This November’s UN climate summit—known as COP26 (Conference of the Parties), taking place in Glasgow from October 31 to November 12—is not just one more international meeting. It’s one of the most important diplomatic gatherings in history, for it will help decide the future of life on earth. To help news coverage convey what’s at stake, Covering Climate Now and Climate Central will hold a series of briefings, for journalists only.
The first briefing took place in mid-September and provided background on the most relevant science, politics, justice, and solutions issues. Drawing on the recent IPCC report, our panelists explained why it’s imperative to limit future global warming to 1.5 C, and how that can be accomplished. They discussed why climate justice is essential to a successful outcome — and in the self-interest of rich and poor alike. And they explained the processes of UN summits, how progress is (or is not) achieved, key players to watch, and how journalists can turn these insights into compelling stories.
- Isabel Cavelier, co-founder of Transforma, an NGO in Colombia that supports sustainable development, and a veteran climate diplomat.
- Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Dhaka, who trained diplomats in the Global South who helped insert the 1.5 C goal in the Paris Agreement in 2015.
- Michael Oppenheimer, the Albert G. Milbank professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton, who was a coordinating lead author on the special report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.
Our second press briefing, to be held in October, will drill down into specific issues crucial to success at COP 26, including the role of China and other key international players, the role of food and forestry, and the meaning and value of “net zero” commitments.
Mark Hertsgaard: Hello, and welcome to this press briefing from Covering Climate Now. I’m Mark Hertsgaard. I’m the executive director at Covering Climate Now, and also the environment correspondent at The Nation magazine. We’re very pleased to be co-sponsoring this press briefing with our esteemed colleagues at Climate Central. And today we’re talking about how you, and all of us as journalists, can do the best possible job of covering the upcoming, this November’s Global Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland COP26. I’ll just start by saying I’ve been covering these COPS since 1992. It’s not as hard as it looks. And in fact, it’s a great news story, a very exciting place to be. So let’s dive into it in just a second.
Mark Hertsgaard: Let me give you a little background on Covering Climate Now. We are organized by journalists for journalists. We are a global consortium of more than 400 news outlets, committed to improving coverage of the climate story, and reaching a combined audience of roughly 2 million… Sorry, 2 billion people around the world.
Mark Hertsgaard: It costs nothing to join Covering Climate Now. There’s no editorial line except respect for science. We just announced, by the way, the finalists in the first inaugural Covering Climate Now Climate Journalism Awards. You’ll find those on our website and the winners of that will be announced in early October in a one-hour TV special co-hosted by our NBC News partners, Al Roker and Savannah Sellers. So look out for that. Come to of the website for more information, that’s coveringclimatenow.org.
Mark Hertsgaard: And joining me as a co-moderator today, my friend and colleague, Bernadette Woods Placky. She is the executive director at Climate Central. Climate Central is an independent organization of scientists and journalists who work with newsrooms, especially TV and radio weather forecasters, to help them inform their audiences about climate change and its impacts on the public. You can visit them at climatecentral.org.
Mark Hertsgaard: So COP26. COP26 Summit takes place October 31st to November 12 in Glasgow, Scotland, assuming that it goes on in person. We’ll get into the logistics of all that later. I want to emphasize, this is not just one more international meeting. I would argue it’s one of the most important diplomatic gatherings in history, because it will go a long way towards deciding whether we preserve a livable climate on this planet. And how we in the media cover this Summit, not only during the Summit, but in the weeks, six weeks between now and the Summit’s launch and conclusion, we are going to have an enormous impact on what happens there. It’s our job to inform the public about what is at stake and the key issues and the conflicts, so that they can make their own voices heard concerning negotiations that will literally shape the rest of their lives. So we have a big responsibility here.
Mark Hertsgaard: Let me say though, that the Glasgow Summit, and climate and global climate negotiations in general, it’s such a huge story. Don’t think that there’s any one single way to do this. Every newsroom is different. We’re trying in this session to speak to all different kinds of newsrooms. We have colleagues from overseas, from here in the United States, TV, radio, print, digital, people who are very experienced climate reporters, people who are new to the beat. We are here for all of you. And this is just the first of these press briefings that we will be doing with Climate Central.
Mark Hertsgaard: Today we’re going to do the opening, the basic issues around politics and economics and history and so forth. And then a second press briefing that we will be doing in October, we’ll look into some more specific issues, including US and China, the two global climate superpowers, what their role is. What is the role of food and forestry? What about private finance? Always a good idea in journalism to follow the money. And let’s not forget civil society. Let’s not just focus on governments. Let’s remember what corporations do, but also what climate activism does. That is a very important part of the Summit, and I must say from, again, my own experience in covering Summits, oftentimes you find the best stories outside of the official venues, and out there where the civil society representatives are gathered.
Mark Hertsgaard: So Covering Climate Now has suggested one overarching theme for the COP26 coverage, which is a very simple one. What is at stake here? Within that, we have three themes that we’re going to be doing with our three superb panelists today. The first is, why is 1.5 the most important number at this Summit? The second, why climate justice is imperative, but also a matter of self-interest for rich countries. And third, what actually has to happen at the Summit itself, in order to deliver what science says is necessary.
Mark Hertsgaard: I am so proud to have this stellar group of panelists joining us today. I’ll introduce them in a moment, but just some housekeeping. Bernadette and I will take turns in the first half hour, questioning our three panelists about those three themes. And then we’ll turn to your questions, many of which you’ve already submitted in the RSVPs, but please continue to do that as we go forward in the chat box, and we will get to as many of them as possible. Do know that we are recording this session. It is on the record, and we will have a recording of it on both the Covering Climate Now and the Climate Central websites afterwards, and Covering Climate Now will also provide, in a couple days, a written summary of the highlights, so you can share this with colleagues who perhaps weren’t here, look back at it later, as you need to. And you’re welcome to Tweet while we go forward. And as I say, this is on the record, so you may quote from anything that the panelists are saying.
