Discovering a Climate-Science Beat in India

A woman stands, smiling and facing the camera, on an ocean beach.
Disha Shetty reporting on coastal erosion in Honnavar, along India’s western coastline. Courtesy of Disha Shetty


In October 2018, a few months after I completed a master’s degree in science journalism at Columbia University, I returned to India and joined IndiaSpend, a data-journalism initiative, as a reporting fellow. For six months, I was to travel around India documenting the impact of climate change on communities. I would find myself trekking in the Himalayas, hopping from island to island in the Sundarbans, squatting to feel the texture of the dried-up sections of Sambhar Lake in the desert of Rajasthan, and talking to women in coastal Odisha, along the Bay of Bengal, about how they manage their period hygiene amidst frequent floods.

It was my first time covering climate change, as I had previously been a public health reporter. And though I was familiar with the various silos in science journalism—health, environment, technology—I went into the fellowship with a fair share of misconceptions about reporting on climate in the developing world. I thought that homegrown research would be scarce, that women experts would be rare and hard to find, and that most scientists would be averse to speaking to me at all.

What I discovered through my on-the-ground reporting—and through subsequent conversations with Indian scientists and climate journalists—was a thriving regional climate beat teeming with unexpected stories in unexpected places. The impacts of climate change on communities was visible in every corner of the country, and there were several local stakeholders making noise about it—though not always through the traditional channels of peer-reviewed literature. To find these stories, and to do them justice, I had to be prepared to wrestle not only with the science but with a cumbersome bureaucracy and with delicate social issues like caste and gender inequality.

But this much was also clear: Through well-funded, on-the-ground reporting, journalists in India and throughout the developing world are fully capable of crafting climate change narratives focused on issues relevant to our own communities. And, increasingly, editors and readers are paying attention.


A Bounty of Homegrown Research

When I started my fellowship in 2018, my first assignment was to report on climate change in the Himalayas, whose glaciers give rise to 10 of Asia’s largest rivers and provide water, food, and energy to an estimated 1.5 billion people. Reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had warned that warming temperatures and changing snowfall patterns could cause farmers in this region to slide into poverty. To understand the implications of those reports, I expected I would have to speak to international scientists.

I was surprised, however, to learn that numerous scientists from India had helped author the IPCC reports. And I found ample research being done by regional organizations and scientists who live and work in the Himalayan region itself.

What came as a revelation to me was little surprise to Sibi Arasu, an independent journalist who writes on climate change and conservation issues. He says that there’s a wealth of scientific resources in India, pointing to legacy institutions like the Indian Meteorological Department, the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar, the Indian Institute of Science – Bangalore, and others that produce world-class environmental-science research relevant to Indians.

In recent years, climate- and environmental-advocacy groups have been working to make these homegrown scientists more visible—and more accessible to journalists. Organizations like Climate Trends, a communications consultancy, have held workshops for journalists on issues such as air pollution in India, and they routinely help reporters get in touch with the right experts. Initiatives like these have helped push Indian scientists to the forefront of national conversations about climate change; they are now on webinars and television panels, and are frequently quoted in news articles. In India, as in other developing countries, science journalism and the science-research ecosystem can go hand in hand, serving to mutually uplift each other.

Still, there have been teething issues, especially for journalists trying to navigate India’s research bureaucracy. Scientists at publicly funded universities in India must often work within a strict hierarchy, under intense scrutiny from their higher-ups. They must get permission from their university heads before doing interviews, few of them have institutional press officers to advise them, and any statements that undercut preferred political narratives could bring on pressure from the government. In December 2019, for instance, government scientists who had shown that air pollution was shortening Indian life expectancies were put in a tough spot when India’s environment minister effectively dismissed the study’s findings in a speech to Parliament.

These kinds of pressures can make it difficult to get any scientist on the phone for a tight-deadline story. But in my personal experience, this is especially true for women scientists. Women make up less than a third of India’s labor force and are underrepresented in high-ranking positions in science in India. I found that women experts were more likely to tell me that they needed permission from their department heads and subsequently inform me that their superiors had denied it. Women lower down the hierarchy might be more reluctant to engage with journalists until they reach senior positions, says Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology.

Koll thinks that although getting access to official sources may be more difficult in India and other developing countries, journalists can overcome those barriers by working to cultivate relationships. He recommends staying in touch with scientists to encourage them to open up. “Maintain friendships with the scientists and build the trust over a period of time,” he says.

Of course, talking with scientists is only a part of the work of a science journalist. Stories about topics like climate change often demand that a journalist augment interviews with facts and evidence from the research literature. What I quickly learned during the course of my reporting fellowship, however, was that to find the science relevant to local issues, you sometimes have to look beyond the traditional science literature.


Navigating the Grey Literature

In India, a lot of field observations and data that are collected within local communities never get published in academic journals. Called the grey literature, these observations—commonly collected and maintained by activists, community organizations, and local leaders—can provide journalists with a trove of information.

I first came across the grey literature while I was reporting a story about the disproportionate impacts of climate change on women in the eastern coastal state Odisha, along the Bay of Bengal. During a visit to a village there, a local social worker explained to me how climate risks had become intertwined with the social construct of caste—a discriminatory social hierarchy often based on notions of purity and contamination. The flood-prone homes closest to the river bordering the village belonged to the families who identified as being from a lower caste; the families who belonged to castes higher in the hierarchy had built homes on a higher ground, safe from the fury of the river.

How does one determine whether a local or community-based research paper is trustworthy, particularly if the work was conducted outside the traditional channels of scientific research?

