Press Briefing | The Climate Story in 2023

Fast-approaching tipping points, progress on loss and damage, and incentives for Americans to electrify everything were among the topics covered.

Past event: January 12, 2023

Did you know that the average household in the United States has a new “bank account” of $8,000 to spend on clean energy, thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act?

Or that irreversible tipping points, notably in the Amazon rainforest, are approaching much faster than scientists had expected? And that 2023 will bring much more extreme weather, as El Niño turbo-charges climate change?

Or that the world is making surprising progress on loss and damage compensation to the highly vulnerable countries bearing the brunt of climate impacts? Or that positive tipping points offer reasons for hope?

These are some of the takeaways from yesterday’s Covering Climate Now press briefing, “The Climate Story in 2023.” Three leading climate experts addressed journalists from around the world:

  • Bill McKibben, author and activist
  • Dr. Saleemul Huq of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Dhaka, Bangladesh
  • Dr. Marcia Rocha of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris

Below are highlights from the event, as well as a complete transcript.

McKibben urged fellow journalists to “push and see what’s happening on the ground, in communities,” as the Biden administration implements the IRA. The nonprofit Rewiring America has calculated that, “in essence, the IRA creates an $8,000 bank account for every American household” to buy things like heat pumps, window retrofits, and electric vehicles, said McKibben. Newsrooms can help by alerting local audiences and policymakers to the opportunity — and then tracking how well the money is used. McKibben also shared that climate activists this year plan to increase pressure on banks financing fossil fuel companies, starting with a day of protests on March 21.

In Brazil, local deforestation and global warming are “driving the Amazon to a … self-perpetuating drying cycle,” said Rocha. “Almost 70% of the Amazon is … eating itself. It’s effectively dying much more than growing.” A native of Brazil, Rocha added that “The good news is that effective policy” could reverse this trend before the world’s biggest rainforest reaches an irreversible tipping point. Deforestation fell by 70% from the early 2000’s until 2016, she noted, before surging under then-president Jair Bolsonaro. The newly elected president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, vows to halt deforestation. That is a tall order but central to global climate survival, making it a story that journalists everywhere should follow.

Rocha also urged journalists to cover new thinking on “positive tipping points” — developments that drive self-reinforcing progress towards rapid decarbonization. For example, in Norway public policies have made electric cars cheaper than gas ones, leading more consumers to purchase them; now, over half of the country’s new car sales are electric.

Pointing to the devastating floods in California, Huq said that climate loss and damage is “a global phenomenon … happening every day somewhere in the world,” Journalists, wherever they live, should “watch your weather channels and connect it to climate change.” Huq also responded to climate scientist James Hansen’s new forecast that average global temperature in 2024 will hit (at least temporarily) the 1.5-degrees-Celsius limit stipulated in the Paris Agreement. Nevertheless, it remains essential to limit the overshoot of 1.5 degrees C, said Huq, which means that countries “must stop using fossil fuels as quickly as possible.”

A bright spot: The $9 billion that international donors pledged on Monday to help Pakistan recover from last summer’s epic floods “is a very significant amount of support” that bodes well for future climate compensation to vulnerable countries, said Huq, who helped negotiate the loss and damage agreement at COP27. Negotiations over loss and damage continue, and Huq advised that journalists wishing to cover them should “follow the UNFCCC Glasgow dialogue on loss and damage” taking place in Bonn, Germany, from June 7 to 11, to prepare for COP28 next November.

Transcript

Mark Hertsgaard: Hello and welcome to another press briefing from 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. The subject of today’s press briefing is The Climate Story in 2023. And boy have we got a lot to talk about. But first, for those of you who don’t know, Covering Climate Now is a global collaboration of more than 500 news outlets from around the world with a combined audience of some two billion people. We’re organized by journalists for journalists, and we help newsrooms everywhere to do better coverage of the defining story of our time. Please visit our website coveringclimatenow.org, where you can sign up for our weekly newsletter, The Climate Beat. You can check out all of our background resources, best practices for reporting on the climate story. You can join our Slack channel and you can apply to join Covering Climate Now, either as a freelance journalist or as a news organization or as an institutional partner.

So as I say, today we are discussing major developments that are anticipated in the climate story in 2023, and how we as journalists should think about covering them. What are the story ideas that we should be thinking about? What are the themes to follow? Who are some of the sources to talk to, etc. You, as journalists, are welcome to submit questions for the second half of the session, actually the second two thirds of this session, in the chat box and we will get to as many of them as possible.We will take questions only from people who are working journalists and you can ask about anything you like. But three of the subjects we will definitely address today are: one, a likely increase this year in climate-driven extreme weather. Remember, 2023 is also an El Niño year. And with all that, the approach of self-reinforcing climate tipping points. Second, the outlook for federal climate action in the United States, especially the rollout of the Inflation Reduction Act despite opposition from Republicans, who are now the majority party in the House of Representatives. And third, the prospects for loss and damage payments by rich countries to the highly vulnerable countries that are bearing the brunt of climate impacts to date. Loss and damage will obviously be a key issue at the next UN Climate Summit in November, COP28. And as you may have seen, The Guardian newspaper broke the news overnight that the President of COP28 talks, which will be hosted by the United Arab Emirates, the president is the head of one of the world’s biggest oil companies.

