The continuing rise of carbon emissions means the Paris Agreement goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius is becoming even harder to achieve. Exceeding 1.5 degrees C would condemn countless people, especially in the Global South, to misery while increasing the chances of irreversible catastrophes, such as the melting of Antarctica’s “Doomsday Glacier.” Strong decarbonization policies can make an enormous difference.
- Mustafa Santiago Ali, Executive Vice President of the National Wildlife Federation
- Souparna Lahiri, Senior Climate and Biodiversity Policy Advisor of the Global Forest Coalition
- Kelly Levin, Chief of Science, Data, and Systems Change for the Bezos Earth Fund
Mark Hertsgaard, CCNow’s Executive Director and The Nation magazine’s Environment Correspondent, moderated.
Below are lightly edited highlights from the event, as well as a complete transcript.
Kelly Levin talked about the major transformation needed across “all sectors of the economy” — including energy, industry, agriculture, and transportation — to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees C. As an example, Levin said that over 900 of the world’s coal plants need to be shuttered each year for the next decade. She pointed to the World Resources Institute report “State of Climate Action,” which assesses gaps in climate action across sectors, and concludes the high-emitting sectors “aren’t acting anywhere near fast enough” to achieve the 1.5-degree-C goal.
Dramatically reducing emissions requires major policy interventions and “courageous leadership from governments and from companies,” Levin said. She urged journalists to report on the high-level interventions needed and connect the dots to “what’s happening in [audiences’] backyards.” She also pointed to why reporting on climate solutions is so critical. “This is a challenging problem and we need to inspire people. How can we replicate good progress around the world?” Stories on climate solutions can help different regions within countries and around the world learn from one another.
Souparna Lahiri talked about the increasingly controversial issue of carbon offsets. For years, companies have been buying offsets in a bid to cancel out carbon emissions and achieve “net zero.” For example, an airline company can offset its CO2 emissions by paying a community in Indonesia to plant trees, which absorb carbon. But no matter how highly rated an offset is, Lahiri said, companies and countries can’t keep burning fossil fuels at current rates. That’s because there simply is not enough room in the 1.5 degrees C “carbon budget” — how much carbon the world can emit to keep within a warming target.
“If the offset is used to justify ongoing emissions, it makes global warming worse,” he said. There are also equity issues to offsets, which can have negative impacts on frontline communities, which he called “the experimental guinea pigs of climate solutions.” CCNow executive director Mark Hertsgaard urged journalists to be skeptical when reporting on offsets and net zero promises and put them into context.
Mustafa Santiago Ali discussed the importance of reporting on climate justice and the needs of vulnerable communities. “There’s an opportunity for us to make sure that the sins of the fossil fuel past are not brought forward into this new clean energy economy,” he said. Ali pointed to the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative, including its Climate and Economic Justice Screening tool that highlights the communities most vulnerable to climate change.
Ali called on journalists to report stories in a way that resonates with everyday people. This includes covering those who are contributing “positive steps forward” on climate change. “People want to see folks who look like them who are making change happen, who come from their sets of circumstances.” As an example, Ali pointed to the ReGenesis Project, a grassroots environmental justice initiative in Spartanburg, S.C. The people behind ReGenesis turned a $20,000 environmental justice grant into a project that leveraged over $270 million in public and private funding to improve their community. Highlighting these types of initiatives and the people behind them leads to “a larger base of people that will push politicians, that will push financial entities and corporations to continue to do better.”
As hard as it’s going to be to keep the 1.5-degree-C target alive, all three experts agreed that it was possible, with rapid and large-scale global action.
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 the environment correspondent for the Nation Magazine. The subject of today’s Press Briefing: what’s needed to keep the 1.5 C target alive. First though, for those who don’t know, Covering Climate Now is a global media collaboration of more than 500 news outlets that reach a total audience of some two billion people. We’re organized by journalists for journalists. We help one another do more and better coverage of the defining story of our time. It costs nothing to join Covering Climate Now. There’s no editorial line except respect for science. You can go to our website, CoveringClimateNow.org where you can find a list of our partners, you can sign up for our weekly newsletter, The Climate Beat, can check out our luminous background resources, join our Slack Channel, and of course apply for you or your newsroom to join Covering Climate Now.
So let’s get straight to today’s session, arguably the most important question in the world right now, the 1.5 C target. But limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 C, I have to say, has been a poorly understood goal from the time it was first included in the Paris Agreement in 2015. Previously, UN negotiations had focused on limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius, but in a surprise development, activists and governments from the Global South got the 1.5 C target written into the Paris Agreement. And the reasoning was simple, as I was told by the former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, “Anything more than 1.5 degrees is a death sentence,” for low-lying and highly vulnerable countries like his.
Today however, we know that even 1.5 degrees would be very dangerous. After all, look around you. The record heat, drought, storms, flooding and sea level rise of recent years, all that is happening at 1.1 degrees of temperature rise. So let’s be clear, 1.5 degrees is by no means safe, rather it was and remains a politically determined target — the most ambitious target achievable within UN climate negotiations, but it is far from ideal. And yet, 1.5 promises to be much less deadly and destructive than the previous target of 2.0 C. And this is especially true for the most vulnerable: the poor, people of color, women, children both born and yet to come, and also for the plants, animals, and ecosystems, without which our own civilization would quickly collapse. Furthermore, the science makes it clear that if there is an overshoot of 1.5, that overshoot must be kept as minimal and brief as possible. 1.6 is better than 1.7, 1.7 better than 1.8.
