Earlier this month, we had a thought-provoking conversation about how to cover the climate story following COP26 and throughout 2022. Watch the video and read key takeaways below. You’ll also find a complete transcript at the end of this post.
- Stephanie Ebbs, reporter/producer for the ABC News Climate Unit based in Washington, DC
- Disha Shetty, award-winning independent science journalist based in Pune, India
- Alex Thomson, chief correspondent at Channel 4 News based in the United Kingdom
Mark Hertsgaard of CCNow, who reported from Glasgow and has covered UN climate conferences dating back to the 1992 Earth Summit, will serve as moderator.
For journalists, perhaps the most important element of the Glasgow Climate Pact is its call for governments to bring updated action plans to next year’s COP27 in Egypt. Those action plans are meant to get us closer to limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius. That’s what the science says is necessary to avoid catastrophic and perhaps irreversible climate disruptions.
While the world remains far from that goal, Covering Climate Now executive director Mark Hertsgaard pointed out in his opening comments that all is not lost. An article in Scientific American published in collaboration with Covering Climate Now at the start of COP26 challenged a belief about the climate system long held by non-scientists. We’ve been told that even if all emissions ceased overnight, temperatures would keep rising for about 30 years because of the long lifespan of CO2 in the atmosphere. That turns out to be wrong. The real lag time is closer to three years. In short, rapid and steep emissions cuts can still make a big difference in keeping the 1.5 degrees C goal alive.
Here we present a few key messages from the Talking Shop, lightly edited for clarity.
On engaging audiences post COP26
Alex Thomson: I think that the [emissions reductions] promises that were made in the first week of COP26, if they happen, will be the biggest realignment of industrial capital globally since James Watt invented the steam engine. And journalism as a whole across the world has not yet gotten onto this. … Three quarters of the emissions are caused by 100 companies. They are the enemy. They need to be outed. They need to be nailed 24/7.
On money moving away from the fossil fuel industry
Alex Thomson: It’s a great dramatic story. It’s a human interest story as well in terms of jobs, in terms of livelihoods. It’s a massive political story… For example, just after COP26, Shell pulled out of a British oil development, [the Cambo oil field] off the north coast of Scotland. … There’s a massive shift going on. It’s a superb story, and it engages everybody and everything.
There is a huge raft of incredibly exciting technological stories that are also going on. … This is the equivalent to the information revolution — the Microsoft, the Apple era of the 1990s and the aughts. It’s happening all over again across energy, which was the most boring thing in the world until now. It affects all of us. It comes down again to those 100 companies, who, incidentally, want you to believe that we’re all in this together. That’s the big lie they’re peddling at the moment. … The most terrifying phrase in the industrial capital world at the moment is stranded capital. It’s happening in coal. It’s going to start happening in oil and gas.
On covering climate-related health concerns
Disha Shetty: When I started writing about how climate change was impacting communities across India, the health impacts just stood out. … For instance, the entire Indo-Gangetic Plain, and of course, even Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal now has extremely bad toxic air. … This is one way to make it relatable to people because every parent is concerned about what kind of air my baby’s breathing. As journalists, if you can help make those connections, people certainly care a lot about their children and the elderly and their family….
On covering the US Build Back Better legislation
Stephanie Ebbs: This is the most [money] that the US federal government has ever committed to grants and different programs to fund local climate initiatives. I’m thinking about ways to track that and the way to help our audience understand what that money is actually going to do…The dollar amounts are always a big headline, but then for a broad audience, they want to know how much of that money is going to my state or my community and what that actually means.
All of that information is out there and available. It could be a slog to go through it all, but there’s lots of stories that can be told about what that money actually does and if it actually fulfills all of these promises.
On reporting emerging climate promises and policies
Alex Thomson: Keep giving people the breakthroughs, the things that are going to get us through this. Mark began with an extraordinary one, this new research [reported in Scientific American], which I hadn’t heard, on carbon. That means there is always hope. The worst thing that journalists can possibly ever do is engender despair.
