David Pilling

Financial Times

David Pilling has devoted increasing time to covering the complex story of climate change and environmental destruction as it affects Africa. The African continent is generally an afterthought in the climate debate. Coverage that exists most often portrays it as a victim of climate change (which it is) but the story often stops there.

Pilling has tried to draw out the complexity of the story and the policy debate with reporting trips to Madagascar, Kenya, Nigeria, Gabon and elsewhere. In opinion pieces (one of which is included here) he advocated for an “African” position, always aware that the continent’s 54 countries each have different priorities, agendas and realities.

One of Pilling's articles is on famine in southern Madagascar and shows how multifaceted environmental collapse can be. Initially, there was an over-simplified narrative that this was the first example of a famine caused by man-made climate change. Though changing rain patterns have certainly played a role, Pilling discovered through detailed interviews with those affected and with experts both in Madagascar and outside that, as one person puts it, “there are many hands on the axe”. Soil degradation, deforestation, policy mistakes and neglect over decades have contributed to a Jared Diamond-style collapse of an entire ecosystem that is a warning to the planet. The piece got huge reader feedback and shed light on a tragedy that has not got sufficient media attention. Many Madagascans said the piece was nuanced and portrayed the people suffering the consequences of drought as real human beings, not useful elements of a narrative. The photos and presentation of the piece were also outstanding. (https://www.ft.com/content/8fa3596e-9c6a-4e49-871a-86c20e0d170c)

Another article, mainly reported from Kenya, seeks to tackle an important but neglected policy issue: can poor countries get rich without using fossil fuels? If the answer is no, then poor countries in Africa and elsewhere are, in effect, being asked to stay poor in perpetuity in the interests of saving the planet. Pilling uses Kenya as a case study to examine what might be possible and where the obstacles lie. It’s the sort of policy-heavy piece that the FT specialises in, but one brought to life through on-the-ground reporting. Finally, Pilling has written several opinion pieces attempting to throw light on the topic of climate change and the march to net zero from an African perspective. Just what is a “just energy transition”? If it means continued energy poverty for Africans, 600 million of whom have no access to electricity, they will rightly reject it. The alternative must be technology and financial transfers to help Africa massively increase its clean energy output in a way that is compatible with preserving the planet. Pilling’s pieces have resonated greatly with key policymakers on the continent who regularly correspond with him and comment on his pieces.