Mark Hertsgaard: So let me give a very warm welcome, and I have to just in the interest of full disclosure here, two of our panelists have been sources of mine for a very long time. And I will begin with, I’m just looking so I want to make sure I get the exact wording here. Let me start with Michael. Michael Oppenheimer, one of the people that, the reason that there is an IPCC at all has a lot to do with this gentleman. He is the Albert G. Millbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton University, where he directs the Center for Policy Research on Energy in the Environment. He is a long time participant in the IPCC process. He was recently the coordinating lead author on the IPC Special Report on Oceans in September 2019. And he was a review editor on the Sixth Assessment Report. You all remember that, that came out just this past August.
Mark Hertsgaard: Second, another longtime source of mine, Saleemul Huq. He is the director of the International Center For Climate Change and Development in Dhaka, Bangladesh. And he is also a professor of the Independent University of Bangladesh. Saleemul helped train diplomats from the global south who were instrumental in inserting the 1.5 temperature rise target in the Paris Agreement.
Mark Hertsgaard: And finally, someone who has not been a source of mine for many years, but whose work I have certainly admired from afar, Isabel Cavelier. She is the co-founder of Transforma. That is an NGO in Colombia, the country of Colombia that is, and it supports sustainable development and civil rights, human rights, I should say, throughout the hemisphere. She is also a veteran climate diplomat who was very involved in, again, the Paris Summit in 2015.
Mark Hertsgaard: Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to all three of these stellar panelists. You really could not find a better lineup anywhere, I think. And I will then turn it over to my dear friend, Bernadette Woods Placky.
Bernadette Woods Placky: Thank you so much, Mark. I’m going to make one small, but it’s kind of an important correction. I’m not the executive director. That is Ben Strauss. I want to give him full credit, because he’s amazing. I work very closely with him, but I just, I don’t want to step on his toes, everybody.
Mark Hertsgaard: I was promoting you.
Bernadette Woods Placky: Thank you. I appreciate it. So thanks. So we’re going to start out this conversation really focusing on the science and bring Michael into this, because again, we have a really wide range of journalists joining us today, with experiences and backgrounds that are from new in the profession, covering local to international, veterans covering many of these COPS. And so we want to make sure that you all feel you get some knowledge out of this and some background, and feel ready to cover this story when it comes at you later October into November, and then even following up on it. So that’s really the goal of today.
Bernadette Woods Placky: And the reason we’re even having these negotiations, the reason this is even a thing, is because we so understand the fundamental science of climate change and what it is doing to our society and our people. And that’s where we’re going to with this conversation.
Bernadette Woods Placky: So Michael is one of the rock stars. If you don’t know him, get to know him. He has been such a part of this conversation for so long, and he really does a beautiful job of breaking down what’s going on. So, Michael, I wanted to start out with this 1.5. I mean, those of us who follow this conversation understand how we got here, but could you give us a little bit of the history of why that’s even a focus number, and then we’ll get into why it’s so important.
Michael Oppenheimer: Sure. The Paris Agreement is the child of an agreement called the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was the first climate treaty. And it’s still an effect, of course. And in that treaty, it says that the countries, as a long-term objective should avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. That is, don’t mess things up really badly so that they get out of control. Well, it didn’t specify exactly what that meant. And there has now been 30 years of research since that agreement was signed, which has narrowed the range of where things get dangerous. And it turns out that although every increment of warming additional to what we already have and what we’re already experiencing causes more damage, more lost life, more damage, costly damage to property, when you get above about a degree-and-a-half, these effects start to go non-linear, they start to interact, they start to concatenate. And it becomes very, very difficult for humans to catch up, to adjust. And basically, there’s a risk that the climate spins out of control, beyond our ability to adjust to it, to adapt to it.
Michael Oppenheimer: One-and-a-half degrees was chosen for first, scientific reasons, and second, practical reasons. Practical reasons because it’s hard to envision landing the climate at a lower temperature, number one. Number two, the science tells us that things like extreme heat, damage from tropical cyclones, like we’re seeing quite frequently this summer, intense floods in intense rainstorms, getting even more intense, those kinds of impacts, which are harmful and deadly, get in a progressively accelerating way, more and more common and more and more intense as you get above one-and-a-half degrees. And although there was also a focus on a target of two degrees, some of the recent research shows that there are ways you could distinguish the damage at one-and-a-half degrees from the damage at two degrees, and that it’s worse at two degrees markedly than at one-and-a-half degrees. So this is a target that has scientific credentials behind it. It’s a target that we can still achieve, although not with great ease, and it’s a target that countries ought to be getting behind and doing something about as quickly as possible.
Bernadette Woods Placky: So to put that in perspective and grounded for people, that number is floating around, just so people understand, we’re at 1.1 or close to 1.2 right now. So we’re getting very close to that 1.5, not quite there. And there was some confusion in the communication around the 1.5 report that came out a couple of years ago, too, of sort of, that’s the cliff. Everything’s over after that. But the messaging really is, every 10th of a degree matters within that. So I guess also just to kind of help people understand a little bit more scientifically, you already gave a couple examples, extreme heat, tropical cyclones, you were a part of the 1.5 Degree Celsius Report that came out from the IPCC, which is, for those who don’t know, the main body that really puts out this global climate research. And tell us a couple of the examples of what you saw in that difference between 1.5 and two, and why it’s really shifted to focus in on this 1.5.
