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Posted - 12/04/2012
Grant Partner Spotlight: Mark Schapiro

Investigative journalist Mark Schapiro spoke with us last month about his ITP project and upcoming book.  Schapiro, a longtime correspondent with the Center for Investigative Reporting, has been writing environmental stories in the United States and abroad for more than twenty years. 
Mark Schapiro (right) with Central Valley
almond farmer Barat Besabri

Photo credit:  Peter Cunningham

ITP:  What sparked your interest in climate change issues and investigative journalism?

MS:  "I’ve been in journalism for over 30 years.  When I was younger I worked as an intern for the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) in Oakland.  It was really the first non-profit journalism organization in the US.  I just loved the idea of investigative reporting and getting behind the scenes of the story to the root of what actually happened as opposed to the manufactured reality we are often surrounded by.  One of the first projects CIR got me involved with was doing research for a book called Circle of Poison with David Weir.  The book exposed how the U.S. was exporting pesticides to developing countries. And then the poisonous residues came back to us in the food we eat. I realized that you could research the entire spectrum of political and financial interests if you looked at a particular environmental question. And I was interested in that nexus between politics, power and the environment

I gravitated to environmental journalism because, first, I care about the environment and I’m curious as to why things are happening the way they are and, second, I think when you get to the heart of environmental issues you get to the essential nature of power and how it works in a society.  Environmental journalism was a way to highlight the abuses of our environment by powerful interests, and by revealing the evidence of what’s often hidden, hopefully leading to action and change. I still think of it that way, environment journalism as a part of conflict journalism.  The ultimate conflicts, and many of them with big implications for our common atmosphere, water, and other shared resources."

You are writing a book about climate change.
--Tell me how the book came about?

The last 3 + years I’ve been exploring efforts by the world to use markets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions  - known as cap and trade.  I did several stories revealing the flaws in the evolution of the international carbon market to find a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  I really went deep into the anatomy of how those markets work, and investigating the claims that they are reducing emissions. The resulting stories came out in Harpers Magazine, Mother Jones Magazine and other publications.  I also did a Frontline/World segment on PBS exploring what happens when you try to turn a tropical forest into greenhouse gas offsets, the effect on people living there and challenging claims of greenhouse gas reductions by major corporations here in the United States.  There was quite a bit of impact with this series of stories. 

So I decided to write a book probing deeper into what underlies these efforts—to find a way to assign a price to carbon that reflects its actual costs to the environment. I’m telling the back-story to our carbon footprints.  In the global carbon market, the world is trying to assign a price to carbon and deal with the economic consequences of fossil fuel use. My book is telling a narrative of stories behind the actual cost of fossil fuels, the externalities that are paid by society as a result of the disruptions caused by climate change.  By telling the stories I hope to illustrate that we are already paying the cost of climate change.  Those costs, though, are being borne by society, by taxpayers—that’s us--because the costs of using fossil fuels are not reflected in their actual price—which works to the advantage of the fossil fuel energy producers. For instance, if we pay $4 per gallon for gas, that is only a portion of the cost to the environment for using this form of energy.  My book is an effort to take that complex idea and tell the stories behind the consequences.

I spent a lot time last summer, in the Central Valley of California looking into the costs of climate change on the cultivation of food crops—which is significant in terms of yields and quality.  I spent time in Europe exploring the tensions between American and European approaches to assigning a price to the use of fossil fuel.  There are very different approaches and the interesting thing is that by assigning a price that accurately reflects the costs of fossil fuels gives a major incentive to developing less fossil fuel energy technologies. Which is what’s happening in places where more honest accounting takes place. Unfortunately, this for the most part does not include the United States—with the exception of California, which is starting now to penalize fossil-fuel energy.  And I’ve looked into how the Chinese are subsidizing renewable energy technologies—because they see that this is where the world is headed. At each point, when you begin looking at the conflicts over fossil fuel use you end up digging deeper into the architecture of geo-political power. 

The question was, in the effort to establish cap and trade - and the idea of cap and trade is very controversial mind you - the whole world is trying to develop a global carbon market to assign a price to carbon, but what is that price??   Not what you think it is but what it actually is?  My book attempts to answer that question.  Then we can come up with policy and plans.

Do you have any other publications aimed at climate change?
A KQED special on climate change impacts on California agriculture that is based on one of the chapters in my book aired in September.  Over the coming year I’ll be working with other outlets arising from my book reporting.   I’m trying to find ways to tell this story in as many different mediums as possible – each medium provides a different avenue to tell the message to a different audience in a different way.

Let’s talk about your ITP "Pause"----

How did your project evolve from attending the Rio 20 Summit in Brazil to a California agriculture road trip?

The initial thought was to attend Rio +20 and we would capture the dynamism of the global post carbon community.  Essentially, what I started realizing is that it might not be that effective pictorially, and Peter (Cunningham) and I started thinking about other possible ways to tell a story of climate change with words and pictures. I began realizing that we had a fundamental phenomenon happening right here in California, in how farmers are impacted by climate change.  Its something that is often thought of very abstractly as something that is unfolding over the coming decade.  The more I visited the Central Valley, it became evident that climate change is right now having a profound impact among the people who grow our food – every day it has an effect on water, temperature, salt, soil. Farmers are in many ways on the front lines.  I feel good about this decision to tell a story closer to home. It was also a way to suggest, as we’re doing with our pictures and words, some of the innovations by farmers to deal with the consequences of climate change.

