Freelance environmental journalist Stephen Leahy: Going it alone and making it work

Stephen Leahy speaking at Toronto Climate March 2014
Stephen Leahy speaking at Toronto Climate March 2014


With little demand for environmental stories in Canadian mainstream publications, freelance journalist Stephen Leahy faced two options: Give up the beat, or find a new way to make ends meet. Paul Weinberg explains why the 20-year veteran chose the latter and how he is faring.

[Published by the Canadian Journalism Project in 2012]

A committed freelance environmental journalist has discovered a way to cover important—and often unreported—stories and stay electronically in touch with readers without going through a mainstream media intermediary.

Not that Stephen Leahy had any choice in the matter, after finding fewer newspapers and magazines in Canada and abroad buying his stories a few years ago. It was a problem he saw his American colleagues facing in their domestic market as well.

Based in Uxbridge, east of Toronto, he has also found himself one of the few Canadian reporters still covering international conferences where scientists convene over the latest findings on climate, resources depletion, weather, energy, conservation or other environmental issues.

It all came to a head at the 9th World Wilderness Congress (WWC), in Mérida, Yucatán, on November 6, 2009. Leahy and some other fellow freelance journalists —working for such outlets as Reuters and The New York Times—sat down feeling quite discouraged.  Amidst them was the excitement of a weighty conference featuring the likes of high-profile scientist Jane Goodall.

These “highly motivated” journalistic veterans, recounts Leahy, could not sell a single story from this major conference to their traditional mainstream media outlets across North America.

“These guys were making no money. [Most] of us freelancers were making zero money. Fortunately, our hotel and flight costs were covered [by the conservation conference organizers] but we were not making money,” he recalls.

Leahy was the exception, having one regular client, alternative Rome-based global news agency Inter Press Service, which was still keen on receiving his latest story from the conservation meeting for its largely developing world audience.

Searching for alternatives

During that session in Mexico, Leahy and his fellow freelancers engaged in the kind of soul searching that one does when the writing is on the wall. Freelance work involving the covering of international scientific conferences for money had virtually dried up, and so most of these journalists specializing in the environmental were considering packing it in and opting instead for public relations work or a job in academia.

In fact, many of Leahy’s freelancer colleagues had had better contacts among the major buyers of environmental stories in the media during the good times—when the state of the climate and the planet’s fauna and flora was fashionable, he says.  “If they could not make it, how was I supposed to make a go of it?”

Leahy had started covering the environment about 20 years by writing entirely for Canadian newspapers and magazines before expanding eventually into international outlets such as Inter Press, The GuardianNew ScientistAudubon Magazine, Al Jazeera and National Geographic News Watch.

But in the last several years the environmentally-focused publications which had been his bread and butter had either disappeared or were (in the case of Audubon) coming out less frequently because of diminished advertising dollars.

Funding his way—with some help

Earning less freelance income meant that Leahy could not afford to attend as many of the international scientific conferences, which had been his major beat for years.

Rather than give up, Leahy was determined to prove that a market still exists for “independent” environmental journalism and he adopted a funding model to allow him to continue.

Leahy has asked his readers to defray his expenses from travelling and staying in the cities around the world where these international gatherings of scientists continue to meet. Each supporter is asked to send in $10 a month via PayPal or a credit card on his web site to help him continue his work in “community supported environmental journalism.”

“I made a commitment to people that obviously the money is going to be used strictly for journalistic purposes and to stay in touch with them,” he says.

Currently, Leahy has upwards of 300 readers who are offering financial support and feedback on his reporting.

Surprisingly enough, Leahy has not fully taken advantage of Twitter which could really expand his legion of supporters.

“I have been thinking about [social media]. Doing it right takes time. In fact I do spend a significant amount of time fundraising. One of the downsides [of this funding model],” he maintains.

Today, Leahy says he still generates an income below the poverty line. On the other hand, he lives frugally, with support from his long term spouse and family back home. “I don’t have any debts,” he says simply.

Leahy’s funding model was unique at the start but other journalists including those new to the profession are taking a serious gander at doing something similar to financially support their work and in some cases get themselves established.