The good news, contrary to what you might have heard is that humanity can still limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. The latest IPCC report made this very clear and our colleague, Damian Carrington at the Guardian highlighted a chart in that report that I commend to everybody. He called it, “A map of climate optimism.” And that chart lists 40 available options for slashing emissions in half over the next seven years, which is what we need to stay on the 1.5 path. And those solutions focus on solar, wind, trees and forests, energy efficiency and cutting methane. Damian wrote, “These solutions require no new technology. What they do require,” he added, “Is a resource heavily lacking so far, the political will to push aside vested interests and radically pursue the policies that will work.” Solutions reporting is an essential part of the good climate coverage that we try to foster here at Covering Climate Now. Our reporting needs to inform the public and policy makers alike that we can still avoid the worst.
The key obstacle is not immutable physics but wrong-headed policy. And today’s briefing is designed to empower us as journalists to understand and tell this story while it can still make a difference. Before we dive in, a couple of housekeeping notes. I’ll introduce all three panelists at once. We’ll hear from them during the first half hour and then of course in the second half hour your questions and answers. We’ve got some already on the RSVPs. Feel free to add more in the chat. Please be sure to be a journalist if you are in the chat. This is a briefing that is intended for journalists only. All of you are welcome to tweet throughout the hour using @CoveringClimate and the hashtag CCNow. And now I hope you’ll join me in giving a warm virtual welcome to our panelists, a stellar bunch.
Kelly Levin, she’s the Chief of Science Data and Systems change for the Bezos Earth Fund, and she’s a co-director of the Systems Change Lab. Previously she spent 12 years at the World Resources Institute as a director of WRI’s Global Climate Program.
Also Souparna Lahiri. Souparna is the Senior Climate and Biodiversity Policy Advisor for the Global Forest Coalition. The Global Forest Coalition is a coalition of 126 NGOs and Indigenous people’s organizations, working across 70 countries for forest policies that address the drivers of deforestation, climate change and biodiversity loss.
And Mustfa Santiago Ali. He’s the Executive Vice President of the National Wildlife Federation and the founder of Revitalization Strategies, a business focused on moving vulnerable communities from surviving to thriving. Previously, Ali spent 24 years working at the United States Environmental Protection Agency, most recently as Senior Advisor for Environmental Justice and Community Revitalization.
So again, please, a warm virtual welcome for all three of these very eminent panelists. And I’m going to throw a little bit of a curve ball here to start since we’ve got all three of you here, I want a one word answer, yes or no from each of you. And we’ll just go in the order that I’ve described. First Kelly Levin, yes or no? Can humanity still limit temperature rise to 1.5 C?
Kelly Levin: Yes.
Mark Hertsgaard: That’s good. And Souparna Lahiri, can we do that?
Souparna Lahiri: Yes, we can do that. Of course.
Mark Hertsgaard: And Mustafa Santiago Ali, yes or no? 1.5, is that a pipe dream or still achievable?
Mustafa Santiago Ali: Si se puede. Yes, we can.
Mark Hertsgaard: Si se puede. All right, let’s get into it. Kelly Levin, look, we’re all journalists here. We know that the world is not on track to 1.5. Let’s not waste any time bemoaning that. Let’s talk about instead how we might still get to 1.5. You wrote a very interesting piece for World Resources Institute back in December with a colleague where you talked about what it will take to get to 1.5 degrees and you laid out a number of different areas where you talked about we need to decarbonize the electricity sector, we need to decarbonize buildings and so forth. Can you just briefly take us through what are the most important aspects of that, that we really need to accelerate and talk in, if you will, in very practical terms of what needs to happen in order to reach those targets?
Kelly Levin: Super. Well, first, thanks so much for having me, Mark, and thanks for all of your interest. It’s tremendous to be here. I think you, Mark laid out the scale of the change that’s required, which totally dictates the scale of the transformation required. And if you think about the emissions trajectory that we’ve had since 2010 alone we have emissions increasing by 12%. Since 1990, something like 54%. And as you said, Mark, we need to essentially slash them in half this decade. We have to get to 60% below recent levels by 2035 and then get to net zero by mid-century and net negative afterwards.
And what that means is that we need true systems transformation and we need it across all sectors of the economy, from how we transport our goods and services, how we power our homes and our cities, how we manage our biomes and our oceans and how we consume our goods. And each one of those has these component shifts that need to happen. So if you think about, for example, food systems, a series of shifts that need to happen both on the supply and demand side, that we need to sustainably intensify livestock and crop production so that we don’t continuously expand into new areas. And at the same time, we need to shift demand and look at shifting diets towards healthy alternatives. We need to cut back on food loss and waste. And similarly for transportation, not only do we need to shift from the internal combustion engine to the EVs and had a remarkable announcement yesterday in the US to do that, but also we need to shift to public transport and we need to avoid travel by some modes. And we need to come up with new solutions for the so-called harder to abate, the heavy trucking, the aviation, the shipping.
And when you think about the scale of transformation, as you said, Mark, it’s really hard to translate these emissions trajectories and the 1.5 goal into things on the ground every day. And what we tried to do in this report that you mentioned, the State of Climate Action is think what does that mean in terms of power plants closing down, for example? What does that mean in terms of the rate of deforestation getting curbed? And we looked at benchmarks that are aligned with a 1.5 trajectory and what it does mean is that this decade, we basically have to phase out coal generation six times faster, which is the equivalent of eliminating, retiring 925 average sized coal plants a year. We have to-
Mark Hertsgaard: Let me interrupt for a second there, Kelly.
