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After days of continuous rains parts of Haiti’s north including Cap Haitian suffered serious flooding leaving more than a dozen dead and thousands homeless. The Haitian government with the support of the United Nations mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and UN agencies including the World Food Program, responded with evacuations, temporary shelters and food and supplies distributions. Photo Logan Abassi UN/MINUSTAH


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GIJN’s Guide to Investigating Sea Level Rise: Chapter Four — Story Tips and Best Practices

That there’s a climate change story on every beat is by now a common observation, but it’s one amply demonstrated by the diversity of stories written about sea level rise. In this section, GIJN will explore the many possibilities for covering this emerging problem. (In the final part of this guide, you will find almost 100 examples of reporting on different aspects of sea level rise.)

Here are some tips from reporters doing notable work in this area:

  • Personalize climate change stories with human interest appeal.
  • Start with maps showing areas that may soon be underwater – this is the basis for many kinds of stories which can then be enhanced by in-depth reporting.
  • Talk with people who are already affected or potentially affected.
  • Build on scientific studies. Their authors can be valuable resources.
  • Use interactive tools to enhance story presentations.

John Upton, who leads Climate Central’s program to work with journalists, has written or co-authored dozens of stories about sea level rise, including on vanishing forests, education, commuting, historic sites, marshes, migration, boardwalks, and lawsuits.

John Upton, Climate Central editor. Image: Screenshot

He suggests connecting with local scientists for information and quizzing local officials. As for explaining the science, Upton says, you can “connect the dots in ways that don’t use terms that put people off.” He prefers not to use the term “climate change,” seeing it as a politicized red flag.

In this story on forests being killed off due to repeated flooding, he explained the topic like this: “Global sea rise caused by heat-trapping pollution and a gradual sinking of the land around the Chesapeake have combined to create some of the world’s fastest local rates of sea rise. That’s been pushing saltwater higher up shorelines, where it’s seeping into sweeping stretches of intact forest and killing them off.”

Pursue Accountability

“A lot of journalism should be around accountability of local officials,” Upton advises. What kinds of reporting supports accountability?

As communities consider ways to mitigate the effects of sea level rise, poor people tend to pay the price. “The number one issue is who is being protected from the climate hazard, who isn’t? ” Upton says.

Here are some topics that could prompt questions for accountability stories:

Fact-gathering: Does the jurisdiction have the necessary data? Is the material updated with the latest information on sea level rise? Are alternative scenarios included?

Transparency: Is the information, including detailed maps, available to the public? Are affected communities being involved?

Integration: Is sea level rise being considered during the planning of all relevant projects? For example, is modeling being used to foresee how more extreme storm events will increase the amount of inflow into sewers?

Commitment: What are officials’ opinions about the possibility of global warming and sea level rise? What doubts/questions do they have? What about the views of other civic leaders?

Adaptation: What solutions are being proposed? Besides construction of hard barriers, are softer solutions such as coastal restoration being considered? Have all possible consequences been considered? Levees and seawalls to mitigate flooding in one place can increase inundation along nearby shorelines. Are long-term and short-term costs being considered?

Equity: Who is most affected? Watch for differential impacts not only from sea level rise, but also from proposed solutions.

Talking about the overall value of covering sea level rise, Upton says: “Any way you can push this forward a bit, the benefits will be magnified.”

Watching for Misinformation

Hannah Bernstein, a program associate with the Earth Journalism Network (EJN) at Internews, which recently announced grants for 18 journalists to report about “coastal resilience,” also suggests that a focus on accountability is key.

“There is a lot of mis- and disinformation about climate change and its impacts, and one major comment is often that we lack the technology to actually do what needs to be done,” Bernstein tells GIJN. “We need more reporting about how this isn’t true (because it’s not) – journalism that highlights the real barriers facing coastal initiatives. Often, it’s about money.”

