When the most recent United Nations climate change talks concluded in Peru in December, the 194 countries in attendance agreed to a document that featured the line “common but differentiated responsibilities” in reference to the difference between the environmental burdens of industrialized countries and developing ones. The language reflected a recognition that the burden of climate change — who is responsible for it, and for paying for the consequences of it — is shifting a little as some countries traditionally thought of as developing are no longer so far behind in GDP measurements.
Covering climate change at the global policy level is one thing, but to really understand it on the ground level is a very different experience. On a recent reporting trip to Vietnam, one of those developing countries on the rise, I took a look at how Ho Chi Minh City is dealing with some specific climate change-influenced outcomes, the confluence of flooding, subsidence, and sea-level rise. HCMC is one of ten coastal cities in the world at risk of being destroyed by floods and storm surge in the next century. New Orleans, where I live, is also on the list.
I arrived in Vietnam with pages and pages of research and questions floating around in my head, but I was not sure how that might translate on the ground. I knew that Can Gio Mangrove preserve, one of my stops on the trip, was a natural barrier protecting Ho Chi Minh City from storm surge. But there was no massive storm to point to yet where it saved the city, although some are predicted. And sea-level rise could bring salt water into the mangrove area and kill the trees, dissolving that defense system, but it hasn’t yet. How do you cover a slow moving disaster that might not yet have materialized in more visible ways?
This is the point where I (and, I’m guessing, is a lot of journalists) might have turned away from a climate change story, thinking it’s either too difficult to pitch and tell, or that without a big weather event, like Hurricane Katrina, there is no story. But this feeling of story stalemate is also a place where a more solutions oriented approach can develop and thrive. Waiting for an actual disaster, proof of climate change, to cover what’s happening in places like Vietnam and Louisiana means you miss documenting a lot of the small solutions people are testing all the time that could have real impact, not just in their backyards, but globally.