world. Some of them climate journalists but also journalists interested in climate that cover other areas. Are they aware of these problems that Ayesha detected, and in which ways is this actually impacting the reporting on the climate crisis?

Diego: Yes, I think it’s very interesting how at the same time for several months afterwards that Ayesha and Carbon Brief finished this exercise and we started chatting with the reporters at the Oxford Climate Journalism Network. We started hearing similar reports or similar circumstances, so what we do at the Network, we have lectures and workshops and seminars, but there's a lot of listening. Part of the exercise is creating community and sharing experiences and sharing working on outcome reporting.


And many of our members, the majority of whom come from the Global South, from Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Pacific, they were saying, “Look, I am struggling to find reports for scientists or experts that cover these topics in countries around me.” And I can go back to my experience reporting for climate change in Costa Rica when I was trying to find experts in Nicaragua or in Guatemala or in Honduras. It was not entirely clear who these experts were, where are they placed, and if I wanted to report on a big paper that just came out, the papers were written by scientists in North America or in Europe. And if I just Googled ‘oceanography climate change’, or even in Spanish, ‘oceanografía cambio climático’, it was likely that the scientists I came up with were not from our region.

So that’s something we discussed. And the other thing we kept hearing was that some of these reporters were hearing from their sources, from scientists, and I can distinctly recall one colleague from the Philippines who was telling us, “My sources are telling me that they’re frustrated because they are feeling sidelined on the reporting on climate change. Some scientists from elsewhere come and maybe spend a couple of weeks here and study the subject, and then they are quoted more often than people who maybe know this area for their whole lives.”

So these two topics were on our mind by the time that one of our members who is also a Carbon Brief reporter, Joe Goodman, told us that Ayesha had this in mind. And we started discussing this and realised that there were many common issues that we were both facing.                           

Ayesha: Absolutely. I think one of the things you said was so important, that there are so many experts from the Global South who are feeling sidelined, but at the same time even for journalists who really want to make diversity a big issue in their pieces, it’s just so difficult.

I don't know about you, Diego, when you were doing your reporting, but I could easily sink and entire day into trying to find diverse sources for a piece. One day out of let’s say two days that I have to write the piece, and still not find anybody just from Googling, because from the Global South in general seem to have such a lower internet presence because they don't have access to these big journals and websites and places where they can get their name out there. So yes, it was very exciting when you approached me and said that you were also seeing these issues.

On making Global South climate experts more accessible 

Eduardo: Let’s talk a little bit about that database itself, because now we have the database, it is available on the Carbon Brief website. Ayesha, I would like you to walk our listeners through what we have right now. How many experts have joined so far? How did you recruit them? How did you find them? Tell us a little bit about that process.                 

Ayesha: Absolutely. As you said, the database is now live, very exciting, on the Carbon Brief website, carbonbrief.org. The way it works is that we have a Google form, and if a scientist from the Global South or an expert, so we’re looking at climate science, energy and policy experts from the Global South. If they want to add their details to this database, they just need to fill in the Google form which will take about five minutes. And that response gets sent to me and to Diego and our team. Then it gets to the very time-consuming process of verification. We look through every single submission. We check that they are from the Global South. We check that they are actually an expert in what they say they are an expert in. We clean it up, we fix typos, spelling mistakes, etc., and then the details go live onto the database. We’re trying to do that update maybe once a month –

Eduardo: We don't have any Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck or whatever, these are real experts, right?

Ayesha: [Laughs] Absolutely, that is the idea.

Diego: And it’s interesting because there are so many people who have signed up that do not belong there, if you want, either people who are based and are from the Global North, scientists from Germany or from Denmark but are basically Global South because probably there are so many top scientists from Europe, North America, they go to countries like Costa Rica or South Africa or Singapore to share their expertise over there. And maybe we would like to highlight more scientists and experts from those countries.

But also just a lot of people who you just feel they want to share their expertise, but maybe they’re reporters or … It’s interesting how many people just want to join. I think from our first cut we were doing 540 or so entries, and out of those, 410 or 420 reached the big database. The rest were we were discussing with them we need more information or just they didn't cut it for one reason or the other, maybe they have specific climate expertise. And on this, I think it’s interesting that we are asking scientists and experts to submit this, their entry themselves, because this might be seen as an extra burden for them, so why do I have to do it myself. Why can’t Carbon Brief or Reuters Institute just come and make their own database?

And for us, it’s really important that we are not seen as the judges of who should be in in the first place, so if you submit, then we’ll verify it, but we don't want this database to be only people we know, because that makes it narrower just by definition.

