• Gillian

The Unreported: Disparities in Media Coverage of Climate Activists in the Global South vs. North

In the current political crisis, it seems more pertinent than ever to discuss how young leaders of the climate movement are represented by media coverage in both the global north and south. Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, marine biologist and founder of the OCEAN COLLECTIVE has posed some very interesting and relevant comments. Racism is derailing climate activism. “Stopping climate change is hard enough, but racism only makes it harder.” Leah Thomas—on Instagram she is @greengirlleah—has argued that social justice is intertwined with the environmental movement. It is not an “optional add on” Intersectional Environmentalism (IE) is the way forward, IE advocates for both justice for people and the planet. The injustices that happen to marginalized people such as Native Americans, African Americans, marginalized communities, and People of Color in general are connected to the earth thus advocating for both the protection of people and the planet.

“Stopping climate change is hard enough, but racism only makes it harder.” Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

Where social media seems to amplify the voices of those communities and those countries and groups immediately affected by climate change, mainstream media has taken some time to catch up. The worldwide sensation that is Greta Thunberg is the household name when talking about young climate activists, but is this indicative of the press’ selective coverage?


Are we deliberately ignoring activists from the Global South?


From India to Kenya to the USA, young people come out in force demanding for greater action on the climate change, plastic pollution, and deforestation issues, particularly in the Amazon rainforest. The September 2019 climate strikes are evidence of this – known as the Global Week for Future – a series of international strikes took place. The School Strike for Climate, Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, Greenpeace, Climate Action Network, Citizen’s Climate Lobby, My Blue Planet, the Rainforest Alliance and many more took to the streets.

The leaders of the movement are undoubtedly young people. But their coverage by the media is disproportionate. The global north has been taken by storm by young activists, Greta Thunberg was Times 2019 Person of the Year. She began a global movement by skipping school in 2018 and camping out in front of the Swedish Parliament holding a sign painted in black letters that read „Skolstrejk för klimatet“ – Schoolstrike for Climate. She continues this effort today even in the coronavirus epidemic online. The politics of climate action are as entrenched and complex as the climate itself.

Swiss Loukina Tille was featured on Patagonia and in Davos alongside German activist Luisa Neubauer, Greta Thurnberg, and Swedish activist Isabelle Axelsson. What sparked outrage at Davos was the cropping out of Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate, who later remarked its “Like I wasn’t there.” The Associated Press had cropped her out of a photograph taken from the press conference in Davos. When she responded to a tweet about this incident, she ignited a firestorm of criticism of the racial actions of the media and sparked an international conversation about the diversity of the movement. Vanessa Nakate herself took inspiration from Thunberg and founded climate action groups Youth for Future Africa and the Rise Up Movement.


It is not hard to find information on young climate activists from the north, especially from Europe. Greta Thunberg and the Climate Strikes were followed closely by the BBC, CNN, Sky News, The Times, Die Zeit, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Fox News, NPR, the Washington Post, and every other major media outlet you can think of. But what of the activists of the global south? You have to search harder for their coverage. After severe criticism, the BBC did short profiles on some activists from around the world including Lesein Mutunkei from Kenya, who combined his love of football with the environment. Aditya Mukarji from India, who had been campaigning since 2018 for the banning of plastic straws and encouraging eco-friendly alternatives. Finally, Leah Namugerwa from Uganda who had been active in schools strike for climate change since February 2019. The Guardian followed up on the lack of diversity in the media about climate activists but again focused on those living in the UK. Interestingly enough, the activists they interviewed argued that many BAME protestors felt a closer connection to the cause because they have family members in the vulnerable Global South. It has become a landmark cause.


Culture of silencing marginalized communities


Jamie Margolin founder of Zero Hour and climate justice activist has remarked that the exclusion of Activist of Colour and the communities most entrenched in the climate crisis was part of a culture of silencing marginalized communities disproportionately affected by the crisis itself. To find the activists from the global south you must dig deeper. Amnesty International, the Rainforest Alliance, Teen Vogue, Scientific American, the Washington Post, Earth Journalism Network, Earth Day, and now AP have started to highlight the global south contribution to the climate conversation.

Vanessa Nakate is one of many African activists and has provided a voice for the global south. African nations are some of the most vulnerable to and least prepared for climate change. The AP incident only strengthened the cause. They later published a story titled “Climate activists from Africa make an urgent appeal” detailing the efforts of the activists and the vulnerability of African nations. Licypriya Kangujamhas been described as the “Indian Greta Thunberg” by Spanish newspapers, she has been speaking out for the south in the climate conversation. After attending the third Asia Ministerial Conference and the annual Climate Summit in Madrid (2019) she has delivered the “act now on climate change” message to over 21 countries at age 8.

Al Jazeera an independent news network has started the conversation about global south activists being excluded from the conversation. After COP25 was moved to Europe many of the often-unheard native activists could no longer participate. The effects of losing the summit were felt throughout Latin America. Holding the COP in Chile or Brazil would have prioritized the voices of those most at risk. Fridays for Future have now demanded a greater focus on Africa’s climate champions. A CARE International analysis had highlighted that 9/10 most underreported humanitarian and climate crises happen in Africa.

Scotland’s International Development Alliance has argued that female activists living in the global south need to be at the forefront of the climate discussions. Because they are disproportionately affected, they should lead the conversation on action. 80% of the people displaced by climate disasters are women and have to most to lose in negligent public action. We cannot leave the global south behind.


Fridays for Future and the Extinction Rebellion have led to a radical rise in climate action in the global north. What we don’t see is that this has been going on in the south too. Australia, Bangladesh, Tahiti, Nepal, and many African nations are making vehement efforts at tacking climate change, Africa is only responsible for approximately 5% of global emissions yet they struggle to peak conversation. The Guardian Newspaper has acknowledged the crisis of underrepresentation in a report “It’s not just Greta Thunberg.” The Guardian anguished that young people across the world have been campaigning for climate crisis, but the mainstream media seems only interested in one particular activist. Greta Thunberg is a superstar but so are her peers. Nina Gualinga an indigenous activist from the Ecuadorian Amazon won the WWF’s top conservation award at 8 years old. Autumn Peltier from the Anishinaabe people of Canada is a clean water and climate advocate. But their voices are muffled, frustratingly they get lumped in with “following in the footsteps of Greta.” Greta Thunberg is very impressive, but we must not lose sight of her counterparts.

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