With disinformation ramping up before COP28, journalists need to prepare now to avoid getting spun during the summit. Covering Climate Now and Climate Action Against Disinformation, a coalition of NGOs researching mis- and disinformation in the climate space, co-hosted a press briefing to update journalists on likely disinformation narratives to watch out for, how media digests disinformation, and how it can impact negotiations. Whether you’re reporting or editing, on the ground or from afar, this press briefing is aimed at helping you publish the most factual reporting.
- Jessica Green, Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto
- Jennie King, Head of Climate Research and Policy, Institute for Strategic Dialogue
- Fredrick Mugira, Water and Climate Journalist and Founder, Water Journalists Africa
Amy Westervelt, investigative climate journalist and founder of Critical Frequency, moderated.
- Mis- and disinformation strategies are changing.
King explained that since the last COP summit, COP27, climate misinformation tactics by individuals, companies, and organizations have shifted away from outright denial of climate change toward an emphasis on:
- Misrepresenting scientific data, through omission or “cherry-picking,” to undermine the trust and authority of organizations engaged in climate action, including academic institutions, government agencies, and the press.
- Greenwashing, by presenting their work as supportive of climate action while continuing practices that contribute to climate change.
Increasingly sophisticated social media and public relations strategies are being used to spread disinformation, King said. And hostile state actors, such as pro-Kremlin propaganda networks, and petrostates, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are taking part. These tactics and climate conspiracism are influencing and undermining public policy discussions, she said. “Whole policy platforms have been unseated by disinformation campaigns.”
- Net-zero claims require extreme scrutiny.
Companies (and countries) make net-zero claims, but journalists must “look under the hood” to understand the truth behind these assertions, Green said. She pointed to a study she co-authored examining the degree to which large oil and gas companies are actually decarbonizing. Despite their “green” claims, research found that less than 1% of revenues are being invested in renewable energy. She encouraged journalists to look beyond firms’ “glossy reports” with images of windmills and tree planting projects and carefully examine if what companies’s words match up with their actions. Fossil fuel companies, she said, are “not putting their money where their mouth is.”
Westervelt added that the same is true for state-run oil companies. She pointed to a recent article she co-authored digging into the United Arab Emirates state-owned renewable energy company Masdar, which saw a “giant leap” in renewable energy capacity as the UAE moved toward hosting COP28. Over half of that capacity came from acquiring stakes in existing projects and strategic partnerships, her research found, not from developing new projects, which could have added to global capacity.
- Sources should be closely scrutinized.
In general, and in particular when covering UN climate summits, journalists should critically evaluate their sources, said Mugira, who’s covered five COPs. “You don’t know their aim. Don’t rush to trust them. Verify. Verify the source, verify the content they are telling you, and also verify the relevance of this content.”
Information from lobbyists and others may look reputable, but can be misleading, Mugira said. “Someone may be lying,” he said, adding that journalists should turn to reputable scientists to crosscheck information. It’s also important that journalists check scientists’ affiliations and credentials; Mugira has encountered people who fashion themselves as scientific experts but are actually “propagandists” or “spies.” “Find out who the scientist is and what he has done. … See what he’s been working on, who he’s been working with, and then talk to him to verify, to cross check, to corroborate the information that you have gotten from diplomats and politicians.”
Green encouraged journalists to contact the Climate Social Science Network, which brings together diverse climate experts investigating climate obstruction tactics, key players, and effects on climate policy.
King pointed to three tools to help vet sources:
- DeSmog’s Climate Disinformation Database, though, she notes, it’s not been recently updated.
- Influence Map’s COP 28 Attendee Corporate Influence Database
- Global Witness, which will produce research on fossil fuel lobbyists at COP28 after the UNFCCC participation list is made public.
- Digital security is paramount.
King suggested that journalists be extra cautious with digital security when traveling to the UAE, as the country is “a very sophisticated actor when it comes to both surveillance and hacking.” Tips include:
- Remove personal and professional information from your devices, or use a new “clean” device.
- Disable biometric authentication (eg., Face ID) and use strong, unique passwords instead.
- Use a personal wifi-router if possible and avoid public wifi.
- Avoid scanning QR codes, even if they appear legitimate.
- Do not, under any circumstances, leave your devices unattended.
- Register with your local embassy so you can ask for assistance if needed.
In a follow-up message, King stressed that journalists should NOT download the UAE’s COP28 summit app, because CAAD had credible information that it could be used as a cyberweapon, as was the case at COP27.
Related Links and Resources
Below, see information shared by panelists and journalists during the event:
Mis-/Disinfo Backgrounder: Jennie King shared the CAAD Mis-/Disinformation Backgrounder, a short report outlining the basics on mis-/disinformation and common tactics used to mislead the public.
CCNow resources: To equip journalists with the tools to recognize and counter misinformation, CAAD and CCNow published a list of six tricks commonly used by climate disinformers. This past July, CCNow hosted another press briefing on climate misinformation to help get you up to speed titled, “The Ever-Shifting Climate Misinformation Landscape.”.
Tracking disinformers: DeSmog’s extensive Climate Disinformation Database features research on individuals and organizations spreading climate mis-/disinformation.
Climate Social Science Network: The Climate Social Science Network brings together diverse climate experts investigating climate obstruction tactics, key players, and effects on climate policy.
Climate Journalism in East Africa: Internews published a report on misinformation in East African climate journalism.