The panelists for this press briefing are three of the world’s very top experts on these questions. We are so privileged to have them with us today. I’m going to introduce them all at once and then pose an opening question to each of them and we’ll use the rest of the hour to take questions from you, our colleagues. This briefing is entirely on the record and you are invited to follow your stories as soon as you like. And we will post a recording of the interview at our website in about an hour. It depends on how quickly it gets back to us. And of course, we’ll send out that to all of you who have signed up, everyone who is RSVP’d, whether you’re on this call right now or not. And you are welcome to tweet throughout the briefing using @CoveringClimate and the hashtag #CCNow. And now, please join me in giving a very warm virtual welcome to our panelists.

Saleemul Huq, he’s the director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Dhaka, Bangladesh and a professor at the Independent University of Bangladesh. Saleemul has long worked closely with diplomats from the Global South. He was instrumental in getting the 1.5 degree Celsius target into the Paris Agreement in 2015 and also the loss and damage agreement at COP27 last November.

Second, Bill McKibben. Bill is an author, educator, and environmentalist. He wrote the first mass market book on climate change, The End of Nature, way back in 1989. He has contributed to The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, The Nation, The Guardian, and countless other publications. And he recently co-founded Third Act, a climate activist group for people over the age of 60.

And third, Dr. Marcia Rocha. She leads the climate, I’m sorry, leads the Climate Quantitative Assessments team and the Environment Directorate of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. And she translates and distills the latest climate science into effective policy for member states. This year, she and her team have focused their research on climate tipping points, as we’ll talk about today. And prior to the OECD, she worked for the Climate Action Tracker and advised various UN climate negotiators.

So there we are, and as I say, I hope all of you can join us in giving them a very warm virtual welcome. And thank you all, my personal thanks for making time. I know all of you are incredibly busy, so we really feel very grateful that you’re with us today. So Marcia Rocha, I’m going to start with you if you don’t mind. The New York Times last Sunday ran a long story detailing that the Amazon is fast approaching a tipping point where deforestation will be so extensive that it will feed on itself and transform much of the world’s largest rainforest into Savannah. And other recent news coverage has warned about the melting of the so-called doomsday glacier, the Thwaites glacier in Antarctica. And as I mentioned earlier, 2023 is an El Niño year, so even more extreme events are expected. Your recent study for the OECD warned that the world is getting perilously close to other tipping points as well. So I’d like you to talk a little bit about how do you evaluate the situation in the Amazon today and in Antarctica, and what should journalists keep in mind going forward? And I will just mention, as you told me in the green room before we begin, you are a native of Brazil. So why don’t we start with that, the situation with the Amazon and Antarctica and those tipping points.

Dr. Marcia Rocha: Yes, thank you so much for this very, very important question and very close to my heart as you say. And I think many of us, when you talk about the Amazon, this touches us all. So yeah, as you said, the really tricky issue with the Amazon tipping element, what makes it a little bit different from other tipping elements is that there is a combination of two forces that can drive the Amazon through to its critical threshold. On the one hand, global warming, which is caused by all countries in the world. And then on the other hand, deforestation, which is a local problem. So together these two forces really can drive the Amazon to a self-perpetuating, drying cycle that it then cannot get itself out.

So what is unequivocal is that the Amazon, so the combination of these two phenomena driving the Amazon to a critical threshold is something that we predicted in models already two decades ago. What happened last year and in last I would say two, three years, is that we have very clear measurements, so actual evidence that these phenomena are happening. So that the deforestation is directly leading to the drying, and that the Amazon is losing its resilience, almost 70% of it. It’s already really eating itself. It’s effectively dying much more than growing.

So we have this evidence and we also have the prediction. So with better evidence, models get better, research gets more accurate. And what we know is that this is happening much, much faster than we ever predicted. So the issue of global warming, which is really at the, let’s say the responsibility of all countries, this can drive the Amazon to a critical threshold. It’s not isolated here. We need to look at, because deforestation is also driving it, the role of Brazilian government in enforcing policies on deforestation can have a very, very important role to play here. The good news is that we know that effective policy can be put in place and has been put in place and we saw a very positive trend in decreasing deforestation rates in the beginning of the 2000s until more or less 2016, and really by 70%. So it was a really true success story in the region, one unprecedented and one that surprised many of us. So we do have a track record that this can work. We also know that this can very quickly change if these policies are relaxed, which is what happened over the past six years and deforestation rates started to increase again.

So in the case of the Amazon, I think what is really important on top of monitoring the science really and bridging the gap a little bit between the science and using the science to inform policy in terms of temperature increases really very closely monitoring deforestation policies in the region. So because deforestation can drive the Amazon and bring it closer to its critical threshold, the other side of the coin is that reforestation, and that’s what scientists have been saying also for the past year, reforestation can also be a way to buying time in this interaction. So that is also, it’s not only about contracting deforestation, but also paying attention to efforts in reforestation in the region could really help us prevent or delay the passing of this critical tipping point.

Mark Hertsgaard: And we know that the incoming government of President Lula has pledged to do that sort of reforestation. Of course there was just the attempted attack on the Congress and the presidential palace there. So what can journalists who are not in Brazil, what do they need to know about this tipping point, and how can they be incorporating that knowledge into their reporting of climate change in general?