One of Leahy’s colleagues, for instance, is using an appeal to readers to raise close to $3,000 to pay for a six-week trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to research its internal conflicts for an upcoming book.

But Leahy, who is close to 60, says the toll of travelling to eight to ten international conferences annually (often resulting in being outside Canada close to five months a year) and sleeping on supporters’ couches has taken a physical toll on him in the past   year.

“My ultimate hope is to have 10, 20 or 30 younger people doing something similar. I do get quite a few calls from journalism students from around the world and I always have time for them. Folks younger than me understand social media better and they can use it.”

Diminishing coverage of environmental issues

A perennially-losing candidate for the Green Party in federal elections for the Ontario constituency of Durham—where Minister of International Cooperation Bev Oda holds the seat—Leahy has discovered among prospective voters “a hunger” for information on the environment.

“People are really concerned about environmental issues and the state of our democracy. And the second thing is they are so unaware of what is going on in the world, which I think is astonishing,” he says.

The blame for this comes from the disappearance of science issues from the general news programs, Leahy states. He cites as the latest manifestation of this trend—the recent cancellation of CBC News Network’s Connect with Mark Kelly. “It was one of the few sources [for the environment] on broadcast. This is a big blow.”

One of Leahy’s regrets is that with the exception of the alternative online site, (which reprints his IPS stories) his articles are largely published outside Canada.

“I started off in Canada, more than 20 years ago, writing 100 per cent for Canadian publications. I used to do weekly columns on environmental issues for daily newspapers that don’t exist,” he said.

Leahy is one of those people who cannot imagine doing anything but journalism.

His funding model, he adds, “has enabled me to continue doing what I think is a pretty useful public service, providing people around the world with information about the important environmental issues.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Leahy had been interviewed on Connect with Mark Kelly a couple of times. Though he had been asked to appear, due to scheduling changes or bumps, Leahy has never actually been interviewed on the show.


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We Have Five Years to Stop Building Coal Plants and Gas-Powered Cars

Measurement of CO2 levels in atmosphere

By Stephen Leahy

[Authors note: One of the most difficult and important articles I’ve written in 20 years of journalism. Originally published Sept 6 2014 @Vice Motherboard]


Here’s the frightening implication of a landmark study on carbon emissions:

By 2018, no new cars, homes, schools, factories, or electrical power plants should be built anywhere in the world, ever again, unless they’re either replacements for old ones or carbon neutral. Otherwise greenhouse gas emissions will push global warming past 2˚C of temperature rise worldwide, threatening the survival of many people currently living on the planet.

Every climate expert will tell you we’re on a tight carbon budget as it is—that only so many tons of carbon dioxide can be pumped into the atmosphere before the global climate will overheat. We’ve already warmed temperatures 0.85˚C from pre-industrial levels, and the number rises every year. While no one thinks 2˚ C is safe, per se, it’s safer than going even higher and running the risk that global warming will spiral out of our control completely.

Last year, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report established a global carbon budget for the first time. It essentially stated that starting in 2014, the carbon we can afford is up to around 1,000 billion tons of CO2. In other words, our cars, factories, and power plants can only emit 1,000 billion tons (1,000 Gt, or gigatons) of CO2 into the atmosphere if we want to have a greater than 50/50 chance of keeping our climate below 2˚C of warming.

Even considering that humanity pumped 36 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere last year alone, 1,000 Gt still seems like a big budget. It might even seem like we have room to spare.

Maybe not.


New research shows that we may not have been paying attention to the entire CO2 emissions picture. We’ve only been counting annual emissions, and not the fact that building a new coal or gas power plant is in reality a commitment to pumping out CO2 for the lifespan of a given plant—which usually ranges from 40 to 60 years. These future emissions are known as a carbon commitment.

A new study has tallied the carbon commitments from all existing coal and gas power plants by looking at their annual CO2 emissions and current age. The study assumes an operating life of 40 years. A 38-year old coal plant will have far smaller future CO2 emissions, and thus smaller carbon commitment than one built today. The study, “Commitment accounting of CO2 emissions,” determined that most new power plants that went online in 2012 have a very large carbon commitment—19 Gt of CO2.

