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Ask Vanessa Hauc how much fun it is to be judged before you even open your mouth. She can tell you stories. The Emmy Award-winning journalist is a very lovely woman, but that’s both a blessing and a curse in TV land.

“When I started my career as a journalist 20 years ago, I saw that stereotype,” she told Planet Experts at the Climate Reality Leadership event in Miami, “that many people thought, ‘Okay, you’re pretty. You don’t have anything in your head.’ And for the Latin communities even more. So I made it my mission to change it.”

Vanessa Hauc. (Photo courtesy of Sachamama)

Vanessa Hauc. (Photo courtesy of Sachamama)

There is a barrier in place for women in the media, one right down the middle of being seen and being heard. And while Hauc knew she was being seen – that element was inescapable – she became increasingly concerned about what she was saying. “I wanted to understand where conflicts are coming from, to get down to the origins,” she explained, “track the sources of why conflict occurs. It was then that I decided to go back to school and say, ‘Okay, let’s really find a career that can give me that depth, to understand why conflicts are happening around the world and explain it to my viewers.’”

It was that second component, being able to explain issues to viewers, that concerned her the most. It was why she worked tirelessly to earn her Masters in Economy and International Politics, to be able to take the raw data she received as a journalist and make it matter to ordinary people. “I think we all deal with personal insecurities as women,” she said, “and for me it was that, the knowledge. I always thought I was not good enough, so I prepared double, I studied double. When I got my Masters, it gave me peace – a little bit.”

That’s why the media’s treatment of climate change is so important, she explained. It’s a story that’s both way too big and way too scientific to matter in the way that smaller, personal stories do. That’s why she created the “Alerta Verde” (Green Alert) for Telemundo, to translate the big story of the environment into a five-minute segment for the whole family. That’s why she co-founded “Sachamama” (Mother Jungle), to “represent the realities and concerns of the community.”

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Ms. Hauc speaking about conservation at a Sachamama training. The organization has hosted several training events for Latinos in Miami, LA and Houston. (Photo: Sachamama)

When Climate Change Conquers Objectivity

In the United States, climate change is considered a controversial issue by several prominent Republican politicians (and almost all Republican presidential candidates), but not by the people who actually study climate. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and 97.1 percent of climate scientists agree that greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to a rise in global temperatures. Around the world, many developed countries have accepted the science, but the fossil fuel industry has invested significant dollars in either downplaying or outright lying about the facts.

This has led to a widespread belief among the public that climate change and global warming are unsubstantiated theories. Sarah Palin (who loses more cultural relevance by the minute but remains a prominent voice among conservatives) has even referred to climate change as “junk science” and compared it to eugenics.

Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) has called global warming “the second-largest hoax ever played on the American people, after the separation of church and state.” (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) has called global warming “the second-largest hoax ever played on the American people, after the separation of church and state.” (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

This is the kind of false information that Hauc wanted to dispel for her audience on Telemundo. She joined the American Spanish-language network in 2002 as a reporter and presenter on the popular “Al Rojo Vivo con María Celeste” program. As an ecologist, Hauc wanted to share the truth about what was happening to the environment, but as a journalist she struggled with the need to keep her personal feelings on the issue remote. “I didn’t know how to navigate both worlds,” she said.

“As a journalist, you have to be objective, you have to be critical, you have to be very fair,” she added. “And you cannot move toward one side or the other. But I realize that there are some issues that, yes, you can move a little bit – critical issues that are very important for your community, like health, human rights, the environment. Because this is something that’s crucial. Then you can definitely put yourself into it because this is information that is going to be vital for your community.

“I’m a firm believer that we have to do something – as a mother, as a journalist, as a member of this community.”

When she approached the network with the idea of doing a segment on environmental news, they responded enthusiastically.

“Telemundo has been very supportive of me,” she said, “and they embraced this wish that I had to do more with the environment. […] So we created a segment called ‘Green Alert,’ and it’s doing wonderful! We’ve had it for five years, and every time we do it the ratings are up.”

The support and audience of Telemundo has allowed Hauc to reach Spanish-speaking families around the world. “I think the media is a key player in this issue,” she said. “Most of the people I speak to don’t have the facility to read the scientific papers. They don’t have the IPCC report [an intergovernmental analysis of global climate change], they don’t have the knowledge to interpret that information, but the media does. So it is our responsibility to educate ourselves first about the environment and the situation that we’re living in and to put it in simple terms so our audience can actually do something about it, learn from it in a very simple way, and act on it with education. That’s what we’re here for. That’s our responsibility.”