Dr. Marcia Rocha: I think there’s, in terms of what Brazil can do, and I think because the Amazon, its very largest majority situated in Brazil, I think it is really important to pay attention on the implementation of these instruments that have not really been scrapped from legislation. They have just not been enforced. So looking at how these instruments will be actually implemented and really following. So Brazil is very transparent or has been under Lula very transparent on its reporting of deforestation rates. So there’s great effort done by the Spatial Institute in the Amazon monitoring deforestation. And these numbers I think are very important to pay very close attention to. And so yeah, so I would say-

Mark Hertsgaard: Let me add also for those of you who are partners of Covering Climate Now, we have an excellent partner on the ground in Amazonia by the name of Sumauma. This is a website, digital website, founded by former reporters at The Guardian and El Pais who are in the Amazon reporting from the heart of the Amazon on exactly what Dr. Rocha is talking about here, the implementation on the ground. So you can look at their content. It’s available in English, Portuguese, and Spanish and get very up-to-date and on the ground coverage of this.

Before I go quickly to Bill McKibben, can you speak quickly, Dr. Rocha about the Thwaites glacier? When the stories ran in September, the headline was that this so-called doomsday glacier was literally quote “hanging on by its fingernails.” Do you at the OECD share that view that it is that dire? And what’s the situation today, and what does it mean for reporting all over the world on things like sea level rise?

Dr. Marcia Rocha: Yes, it’s absolutely critical and dramatic. Just a little disclaimer, the OECD, we do not make those measurements ourself. We do rely on researchers doing that. But this is very consistent with projections that West Antarctica ice sheet may, so we cannot rely today that it may already have crossed its tipping point. And we are working, so I think very sobering, and I think another very important paper that is related to this that made the headlines last year shows us that the ice sheet along with other five tipping points can already be crossed at one and a half degrees of warming, which is kind of like the best case scenario if we get our act together on emissions mitigation.

And that could already mean that along with the West Antarctica ice sheet the permafrost thaw, coral reefs, Greenland ice sheets, we could already cross those bypassing the 1.5. And this is research led by the University of Exeter that was published also in September last year. So this is very consistent with the current projections, with the current evidence of incredibly accelerated rates or completely… So science, usually we publish the conservative estimates and when we look at the actual evidence of what’s happening, things are actually unfolding much faster than the conservative evidence or estimates had told us. So this is in line with that. We are kind of shifting with the tipping points where they were previously considered many of these tipping elements as low-probability, high-impact outcomes. We are seeing that they’re really not that low-probability anymore in terms of how the climate system kind of changes unfolding. So-

Mark Hertsgaard: Let’s get back to that in a moment. I need to go over to Bill McKibben, but I want to put a pin in that and come back to that later in the questions. Again, folks, tipping points, if you’re not familiar with that concept, a tipping point becomes a self-reinforcing change in the climate system that can then lead to irreversible changes, where you get on the other side of the tipping point and it’s too late to come back. That is why it is so urgent that action be taken now and not 10 years from now. And that’s the perfect segue to my esteemed longtime colleague, Bill McKibben. As I mentioned in the intro, Bill McKibben wrote the very first mass market book on climate change, The End of Nature. It was what first educated me about climate change years ago.
And one of the points, Bill, that you’ve made over the years is that climate change is all but unique among the political challenges faced on this planet because it comes with a time deadline. It’s not like you can wait… If you wait too long to try and fix it, it becomes unfixable. And so I’d like to have you talk a little bit about that in relation to what is going on now especially in Washington on Capitol Hill and the prospects for federal action by the United States, which of course is not only the world’s biggest economy but is also the source of the largest amount of historical emissions. So how do you see the new balance of power in Washington affecting the chances for climate action this year, especially on implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act? And in particular, what should our fellow journalists be thinking about as they explore these issues?

Bill McKibben: Well, so last year was significant in the US because 34 years and 40 days after Jim Hansen first testified to the US Congress about the reality of what we then called the greenhouse effect, Congress finally passed its first significant climate legislation. They passed it by a scant margin. It was a 50/50 tie broken by the Vice President and much of that bill had been diminished, gutted, by Senator Manchin of West Virginia, but in the end, a substantial bill did pass, putting aside large sums of money intended mostly in the form of tax credits to jumpstart the transition to clean energy in the US and hopefully in the process continue lowering the price and accelerating this technological move in ways that would have spinoff effects for at least some of the rest of the world.

So a large deal, and now the question turns on its implementation. Congress, with the House now in control of the Republicans, will do nothing more to forward the climate agenda anytime soon. That waits only on those moments when the Democrats manage to have control of all branches of government. And so at this point, what Congress can do has been done, and now it’s up to the executive branch to figure out how to implement as quickly and efficiently as possible that IRA money.
It won’t be easy because the fossil fuel industry remains committed to delay this transition as long as they can. And we’ve seen great reporting about this just in the last day or two. The Times had a terrific story yesterday on how the natural gas industry was spending millions and millions of dollars to hire actors and influencers on social media to insist that it would be a mistake to ever give up your gas stove top for magnetic induction cooktop. Indeed, one Republican Congressman from Texas tweeted yesterday that you will have to pry his gas stove from his cold, dead fingers, which seems a remarkable commitment, but it’s emblematic of how tough this fight will be. Clearly, the fossil fuel industry is determined to make it part of the culture wars and do all that it can.

