For almost a quarter of a century, Clemente Álvarez has made it his job to place the environmental crisis on the front pages of the newspapers where he has worked. As well as founding five environment sections in the Spanish press and international TV broadcasters, and an environmentalist magazine, he has been a pioneer in reporting on environmental issues through social media and has experimented with diverse digital journalism formats. Besides his press work, he has written comics and taken part in theater plays and group exhibitions with an environmental focus. It was in recognition of these achievements that the jury granted him the Award for Knowledge Dissemination and Communication in Biodiversity Conservation in Spain.
“This is not a minority issue interesting only a few: it concerns everyone, even if they prefer to ignore it. A fundamental part of environmental reporting is that each story must have its basis in science, in validated knowledge, regardless of the format, subject matter, channel or medium. It’s important to make experiences feel personally relevant to people, but without sacrificing scientific rigor.” It is precisely this task of bringing environmental issues into the foreground that has occupied Clemente Álvarez, current head of the Science and Environment section of daily newspaper El País, since the end of the 1990s.
Almost 25 years ago, Álvarez managed to put climate change at the heart of the public agenda when he signed a front-page article in national daily La Razón, after the then U.S. President George W. Bush refused to back the Kyoto Protocol. According to the awardee journalist, “the crucial thing in achieving the widest possible readership is to really want it. Often when you don’t succeed it’s because you’re not really trying.” What matters, in other words, is the determination to make the story count, along with the support of the publication. He is also keenly aware that “not everything will work. With so many stories currently competing for the public’s interest, you have to stop them looking elsewhere and get them to focus on the environmental issues that will shape our planet’s future.”
Álvarez began his career in 1998 in the Ecology section of La Razón, focusing on the two main planks of the environmental challenge: the conservation of species and ecosystems and climate change. “It is true,” he explains, “that for reasons of urgency climate change at times overshadows the biodiversity crisis. But it’s important to remember that the two questions are closely intertwined, to the extent that some anti-climate change measures, if not implemented with care, can actually threaten biodiversity. I am thinking, for instance, of the current drive to increase the production of renewable energies. Reporting on both issues should therefore go hand in hand, and any decisions taken should pursue positive outcomes across all environmental variables. It’s not only about cutting emissions, we also have to factor in biodiversity and any social and economic implications.”
Álvarez has attended five United Nations climate summits (COPs), reporting on them for different media. Copenhagen 2009, in particular, gave him the chance to get environmental news back in the headlines, in this case of El País, the newspaper he has been writing for since 2004 and whose Climate and Environment section, which he founded and has lead since 2020, reaches around one million readers every month: “I’ve been lucky in that almost all the media where I’ve worked have shown a commitment to environmental reporting. And when they haven’t, I have gone off and founded my own. El País, of course, has put its weight behind the environment and climate agenda and has happily given it space and resources.”
Over his more than two decades in environmental journalism, Álvarez has been behind the creation of specialist sections in some of Spain’s top general-interest news publications. As well as those already mentioned, notable launches include the environmental pages of eldiario.es and former news portal Soitu, where he gave free rein to his talent with a series of innovative digital contents.
Indeed journalistic innovation and the creation of new narrative formats and spaces have been constants in Álvarez’s career, said the jury in its citation, due partly at least to his social media presence, which was pioneering in its day: “I reported on the 2009 climate summit via Twitter, in 140 characters. Most journalists were clustered around the teletype machines or running down the corridors trying to keep up with everything going on in different places, while I had my networks running and could not only follow the various events unfolding at the same time, but had videos of the demonstrations taking place on one site, the protests at another… that was something really new. Journalistic rigor is always a must, as is double checking news, but when you suddenly get these tools to reach many more people and do different things, I think our duty is to try them and use them.”
In 2014, in the midst of the economic recession, he and two other environmental journalists (Sara Acosta and Álex Fernández) founded Ballena Blanca, a special-interest magazine focusing on the climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis that has experimented with different narratives and formats and new formulas for reaching the audience. The publication now has some 1,500 subscribers as well as an online section in eldiario.es with over 200,000 unique users per month.
He then went on to found the environmental section of Univision, one of the top Spanish-language channels in the United States, working with them from 2016 to 2018. This was not his first venture into television: in 2013 he was both writer and presenter on La Huella, a program on Spanish public TV channel La 2, where he advised families on how to reduce their environmental impact. It is for all these achievements that he was hailed by the jury for “his exceptional contribution to rigorous environmental reporting,” and as “an outstanding exponent of the best environmental journalism being produced in Spain.”
Besides appearing in purely journalistic formats, Clemente Álvarez has made his mark in other cultural domains, scripting the comic Cuaderno de Campo de una Vida en Doñana (2019), about the life of Miguel Delibes de Castro, and creating work for the theater and group exhibitions. “It is important to explore new paths and try new things, be it in content, language or the format itself. If it can capture the public’s imagination and make them receptive to your message, I’ll try it. Some things work and some don’t. One of the experiences I have personally enjoyed the most is going on stage in a theater to tell the audience a real story that was originally the content of a report.”
Álvarez believes in approaching the environmental challenge from multiple angles: from the extinction risk facing a local species to the great global problems of deforestation, desertification or drought. However, it is not always necessary, or even advisable, to go to far-flung places to find the stories that deserve attention: “There has always been this tendency to focus on distant forests and exotic places, but the journalist has the vital job of bringing the big issues closer to readers’ lives. So when describing the impact of something happening far away, you need to bring home that it may affect them too.”
He celebrates the fact that environmental news has been gaining more space in the media over recent years: “A lot of decisions are being made that will change fundamental aspects of our day-to-day lives, like how we move, eat or dress. Journalists, of course, have a duty not to take sides, but, in the face of this emergency, what we have to do is to convey the message, objectively and impartially, that we need to act now, because the scientists of the world are urging us to action.”