For Fatima Arkin, reporting on climate change is not about headline-grabbing stories, but about untangling its complex impacts. As the eyes of the world focus on the COP26 conference in Glasgow, this is a message she wants journalists in the West to hear. “It’s not just the story we tell but how we tell the story, and who gets to tell the story,” she says.
Arkin, a Philippines-based environmental journalist, believes there are serious problems with the way some mainstream Western media cover climate change in developing Asia. Those stories often leave Arkin frustrated. Her concern is that some Western outlets have a tendency to constantly portray people in developing Asia as victims who need saving “which chips away at their agency and takes away their self-worth”.
Over her nine-year career, Arkin has reported on climate change’s impacts across Southeast Asia for global publications, including SciDev.net, Foreign Policy and Devex, the media platform for the global development community. In that time, she has read countless superficial articles covering the Philippines “that lead with some heart-wrenching story of a poor farmer whose already difficult life was made even worse by monstrous typhoons, without digging deeper into the situation or offering fresh perspectives”. She worries this reinforces negative stereotypes of people from developing countries.
Arkin, 34, who has dual Filipino and Canadian citizenship, can see both sides of the story and says she has the privilege of looking at climate issues from a developed and developing country perspective. She moved to the Philippines from her home in Canada in 2013 after studying journalism in Montreal to cover super-typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda). “I wanted to be where the action is,” she says.
The Philippines ranks as the country most vulnerable to climate change according to the Institute for Economics and Peace. Located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, the country is hit by an average 20 typhoons a year. “Here, it’s really real,” she says. “You see the roads flooded with water; you can see cars floating like a soup.”
Climate change is disproportionately dangerous to the Philippines and other developing countries because it intensifies pre-existing inequalities. “We already have so many structural problems,” Arkin says. The Asian Development Bank estimates that one in five people in the Philippines live in poverty. “So, when a typhoon hits it makes it 10 times, 100 times worse.”
And when it comes to reporting on these impacts, Arkin believes that some Western media’s habit of choosing attention-grabbing stories of extreme weather destroying lives can add a further layer of damage. She understands newspapers have limited time and resources, but she knows the impact these narratives have on the way people view themselves.
A specialist in green finance, which focuses on the environmental benefit, Arkin enjoys digging into stories across Southeast Asia with money at the heart and in 2019 was named Best Young Environmental Journalist in Asia by the Singapore Environmental Council for her work. Climate finance, she admits, is not “sexy” – it doesn’t have “the image of a crying baby attached to it”. But it opens important stories that desperately need to be told.
These range from local stories about predatory loaners targeting communities after disasters to the global question of climate funds. The demand of developing countries for compensation for the impact of climate change largely brought about by wealthier, industrialised countries will be a key concern of COP26, she says.
Arkin’s fascination with green science also lets her write about those across Asia finding solutions to climate change. This, for her, is key to telling empowering stories. “Yes, we’re scared… But they’re doing something about it.” She focuses on seeking out people from rural areas or areas not usually covered in the media, who are developing localised solutions. She recalls speaking with architects making climate resilient structures from local materials, such as bamboo.
She says journalism needs to play a stronger role in explaining complex climate issues to the public and she gives talks to academics in the Philippines to help scientists communicate to laypeople in a way that avoids being too technical.
Arkin also describes her commitment to interviewing young female scientists who – “especially in a very male-dominated field” – are using their skills to combat climate change and shed light on its impacts. While the question of whether there are enough female scientists is important to Arkin, the real question for her is are the ones who are already there being listened to enough?
To ensure a balanced perspective, she self-audits her articles to see how many women and local experts she quotes. “I definitely don’t think there’s enough local voices [published]. I don’t think there’s enough female voices.”
Earlier this year Reuters published a Hot List of 1000 climate scientists. A study in the journal Climate and Development* revealed that 122 of the people on the list were women, and only 111 were based in institutions in countries of the Global South, of whom 88 were from China. Arkin believes there is still a big gap to be bridged between who climate change impacts and whose voice gets heard. She says: “There were only two people from the Philippines included in the Reuters list. Both are men and only one is a Filipino. The other is a Caucasian man based in the Philippines.”
Even when diverse voices are included, her concern is whether the media is representing them on their terms. She points towards articles referencing, for example, Licypriya Kangujam as India’s Greta Thunberg’, or Vanessa Nakate, a young Ugandan climate change activist who was cropped out of a picture with other activists where she was the only woman of colour.
It’s the same issue with the questions climate activists get asked. Arkin has interviewed climate activists across Asia and Africa who are often frustrated when they speak to Western journalists who want “cookie-cutter answers”, ignoring “the nuance that goes behind it”.
Arkin plans to continue asking questions about the role journalism needs to play in making more empowering, nuanced stories. Away from the “easy” answers, journalists should ask the complicated questions and tell the difficult stories about climate change. “All media need to be more self-critical about the story angles they pursue and the people they choose to quote to ensure that stories about climate impacts reflect the diversity of lived experiences in the developing world.”