The key technologies are pretty clear. Magnetic induction cooktops are probably the smallest of the three. The other two big ones are heat pumps for people’s homes to replace furnaces and electric vehicles to replace their internal combustion engine vehicles. Both EVs and E-bikes are now booming, as people know, and that part of the transition seems to be moving fast.

The stories to cover I think are going to be around increasingly these questions of implementation, execution, and deployment and the politics of it and what it’ll mean. And within the kind of context of the climate movement, I think the two things that are going to be really at the forefront this year, because it’s not an election year in the US, are big attention to those questions around deployment and execution. I wrote a long piece in the New Yorker saying that movements are going to have to get good at helping neighborhoods, communities, cities, states, counties plan and execute this transition to renewable energy.

And then I think the other place that’s going to be front and center is an ongoing battle with the big banks and other parts of the financial system about their ongoing support for expansion of fossil fuels. This is now something that every scientific body and every climate scientist has weighed in to say is a terrible idea, and yet the four big American banks, Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, continue to push large sums of money into the hands of the fossil fuel industry. They’re the four biggest lenders in the world. This was called into high relief in December when HSBC, biggest bank in Europe by assets, declared that it would no longer be funding new oil and gas field development, which was a good step and it puts pressure on the other big banks, because one of their club has broken with them. The big date for this work in North America this year will be March 21st, 3/21/23, when we’re organizing protests outside banks across North America with a broad coalition of groups, Third Act kind of doing some of the coordinating, but the Sierra Club and a large number of other groups joining in as well. So that pressure may be one of the things that’s sort of to the fore in the course of the year to come.

Mark Hertsgaard: One quick follow-up Bill before I go to Saleemul Huq. President Biden has installed to try to implement the Inflation Reduction Act John Podesta, who of course was the White House Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton and later Barack Obama. And Podesta has said that one of the biggest challenges is to let American consumers know how much the Inflation Reduction Act has in it for them. If you do want to get an electric stove, God forbid, or switch to EVs or what have you, there are a lot of tax credits available. Seems to me, and I’d like your take on this, if I am a local or for that matter, a national reporter, pretty much any place in the United States, that would be the story I’d be trying to do. I’m usually not a fan of news you can use, but in this case, the government is, if I understand it correctly, essentially offering lots of money for people to do the right thing for the planet and watching that unfold at the local level could be a very interesting story that is not only important but that I think viewers and readers would like to see.

Bill McKibben: Absolutely. Rewiring America, which is the NGO that’s kind of emerging at the front of this fight to help implement the IRA and Electrify America as much as possible. They estimate that there, in essence, the IRA creates an $8,000 bank account for every American household if people figure out how to access it and use it. And so making that process as easy as possible is very key. I mean, the good news is that these technologies are better than the ones that they replace. Your magnetic induction cooktop is better than the gas flame that you cook on, cheaper and it doesn’t give your kids asthma, which is a nice side benefit. The EV is better than the car you have now. The heat pump is an elegant replacement for the furnace. And they’re cheaper to use in the long run.

So having ability to access that IRA money in order to pay the capital costs of these transition is really key. What we’re up against is that combination of vested interest and inertia. To be honest, most of us don’t even go down in the basement to look at the furnace unless something goes wrong with it. And so that’s the sort of block that has to be overcome here if we’re going to make this change in the time that physics is allowing us. And I will just add to go with your earlier conversation, Jim Hansen just earlier today sent out his predictions for 2023 in terms of temperature. He said it’s going to be much warmer than 2022 and that as we move towards 2024, we’re probably going to see the first year when the planet goes past that 1.5 degree threshold at least for a little while. So we’re in very, very serious water here and the time for rapid change is obviously right now.

Mark Hertsgaard: So there’s your headline, fellow journalists, an $8,000 savings account essentially set up by the federal government to help your audiences, per person, $8,000 per person, per household, I should say, to go green. That is a great story to follow. And sadly, the second story, we’re going to have a lot of extreme weather in 2023. Make sure that when you cover it and your teammates on the weather desk, make sure they connect it to climate change. The science now is pretty unequivocal on this, that climate change is driving more extreme weather across the world and we need to be saying that when we report weather, which of course is the number one story on local TV across the United States.

And now I have the distinct pleasure to welcome my longtime friend and colleague, Saleemul Huq, to our conversation. Saleem has appeared at many of our Covering Climate Now press briefings and so forth. So thank you, Saleem. I know it’s very late in Bangladesh, so thank you for staying up and being with us today. You missed what I said at the start here. As you’ve probably seen The Guardian broke the story last night that the COP28 president will be the head of one of the biggest oil companies in the world. So I want to sort of put that as the preface, but the question I really want to ask you is about loss and damage. You’ve been intimately involved with all those discussions and helping Global South diplomats to push the loss and damage idea for many, many years. At COP27, it finally was embraced by the world community. Earlier this week on Monday, as I’m sure you saw, their international donors pledged $9 billion in climate recovery aid to Pakistan, which of course suffered those terrible floods last year. Do you see that $9 billion the way that I think a Reuters piece described it as the first step towards loss and damage payments? Or is this a one-off?