Michael Oppenheimer: So first of all let me say, there is no end of the world point where you give up. Things can always get worse, and for better or worse, humans are going to be around suffering the damage. So there’s no throwing up the hand and saying, “Gee, this has gotten so bad, there’s nothing that can be done about it.” We always have to try to do better. Now, what are the specific impacts? Early on, it became clear that, for instance, coral reefs, one of the most widespread and important ecosystems in the world, start suffering damage between one and two degrees. And when you start getting above one-and-a-half degrees, you get very close to the threshold where these systems just start going out of existence. And that isn’t just a matter of people flying in for a week and enjoying the beautiful biodiversity.
Michael Oppenheimer: It’s also a matter of the small island states making their living off the fishing and off the tourists. So when they go, a lot of those small island states are in even bigger trouble than they are anyway. Second example, in the Oceans Report that you mentioned, it turns out that an event that is a truly severe coastal flood, that only happens once a century, usually in a tropical cyclone, the frequency of those events occurring increases as sea level rises, because the water isn’t lifted up and put on the land just by the storm. Sea level rise pushes it even further in. So a flood level that used to be once-in-a-century becomes once every 50 years, once every 20 years, and once every 10 years as the Earth warms. And it turns out that by 30 years from now, there are going to be a lot of places on Earth where the historical once-in-a-century event becomes a once-a-year event. Think about that. An extremely damaging event historically happens every year. How are we going to be ready for that?
Michael Oppenheimer: And then if you look at, okay, that’s at one-and-a-half degrees, what about at two degrees? Well, it happens even more frequently, and there’s a marked difference between that frequency at one-and-a-half and two degrees. And you can tell the same story for heat waves, extreme heat waves, which are bad enough at one-and-a-half degrees, become worse at two degrees. And from there on, it’s just an escalation and acceleration. And of these effects are already known to be accelerating, particularly the destruction of the ice sheets in Greenland in Antarctica, which contain 90% of the fresh water on Earth. That’s getting added to the ocean more and more quickly, and that’s a main reason why sea level rises accelerating right now.
Michael Oppenheimer: So we have to slow this acceleration, or there’s just going to be a big acceleration in the damages, not just the people who live on the coast, but the people who are experiencing heat and drought inland, the people who are subject to wild fires, the people who are subject to extreme inland flooding due to the rivers responding to the increased intensity of rainfall. This is something you can see every day now. And those events are getting closer and closer in time.
Bernadette Woods Placky: So one last question I have for this round is, another thing that I find people aren’t fully comprehending, because it’s complicated is, that what we’re putting into our air now sticks around for a long time in some form. So the decisions we make today aren’t just impacting tomorrow, but they’re impacting our decades to come. And so we have this conversation and the scientific understanding between 1.1 degree, 1.5, 2, but we’re on a path to go way past all of that right now, even with some of the emissions cuts people are talking about. So can you tell us what sort of path we’re on right now and what it’s going to take to bring it down to that 1.5 target?
Michael Oppenheimer: Well, if we do nothing to limit the emissions, particularly of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion, which has a very long lifetime, some of the carbon dioxide we’re emitting today will still be in the atmosphere a millennium from now, warming the Earth. So this is like the big super tanker analogy is perfect here. It’s very difficult to turn it around, so the earlier you get started the better.
Michael Oppenheimer: So what we’re seeing is, that if we did nothing, if we just sat here and threw a party because things are getting bad, let’s celebrate now, what’ll happen is Earth will warm by three, four, maybe even five degrees Celsius by the end of this century. That’s unacceptable. And in order to prevent that, and keep warming out of the danger zone, somewhere between one-and-a-half and two degrees, hopefully not higher than one-and-a-half degrees, every estimate of what needs to be done says you have to start now. Delay is not acceptable.
Bernadette Woods Placky: Thank you. That urgency you hear from Michael and you hear from everyone in this climate space, that is why, because of the path we’re on and what it’s going to take to bring that path down, to really bend the curve. So people, please feel free to share your questions. Michael can jump in and out of those and we will be having that Q&A session a little bit later. But right now, I’m going to hand it over to mark.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thanks, Bernadette. It really is now or never. That’s a very strong thing to get across in your coverage, and again, why this is not just one more international meeting. This is about the future of life on Earth. Now Saleemul Huq. Saleemul, I think that you are one of the very few people I know of who has been to literally every single COP negotiating session since this began in the 1990s. So you’ve seen this going all the way back, and I must say I’ve started covering these back in 1992, at the Earth Summit in Brazil. And all this time, there has been talk about climate justice. Can you talk about what climate justice means, and in particular, why it has been such a contentious issue during these negotiations all these years, and why addressing it constructively is essential to the Glasgow Summit being a success?
Saleemul Huq: Thank you. Thank you very much, Mark. The issue of climate justice arises from the fact that climate change is anthropogenic. It’s caused by humans polluting the atmosphere. As Michael said, carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, other sources like methane, and we’ve been doing that since the industrial revolution, a century-and-a-half ago. And that has accumulated in the atmosphere and raised the temperature already above one degree. But not everybody contributed to that emissions of greenhouse gases equally. The rich countries that benefited from the industrial revolution, who are the main beneficiaries, they burned coal to become rich. And now big countries like China and India that are on the way to becoming richer are also burning fossil fuels and emitting emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. That is causing this temperature increase.
Saleemul Huq: On the other hand, the main victims of those impacts are not those rich countries or rich people. They’re poor people in poor countries like mine, in Bangladesh. And their emissions of greenhouse gases was minuscule compared to the emissions of rich people in rich countries. And that is unjust. It’s really a moral issue here. It is something that every religion teaches is wrong. Rich people should not harm poor people. They should look after poor people. That’s the teaching of every single religion. And recently, the Pope made a statement on this, and he has a full Laudato si’ on this issue. The Muslim clerics are doing this. All the religions are jumping in and teaching their people that this is wrong. It’s not right. It’s something that should not happen. It should be corrected.