Kelly Levin: Yes, please.
Mark Hertsgaard: You say 900 plus coal plants a year? You’re talking globally, right?
Kelly Levin: Globally, correct, yes. And if you think about other systems like public transportation, we need to, we’ve been making gains and we have to, six times that. We need to reduce deforestation two and a half times the recent rate of change. The good news is that we are seeing these bright spots of action where we’re seeing exponential change take off. You can look at renewables for example and the cost of solar power dropping 85% or so in recent decades. You can look at EVs with tremendous regulations around the world, phasing out internal combustion engine and switching to EVs. But we need to do that across all systems. And the question is, how do you nurture that so that we get to tipping points where change is unstoppable and irresistible and it’s going to take … there’s not going to be a silver bullet. It’s going to take a number of different interventions from policies and regulations to financial incentives to RD&D to leadership and courageous leadership from governments and from companies. And I think most of all, recognizing that some of these transitions are going to be jarring, they’re going to be winners and losers and ensuring that they’re done in just an equitable way. So I’ll pause there and happy to go into more detail as we keep going.
Mark Hertsgaard: Yeah. Let me ask one follow up question or maybe two actually. One is, for many years I think energy efficiency has been overlooked, it doesn’t sound sexy. People are sort of vague about what that actually means. And yet if you look at the IPCC reports and indeed even just yesterday’s Biden Administration announcement about electric vehicles, that is a form of energy efficiency, isn’t it? That basically we need to get out of this mindset to think that we need to produce more energy in order to meet human needs, but rather use energy more efficiently. How big a part of that is the 1.5 trajectory path?
Kelly Levin: Yeah, it’s a great question, Mark. I think energy efficiency is definitely one of the key ways that the world is going to be able to meet the demands with also lower energy use. And especially when you think about coupling energy efficiency with renewables and other measures, it can really yield very, very significant benefits. The good news is that there are huge number of solutions that exist and really vast untapped opportunities and even some of the best available technologies are not being used in countries right now. And that it can also lead to tremendous savings for consumers. And it’s really helpful when you can also address multiple issues and not just climate change. I think today we’re facing a number of different forces that make energy efficiency all the more important. If you look for example at the Inflation Reduction Act, which is an example of how governments can in incentivize energy efficiency with a number of tax credits, for example, for homeowners. And then if you think about the Russian invasion of Ukraine where you have energy prices that have been skyrocketing and you have consumer bills that have been really challenging for many communities to meet. And at the same time, the need to secure reliable access around the world. Basically focusing on energy efficiency can be unambiguously the first response to meeting climate goals and affordability and dealing with energy security. But it’s also not enough because we know that we also need to shift away from dirty sources of energy as well. And sometimes the programs for efficiency can be implemented really differently in different places. So at the same time, we need to make sure that we have a package of policies and incentives and research development to be able to move forward. But it is really a tremendous option for addressing climate change and energy needs. And I think especially with emerging countries that are going to be an ever greater share of energy demand, this is going to provide some really tremendous opportunities moving forward.
Mark Hertsgaard: So there’s tremendous opportunities, I’ll say to my fellow journalists here, energy efficiency, that is a big part of the Inflation Reduction Act here in the United States. So if you’re a US reporter, look into those opportunities. It’s a great local story. Oftentimes it involves retrofitting houses and buildings. It tends to create jobs as well. And internationally, to my colleagues there, it’s oftentimes energy efficiency is overlooked, but it’s usually the cheapest and the fastest, not to mention the safest route to energy security.
Now we’re going to switch to Souparna Lahiri. Souparna, I’m going to talk to you about net zero and offsets and carbon neutral and all of these terms that have become so prominent in a lot of the international dialogue around this. You and I connected through your colleague Don Lair, who sent out a press briefing recently that essentially pointed out that if we as a global community are serious about 1.5, there is no room at this point for offsets for net zero for this claim that company X is, well, we’re going to keep emitting pollutants, but we’re going to buy offsets by planting trees in Sri Lanka or keeping a forest standing in Indonesia. So first of all, have I got that right that basically there is no room in a 1.5C world for offsets? And if that is correct, can you just take us through that argument?
Souparna Lahiri: Thanks Mark. And just to mention that I’m also here speaking for Climate Land Ambition & Rights Alliance and Global Forest Coalition as a member of CLARA. Yes, this is a kind of argument that we have been making for quite a long time and it’s not a new argument. I hope by the time people realize what IPCC is talking about, what we are talking about, that the kind of argument is rested for the rest of the century itself. The problem is that, let’s see, I frame it in a way like if you are talking of IPCC report, there are twin challenges that IPCC report pose today in terms of, number one, that you have to reduce emission by 50% by 2030 is the number one. And the second is the carbon budget is fast repleting. And what is the carbon budget that IPCC is talking of? It’s a space that CO2 occupies in the atmosphere and when you release CO2 in the atmosphere, it certainly occupies a space. And that space, which is left now for CO2 to be released in the atmosphere for the next 10 years, say, is only about 500 gigatons of CO2 equivalent. And today, if we take a rough estimate of global emissions of 40 gigaton of CO2 equivalent, so by the next 10 years or so or roughly by 2035, we are going to see that the carbon budget is entirely repleted. So you cannot even release carbon dioxide when it gets saturated. So these are the twin challenges that the IPCC report poses.