Mark Hertsgaard: Hello and welcome to another press briefing with Covering Climate Now. I’m Mark Hertsgaard. I’m the executive director of Covering Climate Now and also the environment correspondent for The Nation Magazine. On today’s press briefing, our subject is safeguarding against misinformation and disinformation at COP28. But first, for those of you who may not know, Covering Climate Now is a global collaboration of more than 600 news outlets that reach a total audience of multiple billions of people around the world. We’re organized by journalists for journalists to help all of us do a better job of covering a defining story of our time. It costs nothing for you to join Covering Climate Now, whether you’re an individual journalist or a newsroom. There’s no editorial line except for respecting climate science. You can go to our website coveringclimatenow.org and find a list of our partners. You can sign up for our weekly newsletter, The Climate Beat, check out our training and background resources, join our Slack channel and of course, apply to join Covering Climate Now.
So COP28, the Annual UN Climate Negotiations, they begin November 30 and they’ll continue through December 12. Today, we’re going to be speaking as journalists with one another about how we can avoid being taken in by misinformation, disinformation, and assorted other skullduggery, whether you’re covering COP28 at the site in Abu Dhabi or remotely from around the world. In any case, we hope that all of our fellow climate journalists, wherever you are, will be covering COP28 because even if you’re not there on the ground, and even if the people in your audience might think that they’re not interested in distant climate negotiations, those distant climate negotiations are interested in them. The fact is that what does and does not happen at COP28 will have an enormous impact on people and local communities all around the world.
Covering Climate Now has prepared a COP28 reporting guide that can give you all the background information you need to get up to speed. We’ll be releasing that COP28 reporting guide first thing tomorrow morning, that’s Wednesday morning, New York time, so be on the lookout. Come to the website for that tomorrow morning, Wednesday, November 15. And now it’s my distinct pleasure to turn these proceedings over to today’s moderator, Amy Westervelt of Drilled News. Amy is really one of the world’s leading experts and I must say, exposers of climate and misinformation and disinformation. She’s also, we’re proud to say, one of the winners of this year’s Covering Climate Now Journalist of the Year Awards. Amy, over to you.
Amy Westervelt: Thanks, Mark. We have an amazing panel of folks for you today, including Jess Green. She’s a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. She is also at the School of Environment and has previously held positions at Case Western and NYU. Her book, Rethinking Private Authority: Agents and Entrepreneurs in Global Environmental Governance was published by Princeton University Press and received Best Book Awards from the International Studies Association, American Political Science Association and International Political Science Association. Her work has appeared in Nature, Nature Climate Change, Global Environmental Politics, International Organization among others. She blogs regularly for the Washington Post and has published in outlets, including The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jacobin The Globe and Mail, and the Toronto Star. Also, an excellent follow on Twitter if anyone is still using that little platform. She is great on all things climate and messaging and international diplomacy as well.
We also have Jennie King, Head of Climate Research and Policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, leading efforts to translate digital research into frontline programming and response. Through ISD, Jennie helped found Climate Action Against Disinformation, a coalition of over 50 organizations working to identify, analyze, and counter this issue worldwide. Their regular data monitors are something all journalists should be subscribing to. It’s great to get regular updates on the whole landscape of climate disinformation. Jenny’s also spearheaded investigations on climate nihilism and discourses of delay in context, including Australia, Canada, Central Europe, Germany, South Africa, the US and the UK, as well as co-authoring flagship reports such as Deny, Deceive, Delay, volumes one and two. Jennie also designed and leads the COP Intelligence Unit on behalf of CAAD we’re going to be hearing from her about what they’re starting to see in the lead up to this COP, and she leads over 15 partners to produce real-time monitoring of misinformation and disinformation around the annual COPs, so great resource.
Fredrick Mugira is a National Geographic Storytelling Explorer, Pulitzer Center grantee and Bertha Fellow. Frederick has reported on water, climate change and wildlife for over 18 years from various countries in Africa, Asia, and the US. He also founded Water Journalists Africa, a nonprofit media group that brings together journalists in 50 African countries to report on water conservation issues. Frederick has an amazing sterling bio I won’t read all of, but I do just want to also add that he’s just been named this year’s recipient of the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Awards for Excellence in Science Communications. He also contributed to a report that’s going to be on our resource list about how journalists in East Africa are dealing with climate disinformation there. So great to have him as well. Thank you guys all for being here and for having these amazing bios for me to read. We’re going to start with Jennie, who’s going to give us a little bit of a lay of the land of what we’re seeing on the disinformation front in the lead up to COP28.
Jennie King: Thanks so much, Amy. I will try and keep this brief because I think we’d really want this session to be interactive, and I know that there’s already a lot planned for the Q&A. So rather than going through a granular level every trend that we’ve seen in 2023, I thought that it would be useful to think about what has shifted in the landscape since everyone last convened in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt. What has changed in terms of the information dynamics around climate issues in various different geographies, and what does that mean for you as reporters on the ground in navigating this space, in trying to distill core points for your audience? And also to not fall into what are really easy traps that are being laid by a range of bad actors who have varying different incentives for engaging with mis and disinformation in some form, not just business and financial incentives, but increasingly political ones, cultural ones, ideological ones, and personal ones.