Dr. Saleemul Huq: Thank you very much, Mark. It’s great to be here with you. So my answer to your question is that yes, it is the very beginning of dealing with the consequences of our failure to deal with the impacts of climate change. Unfortunately, we have failed to prevent climate change, human-induced climate change, from happening, and we have now therefore entered now the era of what I call the era of losses and damages from climate change. And this was recognized last year in COP27 by all countries, including the United States of America, to agree to set up a funding mechanism to help the victims, particularly the victims in the poor countries who didn’t cause the problem but who are suffering the impacts of the problem, in terms of dealing with addressing with the impacts of climate change. And the devastating floods in Pakistan last year was a very good example of what we’re talking about, and the $9 billion that has been now pledged to them includes a very significant amount of support for Pakistan suffering the impacts of human-induced climate change.

And as I said, we are now enter the era of impacts of climate change, including the United States of America by the way. You are having floods in California right now as we speak. And I’m watching that in television on television in Bangladesh here with a global phenomena. It’s happening every single day somewhere in the world. There are weather related anomalies that are due to human-induced climate change that are causing impacts and suffering for people, losses of lives, in fact and indeed loss of property and other kinds of impacts as well. And so we now have to deal with this, the global phenomena that we all are not prepared to do. No country is prepared for this kind of impacts. We all have to work together to work on preparing ourselves and to minimize the even bigger impacts that are going to come if we aren’t able to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases and keep temperature below the threshold of two degrees. As Bill said, we are probably not going to stay below 1.5, which we had a promise to do in Paris Agreement, but we can still stay below two degrees if we all take actions to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases and stop using fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

Mark Hertsgaard: Saleem, is that very likely though given that COP28 is going to be presided over by literally the president of one of the world’s biggest oil companies?

Dr. Saleemul Huq: Well, I think you’re right. In fact, the COPs are increasingly becoming irrelevant as events. We need to be dealing with this problem on every single day everywhere in the world. And we have already agreed to take actions. The COP that I would refer us to keep an eye on is COP21 in Paris seven years ago. The Paris Agreement, we agreed what to do. Ever since then, we just have to do what we agreed to do. Now whether we come to a COP and we’ve done enough or we haven’t done enough, really doesn’t matter, and unfortunately with the COP28 coming up when they’ve just announced the presidency of the COP, being a person from the oil industry in UAE does not give us a lot of hope that they will take actions that are needed. But nevertheless, it does not matter. Every single day we need to be taking action to deal with impacts of climate change all over the world. And we have an agreement to do that, which is the Paris Agreement. So in my view, we have agreed what to do. The countries have agreed what to do, we just need to implement what we’ve been doing and whether or not we have a successful COP or a useful COP, really is immaterial anymore. The COPs have become irrelevant. Action on the ground is what is relevant.

Mark Hertsgaard: We’re going to go to questions from our assembled journalists here. We’re very happy to see 242 people on this call, I guess 235 if you exclude us here on the panel. But I just heard you say Saleemul more than once, that COPs are irrelevant now. So does that mean that we as journalists should not be paying attention to those or what is your specific advice, not just in November around that COP, but to take your point further every day we should be working on this. What can journalists, especially those who are not in Bangladesh, who are not in the United States, what should they be thinking about as they get up every day and say, “What kind of stories am I going to today?”

Dr. Saleemul Huq: It’s a very good question Mark. So I would advise all our journalists listening to us here tonight to watch your weather channels wherever you happen to be living. Watch the Weather Channel. The Weather Channel is no longer a weather report of what’s happening tomorrow in wherever you happen to be living. It is now a report on a global phenomena happening all over the world and it is getting worse every single day. And this is because of human-induced climate change. So the weather is no longer separate from climate change. It is part of climate change and those of you who are journalists following this story need to be following the weather channels as a climate change story, not just a weather story. And if you’re in California right now, you have a climate change problem, right now in California with the floods happening there. That’s climate change. It’s not a weather problem, it’s a climate change problem. The winter storm that you had that caused lots of many dozens of people in the United States of America just a few weeks ago, that’s not a weather problem anymore. That’s a climate change problem. We are now entered the era of impacts of climate change and you need to know how to report that and you know how to connect it. Weather is no longer disconnected from climate change. Watch your weather channels and connect it to climate change.

Mark Hertsgaard: Thank you. That’s Saleemul Huq speaking to us from Dhaka Bangladesh. He’s been instrumentally involved in a lot of the COP negotiations that he now says are irrelevant. And also joining us, Bill McKibben, the noted author and journalist and activist. He has recently founded the group Third Act for people of a certain age who want to get involved in the climate fight. And finally, Dr. Marcia Rocha, she is in Paris with the OECD and she is a climate scientist specializing in tipping points. We’re going to go now to questions. I will just segue from Saleemul’s last comment. Sadly, as we’ve pointed out at Covering Climate Now here in the United States, last summer and the summer before, most coverage of the extreme weather, especially on US television networks, did not make the climate connection. And they were running those stories at the top of the broadcast. It was the lead story and only about 10% of the time did they mention that this was climate change in action. That is the single most important improvement that we could make in climate reporting, my friends, is to start saying, “This is climate change in action.” The public doesn’t know that and it’s our responsibility to be telling them. So questions coming in, I’m going to just channel them through here. Bill McKibben, the first one’s for you. And this is a question, just got to scroll down a little bit here, from our colleagues at CNET. “How will we define whether the Inflation Reduction Act’s climate justice policies are a success and having a tangible impact on US communities?” So how do we define success, climate justice, IRA?