Disha Shetty: With a lot of these big policy announcements, it can make it look like these policies affect a lot of people. And then when you really go down to local communities, you realize their needs are very different or some of these claims are very exaggerated. So take any policy announcement with a pinch of salt. And then, go to the ground and see how it’s affecting real people; talk to farmers, housewives, etc. It’s always a good idea, at least once or twice in a year, to go to communities and really look at, are these policies really working? And often, the answer is they aren’t.
Mark Hertsgaard: Remember that solutions can also be in the realm of activism. Certainly, Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future, that has been a solution to climate change, if only because it forced us in the media to start talking about climate change in a highly visible way. That’s not a plea for us to be carrying water for activists. That’s not our role. We are journalists. We should cover activists, however, as newsmakers, just like we cover politicians as newsmakers, holding them to account, but also sharing their perspectives with our audiences as appropriate.
On covering loss and damage and human rights
Disha Shetty: If you talk to any journalist from the developing world, they’ll tell you human rights is the biggest issue for us. If it would come to the top of the list of journalists in the global north, that’s going to make a difference to the larger conversation because of the disproportionate voice that they have.
Alex Thomson: The two key failures at COP26 were the failure to pay for loss and damage and the failure on the richer part of the world to stump up the money that they should. That’s absolutely where feet have got to be held to the fire in the coming year.
Stephanie Ebbs: There’s a lot of questions that American journalists can start putting more to our government officials, making sure that those concerns of other parts of the world are part of our coverage.
On engaging different audiences on climate
Stephanie Ebbs: Working at a general news organization, I try not to approach climate stories as if everyone has the same level of familiarity with the topic. A perfect story would have something for everyone, something for someone who is completely unfamiliar with climate change, and something new for someone who does. We don’t want to only produce stories for an audience that is already educated and very knowledgeable and following these issues. We want stories that will expand that audience to hopefully everyone being interested in these issues.
Mark Hertsgaard: Hello, and welcome to another Talking Shop with Covering Climate Now. I’m Mark Hertsgaard and I’m the environmental correspondent at The Nation Magazine and also the co-founder and executive director of Covering Climate Now. Our subject today, the climate story after Glasgow. So Covering Climate Now, for those of you who don’t know, is a global collaboration of more than 400 news outlets around the world, reaching a combined audience of roughly two billion people. We’re organized by journalists for journalists.Mark Hertsgaard: We help newsrooms everywhere do a better job of covering what we call 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 visit our website coveringclimatenow.org, and you’ll see a list of our partners. And you can also sign up there for our weekly newsletter, check out our resources, join our slack channel and apply for you or your news outlet to join Covering Climate Now. In these Talking Shops, we gather as colleagues to talk through a given aspect of covering the climate story, just like we would around the water cooler or going out for drinks after work.
Mark Hertsgaard: And today we’re discussing what climate coverage after COP26 should look like and especially how all of us can engage our audiences with that coverage. Certainly, one key element of the Glasgow Climate Pack the governments signed at COP26 is that those governments have to come back again next year and try harder, do better. They’re supposed to bring updated climate action plans to COP27 in Egypt. Those plans are supposed to get closer to limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius as science says is necessary to avoid catastrophic and perhaps irreversible climate disruptions.