Now, how we’ll offset can give us a kind of way to face these twin challenges. Because as IPCC is very clear, and I can quote that IPCC is saying that the reduction avoidance or removal of a unit of greenhouse gas emissions by one entity purchased by another entity to counterbalance a unit of GHG emissions by that other entity. Which simply means that carbon offsets are credits bought by entities to be able to claim that the purchase cancels out the damage done by their ongoing emissions. So how does offsets contribute to reducing emissions and at the same time to see that the carbon budget is not repleted or in the sense of equity, the carbon budget is still left to claim fair shares for the Global South. So, in terms of offset it doesn’t matter if the polluter buys an offset with the best green certification or calls itself “high integrity” or if the credit is a junk offset, if the offset is used to justify ongoing emissions, it makes the global warming worse. And so-
Mark Hertsgaard: Let me stop you there. Let me stop you there because that is the key point that we need to understand. It doesn’t matter if they’re great offsets or junk offsets, offsets basically mean that the emissions are going to be continued. And there’s only so much of the budget left, you know when you’re looking at your monthly budget and that the rent takes this much and the light bill takes this much and the water bill takes this much, that you can’t add extra onto that and say, oh, I mean, I suppose you can go to the bank and borrow, but you still have to pay it back. So that’s why this whole talk about offsets and net zero is kind of a scam. And we as journalists, we need to recognize that. Of course we have to report when companies or countries say this, but we need to put it into the context. And so often our reporting basically takes net zero and offsets at face value. So let me switch though and ask you, Souparna, the difference between offsets and carbon dioxide removal. And Kelly, you write about this in your piece too, that there is room for carbon dioxide removal and there’s a lot of confusion between carbon dioxide removal and carbon offsets and carbon capture and storage. Souparna, what is the position of your coalition on carbon dioxide removal?
Souparna Lahiri: Let’s see it in this way: the carbon offsets projects can be of three types. One can say that it reduces emission. One can say that it offsets the reduction in emission at one place, the second it offsets the avoided reduction, and the third is the removal of carbon dioxide. So we don’t have to confuse between carbon dioxide removal and then the offsets project, which is linked to the removal of carbon dioxide.
The point is that even if we consider IPCC, the climate science, it is talked about when actually you really cross the tipping point, you have not reduced your emission, you cannot go below 1.5. You have actually crossed the tipping point and you need really negative emission reduction within a timeline to see that you come back to a temperature, whatever damages have been done. Huge irreversible to both the ecosystem and the frontline communities. But you can say scientifically or you can show that, okay, we can come back to a certain point where the planet is habitable. So that’s what the carbon removal argument should be used as we think. This is not imperative to immediate reduction; this is when we cross the tipping point. This is when there’s nothing else that you do because of net zero commitments, that net zero saying by the corporates and fossil fuel companies not reducing emissions. The industrial agriculture continues with huge global value and supply chains, factory farming of livestock — everything contributes to the emission, continued emission. And then once you are crossing that tipping point, perhaps the other alternative will be removals, but there’s a limit. You cannot use irrespectively and indiscriminately, the so-called land sector, the trees, the land, the ecosystem for removal because there are calculations that the kind of removals that we are talking of may take three times the land that we have. And then we have the so-called geoengineering removals, which are not tested, which are not in scale, which are still probably under research. We don’t know what is happening there.
Mark Hertsgaard: Human engineering is a whole other level of this that we’re not going to be able to do today.
Souparna Lahiri: These are kind of distractions. To us at this point of time when we really need to reduce emission all these talks of removal, net zero offsets are together causing distractions. And there are equity considerations hugely on the frontline communities who are being affected and also who are being the experimental Guinea pigs of climate solutions.
Mark Hertsgaard: Let’s get into that in the Q&A. I want to switch now to Mustafa Santiago Ali, but underlining that of course, emissions reduction is the first order of business, the second order of business, the third order of business. The role for carbon dioxide removal is down the road, it is there though. Because we’re at 420 parts per million today, and unless you think that civilization can survive 10 feet of sea level rise, eventually we’re going to have to bring that down to 350 parts per million. But first, let’s stop filling the bathtub.
Mustafa Santiago Ali I want to ask you, I mean, you’re very familiar with everything that we’ve heard today, but you’ve also worked inside the government and inside the United States government, the world’s leading historical polluter. You’ve worked for Republican presidents, you’ve worked for Democratic presidents. Talk to us, if you will, about making these massive changes happen inside of government. Kelly Levin laid out a lot of very ambitious things, shutting down over 900 coal plants each and every year, including in countries like China where there’s not a lot of democratic control over the central government. But let’s talk about the United States government where you serve. What do you see? I mean, again, you said si se puede before. Yes, we can do this, but how? How does that work when you’ve got in the United States a Republican Party that refuses basically to even acknowledge the problem?
Mustafa Santiago Ali: We put the work in, and it takes a lot. First part is around education. We’ve only recently, probably over the last decade, started to really educate folks on the sets of impacts that are out there, not only from the climate crisis but also the impacts that are happening to our most vulnerable communities. And what does that look like? How does that weaken our country? How does that take opportunities away from folks all across our country and also the power that exists inside of folks’ vote. So if you want government to do right, that means there has to be pressure placed upon it. There also has to be sets of solutions and best practices that can be pointed to so that folks can understand how we can make the transitions that are necessary and folks have got to get engaged. When we see that happen, then we start to see some change.