So I’m just seeing if I can share my screen. Can everybody see the deck? Amy, I’m looking at you. Yeah, excellent. Okay. So the first place to start, and I think this is really important to reiterate, is what do we mean when we talk about mis and disinformation? Because if we don’t have a common set of parameters for talking about the issue, then we are very likely to fall into the culture wars trap of constantly litigating what is and what isn’t credible content. I think that there is still a risk that we have a very narrow conception of mis and disinformation as only relating to climate denial, and that is certainly still relevant. And in fact, what I would say is very concerning over the last 12 months is that we are really seeing the large-scale renormalization or re-mainstreaming of the kinds of denialist arguments that we thought had been relegated to the margins of public life. And that form of denialism is being updated through the lens of conspiracy theories, through the lens of political polarization in a lot of countries.
So it’s not the same type of denial that you might have seen in the 1980s or the early two thousands, but it is ultimately rejecting the premise of fossil fuel linked climate change or anthropogenic climate change and trying to convince people that the problem is not as serious or not as urgent as is being presented by science. But that is only a very narrow band of content. And I still think excluding some political candidates in certain primaries, that there is not the same kind of social license as there was before for standing up in public and saying, “I don’t believe in climate change.” Right? Public consensus has shifted enormously. So now the vast majority of information operations are really consolidating around this second pillar of content, the misrepresentation of scientific data, efforts to undermine the credibility and the legitimacy of any sort of institution that is engaged in climate action, climate science or climate policy.
So that doesn’t just mean academic institutions, but it also means government agencies responsible for leading legislative efforts. It means meteorological offices that report on the weather for the general public. It means media outlets and journalists like yourselves who are trying to interpret climate science and climate policy for the public, that all of those are kind of seen as targets for this sort of information warfare. And then the third pillar, which remains the best funded, the most professionalized and the most well networked, is ultimately greenwashing content. Now, I’ll come to this a little bit in the next slide, but these are the kinds of actors who are very keen to present themselves as supportive of climate action. They want to align themselves socially and politically with things like the Paris Agreement or the goal of decarbonization, but the actual ideas that they are putting forward or the things that they are investing in and building their business models around are fundamentally counter to achieving net-zero and are fundamentally counter to the scientific consensus.
So you see this really interesting mismatch, particularly for industry between how much money they spend on PR talking about their climate activism and their so-called investment in renewable energies or in carbon capture and storage versus their actual investment portfolios going all the way up until 2050, which are absolutely 95% to 100% dependent on the maintenance of the carbon economy, so the gap there between the presentation and the performance for the public versus what they’re actually doing internally within their own companies and how they are engaging with policymakers on that front.
The other thing that I think is really important to note is that it is no longer the sole preserve of the carbon oil and gas companies, big auto, big agriculture, to engage with mis and disinformation. They are certainly, they have the biggest and the deepest pockets, and they have been honing their tactical in their messaging playbook since the 1970s, so there is much greater discipline. There are very pronounced relationships with legacy media. There are good PR relationships there. There are advertising relationships, but also that they are using the aesthetics and the opportunities of social media to try and engage new demographics and to normalize their talking points with younger and potentially more progressive audiences.
And some of the ways that they might do that are using influencers. So have celebrity chefs on TikTok do videos where they’re using gas stoves and where they talk about how integral gas stoves are to the taste of their particular cuisine. Or have beauty bloggers on Instagram stand in front of a petrol pump putting diesel fuel into their car as they go on a road trip through the great American countryside. Or have gamers on Twitch and Discord talking about the supposed progressive carbon action being taken by Shell and Exxon. So there’s a balance now between the ways that they’re doing their traditional PR versus the ways that they’re using social media.
But there are also these other really pronounced actor ecosystems that are engaged in information warfare around climate. The one at the top, hostile state actors, and in particular, I would say pro-Kremlin propaganda networks. Petro states like the UAE, Saudi Arabia influence operations coming from the Chinese state and other authoritarian regimes. And I think in that instance, focusing our lens on regions in the global south is particularly important. Regions like Sub-Saharan Africa are seen as a playground for these kinds of hostile state interference. And there are both trade and diplomatic incentives in that they want reliance on Russian oil and gas.
But there are also geopolitical incentives in framing net-zero as a Western imperialist agenda or a form of neocolonialism and trying to exploit real and very profound historical grievances between some of these regions and the major superpowers and trying to discredit climate action in the process. And then the final actor group are, call them what you want, the online grifters, the influencers, the outrage merchants, the beneficiaries of the attention economy. These are the people who are monetizing the worst forms of conspiratorial claims, hate speech, subtle mis and disinformation that is difficult to content moderate, difficult to classify, and they are quite incoherent in their messaging. They don’t have consistent lines of attack. They don’t even necessarily have consistent positions on climate apart from broadly badging it as woke, as cultish, as a form of fanaticism or extremism, as anti-democratic and as the kind of elite agenda being pushed by shadowy multilateral institutions, and that they know that kind of content gets engagement, it gets likes, it gets clicks, and in the process, gains the attention of legacy media who then give them a platform to normalize those viewpoints.
So it’s really important to bear in mind that we are not just talking about billions of dollars being invested by an Exxon or a Shell or a Total, but actually this very diverse set of actors who often form odd, informal alliances in the online space, there are kind of marriages of convenience or overlaps in the messages that they’re using, but that they do have quite distinct end goals and objectives in what they’re trying to achieve.