Saleemul Huq: And that really is the issue that we are talking about. Rich people, most of them in rich countries, but rich people in poor countries, as well, and I would count myself as a rich person in the Bangladesh context, so my carbon footprint is much, much bigger than the average Bangladeshi carbon footprint, so I am a polluter rather than a victim of pollution. But the victims of pollution are the poorest people on the planet. Many of them in my country, Bangladesh, particularly in the low-lying parts of coast, but also in the small island states that Michael just referred to in the mid-continents of Africa, the dry zones, the poorest people on the planet are the ones that are going to be hit the hardest.
Saleemul Huq: And that’s not right. It’s just a question of injustice rather than even climate justice. I prefer the word injustice to justice. Justice is an ideal. Injustice is visible. It’s manifest injustice. That’s wrong. It should not happen. We should not do it. And if we are doing it, we should stop doing it. And to me, that’s the overarching framing of what we are trying to achieve in the COP.
Mark Hertsgaard: So Saleem, why has it been so hard, though, for that moral, as you say, it’s an obvious moral point that all religions on Earth agree with, why has it been so hard for that to gain traction at these global climate negotiations going back to 1992?
Saleemul Huq: Well, I think, as you said, I’ve been to all 25 of the previous 25 COPS, and things have changed, evolved over time. So I’ll give you my take on that evolution. I call them the three eras of climate change. The first era is the era of emissions of greenhouse gases being the problem. And therefore the solution was really, reduce those emissions of greenhouse gases, what we call mitigation in the climate change area.
Saleemul Huq: And then around the turn of the century, we added a second era, which was that there were going to be inevitable impacts of climate change that are now unavoidable, mainly hitting poor countries and poor people, and therefore they need to be better prepared. They need to be helped to be better prepared. And we entered the second era of what I call adaptation to climate change. We have to prepare ourselves. Initially, poor countries, poor people, but now everybody, including you in the United States, have to adapt. You cannot avoid preparing yourselves to the impacts, as we just saw from Hurricane Ida that hit the coast of Louisiana, and then when all the way up to New York and New Jersey, and flooded the place. New York subways were flooded. More than 50 people in the United States of America lost their lives from Hurricane Ida. So you are going to suffer the consequences of impacts of climate change. And you’re not well adapted by the way. You need to be adapting to it, as well. So we are definitely in the second era of climate change is adapting to the adverse impacts.
Saleemul Huq: And we are on the threshold of entering into what I am calling the third era, which is where COP26 is going to be a pivotal COP, which is loss and damage from climate change. Mitigation is about reducing emissions so impacts don’t happen, temperature doesn’t go up. Adaptation is dealing with the temperature that’s going up, and being better prepared for it, but not avoiding them. But loss and damage is when it happens. The 50 people who lost their lives in America are not going to come back. They’ve gone. You’ve lost them. And so more and more people are going to be lost. More and more ecosystems are going to be lost. And we have to be ready to deal with that, whether we like it or not. It’s the reality. And so we are now entering the third era of actual, visible, scientifically attributable, loss and damage from human-induced climate change, even by the 1.1 degree temperature rise that we have scored so far. If temperature goes up further, it gets worse.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thanks, Saleem. One last question to you before we turn to Isabel Cavelier. One of the big issues at previous COPS, and certainly at the Glasgow COP, is going to be this whole question of loss and damage, and in particular, the $100 billion of annual climate aid that rich countries have agreed to give to poor countries, precisely because of the dynamics that you laid out. Journalists, if you look in the Paris Agreement, it contains this pledge that the rich countries will provide $100 billion a year, every year going forward, it was supposed to begin in 2020, to help poor countries both adapt, as Saleem said, but also to shift their own economies away from fossil fuels onto renewable energy, which is why we say at Covering Climate Now that climate justice is also in the self-interest of rich countries. Because if the developing countries cannot shift away from fossil fuels to clean energy, there is no hope that we will hit 1.5.
Mark Hertsgaard: But Saleem, could you speak a little bit to this a $100 billion, and the outcome, or I should say the outlook rather, for that very contentious issue going into Glasgow?
Saleemul Huq: Sure. So as you said, the promise has been made, $100 billion a year, starting from 2020. The promise was made way back in 2015, as part of the Paris Agreement. 2020 has come and gone and the $100 billion didn’t appear. The rich countries claim they gave $80 billion or $79 billion. We’re not quite sure if that’s well accounted for or not. But even in their own admission, they haven’t reached a $100 billion. So we are looking at 2021, they owe another $100 billion, according to their own pledge. So what we, the developing countries, particularly the vulnerable countries are looking for, is for the rich countries to give us a plan of delivering $500 billion over five years. So 2020 to 2024, they owe us, they promised us, they pledged us, they have not delivered yet, but they accept that they owe us, $500 billion over the five years, and we want to see how they’re going to deliver it, a plan for delivery. That it’s the big demand.
Saleemul Huq: A second demand from the vulnerable countries that I work with, and I represent to a large extent, is that half of that money should go to the most vulnerable countries, to help them adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change. Now, if you look at how much was actually delivered, let us take the $79 billion that they claim to have paid in 2020, 80% of that went to the bigger developing countries to reduce their emissions. And only 20% of that went to the most vulnerable countries to help them adapt to the impacts of climate change. That’s not right. We want half to go to the vulnerable countries and half to go to… We don’t object to half going to mitigation in other countries, but half needs to come to the vulnerable countries to help them adapt. And now, we have the added problem of dealing with loss and damage from climate change, because adaptation is not going to solve everything anymore.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thanks Saleem. We’ll get into more questions in the Q&A session here about how you as reporters, if you’re not reporting from Bangladesh, or let’s say you’re reporting in Nevada or Florida or Germany, how do you make that story relevant to your viewers and listeners and audience?