It’s interesting that you raised about Republicans. If we go back in history a little while under Richard Nixon we had the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. We had underneath a Republican administration the creation of the Office of Environmental Equity, which became the Office of Environmental Justice. There are opportunities for folks to work together to address this, and that’s why we need a multiple set of solutions and on-ramps to be able to make that happen. I worked in 1,000 communities now, both inside our country and outside, and if you can create different on-ramps it also gives those who are in the political field and opportunity to justify why they are supporting whatever set initiative might be. But we often talk about a just transition, the Environmental Protection Agency and a number of other agencies and departments play a critical role in making that happen, both with the resources, with the assurances, once we begin down a road that we’re not going to change direction unless science tells us that we have to do that. So that’s why I always begin with the education.
As I grew up, both in Appalachia and in Michigan, and in many instances folks may not really have a great understanding of what the impacts are, but also what the sets of opportunities are. So whether we’re talking about federal government or state government, if you want them to do the right thing, you have to have an informed body. And what I mean by the body is the citizens and residents of this country asking and demanding for the change to happen. Why is that important? Because we often have these conversations around the climate crisis without bringing it back down to the ground of where vulnerable communities are being impacted. And who are the vulnerable communities? They’re black and brown folks, they’re Asian and Pacific Islanders, they’re Indigenous brothers and sisters and their lower wealth white communities who continue to carry the burden for both our pollution and the ones who are hit first and worse from the climate crisis.
So we’ve got, in our country, Harvard has validated this, about 350,000 people who are dying prematurely from air pollution. That air pollution is being driven of course by the fossil fuels that we burn. You talked a little bit about EPA and that incredible announcement that they made yesterday of making sure that we are lowering and having stronger things around the emissions that are going on, but also what’s the pathway forward through electric vehicles, both our cars and trucks and other vehicles that will utilize electricity. That helps in dealing with all those black and brown and lower wealth and vulnerable communities who are losing their lives and who are getting sick from that air pollution. So that helps to build a coalition of individuals because we also are creating hundreds of thousands of jobs that are tied to the announcement that was yesterday.
Let’s go a little bit deeper real quickly when you ask about EPA. So we know that we’ve got 2.4 million miles of fossil fuel pipeline that exists inside of the United States of America. That’s enough to go to the moon and back, to the moon and back, and on your way again to the moon. We also know there’s huge amounts of emissions that are being leaked through all those various pipelines that are out there. So when you look at some of the actions that the Environmental Protection Agency around methane and being able to capture some of that, and we know there are multiple sources for methane, that we can begin to lower some of these impacts that are happening in the warming up of our oceans and of our atmosphere, have an opportunity also by addressing the leaking that’s going on there. As we’re moving to our just transition away from fossil fuels, let me be very clear that we also have an opportunity for economic strengthening to happen with the workers that will be necessary in that space.
So when I look at the work of the Environmental Protection Agency or when I led the Interagency Working group that had 17 federal agencies and a couple White House offices, we’ve got a multiple set of opportunities that are in front of us to address many of the things that were shared by the previous panelists, and then to be able to share best practices across our country and with other countries and learn from other countries who may be doing better in certain areas. So yes, the Environmental Protection Agency is one of the leading environmental organizations across the planet, but there are others who are also doing amazing work that we can learn from. And we have to make sure that we’re also learning from those frontline communities and incorporating traditional environmental knowledge into our sets of actions and practices moving forward.
Mark Hertsgaard: Mustafa, when you say that education is key, that is music to our ears here at Covering Climate Now. That’s why we do the work we do with our fellow journalists because no one speaks to more people than the media and that’s why we’re having this briefing today. Could you say a little more though, you talked about some on-ramps and the importance of voting. Of course 2024 will be, as always, a very influential election in terms of going forward with these policies. What can journalists do? Concretely, what are some story ideas, if you will, that journalists could be pursuing either at the local level, we have a lot of local journalists here, or at the national level that would really bring the importance of the climate issue in general and hitting this 1.5C target? How do we get that across to those folks in Appalachia, to those folks in Michigan that you grew up with?
Mustafa Santiago Ali: People want to see folks who look like them who are making change happen, who come from their sets of circumstances. I think one of the things that I share with reporters is being able to share these best practices that are happening on the ground that often don’t get attention. You’ve got folks like the ReGenesis Project in Spartanburg, South Carolina took a $20,000 environmental justice small grant and it’s now leveraged over $300 million in changes. Those changes have both helped folks on the health side of the equation and on the climate side of the equation. I’ll really quickly just share 30 seconds about that with you.
So this is hardworking community that was dealing with Brownfield and Superfund sites, dealing with bad transportation routes, lack of access to healthcare, lack of job opportunities, and a number of other dynamics that were in that space. They took that small grant, had what some folks might call charettes or listening sessions in the community, began to frame out what they wanted their community to look like in the future. Now you fast-forward, they’ve gotten 500 new green homes in their community. Before they had that old shotgun housing. We talked about energy efficiency. For those of you who’ve never known shotgun housing, you open up the front door, you can see out the back door. There’s not a whole lot of energy efficiency there. These new green homes, before they were paying $300 to $400 a month for their electricity costs, the new homes that they put in now, folks are paying $67 a month. Those cleaned up Brownfields and Superfund sites now they’re putting a solar farm in there, which will zero out people’s electricity costs. Of course, it’s also helpful to the environment and to the climate and also creating sustainable jobs in that area. They have new hydroponics that are coming in for another set of economic opportunities. They work with the railroad to stop the idling that was also causing pollution and trapping people in the community because they had a chemical plant that was there if there was an explosion.