And then where I’ll finish is just to talk about a couple of trends from 2023. I think the biggest one, and this is important from a reporting perspective, is that the digital landscape has shifted in dramatic kind of earthquake-level ways over the last 12 months, and that there are very few public commons or public squares that now exist after the downfall of Twitter, that the kind of remaking of that platform in the wake of Elon Musk has meant that more and more users are being funneled into closed or in some ways specialized communities, whether it’s on Mastodon, whether it’s on TikTok, whether it’s on Telegram, whether it’s on Gab, whether it’s on WhatsApp, that you don’t any more have many spaces where the scientific community is actually engaging with the general public. And instead that more and more people are being pushed into these silos and these echo chambers either to avoid harassment and hate speech, or because that they can no longer have any sort of constructive discussion in those spaces.
So when you are reporting at COP, you cannot go to your Twitter newsfeed and think that it is a representation even of a kind of elite media and scientific community, that’s no longer representative of the way the information is spreading online.
And what’s happened alongside this is the absolute choke hold that conspiracism is having on all conversations around public policy. And there’ve been a number of examples throughout the year, 15-minute cities is one, the evolution of misinformation around wildfires, the pushback on heat pumps in countries like Germany, and how whole policy platforms have been unseated by disinformation campaigns, the continued aggressive onslaught around environmental, social, and government’s agendas, which is the kind of private sector engagement with corporate responsibility. And that being badged as a kind of woke form of capitalism, that all of these things are getting swept up in the same narrative framework around power and agency and civil liberties and state overreach. And that is dominating all conversations regardless of what the initial policy proposal is.
And alongside that, you have the increasing scapegoating of anybody who is associated with climate policy or climate action. And I am very concerned, and I think we should all be concerned, particularly following another tragic event last week in Panama where two environmental defenders were shot dead by a counter protestor, that more and more the formulation is that these activist groups are responsible for all of society’s ills. They are the reason why you can’t pay your bills, they’re the reason why society is failing, they’re the reason why you aren’t flourishing, they’re the reasons why things seem to be getting worse and that you can see a very logical through line to real world violence from that kind of rhetoric.
And we don’t just see that coming from far right groups. It’s also coming from the political establishment, politicians across Europe, in the US, in Australia and elsewhere who are branding these kind of figureheads as eco-extremists, and are using their tactics as a way of distancing them from the rest of society and blaming them for society’s problems.
We will have a pre-COP report that is due out on the 27th of November, and I will put the link in the chat for anyone who wants to sign up to receive both that output and the intelligence briefings that we produced during the summit itself. But I’m going to pause it there because I know that there is a lot else to cover during this discussion.
Amy Westervelt: Awesome. Thank you, Jennie. So when we were talking about pulling together this conversation… Oh, am I, okay, sorry, Zoom troubles… we thought it might be helpful to look at things you can do ahead of going to COP to sort of prepare for dealing with misinformation and figuring out what’s what, and then things that you can do on the ground.
So to start with, we wanted to look at, okay, what can we do ahead of time to sort of be aware of the narratives that are taking hold, some of the rhetoric that’s being used. Jennie just covered quite a bit of that, but Jess and Frederick, I want to hear from you guys about the sorts of things that you suggest people do to get up to speed in the lead up to COP, and maybe starting with you, Jess, what can people do to kind of get a grip on this disconnect between what companies or governments are talking about with climate and climate commitments, versus what they’re actually doing and spending money on?
Jessica Green: Okay, great. Thanks and thanks Jennie for that wonderful presentation. I’m an egghead, I’m an academic, so I’m coming at this from that perspective, though I have experience in international organizations, so I’m going to say a couple of things about preparing.
One is that the COP is not the be-all-end-all of climate politics. Every year there’s this fanfare of, “Oh, we’re all going to Abu Dhabi, we’re all going to Sharm el-Sheikh,” or whatever. And there’s lots and lots of stuff that goes on before, during, and after. This is the sort of culmination of a lot of behind closed doors negotiations among governments. And so when things don’t work at the COP, that means that governments haven’t done […] or they haven’t done the proper preparations to strike an agreement at the COP. Because the COP is just supposed to be unwrapping the gift, the gifts were already bought and packaged beforehand. So I think that’s one thing to keep in mind.
The second is about this idea about false solutions. The Guardian has been doing great coverage about offsets, which is something that I study, and how a lot of multinationals are relying heavily on offsets to meet their 2050 voluntary pledges of net zero. And we’re finding out that they don’t actually reduce carbon emissions, or they’ve burnt down, or now there’s been two stories in the last week about alleged forced labor and sexual assaults associated with carbon offset projects. So these kinds of projects, not only are they not solutions, but it seems like they’re actually generating what I’ve called co-damages instead of co-benefits. And so I think that is a second really important piece.
The third is, and related to the second, is this question of what are firms actually doing? And so they say, “Oh, we pledged to go net-zero,” but you really have to look under the hood to understand what that means. And so for example, I think this is going to be included in the briefing, or I’ll put a link in there, but I did a study with some colleagues on investor-owned oil companies, like the big ones, what are they saying they’re doing? So we came up with all these fancy ways to measure their political speech, and then we looked at their actual investment choices. And not surprisingly, there’s a huge disconnect. So when we say things like, “Oh, Shell is greening their operations,” well, actually all investor-owned oil companies, or these Big 10, they’re investing less than 1%, a fraction of a percent, of their total revenues into renewable energy.