Bill McKibben: Yeah. Well it’s a very good question and I’m not sure that anyone’s got a great metric yet exactly for figuring it out. But it is really important to note that the IRA really almost uniquely among large federal legislation tries to steer a good chunk of the resources that it has in the direction of vulnerable communities, impacted communities, environmental justice communities, communities making an energy transition, so coal mine communities, things like that. And this is going to be hard work because of course the laws of political gravity tend to funnel money in just the opposite direction towards the most affluent communities that are most equipped to apply for grants, navigate the federal bureaucracy, on and on and on. I think this is a place where happily we have strong environmental justice groups around this country that’ll be focused on this and are focused on it and will be able to tell, follow the flow of funds, at least to some degree through Podesta’s office and elsewhere to see if they’re ending up in the places where they were clearly intended to be going. But this is one of these places where I would caution people not to rely on the promises and the text of the IRA, but really try to push and see what’s happening on the ground in communities.

Mark Hertsgaard: Always good reporting advice, get out there on the ground. Question for, Dr. Rocha here from our colleague at Agence France-Presse, Rochelle Guzman. She is interested in climate solutions, but in particular, “How can we better cover the biodiversity crisis and it’s interlocking with the climate crisis?” And since you are from Brazil, obviously that’s a place the Amazon is a place where those two crises very much come together. But if you’re a reporter who is not in Brazil, do you have some advice for them?

Dr. Marcia Rocha: So of course the Amazon tipping point and the Amazon being this hotspot of endemic species, it’s a very critical providing all these ecosystem services through biodiversity states, one, to pay attention to. The links there are very well understood somehow the agendas within governments, they still quite separate, but I see that they have this approach to climate is more and more intimately linked to biodiversity. So I think it is important to pay attention to that, to really understanding how this biodiversity and the change to ecological systems that the climate change is bringing, really understand how this can be attributed to climate change. And I think science can inform us on that. But those are two agendas that go absolutely hand in hand. And I think this is not about to change.

Mark Hertsgaard: And we saw at the COP15 biodiversity talks in Montreal in December that the world’s governments agreed on a so-called 30 by 30 plan that is to protect 30% of the earth’s land and sea areas by the year 2030. Of course, similar pledges were made in 2010 and not carried out. Dr. Rocha, do you see any new, I mean you’re there in Paris with the OECD, which of course is the core of the European Union economies. Do you see a new appetite there among the EU states for really being serious about that 30 by 30 goal?

Dr. Marcia Rocha: So far those are announcements I would say like the COP26 in Glasgow with the main players really also pledging to protect Brazil, Indonesia. So I think it’s really important to pay attention to the big players here ’cause this is for preservation of biodiversity. But honestly for now, I haven’t seen great engagement. But it might be too soon to say as well.

Mark Hertsgaard: Okay, here’s a question for you Saleemul. And this comes from our colleague at the Washington Post. Let me just get, it’s Michael Robinson Chavez at the Washington Post. “What are the coastal populations in Bangladesh able to do in terms of preventing salinization and erosion from sea level rise, which of course is a big issue. Bangladesh at the bottom of a delta at the bottom of many of the world’s largest rivers. So what can the coastal populations in Bangladesh do in the face of sea level rise?” Saleemul?

Dr. Saleemul Huq: Thank you Mark. And thanks for that question. That’s a great question. And in fact, it’s not so much what they can do, it’s what they actually are doing already. So Bangladesh happens to be one of the countries that is most impacted by climate change. And it’s not new news to us. We’ve known this for the last decade or more and we’ve not been sitting idle, we’ve not been waiting for the rest of the world to get its act together.
We’ve been taking actions on our own to try and do what we can. We can’t solve the problem globally. It’s a global problem. But we can certainly prevent the worst from happening by being better prepared. And we call that adaptation to climate change. And I’ll say Bangladesh is a global champion in adaptation to climate change, particularly in the low lying coastal zone of the country where tens of millions of people are being affected by both slow onset sea level rise, salinity intrusion into the water systems in the low-lying coastal area, and then occasional high speed cyclonic storms that come and hit us every now and again and devastate the population as well.

Bangladesh has one of the, I would say in fact the best cyclone warning and evacuation systems. And we have reduced the loss of life from cyclones enormously, in fact, better than the United States of America. We are the world leaders in reducing the loss of life from cyclones. That doesn’t mean there’s still a lot of loss and damage, there’s still a lot of loss and damage that occurs, but loss of life does not occur anymore because we can now successfully warn and evacuate over 3 million people living in the low-lying and coastal zone of the country. And we’ve done this in successive cyclones in the recent past, whereas in the decades in the past, cyclones of those nature of those magnitudes used to kill tens of thousands and sometimes even hundreds of thousands of people, we have brought the death toll to the few dozens now, and that’s one of the biggest achievements in the world in terms of adapting to the impacts of climate change.

But we are not doing enough. We still have a long way to go. Climate change impacts are still causing problems and we are doing what we can to deal with our impacts of climate change. But I would say the global scale, Bangladesh is actually way ahead of other countries in terms of the population understanding what needs to be done, knowing what has to be done, and doing what has to be done when we have to do it. And this is something that other countries can learn from us, including the rich countries like the United States of America who are actually not well prepared at all. The people of Bangladesh are very well prepared. They are doing what they can and they are at the, I would say, the forefront of being adapted to these new conditions of impacts of climate change now, which is a growing phenomena. It’s going to happen whether we like it or not, we are now living in the era of impacts of climate change causing losses of damages from climate change.