Hannah Bernstein, program associate at the Earth Journalism Network. Image: Courtesy of Bernstein

Bernstein says that a real barrier to addressing the impact of rising sea levels on coastal communities is a lack of funding from richer countries. “I think we also need more stories about climate financing, loss and damage,” she says. “These were big topics at last year’s COP26 [the UN’s 2021 Climate Change Conference] that have drifted off the radar of most wealthy countries, while the most vulnerable countries continue to bear the brunt of sea level rise’s worst impacts.”

But journalists investigating this subject can have an impact. Here’s an accountability success story from Fiji: In September 2020, journalist Stanley Simpson wrote about how long the villagers of Narikoso village on Ono Island had been waiting for promised relocation. Simpson’s text and video stories got the attention of officials and sparked more media coverage. Now, while more needs to be done, the relocation process has begun.

Making Science Part of the Narrative

Jhesset Thrina Enano, a journalist in the Philippines who has written on sea level rise, tells GIJN: “Sea level rise is also not merely a housing or land issue. It intersects with food security, transport, tourism, and civil rights, among others.”

She says journalists “should heed the science and begin looking at climate change not as a lone beat, but as a lens to look at the most pressing issues of our time.”

It’s a challenge to distill scientific evidence into layperson’s terms, she says, suggesting reporters should be “reaching out to scientists, asking them a lot of questions and requesting them to explain highly technical processes.” That made her reporting “more grounded and also deepened my understanding of the issue.”

Enano points out that other factors, such as sinking land, need to be part of a nuanced explanation. In her reporting, she’s found that even residents with personal experiences on sea level rise don’t tie it to climate change immediately.

Jhesset Thrina Enano, Philippine journalist who has covered sea level rise. Image: Courtesy of Enano

Her main tip: “It is crucial that the reporter makes the science and the narratives on the ground meet, and not disregard one knowledge over another.”

When reporting on sea level rise in Metro Manila, she geotagged her fieldwork, identifying where the affected communities were. She also relied on mapped projections and models by Climate Central and suggests that journalists look for studies by local scientists, in her case, relying on a study by the Coastal Sea Level Rise Philippines Project to show that, in the Manila Bay area, the sea is rising at four times the global average.

“Rising sea levels are essentially visual stories,” Enano points out, “so it also helps to use maps, photos, and videos.”

Practicing Coastal Journalism

Rafiqul Montu is a journalist in Bangladesh who practices what he calls “coastal journalism,” which is particularly relevant in a country that sits on the Bay of Bengal and where 19 of its 64 districts are identified as coastal districts.

Montu stresses the importance of field reporting for interviews, especially to reach older residents. On one trip, for example, he started hearing about women’s health problems. After talking with the women, he visited health centers, dug out the relevant research, and interviewed experts.

The scientific research highlighted how increased salinity was impacting women’s health, leading to problems that included high blood pressure in pregnant women and uterine problems. High water levels can also increase the amount of time it takes patients to reach medical care.

In the resulting story, Montu followed his own advice that “very simple language needs to be used to report sea level rise.”

“It is no secret anymore that global warming and climate change are leading to warming of the oceans and rise in sea levels… As a direct consequence of the sea waters rising and flooding the coastal villages, saline content in the water sources and soil in coastal areas of Bangladesh have gone up alarmingly,” he wrote, quoting Atiq Rahman, executive director of Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies and a co-recipient, alongside Al Gore, of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Rafiqul Montu, a Bangladeshi reporter who practices “coastal journalism.” Image: Courtesy of Montu

Key to making stories about climate change and rising sea levels resonate, he says, is to focus on the human stories. “I advise young reporters to find out the relationship between rising sea levels and human livelihoods,” Montu tells GIJN. In his article The Hungry Tide, he “tried to tell the story of human suffering first,” focusing on food shortages, interruption of education, and displacement. He also recommends talking to displaced families. “Climate journalists need to find out where these people go and how they live,” he says.

From farmers forced to give up their jobs, to fishermen who have to turn to day laboring, Montu has found communities where people’s livelihoods have been drastically altered by rising sea levels.

“How do these people survive? Climate journalism can find the answer to this question,” he says. While the use of maps and data “will make the story much stronger,” according to Montu, “the impact on people’s lives and livelihoods is more important for the story.”