So again, if you crunch the numbers, if you look under the hood, there is a huge disconnect. And so we have to be, I think, really, really careful about taking these glossy reports and these nice pictures of people in foreign places planting trees or whatever, building wind farms, and look very carefully at how does that match up to the flow of dollars? And we see that actually there’s a huge, huge problem in what they say they’re doing and what they’re actually doing. They’re not putting their money where their mouth is. So I’ll stop there.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah, I’ll just add that that’s true of the state-owned oil companies as well. I just did a piece looking at the UAE and Masdar, and they had this really interesting giant leap from 2020 to 2021 when they found out they were getting the COP, where suddenly their renewable energy capacity, like, doubled in one year. And it was just because they had done some really creative acquisitions within the different UAE entities so that they could now claim that the utility’s renewable energy was theirs too. So even stuff like that where it’s like, is it actually additional capacity or is it just creative math, all of that. It’s all happening.
Okay. Frederick, I want to hear from you as well about what you’re seeing in the lead up to COP. There’s been a lot of talk from fossil fuel companies and governments as well about a big focus on Africa and on energy development and climate, and all of these things. So I’m curious what you’re seeing on the ground there and what you’re seeing in sort of international chatter as well.
And I will just point out too that Frederick worked on this report that we’re going to link to in the resources section, that’s very, very interesting. I hope people will check it out. It’s called Climate Journalism in East Africa in an Era of Misinformation, and it’s from Internews and came out in September of this year. But yeah. Frederick, what are you seeing in the lead up to COP?
Fredrick Mugira: Yeah, I thank you so much. Well, we are seeing several things. I’ll just take you back to the climate change summit for Africa that took place in Nairobi. During the summit, we did not see […], and most of the governments never talked about it. And they decided, most of the presidents decided to keep quiet about it. And we have seen most of the African countries that are exploring, are setting to take on oil projects in Uganda for example, Tanzania, and South Africa, in Nigeria, these are countries that will never talk about fossil fuels, and so they keep quiet.
So then it takes us back to what we saw during the climate change summit in Africa may also be seen in Dubai, for example, because you see COP 28 is being hosted by an oil state. So then we may not see a lot of stories around fossil fuels. But also when it comes to the side of the journals, for example, and briefly about the survey that was done by the Earth Journalism Network and looked at how journalists in East Africa, in Uganda, in Tanzania, in Kenya, in Ethiopia, reporting about climate change and their understanding of the mis and disinformation.
And most of the journalists that I talked to, I took part in this as a researcher. So most of the journalists that we talked to, you realize lack of capacity among these journalists to tackle climate change misinformation, disinformation. And these are the guys that you expect to write about the facts, to be able to tell the difference between the right and the wrong. But they have no capacity to tell the right.
And yeah, but also I know a third of the journalists who responded did not seem to have time and capacity to fact-check the stories. So then you see now we are fed onto what […] would want because the journalists that write these stories are not able to fact check and feed us on the right information.
Amy Westervelt: Excellent. Thanks guys. Okay, so I want to kind of look at what… Sorry, okay, sorry, sorry, my document wasn’t loading.
Okay, so we mentioned the UAE, Dubai, some of these issues around the fact that the COP is being hosted by an oil state and that the president of this year’s summit is the president of the national oil company there. So that throws a whole other batch of wrenches into the works here. That means that even the COP press office itself is potentially compromised. And in fact, there’s been quite a bit of reporting showing that there’s a fair bit of crossover between the COP organizers and the oil companies.
So how do we handle this as journalists? Jennie, I’m going to start with you and some of your tips for reporting in a state like the UAE in general.
Jennie King: Sure. I am going to come at this from a very specific digital security perspective because I really fear for people’s safety on the ground in some of these countries. I was in Sharm El Sheikh last year. I was previously based in Egypt, so have an understanding of the region and was very concerned by the levels of safeguarding that journalists had from their outlets, the pre-preparation.
So I put together just a couple of tips. I realize that it’s very near the summit, that institutions have differing levels of resource that they can invest in doing digital security. So my aim here is not to terrify people into thinking that there’s nothing that you can do unless you buy brand new phones and laptops. But there are really simple forms of guidance that can just make you more attuned to the environment and the fact that the UAE is a very sophisticated actor when it comes to both surveillance and hacking.
I don’t know whether people saw last year, but the official app for COP 27, which was launched by the Egyptian presidency, was unearthed in the first few days of the summit as being a potential cyber weapon. What that means is that by downloading it onto your phone, it enabled sweeping permissions in terms of access to your microphone, access to your camera, potential access to files and information. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of people, including delegates from very vulnerable countries, downloaded that app and will never have been aware of that story because it was reported in press that they didn’t see. I can share one of those articles in the chat.
The first thing that I would really say is, if you are unable to take a clean device, and by that I mean something that doesn’t have any of your personal or professional information on it, is really think about stripping as much as you can from those devices before you go into the country. Do you need all of those apps on your phone? Do you need all of that social media? Can you upload all of your contacts to the cloud and then only keep the numbers for key people that you’re going to be communicating with? Can you make sure that your most important call in case of emergency contacts are maybe under code names? Some of these simple things that just make it harder to wade through the data that is in your phone.
You might also want to consider things like removing biometric data. What that means is that you don’t have your face unable to lock your phone because that means that anybody can take your phone, hold it in front of your face and unlock it. Whereas if you have a physical password, it just adds an extra barrier to entry for law enforcement, for someone on the street, for anybody who steals your device to be able to access that kind of data. Remove your browser history, think about changing your passwords temporarily.