Mark Hertsgaard: But first, let me turn to Isabel Cavelier. She, of course is from Transforma, the Columbia NGO, and also a veteran of climate diplomacy. Could we start, Isabel, please, with the, I think it’s a fairly widespread notion among the populace as a whole that, “Oh, these international meetings, it’s just a place where a bunch of politicians go and posture and talk and talk and nothing ever comes of it.” So there’s a lot of cynicism, frankly, around it. Do you think that’s too cynical? And how would you rebut that point of view from your own internal perspective on especially the Paris Agreement?
Isabel Cavelier: Thank you, Mark. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for the invitation. I think that, if one has been to COPS for a long time, you realize that COP has become much more than just a place where politicians meet. It actually has become more and more. And in the last few years, this has been very marked, increasingly interesting, the space at COP that is called the action space, where you have a very large number of individuals in the climate community, in the private sector, in the civil society, coming together, finding the synergies they need to find to move forward. That has become increasingly important at COP, alongside the negotiation, so that’s the first point. That’s important for covering COP. You will find a lot of interesting stories happening there beyond the traditional sort of negotiation track, where politicians meet and discuss.
Isabel Cavelier: Now, in terms of that track, where you would point your cynicism at, indeed you might say just a place where politicians meet, greet, discuss, and go back home. The reality is, while it’s true that there is still way, a long way to go in order to close the gaps, to get our trajectories aligned with 1.5, we also have never been so far. The Paris Agreement did unleash a very deep transition. It will take long, and it’ll be harder in some sectors and some countries. But those political signals that come out of COPS, some harder to attain, some flow more easy, but generally harder to attain, given the difficulty of solving this conundrum, this economic conundrum that climate change is, do have reverberations across the real economy.
Isabel Cavelier: If you look at where we were five years ago, in terms of where, for example, the investment industry was at, in terms of engaging with climate change and making it a core variable for investment practice, and where we are today, it’s a world of a difference. There wasn’t an Alliance for achieving net zero throughout portfolios of investors five years ago. There is one now. And that’s not just because the private sector moves. It’s because the signals that agreements between governments send to the real economy create that momentum. So there’s two, I think, good arguments of why the cynicism has its limits.
Isabel Cavelier: However, as I said, the tension remains. We are a long way to go, and there’s still quite a lot that needs to be done by governments in the run up to Glasgow to make it a COP that is successful, but most importantly, that actually brings us closer to bridging the gap that has been very well put on the table by both of the previous panelists.
Mark Hertsgaard: Let’s remember, we wouldn’t even be talking about 1.5 today, probably, had it not been inserted in the Paris Agreement in 2015. Also, journalists, there was a story that just ran yesterday, an NGO out of Europe has pulled together numbers showing that the number of coal plants that were planned for construction around the world has fallen since the Paris Agreement by three-quarters. So three-quarters of those plants have been canceled. And while the Paris Agreement is not the only reason for that clearly, as Isabel Cavelier just said, these big summits, they send a message that is particularly heard by government officials and investors around the world.
Mark Hertsgaard: Isabel, one last question, before we go to our Q&A in general. Can you clear up something? We were just talking about action in the green room before we began. Famously, the Paris Agreement in 2015 was not put forward to the United States Senate as a treaty, because the Obama administration knew full well that the Republicans would kill it. And indeed, that was why the Paris Agreement was called an agreement and not a treaty in Paris, in order to get it passed. However, as we were preparing for this seminar today, we saw that the United Nations, on its own website, does call this a quote/unquote, legally binding international treaty. So is this just one more case where the United States figures it’s one rule for the US and one rule for everybody else? Can you clarify the actual standing of this agreement?
Isabel Cavelier: Yes. Thank you, Mark. And I’m sure this question will be better answered by US lawyers. A lawyer myself, though, I can tell you, the Paris Agreement is an internationally, legally binding instrument. You could call it a treaty, and agreement, you could use various names for it. What makes it binding is not its name. It is the nature of the in instrument in the sense that it requires ratification. It enters into force, and it therefore has legally binding nature for those member states who ratify it and then become parties to that agreement.
Isabel Cavelier: The United States ratified the Paris Agreement. The legal matter inside the United States, the question was whether the United States needed congressional approval to ratify this instrument. There is a strong enough legal case in the United States that there are agreements that flow from those that are… and this can be better explained by US lawyers, from those that are already ratified previously from the US, and that don’t necessarily create new legally binding obligations beyond what was already approved by Congress, that are therefore positively put as agreements that are binding, that can be ratified by the United States. And the United States can become a party to them through an executive order.
Isabel Cavelier: This is what happened in the Obama years. This is why the Trump administration had to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. This is why their withdrawal didn’t come into force until three years after that withdrawal was sent, because these clauses were specifically negotiated in Paris, thinking precisely about the United States and the possibility that this could happen. And this is why the United States rejoined as a member state to the Paris Agreement when the Biden Administration came back to office.
Isabel Cavelier: So the answer is clear. The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international instrument. It binds the United States as it binds every other state in the world that is a party to it. That is pretty much everyone. There is no state that I know of. I think now there is no one that is not a party, legally speaking, to the Paris Agreement.
Mark Hertsgaard: All right. If you got all that, you’re on your way to a successful coverage of the COP. I’m going to turn it over to Bernadette, and we’re going to start with the Q&A. Thank you again, Isabel Cavelier, and Bernadette Woods Placky, take it away.