Building new power plants means more carbon commitments to eat into our 2˚C carbon budget. Build enough giant coal plants today, and their future emissions would tie up the entire budget, leaving no room for any other source of CO2 emissions.

Meanwhile, the rate at which new plants are built far outpaces the closure of old plants. Many US coal plants operate for longer than 40 years; the oldest is currentlyaround 70 years.

“Worldwide, we’ve built more coal-burning power plants in the past decade than in any previous decade, and closures of old plants aren’t keeping pace with this expansion,” said study co-author Steven Davis of the University of California, Irvine.

Image: Flickr

Fossil Fuels Power Plant Carbon Commitment: 300 Gt

In the study, Davis and co-author Robert Socolow of Princeton University calculated that the existing coal and gas power plant carbon commitment turns out to be very large—more than 300 Gt.

Non-Power Plant Carbon Commitment: 400 Gt 

The reality of carbon commitment applies to any new fossil-fuel burning infrastructure, including office buildings and homes using gas heating or automobiles and planes burning jet fuel. All of these have an operating life of several or many years during which they will emit CO2 from now until they are ‘retired.’ These future emissions also count as a carbon commitment. In another upcoming study, Davis calculated the carbon commitments from other CO2 sources, including from the transport, industry, commercial and residential sectors. He estimates that as of 2013 this carbon commitment exceeded 400 Gt.

Together with the power plant commitment of 300 Gt laid out in the current study, that’s more than 700 Gt in carbon commitments on a global carbon budget of 1000 Gt. That leaves less than 300 Gt for future power plants, steel mills, cement plants, buildings, and other stuff that burns fossil fuels.

At current rates we’ll have accounted for the remainder of the budget in only five years. Here’s how it breaks down:

Estimated Annual Emissions 2014-2018: 200 Gt

Global CO2 emissions from all sources amounted to 36 Gt in 2013. Annual emissions have been growing at a rate of 2 to 3 percent per year. Without major efforts to reduce emissions, another 200 gigatons of CO2 will be emitted between 2014 and 2018.

Estimated New Carbon Commitments 2014-2018: 100 Gt

Davis and Socolow determined that carbon commitments from new fossil fuel burning infrastructure will average at least 20 Gt per year, totaling 100 Gt over five years.

300 + 400 +200 +100 = 1,000 Gigatons of Carbon, Locked in by 2018

Unless coal and gas power plants or other major sources of CO2 are shut down before the end of their life span, the 1,000 Gt global carbon budget will be fully allocated sometime in 2018. No one will notice, because things won’t look or feel too much different than today. CO2 is akin to a slow, trans-generational poison. The climate impacts of blowing the carbon budget won’t be felt until 2030 or 2040 —and for a long time after.


Even the climate experts won’t notice much, because annual CO2 emissions have been the sole focus of countries and the United Nations process to address climate change said Davis.

“That’s like driving down the highway and only looking out of the side window,” Davis told me.

Politicians, business leaders, investors, planners, bureaucrats and whole lot of other people should be looking out the front window and paying attention to the hard reality of carbon commitments. If Davis and Socolow’s calculations are correct, it means no new coal or gas power plants can go online after 2018 unless they’re replacing retired plants. It means freezing the size of the global automobile fleet, and the industrial and commercial sectors, unless their energy efficiency increases. And so on.

The fact that much of our current and future infrastructure carries huge carbon commitments is blindingly obvious, but receives little attention.

Can’t solve a problem by making it worse

“If you build it, there will be emissions year after year. This should be a fundamental part of the decision to build most things,”” Davis said.

Ignoring the reality of carbon commitments means we’re investing heavily in technologies that make the problem worse, he said.

“We’ve been hiding what’s going on from ourselves: A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments,” said co-author Robert Socolow. Any plan or strategy to cut CO2 emissions has to give far greater prominence to those investments. Right now the data shows “we’re embracing fossil fuels more than ever,” Socolow told me.

So what can we do to begin to prepare for a jam-packed carbon budget? First, we need to stop building fossil fuel-reliant power plants.