Those are some of the things that you can do before you travel, as well as on your laptops, thinking about really cheap … Some of these things are completely free, like VPNs or user agent switches, which allow you an additional measure of privacy when you’re doing browsing, so you are able to spoof your location. It’s harder to track you as a particular user, harder to track your IP address on your laptop.
Then the final thing, which sounds absurd, but so few people do it, is make sure that you’re registered with your local embassy or an equivalent service. In the US, they have something like the Smart Traveler program. Basically make sure that somebody knows that you are in the UAE and that if, for example, there was an escalation of tensions within the region, which is now much more likely than it was before October 7th, that there are diplomatic channels for them to send you a text or to know that you are in country and might need assistance. Those are the basic things before you travel.
When you’re on the ground, I cannot emphasize this enough, please do not leave your devices unattended. The number of times that I was in the media center last year and I saw journalists put their laptop in a corner and then walk out of the room to do an interview, someone can walk past your laptop, put a USB into the port, take everything that’s on it or upload it with ransomware or with spyware, and all of your information is compromised. Keep eyes, keep tabs on your devices.
I would strongly caution against using any form of official app, scanning random QR codes. Michael and Kevin gave a perfect example. You can go and stick a QR code over something else, and you could channel people to whatever you want. So if there are announcements all over the summit venue, 90% of them could be legit, but one of them could’ve been pasted over by a troll or by a bad actor or by a member of the security apparatus, and it could end up downloading spyware onto your phone. So be really cautious with those things that seem like they’re going to make the summit easier to navigate, but could actually compromise your digital security.
I would also really encourage, it’s very cheap to buy a personal wifi router, which means that you have your own personal internet connection and that you don’t need to log into public wifi either in the conference venue or in the hotel. Again, that just means that you’re slightly more isolated from networks that could be compromised at scale and that it makes it easier for you to safeguard your own personal digital security. Those would be a few off-the-back tricks to circumvent the easiest traps.
Amy Westervelt: Awesome. This is so helpful. This slide will be in the resources page, everyone. So if you didn’t get a chance to screenshot it, it will be there. That’s so helpful.
Jess, you talked about some of the bloated promises and false solutions before, but I think for this COP in particular, the UAE is very much pointing in the direction of the industry’s favorite list of false solutions. So I’m curious if you have thoughts on that and just how folks can vet what’s real and what’s not if they’re hearing about this amazing new blue hydrogen hub, or whatever it is.
Jessica Green: Okay, yeah. I guess there’s the couple of ways to think about this. I think the overarching question in general should always be, is this going to promote decarbonization? In social science, we talk about this question of carbon lock-in, that carbon, our dependence on fossil fuels is so difficult to unravel because it’s overlapping systems that are social, economic, technological, and they create positive feedbacks which are difficult to undo. So when we talk about things like CCS or gray hydrogen or fuel switching or energy efficiency, none of those things is going to decarbonize us.
We know that it’s not just 2050 anymore that we have to get to net zero, but that actually in order to make that goal, we have to achieve reductions much more quickly and hit interim targets like 2030 targets, which, for example, Canada has just … There’s just been a report saying that ain’t happening. Surprise.
I think that is the overarching thing because you can get sold a bunch of different lines about, “Oh, well this is going to improve energy efficiency,” or, “This is going to cut our carbon intensity.” That’s another one, carbon intensity. Carbon intensity means how much carbon emissions per unit of output. So if you improve carbon intensity, you’re emitting less than you would have been if you didn’t use this better technology or this more efficient thing. But that, again, doesn’t get us to decarbonization, and that’s the thing that we’re really talking about. So I think that’s the number one important thing to keep in mind.
Then there’s a lot of things that fall under that basket of better, but still not decarbonized. CCS is a huge one. Let’s remember that carbon capture utilization and storage, number one, unless otherwise specified, can be used for enhanced oil recovery, so to get more fossil fuels out of the ground. We fought very hard in Canada to exclude that as a subsidy for oil and gas companies. Number two is just not proven at scale. So all of the models now rely on CCUS, and we can’t do it at the scale that it’s required. That’s one technology. Hydrogen, which Amy mentioned, is another. If I’m going to put on my pundit hat, the big question that relates to all of this in relationship to COP 28 is who’s going to call for the phase out of fossil fuels? That needs to happen first.
Then the final thing I’ll say is that in terms of … This is less related to Amy’s question, but I think it’s important to think about, going back to my first comment about what does the COP do and the fact that there is lots of climate policy that’s happening that’s not at the COP, is the fact that if the COP doesn’t start actually delivering on stuff, then I think it’s worth asking the question, why do 10,000 or 20,000 or 30,000 people go to whatever place every year to watch nothing happen? I understand as journalists, it’s your obligation, your professional obligation, to shed light on these issues. But I think that the UNFCCC runs a real risk of losing its legitimacy if it can’t deliver on these promises. I’ll leave it there. Thanks.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah, controversial but true. I don’t understand how it’s controversial.
Okay, Frederick, I was hoping that you could talk to folks about how to prepare for being on the ground in COP and especially at this COP. They’re always really chaotic. People can easily be swayed one way or the other if they don’t do some planning ahead of time before they get on the ground. So what do you recommend people do to prep for being there and being able to get the stories that they want?
Fredrick Mugira: Yeah, thank you so much. Yeah, I personally have covered all five COPs, and I totally believe that the one in Dubai is going to be a different one, yeah, because of technology, stuff like that.