Alongside the accountability angle, which he agrees is important, he also suggests investigative journalists look at solution-based initiatives. “For the most part, we miss the stories of solutions when it comes to the climate crisis,” he says.

The volume of this lake below India’s Gepang Gath Glacier has increased by more than 20 times due to melting and calving glacier fragments in the past 40 years, and threatens to flood villages downstream. Image: Rakesh Rao/Climate Visuals Countdown

Story Angles on Sea Level Rise

Here’s a list featuring different ways reporters can approach the sea level rise story. It is an amalgam based on the IPCC reports and on investigative articles being done around the world.

Story ideas and examples also are described in Reporting on Coastal Resilience: A Resource Guide for Journalists, by the South African publication, The Outlier.

Changing coastline: Documenting the shoreline of the future demonstrates the impact of global warming.

Migration, internal and external: Forced displacement can occur for many reasons, including the loss of home and livelihoods. Most refugees relocate a little farther inland or on higher ground within their country, but some move abroad.

Inequitable impacts on the poor, women, children, and the vulnerable: Many coastal areas are home to low-income and Indigenous communities, making them the first-affected populations.

Adverse health effects: The health effects of salinization are being increasingly documented. Exposure to water with high salinity can lead to uterine inflammation, uterine ulcers, higher blood pressure, and other adverse conditions. Groundwater contamination is also an issue. Infrastructure issues related to rising sea levels can lead to longer travel times to health care facilities, which can block or impede access to medical care, leading to other downstream effects like increased infant or maternal mortality.

Negative impacts on farming: Besides watching the erosion of their land, farmers face other problems, particularly salt water intrusion in low-lying areas, where crops such as rice become harder to grow.

Negative effects on fishing: Warming seas are altering where fish live and lowering fish populations. This forces fishermen to travel farther and increases competition. Scientists also foresee that communities that heavily rely on seafood could face increased exposure to toxins, pathogens, and contaminants.

Loss of wildlife habitats: Wetlands, which protect against rising water, are vulnerable to destruction from sea level rises. Mangrove tracts and salt marshes are at risk.

Impacts on businesses: Many companies depend on the seas and shores. Tourism is one sector likely to be severely affected, although adaptations are expected, since tourism closer to polar regions may become more attractive. Shipping and mining in the Arctic may expand. Many non-food products also depend on components from the oceans, including dietary supplements, food preservatives, and pharmaceuticals.

Real estate values, rising and falling: With millions at stake, property owners and real estate developers are trying to anticipate how property values will fare, and how to protect their investments.

Housing: As low-cost housing near coasts diminishes, displaced communities find it harder and more expensive to find housing. Also, “climate gentrification” refers to wealthy property owners moving to higher ground, pricing out original residents.

Transportation infrastructure: Pictures of flooded roads often illustrate this problem, but airports, railroads, and ports also are impacted. Rebuilding and protecting transportation is costly. There’s a military angle, too, as naval bases are forced to adjust.

Consequences for landfills and other low-lying public facilities: Often located in areas deemed less valuable for development, waste treatment facilities may have to be relocated. Plus, if flooded, these may become pollution sources. Mapping vulnerable schools and other government facilities dramatizes the risks.

Historic and iconic places at risk: The potential loss of coastal parkland, treasured historic sites, prized statues, and iconic buildings presents an opportunity to communicate about sea level rise in understandable and emotional terms.

Higher insurance costs: Living by coasts is becoming costlier for many reasons. Insurers are recognizing the risk, assigning hard numbers to the cost risks from sea level rise.

Adaptation: What’s to be done? The exploration of solutions is active and will be increasingly acrimonious. Choosing the right measures is critical. The costs can be huge. Debates rage over physical solutions, such as hard barriers versus soft barriers. Also in play are policies on where to allow development and what building codes should say.

Overall, the impacts on inequality can be real. Tensions will rise, according to the 2019 IPCC report, which warned that social conflict “caused or exacerbated by sea level rise could escalate over time and become very difficult to resolve.”

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