Surprisingly, it appears the Australia is a pioneer here, despite recently rolling back its pioneering carbon tax. Thanks to wide-spread adoption of solar energy on homes and business the country’s electricity use is in steep decline. For the first time in its history, no new coal or gas power capacity will be needed to maintain supply over the next 10 years, according to the Australian Energy Market Operator. Germany too is rapidly adopting clean energy sources like wind and solar, so as to avoid building coal or nuclear power.

Next, we need to think about meeting energy demand by improving efficiency, instead of building more power generation.

Potential energy efficiency gains of 50 percent are possible across many sectors in most countries, Socolow said, and could reduce the number of fossil fuel energy power plants.

The US is the king of energy waste by most estimates. This costs Americans an estimated $130 billion a year, according to the Alliance to Save Energy. But despite the potential for huge cost and emission reductions, governments everywhere put nearly all their energy research efforts into new sources of energy like new power plants rather than helping to develop energy-efficient cars, buildingsm and appliances. Its 2012 international study also found that improving energy efficiency provides by far the best bang-for-the-buck for energy security, improved air quality, reduced environmental and social impacts and carbon emission reductions.

However, efficiency improvements take time, and there is precious little time left to make the CO2 emissions cuts to stay below 2˚C, said Socolow.

While refusing to say a planet that’s 2˚C hotter is inevitable, he did say that all efforts to reduce emissions must be undertaken as soon as possible: “3˚C is a whole lot better than 5˚C, the current path we’re on.”

Stop All Investments in Fossil Fuel Infrastructure or All Will Suffer IPCC warns


Carbon overload - have to stop expanding
Carbon overload – have to stop expanding

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Apr 22 2014 (IPS) 

Hopefully, on Earth Day today, high-level ministers from all countries are thinking about what they can bring to the table at a key set of meetings on climate change in early May.

This will be the first opportunity for governments to discuss their proposed climate action plans in light of the finalIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released last week.

“There is a clear message from science: To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual.” — Professor Ottmar Edenhofer 

That report warned that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning fossil fuels are still rising far too fast, even with more than 650 billion dollars invested in renewable energy in the last three years. However, over the same time period even more money was invested in getting more fossil fuels out of the ground.

The latter investment is keeping humanity and the planet locked onto a devastating path of a global temperature increase of four to five degrees C, the IPCC’s Working Group III report warned.

Scientists and economists say that unlocking ourselves from disaster will require a massive reduction in emissions – between 40 percent and 70 percent – by midcentury. This is can be readily accomplished without inventing any new technology and at a reasonably low cost, reducing global economic growth by a comparatively tiny 0.06 percent.

“It doesn’t cost the world to save the planet,” economist Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, who led the IPCC team, said at a press conference.

It does mean an end to investments in expanding fossil fuel infrastructure as the annual growth in CO2 emissions from burning oil, coal and gas must peak and decline in the next few years. The atmosphere already has 42 percent more CO2 than it did prior to 1800.

This extra CO2 is trapping more heat from the sun, which is heating up the oceans and land, creating the conditions that spawn super storms and extreme weather. And it will do so for the next 1,000 years since CO2 is a very durable molecule.

“There is a clear message from science: To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual,” Edenhofer said.

Continue reading

Global Land Grabbing by Speculators, Investment banks, Pension funds

Kenya green hills CIAT Neil Palmer sml

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, May 10, 2012 (IPS)

Land is the missing element at next month’s big U.N. sustainable development summit known as Rio+20, where nations of the world will meet Jun. 20-22 with the goal of setting a new course to ensure the survival and flourishing of humanity.

However, governments are apparently unaware that a reversal of decades of land reform is underway with speculators, investment banks, pension funds and other powerful financial interests taking control of perhaps 200 million hectares of land from poor farmers in Africa, Latin America and Asia in recent years. Speculators and investors know land is the key to three necessities of life: food, water and energy. But neither land nor community land rights are on the summit agenda.

“Rural people are losing control over land and water because of this global land grab,” said Honduran farmer leader Rafael Alegria of the international farmers’ movement La Via Campesina.

Anywhere from 80 to 227 million hectares of rural, often agrarian land have been taken over by private and corporate interests in recent years, according to an April report released by Friends of the Earth International.