And we all remember East Palestine not too long ago, they told folks to shelter in place and in the summertime when it’s 100 degrees or 100 plus degrees, that’s not a reality for most folks, so they build 144 parlors. I share this one example of a myriad of examples of folks across the country of how do we help people to understand that we can create jobs, we can improve the healthcare inside of communities and we can address the climate crisis at the same time and that we should be voting for individuals who are coming up with 21st century sets of solutions and opportunities. Of course, we never tell anybody who to vote for, but you should be voting for somebody who cares about your community and is asking the question… We as a voters should be asking the question, why aren’t we doing these types of things in my community?
When I go home to visit my mother, and I’ll give you just 15 seconds for this, as I’m driving through Western Maryland, when you get to the mountains, which I love and I hike in, you look up on that mountainside and you see windmills for as far as you can see. And as I go about another mile down the road, those same sets of mountains when I come into West Virginia don’t have those windmills that are there, and folks miss out on the sets of economic opportunities that could be put in place, and at the same time helping to address getting cleaner forms of energy into the state and helping to address some of the healthcare concerns that are going on. We have to bring forward these stories of how positive change can and is happening, and we can do it both in this country and across the planet.
Mark Hertsgaard: I see someone in the chat missed the name of the community you were talking about there, Mustafa. What was that again?
Mustafa Santiago Ali: That’s the ReGenesis project in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Mark Hertsgaard: Spartanburg, South Carolina folks. But as he says, these are all around the country. So be a reporter, go out and find those. And I’m sure that Mustafa and his colleagues at the National Wildlife Federation, call up their press office, they will be happy to point you to many other places where you can tell that story. And it is an intersectional story, it is a story with human characters. And we always say at Covering Climate Now, the best climate coverage, what does it do? It humanizes, it localizes, and it solutionizes. You talk about real human beings in a local place and you talk about the solutions that are happening there. And those solutions work across the board, not just to keep 1.5 alive, but also to build justice and community in those places and hopefully voter participation as well.
Okay, we have just 20 minutes left now, we’ve rambled on a little bit here, so we’re going to go quickly to the Q&As. I’m going to start, it’s almost a repeat of the opening question, but you’re on here with some journalists so of course we’re skeptical by nature. Our colleague Barbara Moran at WBUR in Boston asks, “Isn’t it disingenuous to talk about 1.5C, to keeping it to 1.5C? It’s all very well, but aren’t you kind of cheerleading for something where the horse has already left the barn?” Kelly Levin, is it disingenuous? I mean, you talked about 900 coal plants. Is that really plausible?
Kelly Levin: So the IPCC has come out yet and again in numerous scientific research efforts saying it is plausible. Now, is it going to be easy? The answer is absolutely not. And are we headed even within the realm of 1.5 yet? No, but there are plausible pathways for getting there. And a lot of the technologies exist today, but much more RD&D needs to happen. And I think that when you look at the differences between impacts of 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius of warming, it is such a different world that I think we owe it to the most vulnerable communities around the world, as well as our children and our children’s children to make this a reality. I mean, we have no other choice, and I think that we are starting to see tremendous momentum. I mean, if you think about in the U.S., the largest climate change bill that we’ve ever had with significant investments around the country that are going to build new constituents who are going to vie for climate change because they’re going to see economic development opportunities come to them from climate policy. We’re starting to see different politics around the world with the government in Brazil, for example, that is going to be curbing deforestation and reversing some of the recent policies. I think there are enough signals of hope that we need to make it happen. It’s our responsibility.
Mark Hertsgaard: Yes, and imagine how much stronger the Inflation Reduction Act would have been had more people been doing the voter education work Mustafa Santiago just recommended. Remember it was a 50-50 split there in the Senate, and because of that Joe Manchin was able to basically take all of the sticks out of that bill and it’s carrots, and there’s a lot of carrots in that bill, there’s no question about that, but it does nothing to actually stop the fossil fuels.
I want to ask a question now to you, Souparna. This is from our colleague in Egypt at the Al-Ahram newspaper, which is kind of the biggest newspaper in Egypt. He’s asking, “What can we expect at COP 28?” That is the upcoming United Nations negotiations in December, this December, which will be notoriously hosted by the United Arab Emirates, a big oil producer. “What can we expect at COP 28 in terms of 1.5 targets?
Souparna Lahiri: We are coming into the political arena of the climate discourse, and so one has to recognize there’s a difference of response between a climate institution as far as climate science is concerned, a difference in response from the political system, and a difference in response from the civil society and the people that are affected and are in the frontlines. Of course, the problem with COP28 starts with the presidency, and the presidency of the COP28 being vested to the chief of one of the oil companies. So there is both an anguish, anger and a kind of apprehension that how will the agenda be set up in that case? Should that agenda allow people to continue with the kind of discourse and find out solutions to what the IPCC is talking about, what the frontline communities are talking about or what the frontline communities need actually for moving towards real solutions?
