Reporting the environmental impact of war


Karen Coates, left, speaks to SEJ conference attendees about the environmental impacts of war along with Carolyn Beeler, center, and Susan Phillips, right.

By Gabrielle Nelson

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories coming out of a recent meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Philadelphia.

Fields pockmarked by bombs, forests torn up by trenches and littered with landmines, cities around the Kakhovka dam in Ukraine flooded and then left with a water shortage as the reservoir dries up.

These scenes in Ukraine and Gaza are a few examples of how war leaves long lasting damage to the environment.

Journalists, climate scientists, environmental advocacy groups and researchers examined war’s environmental consequences at a recent Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Philadelphia.

The main takeaway: It’s time for the environmental desk to pick up war stories.

Carolyn Beeler, co-host of The World, told the journalists that reporters write extensively about on-going wars for good reason. But coverage drops after a war is over, she said.

The cost of war is measured by lives lost but the environmental cost persists even after fighting stops, Beeler said. War harms agriculture, air quality and water quality. It results in biodiversity loss and lasting damage to infrastructure, such as roads and utilities. And reporters fail to tell these environmental justice stories.

Karen Coates is among the journalists working to fill that gap. Eternal Harvest, a book and documentary by Coates and her husband, Jerry Redfern, tells the story of Laos and the people living with the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

During the war, the U. S. military dropped 4 billion pounds of explosives on Laos, 30 percent of which did not detonate, Coates told the journalists. These undetonated bombs disrupt agriculture, and 20,000 Laotians have died or been injured by them since the war ended.

Coates said that when vacationing in Laos, she realized Laotians were living with the impacts of war every day but that their stories weren’t being told. That’s when the Eternal Harvest project started.

She encourages journalists to pay attention to the stories that go untold when a war ends.

But, how do journalists pitch these stories that might not be considered part of the environment beat and aren’t blatantly timely?

Moderator Susan Phillips, senior climate reporter for the WHYY News climate desk, said that keeping up on studies revealing new data about health or environmental impacts in former war zones could be the foot-in-the-door.

Anniversaries are another angle, she said. The Kakhovka dam was destroyed on June 3, 2023. A follow-up story could look at the community impacts of its loss on the one-year anniversary of its destruction.

Take people with you to the post-war community, Coates said. Describing dried-up reservoirs and building debris shows readers the lasting impacts of war.

It is important to go to a place to see the damage yourself, she said. Such visits can lend to scenery descriptions and to hearing from the people who are impacted the most.

“There’s immense power in the human narrative,” Coates said. If you can’t travel to the country, Beeler said to rely on local producers — the people on the ground — to accurately report on the war.

Another option is to find the local angle: Talk to family members who know intimately what their relatives are going through, advocacy groups in your area or people who immigrated from the war-affected country.

New stories about war aren’t just for the international desk, said Beeler. Environmental journalists have a unique perspective on war-impact communities. And although the direct cost of war needs news coverage, so does the environmental impacts of its aftermath.

Resources for covering the environmental impact of war:

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