Bernadette Woods Placky: All right. So there’s so many great questions going on here, I didn’t even know where to start. But coming off what Isabel said, and for those who have gone to COPS, process and terminology is a big part of what happens there, and can turn some people off and kind of keep them away from digging into what’s really going on. So I’m looking for some advice for you, or anyone who wants to jump in here, on how we can take what’s going on there, and some of what you just discussed, and there’s so many different ways we can take this, and translate that into real, on-the-ground stories, not just for global media, but for local reporters and communities around the world, where their biggest concern is the flood that just came through, or the fact that the farming crop failed, or whatever that may mean, so that’s what they’re seeing. That’s what their audience is most connected with. They may not connect with this big terminology.
Bernadette Woods Placky: So how can we help our journalists take what goes on in those circles and translate it into good stories? Isabel, do you have any ideas from some… I mean, you talked about how the different communities who even show up have great ideas. So maybe you could start with this?
Isabel Cavelier: Yes. Thank you. Thank you, Bernadette. So I think there are many layers to covering COPS, and you definitely, if you’re sort of alone doing it, I think you definitely need to choose. If you want to cover, let’s say the sort of big political signal-type of part of the COP, I think, yes, you will need to learn a little bit the jargon of what’s happening in the negotiations and get connected into people who are inside, who can feed you and really sort of unpack that kind of language, but also help you, as someone who is covering, measure when the signal is actually given. That’s actually hard to tell sometimes at COPS, right? Sometimes you see people running around, like in a big lump to a room, and you’re like, “What? The MRV room? And what are all these people running around this? MRV? What’s MRV? Why that room? Why monitoring reporting and verification would be interesting? Why is this politically important?”
Isabel Cavelier: And there, you would probably want to ask someone who is inside, that can tell you, “Well, this is what the main political battle is being now played.” And I’m going to give you an example. It’s because on transparency, the Chinese will always want to keep the agreement less transparent. And this is where the main gridlock is at the moment, if that can be unlocked, then you can probably unlock language on 1.5, and so on and so forth. So that probably requires a very acute political nose and good contacts, and getting to know really the jargon a bit.
Isabel Cavelier: But you can also cover all of the plethora of things that happen in what I was calling earlier, the action zone. And it’s increasingly interesting, because it’s like a carnival of events, ideas, people connecting, networking, presentation of… you can follow by country. There’s a bunch of country pavilions. But you can also follow the interests. There’s like theme day, so you could only do the finance and you will have a full program of finance-related events of the private sector. And you go cover event for event, or you could cover all of what’s happening related to adaptation, or to nature and deforestation. So you will definitely need to choose, I would argue, and then dig into what you choose you will cover.
Isabel Cavelier: I think both would provide you interesting material for your local context. Of course, the global one will make reverberations in every country. In some countries, because their legal structures do make international agreements enforceable, to the chat questions, it is critical what is agreed as a COP decision. Because lawyers can bring this back home and go to court and say, “Hey, you are not complying with what you agreed,” right? So this is critical at home.
Isabel Cavelier: The same could be said about deforestation. If you’re in a tropical nation where you can do whatever you want to do, but if you don’t address deforestation, we’re really done, and then you can then choose this. This will be your main focus for the whole COP, and you will have an entire program to follow. I’m sure Saleem will complement greatly. His hand is up.
Bernadette Woods Placky: Yes. I see, Saleem, you have your hand up. And one second before I go to you. For some of our newer people, I just want you to know that we are also going to be following up with a lot of resources to help you navigate all that we’re discussing right now. We will share. Climate Nexus has already put together some background information. We will be sharing that in the chat. We will be following up with packages of media information, to help guide you through terminology and context from Climate Central and Covering Climate Now. And some of us are going to be on the ground, and we’ll be able to help you navigate also. So there’s a lot going on, but we’re going to help guide you through this. So Saleem, I know you had some ideas you wanted to jump in on this, too. So go ahead.
Saleemul Huq: Sure. So I just want to share an anecdote to illustrate a point about, there are journalists and there are journalists. Not all are the same. Journalists and media in the global north is very different from journalists and media in the global south. And I’ll cite my country’s example.
Saleemul Huq: In Bangladesh, we have over two dozen private television channels. Three or four of them regularly send, at their own expense, television crews to cover the COP. And every single day, over the two weeks of the COP, they broadcast live back to their audiences in Bangladesh about the nitty gritty about the negotiations that are taking place. What happened today? What is happening tomorrow? What’s going up? What’s going down? What are the issues? And that’s the public in Bangladesh following a COP in detail. And when I was in Paris for COP21, for those of you who were there, you’ll remember we were in this big former airport, Le Bourget, a big conference center.
Saleemul Huq: And Parisians were driving by, seeing also flags and things. I said to people there, “The people in Paris don’t know what’s happening here. People in Bangladesh know every single day what is happening. They know what a COP is. They know what adaptation is. They know what loss and damage is. They know what the US position is. They know what the Chinese position is. And they follow it. They know what to follow.” And so that’s where we need all journalists to be doing this, all over the world, and not just the journalists from Bangladesh. Thanks [crosstalk 00:44:05].
Bernadette Woods Placky: Before I hand it over to Mark, real quick also, I just want to give a note of advice to some of our local journalists who don’t have the global perspective, too. We’re going to have a lot of information on how you can localize, how you can personalize, how you can take what they’re talking about, and the daily drama of what goes on inside those rooms, but translate it into how that’s affecting you where you live. More extreme weather, your health, your economy, all of that is what is really going to resonate with your people and your audience. So we have a lot of resources to help make those connections. And I think that’s where Mark was going to jump in, too, so we can help guide you that way.
Mark Hertsgaard: Yes. And I also want to emphasize, look, we get it, that not all of you will be able to go to Glasgow, okay? There’s going to be a lot of coverage, a lot of journalists covering this remotely, by these kinds of video links, okay? And again, come back to our website. We’ll put you in touch. The UN is working out this stuff. Although I very much agree that it is an excellent experience and you will always do a better job if you can be there on the ground, if you cannot be on the ground, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still cover this. You can do a lot from far away.