Mark Hertsgaard: So if you want, we journalists oftentimes like the counterintuitive story. So Bangladesh, which is too often seen in Henry Kissinger’s horrible old phrase as a basket case, Bangladesh is actually a world leader in climate change adaptation. And in particular, as Saleemul wrote in Time Magazine right before COP27, we in the media can learn from our colleagues in Bangladesh media, which has done much more coverage of the climate story. And that’s why, as Saleemul just said, the average Bangladeshi knows far more about climate change than the average American does. So let’s take a lesson there as well. Bill, a question for you from our colleague, our esteem colleague at Al Jazeera, Nick Clark. Let me just scroll back up here. And he said that, “Bill recently wrote on alternative technologies used to battle climate change from carbon capture and storage to sunshades and space. How important does Bill think it is for journalists to focus on these alternative technologies? Or does that misdirect focus from the job at hand and give the fossil fuel companies a get out of jail free card?”

Bill McKibben: One of the points of that long piece in the New Yorker, Nick, was that at the moment, the one thing that’s been absolutely clear from the beginning of this whole story is that the fossil fuel industry will use anything as a distraction to avoid having to change its business model. And hence that’s how they’re looking at things like solar geoengineering, which is what I was mostly writing about it. It’s a fascinating story because there’s parts of the world, including people in places like Bangladesh or the low lying Pacific Islands or things that are beginning to say, “We better be studying this because we don’t know if there’s any other out for our parts of the world eventually.”

But for the moment, for the rest of this decade, I think it’s very clear that the job one, two and three is to be moving to clean energy and seeing how far we can get in the hopes that we can avoid having to even think about the kind of break the glass solutions that are and hideously dangerous ones that are things like geoengineering. So that’s I think where the discussion is at the moment, and the one thing always to be remembered is that big oil will do pretty much anything to keep us in our current path. Their job is getting harder because the alternatives are getting easier and cheaper every day. And we really are at a moment when it’s possible to imagine a rapid end to the 700,000-year human habit of setting things on fire. We don’t need to anymore. The good Lord hung a large ball of burning gas 93 million miles away in the sky and we now have the wit to make full use of it. To capture its rays on photovoltaic panels, to take advantage of the fact that it differentially heats the earth, creating the winds that power those turbines. We even have the batteries to store them when the sun goes down and the wind drops. That’s the main job at the moment. If we fail at that job, then we’re going to live on a very difficult planet and there’s going to be a lot of bad things happening.

Mark Hertsgaard: Let’s try and get in a few more questions here. Here’s a question from Iris Crawford of the Nonprofit Quarterly, and this is for Marcia Rocha. Dr. Rocha, do you see the governments of Brazil’s neighboring countries such as Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Guyana, are they possibly going to collaborate with Brazil and the new Lula administration to ramp up efforts at reforestation and stopping deforestation in the Amazon? I know that you’re a scientist and not a policy advisor, but you are also a Brazilian, so can you give us your unofficial take on that question, please?

Dr. Marcia Rocha: Sure. Before I talk about that, may I make a reflection on what Bill was saying?

Mark Hertsgaard: Sure.

Dr. Marcia Rocha: Because I think which relates to tipping points. One growing narrative in the tipping points community, is that just as the climate, sort of the bad tipping points are part of the big threat that we face today, but that same logic can also provide a solution. As my fellow panelists have said, we need a rapid change and we need a rapid change now, and this is to counteract the risk of tipping points, positive tipping points, what we call the positive tipping points become crucial. There’s no mitigation strategy that prevents us from crossing some of these thresholds that do not actually put in place or do not count on drastic changes. Positive tipping points being inflection points in social, economic, and technological trends that lead to systems change, which are then accompanied by an accelerated downward emissions trend. I think it is important to hammer on technological approaches, for example. It does make sense to hammer and to pay attention to the better understanding to legitimizing those solutions, the ones that are valid and that would contribute, that would create the conditions for an inflection point, which is something that once it starts, it’s also irreversible because it provides a better solution to the ones that we currently have. It’s hard to get there, but once they’re there, they do provide really an advantage to what we currently have. I think it is really important to focus on giving that spinning of … and I think there’s growing literature, there will be growing literature, there will be growing attention in the scientific community studying the potential of these. What are the potential positive tipping points? It’s a multidisciplinary endeavor to identify those, but it is really important to not lose sight of that change and the public awareness for these potential changes and these potential measures needs to happen in order for these positive tipping points to actually happen.
On the neighboring country South American collaboration, there is appetite. I think Lula has had a very difficult start and it’s not going to be easy, let’s say, in the next coming months. I do think there is appetite and there is history of countries working together and there has been support from this government to his candidacy. I would expect, and this is really just my opinion, that this would happen, that collaboration would, especially in the Amazon, would happen.

Mark Hertsgaard: That’s another story to follow and we will be asking our colleagues at SUMAÚMA, which is the name of an iconic tree in the Amazon, that’s the name of that Covering Climate Now partner located in Manaus in the heart of the Amazon, we’ll be asking them to keep us briefed on those developments.
Now a question from Egypt from our colleagues at Al-Ahram, which is kind of like the New York Times of Egypt. Journalist named Ashraf Amin asks, this is for you Saleem, “what should be the next steps in pushing for the loss and damage fund and how do we as journalists best convey that to our audiences?”