Mark Hertsgaard: The world of course remains far from that goal, but all is not lost. I want to bring everyone’s attention to an article that Scientific American published in collaboration with Covering Climate Now at the start of COP26. That article overturned what many non-scientists including we journalists have long thought about how the climate system works. For decades, we’ve been told that even if all emissions ended overnight, temperatures would nevertheless keep rising for about 30 years because of the physical inertia of the climate system, especially the long lifespan of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Mark Hertsgaard: That turns out to be wrong. In fact, if we halt all emissions, the real lag time is not 30 years, but closer to three years. In short, rapid and steep emissions cuts can still make a big difference toward keeping the 1.5 goal alive. And so that’s where journalists come in. Of course, that kind of rapid action will only happen if governments and other big interests dramatically accelerate their climate actions. So one question for us, in addition to how we engage audiences, is how do we hold governments and corporations and banks and other powerful interests? How do we hold them to account for making, not just talking about, but actually making the policy shifts needed both to limit temperature rise and to address the climate adaptation and loss and damage issues that were such a contentious part of COP26? So today in the first half hour, we will hear from three superb panelists, each of whom covered COP26 on the ground in Glasgow, as I did. And then in the second hour, of course your questions and answers.
Mark Hertsgaard: We’re going to do it a little differently this time from previous Talking Shops. Add your questions into the chat box with your name and news outlet, and then during the Q&A I’ll call on you, and you will be able to unmute yourself and ask your question directly to the panelists. Everyone is also welcome to tweet throughout this session. Please use the @Covering Climate Now tag and the hashtag #CCNOW. And at the end of the hour, you’re invited to complete a very short survey, literally less than two minutes, just telling us about subjects for future Talking Shops. Now, will you please join me in giving a warm virtual welcome to our panelists?
Mark Hertsgaard: Alex Thomson. Alex is the chief correspondent at Channel 4 News in the United Kingdom. I’m sure you will all remember that delicious sting video last June where the ExxonMobil lobbyist spilled the company’s secrets about undermining climate action in Washington. That was Alex and his team at Channel 4 in action. Also joining Alex Thomson, Stephanie Ebbs. Stephanie is a reporter and producer for the ABC News Climate Unit based in Washington, DC. She’s reported on climate issues and policy for all of the ABC News platforms, and she’s co-produced special programs on climate issues for both ABC and Hulu.
Mark Hertsgaard: And also Disha Shetty. Disha is an independent journalist, science journalist, based in Pune, India. She writes mainly on public health, environment and gender, and of course the impact of climate change on communities throughout India. Covering Climate Now is very proud to have all three of these superb journalists with us today and I want to thank each of them for making the time to be here. So now, to the questions. I’m going to start with you, Alex. You said in your bio for this session, that after 30 years of covering armed conflicts around the world, that you consider climate change the biggest war you’ve ever covered, “with only very limited peace talks visible.”
Mark Hertsgaard: And I must say covering COP26 at times felt a little bit like covering a war, not in the sense of personal danger for journalists, but rather the blur of all these different actions and trying to make sense of them. You said that some of the key developments of COP26 actually concerned money, specifically whether trillions of dollars that are floating around the world economy, are they going to be invested in climate friendly ways or climate destructive ways? Could you talk a little bit about that money side of COP26 and especially how journalists can engage their audiences on that going forward?
Alex Thomson: Yeah, sure, Mark. And first of all, thanks for having me and thanks for the work you are doing. This is one of these initiatives, which if it didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. So I’m grateful that you spent your time and energy to do that. Yeah. I mean like … there are two COPs. First of all, there’s the communique and the burning the midnight oil and this year we had tears from Alok Sharma. Who knew? So you have that drama and that’s the political and that’s the UN, this grinding machine.
Alex Thomson: And then there’s always the other COP going along, which is CEOs and banking organizations and hedge funds and all the rest making the pledges of money. And don’t forget a lot of those people are these days, way ahead of many of our governments. They’re way ahead in many senses of certainly the government in the UK, possibly the US, and obviously they’re way ahead of governments like Brazil and Australia, the recidivist nations in this. So yeah, I think that the promises that were made in the first week, if they happen, will be the biggest realignment of industrial capital globally since James Watt invented the steam engine. And journalism as a whole across the world has not yet gotten onto this. We’re still seeing climate vaguely in terms of a sort of paradigm of left wing, right wing. Left wing with sustainables, right wing fossil fuels. That’s a prior paradigm which never fitted, doesn’t fit very well now. It’s 25 to 50 years out of date and is not serving the public. And just in question of a war, yeah, 30 years of war, this is a war. Three quarters of the emissions are caused by 100 companies. They are the enemy. They need to be outed. They need to be nailed 24/7.