Mark Hertsgaard: And for that matter, Covering Climate Now, we will be providing, I personally will be providing, every day, a written dispatch that all of our 400-plus news partner outlets will be invited to run free of charge. Just straight reporting on, as Saleem was saying, what happened today, what matters, and so forth. We’re also endeavoring to have a daily radio and perhaps a daily TV feed, as well, from Glasgow. So just because you don’t have the travel budget to get there doesn’t mean that you can’t do a great job of covering this.
Mark Hertsgaard: I want to quickly go back to a question to Michael Oppenheimer. Michael, you said earlier that we need to act now, immediately, forcefully to keep the 1.5 degree target in reach. Can you speak very quickly on, what does that mean? You said we have to cut fossil fuel consumption and so forth, but can you outline that a little bit, and also speak to this question that keeps coming up in the chat, how is this enforceable? Again, there’s a lot of cynicism. Governments say one thing, and then they don’t do it.
Michael Oppenheimer: Yeah. First of all, let me just say, to my mind, the most important thing is, after the COP, don’t drop the story. Keep on it. It’s part of so much that’s going on. Follow all those leads, all those directions down. Now, as far as enforceability, going backwards, yeah, it’s the weakness of the Paris Accord. There are no penalties, except for what’s called name and shame. Public opprobrium, criticism from other countries if you’re not submitting a decent plan, an NDC, or if you’re not implementing it, as will become obvious at the stock tacks.
Michael Oppenheimer: And that’s a weak read, but in some areas, it has worked. It’s worked in the human rights area to a limited degree. If countries take this seriously, they will put pressure on the countries that are not behaving correctly, and individual countries may, on their own, develop enforcement mechanisms, like the EU discussions that have been going on for a long time now on trade sanctions, for instance. So anything is possible now that governments seem to be taking this thing seriously. I’d feel more comfortable if there were trade sanctions and other penalties as part of the Paris Agreement. It’s not there. We got to do the best we can despite that.
Michael Oppenheimer: Now the first thing you asked, I think is…
Mark Hertsgaard: Can we still reach 1.5? And what does that require?
Michael Oppenheimer: Yeah. I mean, it requires all hands on deck. It’s a different thing in every country, but in the developed countries, it means doing things like electrification of the transportation systems, reducing the reliance on single passenger automobiles, then producing the electricity, or at the same time, by renewable energy. And making those transitions, which are happening gradually in a lot of places anyway, as quickly as possible.
Michael Oppenheimer: In some of the developing countries, where I’m a little hesitant to give advice, it’s very particular in different places, it’ll mean things like not making some of the stupid, thoughtless decisions that were made in the developed countries, which got us in this hole in the first place. And also, unfortunately, making one-and-a-half degrees means we’re going to have to remove some of the carbon that’s already in the atmosphere, because this turnaround isn’t going to be so quick, and isn’t going to be as quick as we’d like. And therefore, we are going to have to protect the biosphere, make the biosphere a better sink for carbon, and probably develop some not very desirable, but necessary, technological means to remove carbon from the atmosphere. None of that would be necessary if we could get on the task immediately. I’m afraid we’re not going to get on it as fast as we need to.
Mark Hertsgaard: And one more point there, the International Energy Agency out of Paris, which was created by the rich countries after the oil embargo in the 1970s, has said this year that one thing that’s needed to get to 1.5 is no, zero more fossil fuel infrastructure. It means no more new oil fields, no more new coal mines, no more new coal plants, no more new methane gas pipelines, et cetera. That is a huge, huge economic shift that again, is going to affect the people in every market that you’re reporting to. Bernadette.
Bernadette Woods Placky: There have been a lot of questions about responses and solutions. And so I’m going to bring all of our panelists in on this. I think one of the questions I get often, so we can frame it this way is, even understanding where our emissions come from, to be able to focus in on what those responses and solutions are. And some of the responses are the adaptation, right, what we’ve already done, what we have to adapt to that’s locked in, but also how we bring down those greenhouse gas emissions. And often, I think people aren’t fully aware of those main buckets and which are the priorities, energy obviously being a huge one. And it gets a lot of focus because we do have some greener forms of energy available to us.
Bernadette Woods Placky: Another big one, even bigger in the United States than globally though, is transportation. A huge one, bigger globally than the US, is land use, and our buildings and how we organize really those systems that we live in. So kind of with those buckets and frameworks in place, to each of you, how is it best for our journalists to follow along with what solutions are being discussed and on the table, which ones they can push on and ask more questions about, and how to follow that story so that they can help inform their public? Whoever would like to go first.
Saleemul Huq: Can I take that first?
Bernadette Woods Placky: Go for it, Saleem.
Saleemul Huq: Great. Thank you. So my advice, if you like, is for journalists from all over the world, but particularly northern or global journalists, to take the time and trouble to talk to representatives of the most vulnerable countries, because that’s where the impacts of climate change are the worst. They’re really bad. And my country, Bangladesh, is a good example.
Saleemul Huq: The vulnerable countries have a group of countries called the Climate Vulnerable Forum, with about 50 of them from Asia, Africa, Latin America. It’s currently chaired by the prime minister of my country, Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, and they will be there in presence. They will be there politically. They’ll be there in the negotiations. There’ll be lots of civil society and lots of journalists and reporters from these countries there. Reach out to them, talk to them, because that’s the cold face of climate change impacts that are happening. As I said, it’s no longer something that’s going to happen. It’s happening already. You are just feeling it in the United States today. We’ve been feeling it for the last 10 years, and you need to know that, and your publics need to know that.