Dr. Saleemul Huq: Thank you, Mark. And thank you for our journalist from Egypt for that question. I think it’s a very great question. Let me share with you my thinking on where we stand on the issue of loss and damage, particularly the groundbreaking decision in COP27 to agree. All countries have now agreed that this is a problem that we need to address and that we need to be looking at sources of funding to help the victims of human-induced climate change. All countries have agreed, including the United States. We are now on the same page. This is no longer an adversarial relationship with some countries asking for other countries to take action. We have now all agreed. That to me is a breakthrough of immense proportions. And Sharm el-Sheikh and COP27 is responsible. And I want to recognize the role of the Egyptian government and the Egyptian host of COP27 presidency for making that breakthrough possible. And also acknowledge the United States of America in allowing that to happen, because they had been the recalcitrant party in not allowing it to happen for many years, but they changed their mind and we have welcomed that.

Now we are all on the same page. The question now is, what do we need to do to take things forward as rapidly as best as possible, particularly between now and the remaining months to COP28 in Dubai in November this year. We need to set up something that is effective, up and running as quickly as possible, find the money from somewhere. In my view, we need to be looking to tax the fossil fuel companies who are making exorbitant profits as we speak right now, because of the Ukraine-Russia war. They happen to be making tens of billions of dollars of profits and we need to be taxing them. If we put a 10% tax on the fossil fuel companies and there are only a few dozen companies that we need to consider for this, then that would generate billions of dollars. And we need not talk to taxpayers for the money, we need to just tax the fossil fuel companies who are making profits. Let them keep 90% of their profits, let’s tax 10% of their profits and put it into this fund. And then if we need to think about what the fund would do, and that’s something that we are already working on and we hope in COP28, we can manage to find ways in which the fund can be managed, who would manage it, how it would be managed, and then finally who would get the money? And in my view, the priority needs to be the poorest people on the planet who are being affected by the impacts of climate change, who didn’t cause the problem, but who are being affected by the problem. And all of us need to be taking our share of responsibility to make sure that they get funded, they get the funding that they need to deal with the impacts of climate change. And the Pakistan floods is a very good example of that. But there are similar events taking place all over the world.

In fact, right now in Somalia, they have a major drought and people are losing their lives and their livelihoods because of the impacts of climate change. And the Somalis have probably contributed 0.000000001% of greenhouse gas emissions that cause the problem. The rich countries around the world have caused the problem. We owe it to the people in Somalia to help them to deal with the impacts of climate change. The good news is we’ve all agreed to do this. We now need to make it happen and be effective in doing it between now and COP28. The time is so very short. We can’t wait years for doing this. We now have to do it within a matter of months. I hope we can do it. I’m very optimistic that we can do it.

Mark Hertsgaard: We are at the very end of the hour here, Saleem, so a very quick follow up and then a very quick answer from you. Very specifically, where will these negotiations be happening so the journalists can cover them? You mentioned that there will be work going on between now and COP28 next November. Are there specific places and dates and how much of that will be available to journalists? And of course journalists can always be asking behind the scenes for government ministers and NGOs. Can you point us towards those places and any specific contacts and sources that we should rely on in addition to yourself of course.

Dr. Saleemul Huq: Sure. Great. Mark. So very quickly, under the COP27 decision on loss and damage, we are setting up a transitional committee that is now in the process of happening that will take place very soon. Keep an eye on the UNFCC website. They will let you know when the transitional committee will be set up and you can follow them. There is going to be a dialogue on loss and damage. This came out of the Glasgow COP, COP26. There was a three-year dialogue on loss and damage. We had the first dialogue in June last year in Bonn. The second will be taking place in June this year in Bonn. So people who want to follow this, please follow the UNFCC Glasgow dialogue on loss and damage taking place in Bonn in June. And then prior to COP28, which will be in Dubai in November, the Scottish government is likely to hold a major event in Scotland, which they did last year in October, where all the people working on loss and damage will be coming together. I would recommend that the journalists who are interested in following this issue participate in that and follow that process as well.

Mark Hertsgaard: Thank you very much. And of course, I say to all of our assembled journalists here, we at Covering Climate Now will keep you up to date on all of this at the time and send you reminders in advance. This is obviously one of the big stories of 2023 along with the tipping points and the Inflation Reduction Act that we’ve been discussing here today. I’d like to close by thanking each of our excellent panelists here today, Saleemul Huq, who’s joining us from very late in the evening from Dhaka, Bangladesh. And Bill McKibben at Lake Placid, New York with the group, Third Act. And Dr. Marcia Rocha of the OECD in Paris. I will close by mentioning that if you want to learn how to do excellent climate solutions reporting, Covering Climate Now is having another press briefing next week and you can sign up for that. That will be next Thursday. It will be really a workshop on how to do climate solutions reporting co-hosted with our colleagues at the Solutions Journalism Network. That’s on Thursday, January 19. Check our website for more details. I believe it’s at 12:00 Eastern Time, United States Eastern Time. So with that, I will close. Thank you all for being here. And on behalf of Covering Climate Now, this is Mark Hertsgaard wishing you a very pleasant day.