Mark Hertsgaard: So let’s talk a little bit about the companies versus the finance capital. You’re talking about how all of the money is beginning to shift. And I’ve made the same argument that a lot of the smart money has already left fossil fuels and is moving in a new direction. But this is one of the reasons the COPs are important. The Paris COP with the 1.5 degree target, I think that was responsible for a lot of that shift in the money. How do we going forward though chart this, both the role of those, as you say, the 100 companies that are really the culprits here, but I guess the tension really between that sort of industrial capital and the financial capital, the money flows that seem to want in some cases to genuinely move away from the fossil fuel economy?
Alex Thomson: In some ways they do, but not because they’re nice people, but because that’s where the bottom line lies. That’s how capitalism works. We deal with this. We tell the story because it’s a great dramatic story. It’s a human interest story as well in terms of jobs, in terms of livelihoods. It’s a massive political story. It’s a massive drama. Let me give you two examples outside of COP. There was a man with a funny hairdo called Donald Trump, got himself elected in a place called the United States sometime ago, went to West Virginia to the Coal Belt, said, “Hey guys, we’re going to make coal great again.” Okay. The coal industry told him, “Sorry, Mr. President, we can’t do that. We can’t get the coal out of the ground as cheaply as the electricity can be produced these days by wind turbine generators.” It never happened. Coal was never made great again. It never had. No matter how much the Don and no doubt some of the people in West Virginia wanted it to be so. It wasn’t so. Fast forward just after COP, just last week, we have a new oil field, big embarrassment for the British government, potentially opening up in the Atlantic, west of the Shetland Islands off the north coast of Scotland.
Alex Thomson: 30% stake by Shell, a company that needs no introduction from me in this context. Shell pulled out because they say the money does no longer make sense in terms of the kind of oil that we’re going to need 20 years, hence 30 years hence. That’s how these people operate. They can’t make it. That should tell us something about the way the world is shifting. Okay. The timing of it could be convenient, just after COP, but I doubt it. There’s a massive shift going on. It’s a superb story and it engages everybody and everything.
Mark Hertsgaard: So, one last question before I shift to Disha. So again, what advice would you give to other journalists, including those who are relatively new to the climate story, for how to chart that business side of the story and how they tie that to government action and especially making audiences feel engaged with the subject and understanding that it really does affect not just their daily life, but the future of their kids?
Alex Thomson: Number one, there are a huge raft of incredibly exciting technological stories that are going on. Okay. We went down to a place near London a few months ago to film a new type of lorry being powered by hydrogen. The guys doing that said, “We think we’re about five years off powering lorries by fresh air.” Right? Okay. That’s the kind of stuff. Look at how the technology’s changed. Now, the landscapes. You’ve got wind turbines everywhere. Look at how things are changing and changing with such rapidity. This is the equivalent to the information revolution—the Microsoft, the Apple era of the 1990s and the noughts. It’s happening all over again across energy, which is the most boring thing in the world until now. So, that’s the story and at the same time, it affects all of us because yeah, we’re all making changes. We can all make changes in our lives. We can reduce our plastic and we can all do stuff, but it comes down again to those 100 companies, who incidentally want you to believe that we’re all in this together.
Alex Thomson: That’s the big lie they’re peddling at the moment. “Oh, we’re all a part of this. Oh, we’re all.” No, we’re not. Bullshit. We’re not all responsible for this. Those major companies, fossil fuel companies, are responsible for this. They did it and those are the people who’ve got to be dragged, kicking and screaming and changing—and they will because the capital’s moving. No hedge fund is investing in coal, any hedge fund that’s got their head screwed on and most of them do in terms of money because of stranded capital. The most terrifying phrase in the industrial capital world at the moment, stranded capital. It’s happening in coal. It’s going to start happening in oil and gas.