Many small land holders are being displaced in Central America and up to 40 percent of Honduran small farmers live in extreme poverty, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation, Alegria told IPS through a translator.

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The Bigger Canada’s Energy Sector Gets the Poorer People Become

By Stephen Leahy

Thu, 2013-03-21 05:00 DeSmog Canada

Blame Canada is a four part series revealing how Canada has become a wealthy, fossil-fuelled energy superpower and an international climate pariah. For Part 1, click here. Part 2 here

Few are aware Canada’s GDP shot up from an average of $600 billion per year in the 1990s to more than $1.7 trillion in 2012. This near tripling of the GDP is largely due to fossil fuel investments and exports.

However not many Canadians are three times wealthier. For one thing GDP is only a measure economic activity. The other reason is that little of this new wealth stayed in Canada. And what did stay went to a small percentage of the population, worsening the gap between rich and poor.

One of the hallmarks of a “petro-state” is that while a country’s energy industry generates fantastic amounts of money, the bulk of its citizens remain poor. Nigeria is a good example. Canada’s poverty rates have skyrocketed in step with the growth of the energy sector. One Canadian child in seven now lives in poverty, according to the Conference Board of Canada, the country’s foremost independent research organization.

Income inequality increased faster than the US, with the rich getting richer and poor and middle class losing grounds over the past 15 to 20 years, the Conference Board also reported January 2013.

“Most of Canada’s increase in wealth went to the big shareholders in the resource industries,” says Daniel Drache, a political scientist at Toronto’s York University. “It mainly went to the elites.”

Full Story:

Who Wants a Sustainable, Pollution-Free New York by 2030?

Wind turbines on the Tug Hill plateau in upstate New York
Wind turbines on the Tug Hill plateau in upstate New York

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Mar 19 2013 (IPS)

As usual, midtown Manhattan is packed with whisper-quiet cars and trams while thousands walk the streets listening to the birds of spring sing amongst the gleaming, grime-free skyscrapers in the crystal-clear morning air.

Welcome to New York City in April 2030.

I think the public will be 100 percent behind this, if they know about it.

This is not a fantasy. It is a perfectly doable goal, said Stanford University energy expert Mark Jacobson. In fact, the entire state of New York could be powered by wind, water and sunlight based on a detailed plan Jacobson co-authored.

It’s not only doable, powering New York on green energy is “sustainable and inexpensive” and would save lives and health costs, Jacobson told IPS.

Each year, air pollution kills 4,000 people in New York State and costs the public 33 billion dollars in health costs, according to the study Jacobson co-authored with experts from all over the U.S. It will be published in the journal Energy Policy.

Full Story

Canada Has Become a Petro-State, Happily Drilling for Profits as the World Warms

tar sands - visible from space,tarnished earth

Thu, 2013-03-07 08:00 STEPHEN LEAHY

What’s happened to Canada? To the dismay of many a country with an international reputation for relatively progressive environmental policies (at least compared to the United States) is rushing headlong to dig up all the oil, gas, and coal it can. The country’s leaders can scarcely muster the effort to pretend to want to limit climate-heating carbon emissions.

And the Canadian business establishment and media have largely gone along with the program. Put it all together, and you have a country that has become a full-blown “petrostate.”

People are starting to notice. Last December at the UN climate talks in Doha, Qatar, Canada beat out tough contenders like Saudi Arabia to be elected “Colossal Fossil” by environmental organizations from around the planet. Canada had the dishonor of being the most uncooperative country out of 193 nations at the climate summit. It was the sixth year in a row that international environmental groups gave Canada their ‘highest’ award for its persistent efforts to block any agreement on reducing carbon emissions.

What’s happened to Canada is that it has experienced a steady takeover by the fossil fuel industry.

Canada’s is now the world’s fifth largest crude oil producer and the biggest supplier of oil to the US. Canada is also the third largest producer of natural gas and one of the top ten miners of coal. This enormous boom in fossil fuel production has been underway since the late 1990s. Like Saudi Arabia, fossil energy is by far Canada’s biggest export and has become the dominant economic and political focus.

Full story click below:

Blame Canada is a four part series revealing how Canada has become a fossil-fuelled energy superpower that’s going to wreck its future and the global climate.