COP28 for us, COP27, we have seen, again, the fossil industry dominating the delegations as far COPs are, and we don’t want a repetition in COP28. We really want that this discourse move towards real solutions very fast. And real solutions means that you have to talk of the frontline communities, the Indigenous peoples, the local communities, women, farmers, children, people of color, and they are going to be there in COP28 to be part of the frontline in terms of talking of real solutions and real zero. So that is how we want to set the agenda in COP28, that we move towards no more false solutions, no more delaying tactics from the fossil fuel industry or the big agribusiness. Talk of real solutions, talk of pathways to move towards real zero as fast as possible. No net-zero, no offset, no carbon removal at this point of time, no geoengineering. So that is how we see. But as I said that the political response of the political system is a very different one from the civil society, from the climate justice point of view. But of course we recognize that it also includes the issue of historical responsibility and the common but differentiated response. But climate justice should be at the top of the agenda of COP28.
Mark Hertsgaard: Climate Justice in 1.5. Here’s a question, and I’m going to apologize in advance because I’m not sure of your affiliation, my fellow journalist, and I’m going to probably butcher the pronunciation of your name. It looks like it would be Houmi Ahamed Mickidache, and this is a question I’d like to put to you, Mustafa. It sort of picks up on something you were just talking about. Here’s the question, “How do the most vulnerable communities access these new technologies, these green technologies and the transfer of them?” And bearing in mind as the journalist continues, the context for this kind of climate action is different from one country to another. For example, he or she adds, “What is your advice for vulnerable communities in Africa in terms of getting access to these technologies?”
And before you answer Mustafa, I’ll just reference to my fellow journalists in particular, look at today’s Climate Beat newsletter from Covering Climate Now. There is a new story in there about the so-called Bridgetown Initiative, which comes out of Barbados and it talks about the need for Global North countries to massively increase the amount of funding that is supposed to be going to Global South countries, highly vulnerable countries, both to deal with mitigation and adaptation precisely around this question. Theoretically and legally, the Global North is bound to give a hundred billion dollars a year. They’ve never done that. And these countries are being hit hard and that’s where this Bridgetown Initiative comes in. So have a look at that. That’s a story out of the Agence France-Presse News Agency. But Mustafa, could you talk about this? You mentioned that you’ve worked in countries around the world with taking striving communities to thriving.
Mustafa Santiago Ali: Yes. Well, first of all, thank you to the previous panelists, the information that he shared around climate justice. I would bring into this conversation, I hope that reporters who happen to attend COP, if you would’ve attended the last COP you would’ve seen the first time ever that there was a climate justice pavilion that had a huge amount of information that was shared. And I would ask you to get the reports that came out of that because it speaks to the needs that exist across the planet for vulnerable communities, but also many of the solutions and sets of actions that individuals and organizations are taking. And then also the bridges that are being built between frontline organization and partners who are in that space with other leaders from the front lines in other countries. Let’s pivot quickly to Africa. There are a number of amazing individuals who are doing incredible work and helping to focus resources in Africa. And as Mark you just shared, we start with making sure that folks are living up to their commitments around making sure that the Global South has the resources that it needs to one, move forward on technology and these new sets of opportunities, but also to prepare for the additional impacts that are going to happen.
So let’s bring folks names into this conversation like Akon. Many people know Akon as a performer and also hopefully as an entrepreneur in the work that he is doing. I’ve worked with folks along with him in helping to light up Africa, so he’s very focused in the solar space. You have folks like Dr. Michael Dorsey who’s now at Yale University, who’s also moving forward on a number of initiatives to help to bring the technologies that folks will need in Africa, but also in other locations across the planet. So there are a number of folks and organizations, the NAACP is beginning to do some work. Jacqui Patterson over at the Chisholm Legacy Organization is also building an organization for our folks who are of the diaspora to be able to have the information, the promising practices, who are the individuals who are funding in this space. So those are just a few of the laundry list of individuals and organizations that I could share that are very focused. Let’s also be very clear, Africa has an immense amount of resources and we have to finally honor that, make sure there’s equity in the processes, our international processes to make sure that we are following their lead and addressing many of the needs that are going on and that we are not exacerbating the problems of some of the things that are going on with children in mines and other types of things. So there’s an opportunity for us to make sure that those sins of the fossil fuel past, we don’t bring forward into this new clean energy economy that we have in front of us.
Mark Hertsgaard: One of the other groups I think that would fit into that constellation, Mustafa, is the, and this relates to the Inflation Reduction Act in particular, is the Justice40 Word Coalition. I believe that, we had Peggy Shepard on our last press briefing, and this is an organization of environmental justice groups around the country who are essentially trying to help make sure that vulnerable communities and disadvantaged communities are able to access all of that money coming out of the Inflation Reduction Act. But there’s a lot of money there. It could be as much as $800 billion , but there’s a lot of paperwork and you’ve got to… I mean, you’ve worked inside the government, you know that in order to get those grants there’s a lot of paperwork you got to fill out. Have I got that right? And if so, I think that’s a great story to be telling for a journalist to go in and look at your community. Is there a Justice40 aspect to this?
Mustafa Santiago Ali: Yeah, so real quickly, because I know we’re short on time, Justice40 is a framework that 40% of the benefits that have been identified by the Biden administration will go to our most vulnerable communities. How do you know who are most vulnerable communities? They built on a tool that I helped create called the Environmental Justice Screening Tool and now they have something called CEJST, which is a Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool, has a number of different criteria that are in there and it highlights where our most vulnerable communities are.