Mark Hertsgaard: That’s Alex Thomson with Channel 4 News. Thank you, Alex. We’re going to shift now to Disha. And Disha, you specialize in health coverage. We’ve talked a little bit about this and as you know better than any of us, India has some of the most polluted air in the world. Thanks partly, not only, but partly to burning lots of coal. Disha, can you talk to us about how people’s, individual people’s health concerns for themselves, for their children, etc., are a way to engage audiences with the climate story and how do you yourself in your coverage, how do you try and play that role?
Disha Shetty: Right. So firstly, thank you so much for having me on this webinar. I started writing about climate change after I was covering health for a while. So by the time I started writing about how climate change was impacting communities across India, for me, the health impacts just stood out. So for instance, because of water scarcity in a particular community, women were having to walk longer, it was having fallouts on their bodies. They’d have joint aches. They would drink less water to conserve water, and that would have other health complications for them.
Disha Shetty: If floods were becoming more frequent, then it would have an impact on their maternal health. It would have an impact on sanitation and vaginal infections, maternal mortality rates, and a lot of those kinds of fallouts. Some of the most common things that I saw in India in areas where sea level was rising, the salt water would come inside in coastal areas and it would mix with the groundwater because a lot of these communities were drinking water from extracting groundwater and using it to drink. And that mixing would result in the groundwater getting more salty and then that would have impact on pushing up rates of hypertension in the community. And in Bangladesh, it’s documented to have pushed up rates of miscarriages in pregnant women and also birth complication. So as a journalist and as a health journalist primarily, I was able to see the impacts that were actually just—you can’t escape it. It’s in your face. It just wasn’t being documented in the same way.
Disha Shetty: Air pollution, of course, India has one of the world’s most polluted air.The entire Indo-Gangetic Plain, and of course, even Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal now has extremely bad toxic air, and everybody’s concerned about their children. So, that way you can make it and there’s this general sense that people don’t care about climate change. This is one way to make it relatable to them because every parent is concerned about what kind of air my baby’s breathing in. There are actually people moving out of Delhi, and if they can afford to, because the air is too bad for their kids.
Disha Shetty: They care obviously about elderly. Now we know that indoor air pollution, which is a substantial portion of pollution in India, affects women disproportionately more because they’re primarily doing all the cooking and switching to cleaner cooking fuel will have huge gains for women’s health. And people care about these stories, except that a lot of these stories weren’t necessarily told through that lens for a long time, but now they are being told. You see a lot of people responding to that, a lot of people engaging. I think the problem so far was just that people didn’t see these connections and as journalists, if you can help make those connections, people certainly care a lot about their children and their elderly and their family, so yes.
Mark Hertsgaard: Disha, have you sensed that, in your reactions, are you getting emails from readers and also very important, do your editors see this as a plus in terms of, we’re going to talk about health to get people interested in the climate story? Is that understood by your colleagues in the newsroom?
Disha Shetty: Yes. Now in the past, I’d say two to three years, there’s a tremendous and I think advocacy has played a huge role because you also have a lot of NGOs and I think the young kids have really made climate story a headline. Editors certainly are very sensitive to these stories. In fact, they commission more of these stories. I think within the newsroom, there’s certainly appetite for it and there’s interest to publish these stories and on the journalism side, also, the expertise is increasing as well. What I haven’t seen yet is I haven’t seen a lot of people because India’s a democracy, I haven’t seen it become an election issue as yet. I haven’t seen people saying, give us clean air and that needs to be an election issue and I think that would be the next step, but that hasn’t happened yet, but people are certainly interested. Mostly I find a lot of people asking me, what can we do because I think for a long time, it’s being made to look like individuals can change these systems and they can’t. I find it hard to tell them that it’s not really on you to do to all of this and the only way they can push for change is through electoral politics and somehow I think as journalists, that’s something that we can push for.