But then the point I wanted to highlight, Jennie has already talked about it, having a strategy to stay digitally safe and physically safe. How are you going to be there and do your stories and come back safely? So many people, so many companies that are doing this will be following you.
But also for most of the journalists, mostly in Africa, you may realize that some of them may be going there for the first time. So they don’t know where to start from, stuff like that. It’s very important to know your country’s delegates as you go to COP, because then these are the guys you always contact, fall back. What does our country want from this conference? What is the position of our country? What is the position of the African countries? Yeah, so then it is important before you go there as a journalist to know the delegates from your country.
But also, you must know the stories you want from there. There are so many stories that are going to be there. You meet different sources, but if you are not focused on the stories you want, you are likely to get lost. It’s a lot of stuff. Everyone is there. Then if you have no focus on the stories you want, you are likely to miss out on the stories.
But also what we should highlight also is, start investigations right from your country. Do not wait, start from Dubai. If you think that there are challenges that your country are facing, why don’t you start investigations right from that? Talk to different people, talk to local communities. So then when you go to Dubai, you beef up your story and you finish it then. Yeah. Most of the journalists I know would want to do community stories showing how COP is related to what is on ground, what is in their countries. Then this is the point for you to identify the links. Even when you’re there, find the links of what is said during the conference and link it to what is on ground, the floods in your countries, the drought. Then it becomes a bigger story. You have the international and the local pictures in your story.
But also, my last point here would be do not rush to trust. Those sources that are there, you don’t know their aim. Don’t rush to trust them. Verify. Verify the source, verify the content they are telling you, and also verify the relevance of this content. You may be surprised for some of those sources you talked to. Yeah.
Amy Westervelt: That’s so helpful. You’re a real COP vet. Five, not me. Okay. So once people do get on the ground at COP, or even if they’re covering it remotely, what are some of the things that people can do to inoculate themselves and their readers to disinformation? So as journalists, we don’t want to be amplifying false claims or misleading allegations or anything like that. Fredrick, I’m going to go back to you. As someone who has been in this position several times, what are some of the ways that you try to do your due diligence and make sure that what people are telling you is valid and should be shared with your reader?
Fredrick Mugira: Well, I think the first thing to highlight is mass sourcing. There is always another person who knows something. So then it’s important to mass source. Ask different persons about it. Crosscheck, like I said, to verify. Verify the source, verify the content, verify the relevancy. Crosscheck. Someone may be lying, and most of these facts from the lobbyists will look like this is the good stuff, this is the right stuff I’ve been waiting for. I didn’t know about it, but in actual sense, maybe a lie. So find more people at COP, more scientists and verify.
Well, the other point I wanted to give is look for scientists and let them verify what you’ve gotten from diplomats, politicians, but also for the scientists. You may need also to question some of the scientists. We have found out that they are actually working for their governments. So then the propagandists, they are spies for their governments. They may want to thwart the position of the governments. So then it’s important also to verify, find out who the scientist is and what he has done, for example, can do that online. We’re able to see what he’s been working on, who he’s been working with, and then talk to him to verify, to cross trick, to corroborate the information that you have gotten from diplomats and politicians. Yeah.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Yeah. Awesome. Jess, what about you? What do you think is important for people to pay attention to? There’s a lot of distraction at COP. What are the things that you would say people should be tuning into when they’re there?
Jessica Green: Yeah, I mean, I guess procedurally one of the challenges is that, as I said before, most of the important stuff doesn’t happen in public, right? So going to the plenary, you’re not going to learn very much by doing that. Going to some of the side events might be helpful because you’ll get a sense of who’s linked to whom, and often the smaller working groups or the subsidiary bodies is where the really wonky stuff happens, which is pretty important. So I think that’s one piece. And then the other one is, I was just looking for it, as Frederick was talking, we have a group called the Climate Social Science Network, and we are a bunch of scholars social scientists working on climate. We have a whole working group on obstructionism.
We have a private Google Doc on media experts, but I can dig that up and share it with you. Ask us. There are a bunch of us studying this stuff, sitting around waiting for someone to ask us questions about climate policy. And so in addition to obviously all of the cross-checking that Fredrick discussed, like getting expert opinions from people like us who are just waiting for the proverbial phone to ring, we will answer the call.
Amy Westervelt: I just want to give a shout out to social scientists as sources in general, always really good sources. Yes. Okay. Jennie, what about you? What should people be looking out for and how can people quickly check things on the ground if they’re running from place to place at COP?
Jennie King: Yeah, I mean, I don’t envy anyone having to do reporting in an environment just as large, just as a physical space to try and navigate your way through. It’s kind of physically exhausting. It’s psychologically exhausting. It’s intellectually exhausting. So I think the biggest thing I would say is to pause before you quote anybody, which doesn’t mean treat everyone with an equal level of skepticism or sort of assume that everybody is a bad faith actor, but always to ask the question of what is the affiliation of the person that you are using as a spokesperson for a particular topic.
So it’s fine in theory to quote somebody who is a representative of a fossil fuel lobby, but there is a duty of care to your audience in highlighting that affiliation and in showing how that might influence the viewpoints that they’re putting forwards. And I would particularly say that that’s relevant for regions of the global south where last year, for example, the African Energy Chamber were absolutely prolific in their public statements and were being cited by almost all of the mainstream outlets because they seemed like an authentic voice from the region, even though a couple of committed investigative reporters not only showed that they were a front group for the oil and gas industry, but also that they had a lot of very shady representatives within that entity that had sort of corruption and other fraud charges against them.