Our first trip was to Marin, Sonoma, and Napa where there are lot of very interesting approaches to soil and water conservation, prompted partly by the stresses of climate change, though generally on a relatively small scale.

Our second trip will be to the Central Valley--to see these impacts on large-scale agri-business. 

How did you decide to work with photographer Peter Cunningham on this project?

What’s been interesting for me with this ITP project and working very closely with Peter, is that he thinks in deeply visual terms.  I’ve known Peter since my days in NY and always thought his work was very interesting and creative.  He evokes change pictorially.  When I learned about the ITP grant and it’s mission of bringing people together from different disciplines I spoke to Peter and he responded enthusiastically.  Peter began his quest to understand this story strictly from a visual point of view.  How can we find images that portray some of these tensions and challenges that climate change present to the agriculture in the state of California?  Agriculture is one of the largest industries in the state so this has huge consequences.  Whereas I try to tell a story with traditional elements of words and the overarching issue being explored, he looks for an image that will capture – maybe not literally – but an image that conjures an impression or a thought that is related to this issue of how climate change is altering some of the fundamental conditions of agriculture.  Our collaborating together is bringing us to a new way of storytelling.  I thought this could be a very effective way to tell this story, definitely with fewer words than I’m inclined to and in a way that lingers with people in ways that words don’t always do.  I wanted to take what I have been seeing journalistically speaking and what Peter sees visually—in archetypal and associative imagery-- and put them together.  It’s been exciting to feel the project evolve as we move forward and discover that we can begin with a picture, and then use words to evoke the underlying principle, the facts or the ‘story’ behind the picture. It’s been a creative process for both of us. We are collaborating in ways neither of us anticipated.

What would you consider your greatest takeaway from the road trip pause?

Up to that time most of my career has been doing international level stories and a lot of my work has been overseas in Eastern/Western Europe and Latin America so I’m usually thinking on a global scale.  It was interesting to hone in very tightly on the interplay between climate change and California agriculture, it became as complicated and rich and multi-textured as it has been to evoke some complex foreign dynamic in a distant place.  That was a revelation for me that I did not expect. Going from a macro to a micro level and trying to understand the multiple forces on a daily basis that farmers encounter in conjuring food from the soil has been eye-opening. Farming is a complex enterprise with variables and interplays with the natural, political and financial world.  I’ve been moved by the people we’ve visited who are really trying to create food-growing systems that have a sense of equilibrium.

What do you and Peter envision as the cumulative impacts of your resulting work from the ITP ‘pause’?

With our project I would like to leave people with some lingering images and concepts that will stick with them as they think about the effects of climate change right now – immediately – not in the future.  The distraction of it being a future problem creates a delay in action.  And to illustrate some of the effort made by farmers dealing with these consequences.  They are not passive recipients but are actually taking action to attempt to deal with the changing conditions on the ground.  Peter and I will disseminate the work with exhibitions, a multimedia web production and likely a publication. We’ll be getting the word out.

On a larger level, if we accept the terms of the climate debate today, which also has a deep moral component, the argument says that it’s much too expensive to deal with climate change and the investments in alternative energy.  Let us begin to make these calculations based on actual information rather than the illusion of oil always winning against solar and wind. The current price of oil is not the ‘real’ price of oil.  It’s a fraudulent price and a deep illusion that lies at the heart of the American economic calculations on climate change.  I want to illustrate the actual cost of our fossil fuel reliance, one of which is the cost to the food growing system – and that’s only one chapter!  This particular project started with one question:  What are the costs of climate change, and thus the use of fossil fuels, to California agriculture?  And I apply similar questions in my book to everything from transport to manufacturing to a gallon of gasoline.

Are you interested in shifting public policy?

Absolutely, I want to encourage discussion and debate and get people thinking differently than they have in the past and to spur deeper action in this country and overseas.  My last book on toxic chemicals got deeply engaged in the political debate.  My interest is being engaged on a public level by using the tools of journalism to reveal evidence.  In-depth, immersive journalism to get to the heart of what’s really going on.

Looking back at when you decided to embark upon this project, where did you think it was going to lead you?

I’m not a farmer and know nothing about it.  I’m an urban person but I have deep appreciation for the natural world.  I did not even know where to begin answering the question that I posed.  I was frankly surprised at how profoundly the ability of farmers to cultivate food is being impacted. The story has taken on much more dimension than I originally thought it would.

Mark Schapiro's work has appeared in all media such as Harpers, The Atlantic and Mother Jones magaiznes; on KQED television and FRONTLINE/World and on various public radio shows including Marketplace.  He is currently writing a book for Wiley & Sons evoking the back-story to our carbon footprints - an inquiry which provides the basis to his ITP project on the impacts of Climate Change on California agriculture.  (His documentary on this topic, Heat & Harvest, aired on statewide public television stations last September, and can be seen here).

His previous book, EXPOSED: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power revealed the impacts of toxic chemicals on American's health, and on the American economy as the US falls behind other global efforts to restrict exposure to toxic substances.

Schapiro has received numerous awards for his work, including a DuPont, the Society of Environmental Journalists Reporting Award, a National Magazine Award and a Kurt Schork Award for International Reporting.

He also teaches at the Erasmus Mundus Masters in International Journalism program at the University of Denmark, Aarhus; at the Monterey Institute of International Studies; and at the University of California, Berkeley graduate school of Journalism, among others.