Ayesha: Absolutely, and that’s such a good point because some other people have also asked, “Can you verify who is a good speaker?” Like can you rank people based on how good they will be for media appearances. And that again is something that we’re not going to do, we’re not going to impose our views on these experts. We will put the database there, journalists can use it themselves, but we’re not going to start trying to rank experts by how good they would be to speak to, that’s not our role.

Yes, so the experts will add their own details, it’s self-submission and, as Diego has said, we think that’s really important. As it is, we have experts from more than 80 countries who collectively speak more than 50 languages on the database. So, every expert on the database speaks English, we decided to make that a prerequisite. But of our 412 experts, there are more than 50 other languages represented there as well, which is very exciting.

I should also add that since the launch of the database, which was only five days ago from the day we’re recording. We’ve had about 400 or 500 new submissions to the database, so it is really taking off, and we will try to update every month or so with new submissions. So this is a constantly evolving process, there will constantly be new people added, so that’s very exciting.

On the diversity of scientists in the database 

Eduardo: It’s really exciting to hear, yes. Diego, Ayesha mentioned this briefly, but one of the coolest things about the database is that it includes experts who can do interviews in more than 50 different languages. Obviously you and I are both Spanish native speakers, and from your conversations with climate journalists not just in Latin America but in other regions, why do you think this really matters? What would be the impact to have these kind of experts who can give interviews, let's say, in French or Hindi or Urdu or any other languages around the world?          

Diego: I think it’s fundamental, and not only Global South languages but also languages like German and Swedish. I was checking the database and we do have people speaking German and people speaking Swedish. And I think this is critical for several reasons. The first one obviously is because majority of people around the world don’t speak English as a first language and naturally you feel more comfortable sharing ideas and interviewing someone in your own language. That is the first point, but then because of the nature of journalism, especially audio and video journalism, you require someone who speaks the language of your audience. So if you're reporting from Argentina, you need someone who speaks Spanish, and if you're in Angola you want someone who speaks Portuguese. You just need someone who your audience can understand.

So that’s fundamental just for the issue of how do you make sure your audience understands this expert. Then the other point is you just need scientists that you can talk to and make it easy to comment. And this is relevant and is really felt by reporters. This week we had one of our weekly chats at the Oxford Climate Journalism Network, and one of our members, Neel Kamal from India, he was mentioning he was just really thankful for the fact that we have languages listed and he can reach out to people in Hindi and see who actually speaks Hindi here who I can interview.

I think that makes a difference if you're reporting on a topic, especially if you're on a deadline, you don't have time to translate back into your language. I think that just makes it easier for reporters to understand. And also, if you are reporting from France or from Spain or from Italy or Germany and you want someone to speak to on air in your language, you can actually Google this or search this database and see who’s there, who’s speaking your language.                           

Eduardo: Sure. Once we have such a diverse and huge database as we do now, I guess that the challenge is to get journalists to use it. Ayesha, I don't know if you can tell us which kind of things you guys are planning to do to ensure that the database actually moves the needle in terms of the diversity of the climate change coverage in publications around the world.          

Ayesha: Absolutely. I should thank you for keeping us on track because it feels only five days after the launch that we’re still reeling from everything we’ve been doing here for the past few months, but yes, as you say, got to press on, got to get more people using this database. So one of the first and maybe most important things is COP27 is coming up starting on Monday, and we obviously will have journalists and scientists and experts from all over the world travelling to Egypt, to Sharm El Sheikh, to talk about climate change.

We have some people from Carbon Brief, some people from the Reuters Journalism Institute will be travelling there and, well, very basically they’ll be trying to promote the database to as many people as they can so we actually have little QR codes that they’re going to be taking around and flashing at people and asking them to scan to fill in the database.                            

So the big thing that I’m really looking forward to is we’re going to be implementing media training for the experts on the database. So it’s all very well to have a database of experts from the Global South, but if they don't understand how to interact well with journalists, how to do quotes, how to respond to media enquiries, it’s not going to be very useful for journalists. And that’s what we want, we want to make this database useful for journalists. So in the new year, the plan is to basically put forward some training to help Global South experts understand what is needed from them when a journalist reaches out with a question.

On what COP27 should aim for 

Eduardo: I’d like to finish this episode actually speaking a little bit more generally about COP27 that Ayesha just mentioned. It’s taking place in Egypt this year, actually later this month, Diego. What would you say are the main issues that new organisations should be paying attention to this time?       

