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Yes, scribes need to decode climate change jargon, relate debate to daily life

By Alphonce Shiundu

“Respond to his article,” a colleague told me. “It will help you teach journalists about the right way of doing things.”

We were speaking about the framing of a stirring article by Emeka Mayaka, the political editor of The People Daily.  Mayaka, or GME as we call him in other circles, made a very important observation about intellectual poverty in Kenyan newsrooms during the coverage of the Africa Change Summit.

His stem-winding article rekindled debate about an old problem that one of the fathers of Kenyan journalism, Philip Ochieng’, long diagnosed and gave a solid prescription: Journalists must never stop learning.

We must read widely. We must approach subject matter experts with the intellectual humility needed to understand complex topics. We must learn about greenhouse gases, explain “carbon footprint” and “carbon offset”, break down “climate modelling” and reveal in simpler terms what “global warming potential” means. Throwing about buzzwords, reprinting jargon, and splashing dumbed-down headlines doesn’t help.

I must thank Mayaka for igniting the debate, but, that’s where my intellectual congruence – the harmony of ideas and thoughts–  between Mayaka and I, ends.

Context matters when it comes to climate reporting. Just like legislative or court reporting, this is a speciality. It requires additional skills – personal and professional interest to make the debate matter for Kenyans in Kenya, especially those in rural areas where the majority of us live.

As an example, the conversation about renewable energy needs a primer. How can we in Africa, with perennial blackouts and unreliable power supply, think we can grow our economies, without first producing more, and more reliable electricity?

In fact, a day after the summit ended, rains pounded Nairobi leading to power and internet outages in parts of the city. A day later, in Kakamega a key regional conference was interrupted by power blackouts. It didn’t even make headlines. Yet, that is unreliable energy for a country that produces over 85 per cent of its energy from renewable sources. And even so, electricity is expensive!

If anyone needed evidence that in the African context, energy security is a more urgent discussion, this is it. Instead, we have audiences fascinated by the spectacle of an electric car gliding in a traffic-less Nairobi. Data shows that in rural Kenya nine out of every ten people use charcoal or firewood to cook their meals. Even in Nairobi, only a fraction of people use electricity to cook. Those who use gas are very few. Aspects of these things were discussed at the summit. These were reported. How can we then crucify journalists for refusing to engage in sophistry by repeating catchphrases used by scientists?

Again, there are low-hanging climate-related stories all around us. Nairobi River is still in terrible shape (just check the slimy sludge on Michuki Park this morning)? President William Ruto wants to plant 15 billion trees in a decade, that’s like 4 million trees a day. Have we audited the progress, one year since he took office? Why would a farmer in Kinangop or Muhoroni, worry about “carbon credits” when there are more urgent issues that need to be done to boost his agricultural productivity – even with climate change?

Further, the Kenya Meteorological Department has predicted heavy rains. We know floods will come. We know power disruptions will happen. But we’re not just checking to see how prepared we are. We are waiting for the country to shut down, for people to die, and then write those horrific headlines. We seem to have forgotten to demand accountability for the countrywide power outage that shut down Kenya a fortnight ago. We are instead wasting time decoding if we can cook ‘githeri’ with Sh20 of electricity.

Yes, we may all want to sound well-read and engaging, repeating talking points from abstract foreign debates about climate science without putting all that into context. (Oh, dear business journalists, I will talk to you later about this). We may want to speak in scientific tongues to impress a tiny minority of the elite –or ourselves. But exhaling and laughing at how out-of-depth some of our colleagues were, is not the best way to help journalism. This is indeed a challenge to the Media Council of Kenya to do those short courses on climate change reporting. They should work with qualified professionals to deliver these courses.

It is fair and urgent to fix climate-related issues and prepare for climate disasters by doing all those things –planting trees, building gabions, taking care of our environment, and banning plastics– without clothing it as “mitigation”, “adaptation” or “resilience” or other buzzwords. Why would we in Kenya want sophistry about “carbon credits” with a forest cover of just 8%? We shouldn’t waste time on misamiati.

Climate change is not going anywhere, but we must cook, eat, and power our little phones to use WhatsApp to continue with debates like this one. The spectacle of a successful talkshop will not end climate change.  Someone must do the work, and to do it we must define it in ways that make sense to the sugarcane farmer in Shanderema, or the illegal marijuana grower somewhere in the thickets of Kilgoris, or to that camel herder in Wargadud. You need journalists to help with the translation of jargon to everyday life, not to engage in linguistic abstractions.

In sum, don’t just report, relate.

Alphonce Shiundu is fact-checking editor in Kenya. X (formerly Twitter @Shiundu)

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