But people were so desperate to have a voice from the region, which is an absolutely right aim, that they sort of circumvented some of that due diligence in saying, okay, but should I ask the question of what’s this entity that they’re representing and what’s their stated mission? So I know that that might sound labor-intensive, but I think it really serves to the benefit of the ultimate reporting. And there are a couple of great databases at your disposal to do that. I would really encourage looking at DeSmog’s disinformation database, which quite often doesn’t have everybody, it’s not all encompassing, but they do have back catalogs for a vast range of actors who are going to be sort of prominent voices in and around the summits.
I also think Global Witness do excellent work in publishing the lists of lobbyists, which unfortunately only come out often on the first or the second day of the summit. So you don’t have a lot of time to digest and interpret those lists, but they will be publishing about that. So you can follow Global Witnesses work, and then an influence map as well. Those would be the three entities who I think you can often use just to sense check. I wouldn’t rely on them entirely, they can’t look at every single person and every single new organization, but it may well be the case that they provide a sense check for some of the voices that you are hearing and who those people are, what their affiliations are, and what kind of statements they’ve made in the past. So I would say don’t rely on them, but know that those kind of databases are out there and that they can be a useful reference point in the moment.
Amy Westervelt: Yes. Awesome. Yeah, and I think in general, double source stuff. Check it in a couple places, ask the social scientists look at the databases and get your bearings. Okay, we’re going to go to Q&A. We don’t have that much time for Q&A left, but I am going to start us off with one from the Q&A list here from Kristen Engle in South Africa. She’s asked whether anyone on the panel has tips for covering COP 28 remotely, especially in navigating misinformation in the upcoming reports and PR announcements, which we’re all going to get completely bombarded with. So does anyone have thoughts on that covering remotely?
Fredrick Mugira: Yeah, I’ve not covered-
Amy Westervelt: Sorry, go ahead Fred.
Fredrick Mugira: Thanks. I’ve not covered remotely, but I have had friends who have done that, and I think for you who will be covering it remotely, you have enough time to crosscheck information. So then if you get information, if you get that survey from a website from your colleague or from a website that is tracking sessions live, you have enough time to go through other sources. Some of them are country sources that you know who are your friends. So then you are able to call now. You have enough time to call and crosscheck what they’re saying and find out if it is true. So you use your local sources to crosscheck, to collaborate, to find out what you have had, whether what you have had is right. So then therefore I think it’s an advantage. It’s a disadvantage to the guys that travel to Dubai because they may not find it hard to call their sources, so they have no one to talk to during the conference.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah, I think actually that makes me want to suggest collaboration too. Whenever I’m covering remotely, I almost always just partner with someone who’s on the ground so that we can tag team. I think it’s a very efficient way to handle this problem. Jess, you were going to say something?
Jessica Green: Yeah, a couple of good sources I think. I never go to the COP. I watched the historic Paris Agreement live-streaming. I assume that they’ll be live-streaming things. I mean, it’s a little dry, but it is what’s happening. I cannot recommend highly enough the Earth Negotiations Bulletin. There’s a link in there somewhere. They’re run by IISD, the International Institute of Sustainable Development. They have a whole team and they cover… They’re like a newspaper for they cover what happens in the negotiations every day, and then they provide a little tiny bit of interpretation at the end. So you got sort of the pure facts and then a little bit of digesting. And the other one that does great, the timing doesn’t always sync up perfectly, but Carbon Brief does fantastic explainers on all things related to the negotiations. So I think those are… And then the Climate Social Science Network, I think those are some resources where they’re sort of more toward primary source material where you’re less likely to get spin and whatever else.
Amy Westervelt: Oh, my gosh. Hi guys. Sorry, I was having trouble unmuting there. Awesome. Okay. I think that unfortunately we’re going to have to bring Mark back in, not unfortunately, because it’s Mark, but just because we’re low on time for questions. Mark, back to you.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thank you, Amy. This session has been excellent. It brings to mind what’s often been said in the past that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. And it sounds like eternal vigilance is also going to be the price of doing good reporting at COP 28. I’ll just add quickly, I’ve covered quite a few COPs in my day, and as important as this cautionary information has been today, don’t be afraid, my friends. My fellow colleagues, when you are there, it is an extraordinary opportunity to buttonhole big name sources. They’re walking right by you, heads of state. So as been said by our panelists today, be ready. Know the story that you’re doing. Know what question you want to ask such and such person if you see them. I’ve literally seen Negotiator Xi of China and John Kerry of the US walking right past, and you have to be ready.
Or President Macron of France, you have to be ready to shout your question right there. So be cautious, be careful, but be ready. And do remember that Covering Climate Now is preparing a COP 28 reporting brief, a reporting guide I should say, that will be released tomorrow morning, Wednesday morning, New York time at our website CoveringClimateNow.org. And for now, I want to thank our wonderful panelists today, Fredrick Mugira. He’s with the Walter Journalist Africa Organization. Jennie King, she is with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London. Thank you for coming back again, Jennie. And also, Jessica Green. She’s with the University of Toronto. And of course, our esteemed partner and moderator today, Amy Westervelt of Drilled News. On behalf of Covering Climate Now, I’m Mark Hertsgaard, wishing you all a very pleasant day.