Mark Hertsgaard: Again, we’re picking up on the same theme from Alex Thompson that it’s not about individual action, as important as that can be, rather governments and corporations and the big powers. Disha, before I turn to Stephanie Ebbs at ABC News, one more question for you. Of course, one of the most really controversial moments in COP26 came at the very end when India backed by China demanded that the final agreement call, not for a phase out of coal, but only a phase down. As you know, India got lots of criticism for that, both on the substance of the position and also on the process. The fact that it unveiled its demand at literally the last minute of these negotiations. Can you explain the Indian government position? I know that you’re not the Indian government and you’re not responsible for them, but can you explain that position because I think that the rest of the world didn’t really hear India’s position on why they had that point of view. Could you also give us a little information about what journalists should bear in mind as we cover, not just India, but international climate action going forward and these issues, very vexing issues, especially of loss and damage?
Disha Shetty: I will start with this. On the public health side we now know that India’s population has stabilized and we’ve reached replacement level and our population’s no longer set to grow as much as we thought it would, but we still have about 1.3 billion people and that’s a huge population whose energy needs are to be met. Now I want to talk to you a little bit about what kind of people I am talking about. I’m talking about a largely agrarian population, which might not have running water at home, they might not, in some cases, even have electricity. They might be living in mud homes. You are asking that population to do more. I think that a lot of journalists in the West miss, that a typical Indian individual living in a rural area, which a large population of our country does live that way, isn’t running through multiple cups, disposable cups of coffee in a day and isn’t really keeping their lights on 24/7. That’s not the lifestyle that we are talking about and that’s not the population we are asking to step up to do more. In fact, we are asking developing countries with very little, to do even more.
Disha Shetty: I think the Indian government, which knows our population and understands the needs of our country, was trying to defend our future energy needs. At the same time, I’ve been covering a lot of movement towards renewable energy and India’s been making huge strides in solar energy, in small hydro power and that’s something that India doesn’t get enough credit for. In terms of what happened before COP, there were obviously a lot of promises about climate finance and that there will be some acknowledgement of loss and damage. As COP progressed, none of that was delivered and in the end it was all about, can India and China do more? I think that, while this was my first COP, this was my second UN event because I’ve covered the general assembly as a UN fellow in 2019 and I understand that even though the UN system tries to be egalitarian, it is not. There is a lot of bullying that happens. There’s a lot of politics that happens, and while rich countries refuse to deliver on any of their dues, when it came to climate finance and loss and damage and asking developing countries to do more, it should merit criticism of their stand, but it did not because I think a lot of journalists in the global north really don’t understand what the global south looks like and that’s something that I hope will change in the years forward.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thank you. That’s Disha Shetty. She is an independent science journalist from India. I’ll just note one other point there. As I understand it, part of the concern on the part of both India and China was that why is this agreement singling out coal among the fossil fuels, when as Alex Thompson has said, in Europe, in the United States, basically coal is a declining industry and so to ask the US to get rid of coal is not such a big ask, whereas both India and China still depend a lot on coal. Of course you’ll note that the final agreement did not mention oil, did not mention gas at all. These are things to broaden all of our perspective on these questions. I’m now going to turn to Stephanie Ebbs and I do so with special pleasure, I hope you don’t mind me saying Stephanie because I’m so proud that, largely through Stephanie’s actions and others inside of ABC News, including Ginger Zee, ABC News joined Covering Climate Now, our collaboration, just a few days before COP26.
Mark Hertsgaard: Stephanie, returning to the theme this morning or today I should say, of this talking shop, of how do we engage audiences in climate coverage. Can you talk about how ABC approached and approaches that? ABC has a very, very large audience, but it’s quite a general audience and I’d be very curious to hear how you guys look at that challenge, of how to engage an audience that is not necessarily going to be following every in and out of a UN session at COP26 or anywhere and how to get them to engage with your climate coverage. Stephanie, you are still muted.