Grounding the Issue

Immediacy is often what sells an issue to the public. That’s a problem for an issue like climate change, in which the most extreme effects can take years to manifest. “When you have an organization that is advocating for animals,” said Hauc, “or you’re advocating for kids, and you show pictures of kids, then everybody says, ‘Wow, this is real, we can make a difference.’ But when you talk about the environment, it’s something so great. Some people tend to not understand the connection, that if something happened to the environment that you might die. It’s just such a huge issue they can’t do anything about.”

For Hauc, changing that perspective means putting the viewer’s life in context. After all, what is the Earth but the ground under our feet, the water in our glasses, the food on our tables? “Whoever I talk to, I let them know that we depend 100 percent on the planet,” said Hauc. “To have stable weather, to have pure water, to have healthy ground to plant our food…we do so little to protect our life source. To connect the dots is challenging, but we’re doing it.”

Part of that process is becoming involved with Sachamama, a nonprofit organization co-founded by Hauc “to educate and empower the Latino community on the importance of preserving our planet.”

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Sachamama, the “Mother Jungle,” and Working With the Climate Reality Project

Born and raised in Colombia, Hauc would often visit the Amazon jungle with her brother and family to connect to their ancestral roots. These yearly trips inspired the siblings to give back to the jungle and the formation of Sachamama.

“Sachamama” means “Mother Jungle” or “Mother Earth” in Quechua, a language native to the Amazon. The organization is dedicated to sharing stories about the Amazon and the Earth, educating and empowering the Latino community by emphasizing the personal dynamics of conservation and the need to “restore the balance and move towards a sustainable future.”

With Hauc a journalist and her brother a marine biologist, Sachamama allows them to combine their talents and the talents of others into this focused good. “This is our mission,” said Hauc, “this is what we need to do.”

Forest in the Cauca Valley, Cali, Colombia (Photo: The Nature Conservancy)

Forest in the Cauca Valley, Cali, Colombia (Photo: The Nature Conservancy)

In Sachamama, Hauc has taken the idea of community-led conservation to the next level. Its members use their experiences and expertise to spread awareness about environmental destruction and degradation. “If you’re a journalist, if you’re a dentist, if you’re a doctor, everybody can do something,” she said. The organization is also uniquely race-conscious, in that it taps into an issue that will disproportionately affect Latinos.

“Latinos are very, very vulnerable to climate change,” Hauc explained. “Twenty-seven million Latinos live in the 25 most-polluted cities in the country, and our children are 40 percent more likely to suffer from asthma than any other ethnic group.” That danger is magnified by the fact that, statistically, Latinos are less likely to have health insurance. A 2013 US Census report showed that Latinos have a “higher uninsured rate than non-Hispanic Whites for every state but Hawaii,” and that more than 30 percent of Latinos under the age of 65 are uninsured in 28 states.

That’s a problem when studies in both the US and China (the planet’s two biggest polluters) link burning fossil fuels to increases in the rates of lung damage, heart disease, stroke and cancer. In India (the planet’s third-biggest polluter), the air is so toxic that nearly half of the schoolchildren in Delhi will suffer irreversible damage to their lungs

Against such daunting figures, Hauc is spreading a message of hope to her fellow Latinos. “Because we are a very powerful community,” she said, “and if we educate ourselves, knowing what is best for our families, for our communities, for our cities, then we can act on it.”

In fact, Latinos already share a deep connection to the Earth, Hauc added, with many members of the community separated from their ancestral lands by only one or two generations. “My grandmother used to cultivate the earth in Colombia,” she said. “This is something that is very close to our hearts. We migrated from countries to the United States, but we cannot forget that. Those things that we learned growing up have to come back…”

With Sachamama and the Climate Reality Project, Vanessa Hauc has been touring the United States, training new environmental leaders and maximizing the true story of climate change. “We work one-on-one with the people,” said Hauc. “We find journalists, producers, writers, artists, that want to come to our trainings, and then we try to give them an experience and make them remember what was that first time, that first seed, that they remember their connection with the earth. We reconnect them with that. We just give them the tools and the empowerment and then we see them flourish. And we’ve seen wonderful things. We’ve seen people from CNN that are doing stories, people are writing in different magazines who never thought about writing about environmental issues, and now they are.”

Like Philippe Cousteau, Hauc says the movement has grown markedly in the last few years. “We’re coming to a tipping point,” she said, “and I see more and more people who are interested. I mean, just to see this conference, there are so many people willing to learn and change their ways for the greater good. It’s proof positive that things are changing, no?”

Nicole Landers, Planet Experts’ Marketing Director, contributed to this report. Follow her @girliegreen.

More stories in Planet Experts’ Climate Reality Series:

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