Credit: Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

Guyana, a small South American country, is poised to become the largest oil producer in the world. That is fairly unusual for a place where oil has been discovered just a few years ago.

There is a lot of money to be made and Exxon Mobile, the multinational oil and gas company, is developing a risky drilling project that may pollute the beaches of more than a dozen Caribbean countries if something goes wrong.

US independent investigative climate journalist Amy Westervelt has been following Exxon for more than a decade so she was naturally covering this story. However, she is not a fan of parachute journalism, so she started working with a local journalist Kiana Wilburg. Together, they uncovered how Exxon obfuscated the risks and worked its way into the Guyanese government to get permission to start drilling, despite the danger.

Like all investigative journalists, climate reporters continuously face pressure to drop the story, wherever they work. Westervelt started comparing notes with colleagues in Australia and elsewhere, realising that multinational oil companies use the same techniques to obstruct and criminalise climate action around the world. This led her to create a collaborative investigative network Drilled Global that pools resources to uncover such machinations by the oil industry.

Worried about safety

These journalists have an extensive risk assessment, but in many other countries, climate reporting is a risky business. In Guyana, Exxon first tried to hire Kiana Wilburg into a PR role, luring her with a promise of a big pay bump and perks. She refused. Twice.

"I told her 'be careful because, now that you turned them down twice, they will change tactics'," says Westervelt who is no stranger to concerns about her safety. She does not publish under her legal name. She had her laptop stolen, and a hotel room broken into. She has been followed a number of times.

"It is not necessarily the oil companies who use these tactics to intimidate journalists," she says, sometimes it is the governments that are influenced by wealthy corporations and do not want to lose the revenue. There are also crisis PR companies, whose job it is to fend off public challenges to their reputation, that intimidate or try to discredit journalists.

Collaboration helps mitigate some of these risks by sharing resources and swapping strategies on anything from evading surveillance to protecting their sources.

Read more: How to build an effective cross-border investigative team

Making climate reporting compelling

After a 15-year career in print, Westervelt recently started a true crime podcast Drilled that investigates misdemeanours of the oil industry. When she pitched it to several big publishers, they turned it down, saying there was not enough audience for this niche topic.

"So I did it myself at night, in my car, hiding from my children, and our first episode had one million downloads," she says.

The success of her reporting, both in audio and online, demonstrates that there is a thirst for stories about climate accountability, which helps people understand why the environmental situation is so dire today. Westervelt stresses that figures who block climate policies also block participation in democratic processes.

Publishers often struggle to integrate climate stories into their products. More often than not, big brands create climate verticals and then they decide that climate stories should be everywhere and pull the plug on the vertical, effectively diluting or killing the climate reporting.

There is a better way, according to Westervelt, who says that climate is not a beat you can just jump into. Journalists must know the history of environmental reporting, who is trying to push what story, who funds these stories, and who are the PR companies trying to build relationships with the editors.

Read more: Climate journalism can improve audience engagement and business models

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