Stephanie Ebbs: So sorry. Take two. Thanks, Mark. I can speak to some of my personal takeaways as a climate producer at ABC and what I’ve noticed about our coverage. There’s a couple of different things. One of them is that there’s capital C climate stories and then there’s stories like Disha is talking about where you can pitch it as a public health story, there’s a very strong climate connection, but maybe it doesn’t have to have big climate change in the headline and that’s a way to get into these stories for an audience that maybe might feel overwhelmed or alienated by the connection to climate change, as being something very scientific. Weather is the biggest example of that. Everyone understands a weather event and then if you can just make that climate connection for folks, it helps them out.
Stephanie Ebbs: A couple of other things that I’ve learned from my experience is, obviously for television, visuals are incredibly important. Around COP we did a lot of stories where we traveled to these incredible parts of the world, like my colleague who went to Greenland and was able to actually bring that to an American audience and help make the point that these issues are all connected, but having those visuals is incredibly helpful. I think for me the biggest challenge in all of this is finding the balance between, everybody loves a solution story, right? Everybody loves these new technologies, all of these great things and those are really fun stories to tell, but one of the many takeaways from COP is that solution stories alone are not really the full picture of what we’re seeing. I try to approach this from any solution story we tell we have to try to convey the stakes, like, why is it important that this solution exists? What need is it addressing? But also remember that, especially for a US audience, there is a bigger picture to climate change out there and so my goal is always to balance what might be a great solution story with here’s actually where we stand and what the future looks like, according to the science.
Mark Hertsgaard: You’re reminding me, Stephanie, that we’ve talked at previous talking shops about solutions journalism in particular. It’s a tricky thing, especially for some more traditional journalists saying, oh solution, so we shouldn’t be doing that. Makes us sound like activists or biased or what have you. I commend to all of you, check out the Solutions Journalism Network and how they look at this and they make a very compelling argument. In fact, especially on climate change, if you’re not talking about solutions, you’re not telling the whole story. And solutions coverage does not and indeed should not be cheerleading. That’s not our role. We should be just as tough about scrutinizing solutions as we are about scrutinizing politicians and CEOs, but if you’re not talking about solutions, you’re also not covering the whole story and indeed some of the audience research shows that people really want to hear what can be done about these problems. One of my follow ups to you, Stephanie, is, do you and your colleagues at ABC have any sense yet of how new push towards climate change, you guys did that whole slew of coverage going into COP26, you had your anchormen David Muir go to Madagascar, I believe. A lot of pretty high visibility coverage. Do uou have any sense yet of how that is playing with your audience?
Stephanie Ebbs: I’m not necessarily privy to that information. I can say that personally, obviously you want to give audiences stories that they’re interested in and compelling, but it’s that brand and a donut conversation, right? You always want to have some meat to it and I think one of the things that I’m trying to think about, especially now is, okay, there’s great solutions stories. There’s a lot of perhaps lighthearted stories, you can tell about the environment, but you can also always connect that to policy. For example, you can do a story about plastic waste at the holidays, wrapping paper waste at the holidays. That’s kind of a common thing that you might see from environmental journalists this time of year, but you can also say, what’s the recycling policy at play here? Is there a role for the government or is there something the government is doing to help fix this problem, rather than as Disha and Alex said, putting all the onus on viewers as individuals? It’s both, right. There’s a role for all kinds of stories in this space, especially for a general audience and I think that’s where we can really give people stories that they get excited about and want to see, especially when you have platforms that reach all different kinds of audiences, which ABC does. My goal personally is, if we can get a little bit of education, a little bit of explanation of something dense or a little bit of that connection to policy or economics, then that just makes it a more well-rounded story.