It helps to also focus these sets of resources both from the Inflation Reduction Act that was mentioned, the CHIPS Act, and then folks are even using it in some instances on the state level to better focus some of their resources that came from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act. Why is this important? One, it helps us to know where the gaps have been in our system. Who are the ones that need these resources the most? But also broadening it out, it gives other countries an opportunity to take a look at some of this language and steps that people have now in place and give some consideration of how they might want to build that into some of their decision making, both on the resource side and the areas that need help the most.
Mark Hertsgaard: Let me ask another question here from one of our colleagues. Kelly, I’m going to send this to you and I apologize, I don’t see your name, my fellow journalist at this point, you’re way up in the chat. But here’s the question. “Wind and solar obviously very important for 1.5, but what about nuclear?” And the question adds, “I know there are issues with nuclear, but is there a role for nuclear?”
Kelly Levin: Yeah, I think if you look at the modeling scenarios for 1.5 or even well below two degrees, it’s often a mix of sources where you are getting to very large scale renewables and depending on the scenario, some of them for example, rely heavily on CCS, carbon capture and storage. Some of them rely on nuclear. And there are ways to ramp up nuclear in those emission scenarios and really reduce it significantly. At the end of the day we’re going to need a diversity of sources and it is going to depend on the local acceptance as well as the cost of something, for example, like nuclear. In most economies today, new nuclear is certainly not cost-effective when you’re comparing it to renewables and it is lacking community acceptance in many places. However, I think you are starting to see some jurisdictions where rather than shutting down nuclear before their natural lifespan is over, that they’re keeping it running because it’s a zero carbon energy source. I think that there are ways to meet the climate goals without nuclear, but there are also ways to meet it with nuclear and it’s probably going to be dependent on the country for getting there. But certainly the really important thing is ramping down fossil fuels, coal, oil, gas, ramping up renewables, and that is going to be the most important thing for climate as well as public health.
Mark Hertsgaard: And I’ll just say speaking to someone who wrote my very first book on the nuclear power industry years ago and first heard the term global warming from a nuclear executive in the 1980s, just remember it takes a very long time for a nuclear power plant to get up and built. So regardless of whether you think it’s safe or not, remember we have to cut the emissions in half in the next seven years in order to hit 1.5 and there’s no nuclear power plant that’s going to be able to help you do that. So we’re coming to the end of the yard and I’m going to ask, I’m going to put to you a question right now because we’re going to go out in three minutes. Each one of you, I’m going to ask you to give us a 45 seconds on, remember you’re talking to journalists, what is the single most important failing on our part in the media? What are we doing poorly that we need to improve in terms of explaining the need for decarbonization in 1.5? Souparna, we’re going to start with you. What is our failing and how do we improve it?
Souparna Lahiri: We actually need to seriously think of critiquing the carbon finance based market that is being slowly build up or gradually build up. And of course The Paris Agreement has this Article 6.2 and 6.4, which doesn’t help the communities, doesn’t help to move towards real solutions as it does not reduce emissions in that sense. And what more Mustafa and you were talking about, this direct finance, climate finance which is needed right now and the journalists should actually see that this whole mechanism of directing direct finance to the frontline communities is now under a global agreement of non-market approach under Article 6.8. And we need to see that the journalists understands the difference between Article 6.2, 6.4, which beautifies the carbon market and promotes carbon finance, which contributes to, not to any real solutions, but the non-market approach under 6.8 with the globally agreed Article now so that it can contribute climate finance for real solutions, real zero directly to the community, the frontline communities who really need climate finance.
Mark Hertsgaard: Okay, climate finance folks. Got a bone up on climate finance and get clear on 6.2, 4 , and 8. Mustafa Santiago Ali, what’s the media’s failing and what do we do better? Quickly.
Mustafa Santiago Ali: Well, we focus on governments, right? Whether they are federal state governments, and those are incredibly important, but we have to actually bring this down to the everyday people level, if you will, and their contributions and why these issues are important because most folks have not been trained in climate science about parts per billion and parts per million. If we can highlight all these amazing individuals who never get any attention, who are contributing to the positive steps forward, then I think we will have a larger base of individuals that will push politicians, that will push financial entities and corporations to continue to do better. So I think that that is a huge opportunity that we have in front of us.
Mark Hertsgaard: Fellow journalists. Humanize, localize, solutionize. That’s what the man just said. Kelly Levin, we’re going to go out with you. What do we need to do better in the media?
Kelly Levin: Thanks. Just to build off what Mustafa was saying, I think connecting this global problem with the local. For example, tremendous advancements in extreme weather attribution. We know studies show that people care about what’s happening in their backyard, whether connecting the dots between global climate change. I think that’s one thing. And the second thing is solutions. And this is what part of the title was about. I think this is a very challenging problem and we need to inspire. We need to show where we’re seeing nonlinear change, where we’re seeing exponential change and what was the special sauce, the ingredients that allowed that to happen, and how can we replicate that around the world.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thank you so much. That was Kelly Levin. She’s with the Bezos Earth Fund. We’ve also heard today from Souparna Lahiri. He is with The Global Forest Coalition. And last but certainly not least, Mustafa Santiago Ali, he is with the National Wildlife Federation. There is a recording of this. It will go out of this press briefing and it will go out to all of you who have signed up for it and all the other hundreds of journalists who signed up. Come to our website, it will also be in our weekly newsletter, The Climate Beat. And so until next time, I’m Mark Hertsgaard with Covering Climate Now, wishing you a very pleasant day.