Although I had gone to Odisha to report on gender inequities, what I was learning was that climate change also disproportionately affected people based on their caste. This second phenomenon was more difficult to articulate, in part because there was limited region-specific scientific literature on niche areas like the intersection of climate justice and caste, or the intersection of climate justice and gender.

That information has to come from outside of the scientific community, says Ulka Kelkar, director of the climate program at WRI India. She notes that this grey literature—though not published in peer-reviewed journals—can be credible nonetheless. “Communities have a lot of solutions, and we [too often] ignore that,” she says, adding that criteria like peer review shouldn’t be the only standards for judging legitimacy. If an organization has worked with a community for decades, that in itself is a form of credibility, she says. “There is no substitute for that kind of understanding.”

Even studies published in more traditional venues are not all equally reliable, especially when it comes to local science in developing countries, where standards of rigor vary dramatically from place to place. How does one determine whether a local or community-based research paper is trustworthy, particularly if the work was conducted outside the traditional channels of scientific research?

Mahima A. Jain, an independent journalist who writes on environment, culture, and socio-economic issues with a focus on gender, says she looks at whether a researcher has been cited often. She also checks the credibility of their university or research institute. And when in doubt, she says, she asks other experts in the field. “Very often if [the researchers] are doing good work, then their name pops up in multiple places during your research.”


Caste and Representation

Inspired by a 2018 story in The Atlantic by journalist Ed Yong, I began thinking a lot about the diversity of sources in my own reporting. Analogous to race in the West, India’s discriminatory caste system throws a shadow on the country’s media coverage. Around 72 percent of bylined articles at major newspapers, magazines, and other media outlets are written by journalists who belong to the upper castes, according to a 2019 report by the nongovernmental organization Oxfam India. Meanwhile, just 10 out of 972 magazine cover articles assessed in the report dealt with issues of caste. For Indians deemed to be at the lower end of the caste hierarchy, the struggle for representation is never-ending.

Only in hindsight did I realize that the diversity of voices I was able to capture was mostly due to the fact that I was doing on-the-ground reporting. By knocking on doors in villages, I was able to talk to people that I would never have been able to reach on the phone.

In my series for IndiaSpend, I tried to put local communities, people across the caste spectrum, and other voices that often go unheard at the heart of my stories. Only in hindsight did I realize that the diversity of voices I was able to capture was mostly due to the fact that I was doing on-the-ground reporting. By knocking on doors in villages, I was able to talk to people that I would never have been able to reach on the phone.

Arasu was similarly inspired by Yong’s Atlantic piece to take a close look at his own sourcing. When he did, he realized that his sources were predominantly upper-caste men. He has since been more mindful of the diversity among the experts he is quoting, actively reaching out to those from underrepresented communities. He also tries to do small stories and profiles of scientists from Indigenous communities who are first-generation college graduates. “I do this so that they get some recognition, and this allows me to discuss the obstacles they faced,” he says.

Tejas Harad, a copy editor with the journal Economic and Political Weekly who recently wrote a paper on the ways Indian newsrooms can become more representative, says that issues of caste penetrate virtually every aspect of Indian life. For journalists, he suggests spending extra time to find experts from diverse caste backgrounds who might not be in the limelight, and who may never even have been approached for an interview, despite having expertise in their area. For commissioning editors, he advises picking writers who have written about caste and engaged with the subject in the past. “If a journalist is conscious of caste, then you see the nuanced understanding reflected in their reports,” he says. “Even when they are writing on other issues you will find caste lurking in the background.”


A Burgeoning Climate Beat

One thing that became clear to me during my reporting fellowship is that the Indian public increasingly wants to hear stories about how climate change is uniquely impacting us here at home. Since my series ran, editors of other publications have asked me to pitch them more science stories, saying that they are planning to increase their science coverage. Other Indian climate journalists have told me of similar experiences.

This is all fairly new, says Aarti Khosla, director of Climate Trends. As she recalls, 15 years ago there were only a handful of Indian journalists reporting on climate change, and the coverage was seasonal, generally centered around the annual international Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting on climate. “That has changed in the last five years,” she says.

Khosla thinks it’s important for journalists in developing countries to not just borrow from the global narrative on climate change, but to also create a nationally relevant narrative based on issues of local importance. She points to how increased coverage from the point of view of a developing country can help set the agenda ahead of crucial discussions in venues like the United Nations.

In a similar vein, I had hoped my reporting would help drive awareness on climate change. But I found that it created a new awareness within me as well.

That realization dawned on me while I was reporting the penultimate story of my series. I had traveled to India’s northeastern region, to a state called Meghalaya, to report on how climate change is impacting the region’s forest groves. In Meghalaya, the language, the cuisine, the dress, and people’s facial features and skin tones are different than in my hometown of Navi Mumbai. As I walked down the streets of Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, a journalist friend from the region who had dropped in to meet with me turned to me and asked, “Do you feel out of place here?”

“No,” I said. “I feel at home.” After so much time reporting on climate change, home no longer felt like just a city, a state, or a country, but the entire planet. And I’ve come to realize that this home is changing beyond repair. In India and throughout the developing world, local journalists must tell the story.


Disha Shetty Courtesy of Disha Shetty

Disha Shetty is an independent science journalist based in India. Her work has appeared in Forbes, Vice News, IndiaSpend, and Scroll, among others. She is the recipient of the International Center for Journalists’ Global Health Reporting Contest award (2018) and has received reporting grants from the Pulitzer Center and the International Women’s Media Foundation, among others. Follow her on Twitter @dishashetty20.

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