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 Guardian, New Scientist, Audubon 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, Straightgoods.com (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.
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.
WORLDWIDE, WE’VE BUILT MORE COAL-BURNING POWER PLANTS IN THE PAST DECADE THAN IN ANY PREVIOUS DECADE
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.
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.
WE’VE BEEN HIDING WHAT’S GOING ON FROM OURSELVES: A HIGH-CARBON FUTURE IS BEING LOCKED IN BY THE WORLD’S CAPITAL INVESTMENTS
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.”
( Graphic from ‘Your Water Footprint’)
I have a confession: I used 1100 litres of water to make my breakfast today. It was nothing special, just a small glass of orange juice, a cup of coffee, two eggs, toast and two pieces of bacon. But it did take 1100 litres of water to grow and process the ingredients. That’s a whole lot of water considering the average bathtub only holds about 80 litres.
Even after 20 years of covering environmental issues in two dozen countries I had no idea of the incredible amounts of water needed to grow food or make things. Now, after two years working on my book Your Water Footprint I’m still amazed the T-shirt I’m wearing needed a whopping 2500 litres to grow and process the cotton. Or that 140 litres was needed to grow and process the coffee beans to make my morning coffee. Since a litre of water weighs a kilogram, that’s 140 kilos of water, imagine having to haul that much in a bucket every morning!
Water more valuable and useful than oil
|Stephen Leahy is an award-winning environmental journalist based in Uxbridge, Ontario, Canada. He is the author ofYour Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products.|
Researching all of this I soon realized we’re literally surrounded by a hidden world of water. Although we can’t see it, there is water in everything we eat, everything we use and buy. Almost anything you can think of – cars, furniture, books, dishes, TVs, highways, buildings, jewelry, toys and even electricity– would not exist without water.
It’s no exaggeration to say water is far more valuable and useful than oil.
Unfortunately, water is often taken for granted and undervalued, resulting widespread misuse and waste. The idea behind my book is to increase awareness of huge quantities of the hidden water our entire way of life depends on. Your Water Footprint uses colourful infographics to illustrate the size of the water footprints of a wide range things from shoes to whiskey. A water footprint is the amount of water ‘consumed’ to make, grow or produce something. I use the word consumed to make it clear this is water that can no longer be used for anything else. Water can often be cleaned or reused, so those amounts of water are not included in the water footprints in the book.
For example, when you drink a half-litre of bottle water you’re actually consuming 5.5. litres. Why so much? Making the plastic bottle consumed 5 litres of water.
After poring through many studies on water footprints, I was really surprised to see how tiny my direct use of water for drinking, cooking, showers and so on was by comparison. Each day the average North American uses 300 to 400 litres. (FYI: Flushing toilets is the biggest water daily use, not showers.) Now, 400 litres is not a trivial amount of water, and we can all get by using less by employing some water-savings tips.
How big is your water footprint? Take a quick test
However, compared to the hidden water, also known as virtual water, that’s in the things we eat, wear and use for a day averages an incredible 7500 litres. That means our daily water footprint is almost 8,000 litres (direct + hidden freshwater use). Carrying all this water would be like trying to haul the weight of four mid-size cars every day.
Peak water is here
Water scarcity is a reality in much of the world. About 1.2 billion people live in areas with chronic scarcity, while two billion are affected by shortages every year. That’s two in seven people. And as the ongoing drought in California proves, water scarcity is increasing reality for many of us in the US and Canada. Water experts estimate that by 2025, three in five people may be living with water shortages.
While low-flow shower heads and toilets are great water savers, the water footprint concept can lead to even bigger reductions in water consumption. If a family of four replaced beef with chicken in all their meals, they would reduce their water use an astonishing 900,000 litres a year. That’s enough to fill an Olympic-sized pool to a depth of two feet. The reason is the water footprint of beef is four times larger than chicken.
Vegetables have an even smaller water footprint. If the average family liked the idea of “Meatless Mondays,” they’d save 400,000 litres of water a year.
My hope with Your Water Footprint is to give you enough information to make water-wise choices to reduce your water use which will help you save money, be prepared for shortages and ensure our children and grandchildren will have abundant fresh water. This is all about smart substitutions and changes, rather than sacrifice and self-denial.
To do this we need to know how much we are currently using. We can’t make the water-wise choices unless we begin to see and understand the invisible ways in which we rely on water.
(First published Yahoo Canada News – Mon, 8 Sep, 2014)
Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products
Coming early October 2014, 160 pages, 125 unique infographics, $19.95 paperback
Originally posted on Stephen Leahy, International Environmental Journalist:
“If we can’t get this right, we will be in big trouble”
RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 15 (TerraViva)
Poor countries that green their economies will lift millions of their citizens out of poverty and generate higher incomes while protecting invaluable natural ecosystems, says a report released here in Rio Thursday.
Some developing countries are actively pursuing a transition towards low-carbon, resource-efficient economies, it found.
“Our message is that economy and ecology can be brought together for the greater benefit of all people, but especially the poorest,” said Peter Hazlewood, director of Ecosystems and Development at the World Resources Institute (WRI), and co-author of the report “Building an Inclusive Green Economy for All”.
“This transition will not be easy. It will require new policies, targeted investments and reforms of government institutions,” Hazlewood said.
Governmental departments like agriculture, environment and economic development that…
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The last thing the planet needs – or the rest of us – is more millionaires
Originally posted on Stephen Leahy, International Environmental Journalist:
Wealthy Countries Export Environmental Impacts to Poor [New Article]
By Stephen Leahy
BERLIN, Jun 3, 2010 (IPS)
Rising global wealth spells disaster for the planet, with environmental impacts growing roughly 80 percent with a doubling of income, reports the first comprehensive study of consumption.
It adds to the mountain of evidence that the gospel of economic growth must be urgently transformed into the new gospel of resource-efficient green economies, a U.N. expert panel concluded Wednesday.
What are the biggest planetary criminals?
Fossil fuel use and agriculture, the study found. Ironically, these are also the two most heavily subsidised sectors, noted Ernst von Weizsaecker of Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and co-chair of the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management.
“In the case of CO2…
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More evidence piling up that shale gas is little better than coal for the climate and slowing the shift to renewables and that’s a very bad thing.
Originally posted on Stephen Leahy, International Environmental Journalist:
UPDATE Jan 2013:
Yet another study reveals fracking has a huge problem of gas leaks. Up to 9% of the gas pumped out of the ground leaks into the atmosphere according to a study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published in Nature this week. Natural gas (methane) is a powerful greenhouse gas. If these leaks are widespread, fracking is worse than burning coal, accelerating global warming.
In Jan 2012 I detailed new research in the article below showing that replacing coal with natural gas from fracking does little to fight climate change (see below). Now two studies published that since then make an even stronger case that fracking for natural gas is a HUGE MISTAKE:
From Nature: Air sampling reveals high emissions from gas field. Methane leaks during production may offset climate benefits of natural gas.
From Environmental Research Letters: New study demonstrates switching to natural…
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What: A 15 minute informal update on current state of the UN climate negotiations by award-winning journalist Stephen Leahy including his personal observations on the process.
Who: Stephen Leahy is an indpendent, environmental journalist who has covered climate negotiations around the world. He is co-winner of the 2012 Prince Albert/United Nations Global Prize for reporting on Climate Change.
Where: Part of a public forum in Toronto last June titled CLIMATE CHANGE EMERGENCY.
Thanks to Peter Biesterfeld for making the recording.