Diego: I think the topic that will take most of the attention this time will be loss and damage. The recent floods in Pakistan, the heatwave around the world, the hurricanes in the Caribbean and then typhoons in the Pacific. I think this issue of what is the extent of what we’re losing and how are we going to pay back for that is going to be at the centre of the conversation. And I think that is where the media attention will be. But I would like to go further on and then start asking, start following the money after loss and damage. I think loss and damage will be discussed a lot as a topic in itself, but the financial implications of that I think will be interesting. The money not only on loss and damage but all the money also on mitigation and adaptation. We have so much money being discussed, we discussed in the new financial goal after 2025, the new 100 billion, what’s going to be, who’s going to pay it.

I think all these big money issues I would expect to be at the centre of the conversation after this COP, and especially after the COP. I think the COP ends and media coverage for climate change, how would it continue following? And I think we’re getting better as an industry, slightly better at not only covering climate change two weeks every year, but getting more of a flow across the other 50 weeks of the year.                           

Eduardo: That’s a great point, and I have a slightly different question for Ayesha which is, what would you like to see from news organisations that are covering COP27 this year?

Ayesha: Yes, I completely agree with Diego that I think loss and damage is going to be the big thing that media is covering at COP27. So what I’m really interested to see is who journalists talk to about this issue, because there are some real giants in the field of loss and damage, for example, Saleemul Huq from Bangladesh, and I think it would be very easy for journalists to go to these same people repeatedly and for basically every outlet to be running a very similar story with a very similar set of quotes. So I’m really interested to see if there are any new voices who arise out of COP27 this year and if the media really does put that time and effort into finding different experts for this topic. That’s what I’m hoping to see from this COP.

On some standout figures in the database 

Eduardo: That’s also a very good point. Finally, I’d like you both to highlight one of the experts in our Global South Climate Database. You can choose more than one really, but obviously the purpose of this is to highlight the work of one of these people who have actually joined the database and that journalists can reach out for some of their coverage in the next few weeks or the next few months. Maybe we can start with you, Ayesha?

Ayesha: Absolutely, It was very difficult but I have selected one person from the database. This is Regina R Rodrigues from Brazil, and I selected her because I’ve done lots of work with her in the lead up to the launch of the database. She’s been really helpful to bounce ideas off of. She actually spoke at the soft launch of the database as an event a couple of months ago about some of the barriers faced by climate experts from the Global South. She’s been very vocal about it and very open, and it really helped me to understand some of the issues that she’s been facing. Aside from that, she is a fantastic scientist as well, she’s studying compound extreme events in the ocean and on land. She’s a very good speaker. She’s done work with, for example, Nature commentary pieces before, so she’s got lots of experience with the media as well, and I would love to see some more people contacting her for her expertise.

Eduardo: OK, we’ll jot that down. Regina Rodrigues from Brazil. So, Diego, what’s your choice?              

Diego: I’m going to go homegrown and I’m going to go for Dr Andrea Vincent who is an assistant professor of ecosystem ecology at my home university, University of Costa Rica. Andrea is one of these, like, forces of nature. I mean it’s crazy, she’s so experienced in her field, she does carbon in soils and geocarbon systems, and she has, like, a gazillion experiments at the same time in Costa Rica and mentors students over there. And I just really enjoy the work that she does back home and I really admire her a lot.

But the other person I also want to highlight is David Obura who is the founding director of Coastal Ocean Research and Development - Indian Ocean, CORDIO, East Africa. And David, he works in more like marine science and biodiversity. He came to speak to our network on our biodiversity seminar a couple of weeks ago, like a month ago, and he was so great. He was part of this IPBES, biodiversity and climate change, like a joint workshop, and he just knows his stuff on biodiversity and climate change, which is one of my favourite topics to cover when I was reporting on climate change.

The thing that strikes me just mentioning these two people and also Regina and so many in the database is just the level of scientists we have here. Because we used to say, “OK, we’ll just find some scientist in the Global South and we’ll just include them,” but it’s just entirely the opposite. The quality of people here is as good or better than the average scientist you have in the Global North. And I think just highlighting that this is just not chatter reporting, this will have reached any news organisation’s coverage of climate change any day of the week. You just find out who those people are and reach out to them, because it’s just outstanding what they’re doing in their fields.

Ayesha: Yes, absolutely. I don't know about you but I have spent hours just trawling the database and kind of grinning at the people that I’m finding on there, the expertise they have is amazing.              

Eduardo: That’s a super great note to end the podcast with, and we encourage any of our listeners, any journalists who are listening to go to the database, find Regina Rodrigues from Brazil, Andrea Vincent from Costa Rica or David Obura from Kenya. But many, many, many other names there, like hundreds of names of people you can reach out to for your climate coverage in the next few weeks or months.