Mark Hertsgaard: Isabel?
Isabel Cavelier: Yes, I think there are some of those, well, forgotten sectors. You mentioned one in particular, Bernadette, land use. In many countries in the tropics, they’re not only feeling the impacts. If we don’t start restoring those ecosystems around the world, but especially those that are playing bigger roles as Michael was saying, sinking carbon. Even if we were to achieve all of the emissions reductions that are required to be 1.5, if we don’t restore those sinks, we won’t make it to 1.5. So I think a big service to the world needs to be much higher emphasis in the piece related to nature regeneration that we’ve done in the past. Not only because of the emissions that the land use sector produce, but because of the fact that we need not just to reverse, but to start regenerating, to reverse the degradation of ecosystems and start regenerating ecosystems, so they can still provide that service within this decade, to the urgency Michael was pointing to at the beginning.
Isabel Cavelier: At COPs, this has not been a very highlighted sector in the past. It has to become now. Traditionally, there is a separate venue internationally to discuss biodiversity, the CBD, the Convention on Biodiversity for the United Nations. And it’s been hard to bring those two worlds together. But they’re inextricably linked. So I would place an emphasis there. I think there’s been historically a lot of coverage and a lot of progress, and still there’s a lot to be done in the energy, the transport sectors. But in the land use sector and the nature regeneration, part of the equation that speaks both to adaptation and to mitigation, there’s been much fewer coverage. So I would place an emphasis there. I think it’s very critical.
Bernadette Woods Placky: Michael, I see you jumped in with putting adaptation on the same level as mitigation.
Michael Oppenheimer: Yeah. But really, I mean, it’s heartbreaking to see people dying from things that you know could have been avoided. And a lot of this was just predicted decades ago. And governments have proven again and again that they don’t know what the heck they’re doing with regard to adaptation. They don’t know how to protect their own people from this problem. And it’s certainly the case that the large, wealthy countries haven’t stepped up in a way that they should have financially, to help the developing countries that have barely any emissions in many cases, protect their people. It’s the usual thing where, in the climate change world, poor people in poor countries probably wind up with the short end of the stick in the worst way. Rich people in rich countries probably will find marginal ways to be somewhat better, but they’re going to get stuck, too, but not nearly as badly. And then there are poor people in rich countries, and they’re going to get stuck also.
Michael Oppenheimer: And the governments seem to be doing nothing, or very little, or just waking up in the case of my own government, to what the risks are and how they’re actually happening now. That sense of an emergency that was totally predictable, it’s here now. The governments have to do two things, if they think with two sides of their brain, cutting emissions as quickly as possible, protecting people to the extent that’s feasible now.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thanks, Michael. We’re coming to the end of the hour here, and we make a habit at Covering Climate Now of ending on time. So let me just say that we will continue though this session, and we’ll leave this Zoom open for the coming minutes so we can continue the conversations. I want to say to everyone that on logistics questions, such as getting accreditation and access, and as I said earlier, if you want to be covering the COP remotely, all those kinds of questions, of course you can bring them to us, but you can also reach out to our colleagues and partners at Climate Nexus, that’s climate, N-E-X-U-S, climatenexus.org. They have all that information for you.
Mark Hertsgaard: I also want to point out that our colleagues at the Society for Environment Journalists are having a session right after this one, I mean, literally at 1:00 PM US Eastern Time on food and farming in a warming world. And that is one of the topics that Climate Central and Covering Climate Now will also be looking at in our next press briefing, which will be taking place in October. If you have ideas for other topics that you’d like to get included on the agenda for that second press briefing, please send them to us. You’ll be invited to take a short survey at the end of this session here.
Mark Hertsgaard: And one more thought to what Michael Oppenheimer was just saying about most governments being clueless about adaptation, and this is a really good storyline. The truth is that a lot of local governments and state governments are much better.
Michael Oppenheimer: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mark Hertsgaard: And the truth is also that your audiences are probably going to care most about their own governments. So dig into what your local government is doing. Do they accept climate science? Are they working the problem? Are they doing anything, as Michael said, on both sides of the issue, both bringing down the emissions, but also preparing for the impacts that are now unavoidable? Dig into that. How are their representatives, elected representatives, voting? What are the big corporations in their region doing about this? Lots of great storylines there. So again, we invite you, as we leave here, to stay a couple minutes longer, continue the conversation. Please do participate in the survey, so that we can make the next briefing as helpful as possible.
Mark Hertsgaard: And with that, I’m going to thank once again, our stellar panelists for giving us their time and expertise. Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University, Saleemul Huq of the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, and Isabel Cavelier from Transforma, the NGO in Columbia. I’m quite confident that each of them will continue to take your questions. You now have access, as a reporter, to three of the best sources that are around on this topic, so don’t hesitate to reach out to them. And then, of course, thank you so much to my friend and colleague, Bernadette Woods Placky, and I’ll let her give us our farewell.
Bernadette Woods Placky: I just want to thank everyone who joined us. I can sense in your chats and in the conversation, the passion, the emotion, and we feel it. We definitely feel it with you. There’s a lot going on right now, and you can channel this into good storytelling. You really have the ability to make an impact here with your stories to connect the dots for your audience. There are a lot of questions that people have. There’s a lot that we are realizing is happening. But your audience doesn’t know exactly how that connects to the bigger picture, and you have that opportunity. So don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions you may have, any ideas you have. We are here to help. So thank you very much for joining us today.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thanks again, folks. We’ll see you next time. This is Mark Hertsgaard with Covering Climate Now, Bernadette Placky of Climate Central. Have a very pleasant day.
Saleemul Huq: Thank you very much. Bye-bye.
Bernadette Woods Placky: Thank you. Bye.
Isabel Cavelier: Thank you.