Mark Hertsgaard: You segued perfectly, Stephanie, into my last question to you, but before I ask it, let me just remind everybody, after this last exchange with Stephanie, we’re going to switch to Q&A. Please feel free to put questions in the chat. We already have some from RSVP and I’ll be getting ready to call on a couple of you who RSVP, so get yourselves ready, please. You can add more, everybody else in the chat. Please do include your name and your outlet when you do so.
Mark Hertsgaard: Stephanie, my last question to you, you’re based in Washington DC and arguably in Washington, the fade of Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation is, I think, among the biggest climate stories in the world because it’s essentially going to shape how one of the world’s leading climate superpowers approaches this challenge of trying to keep 1.5 degrees alive in the coming months and years. How do you and your ABC colleagues, how are you covering the drama there on Capitol Hill around the Build Back Better legislation, so that your audience understands the climate implications of that?
Stephanie Ebbs: There’s a whole team of my colleagues that cover Capitol Hill. I haven’t been terribly involved in the day to day of that coverage, but I’m thinking a lot about what happens next. For example, this is a tremendous amount, I think the most that the federal government has ever committed to grants and different programs to fund local climate initiatives. I’m thinking about ways to track that and what’s the way to help our audience understand what that money is actually going to because especially with government spending in the US, the dollar amounts are always a big headline, but then for a broad audience, for a local audience who maybe they don’t track the goings on of Congress, but maybe they want to know, all right, how much of that money is going to my state or my community and what does that actually mean? All of that information is out there and available and it could be a slog to go through it all, but I think there’s lots of stories that can be told about what that money actually does and if it actually fulfills all of these promises. Whether the programs that survive through that process, what that actually looks like and if it actually hits the mark on what that actually looks like, and if it actually hits the mark on what their goal is when they started out.
Mark Hertsgaard: Okay, thanks. That’s Stephanie Ebbs, she’s one of the climate producers and reporters at ABC News. And she has been joined by Disha Shetty, a freelance journalist from India, specialized in public health, and Alex Thomson, the chief correspondent at Channel 4 News in the UK. We’re going to switch now to questions from all of you in the Talking Shop attendee list. And I’m going to start with, I apologize if I’m pronouncing your name incorrectly, Eva or Ava Emerson. She’s with Knowable. Please, go ahead.
Eva Emerson: Hi, it’s Eva. Thanks for taking my question. We’re a more general science magazine, so we cover climate plus health plus geology, all different kinds of things. I’ve heard a lot about when we were trying to keep a bit of track of what was going on with COP26; there’s ideas for policies, you guys were talking about Building Back Better. I’m just wondering if you have any advice on better tracking the success of, and problems with emerging policies as they’re coming out that are meant to battle climate change, in terms of really explaining whether these will have the desired effects or not? I think one of the things you hear, “Okay, here’s an idea,” but will that actually get you to the 1.5 degree climate change?
Mark Hertsgaard: Thanks. Alex and Disha, maybe you guys could tackle this? Alex, I’m thinking about that hydrogen, Lori’s story that she did. So how do you check and make sure that they aren’t just blowing smoke, the people who are popping off about this or that solution? And please, be sure to unmute. There you go.
Alex Thomson: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s slightly more dramatic. Then, I’d start with some more good news. I’m ever optimistic. I really like the point Disha was making earlier about how it’s about people’s kids. Our audience is basically two sectors: It’s young people who don’t have kids, and all the people who do have kids or grandkids. People care about their children, so that’s one sector of the audience taken care of. And young people, we are told by every definable measurable means that we’ve ever invented, also care. So, we’ve got a huge open goal.
Alex Thomson: Now, to get to Eva’s point, look, particularly on television, which is a crude and superficial and rather childish medium at the best of times, we’re going to get nowhere trying to say, does a bit of policy here and there work? But let me tell you, I don’t think my country is particularly weird. We’ve come through COP and we are now up against it. Our government is right up against the buffers. There is no room for maneuver or wiggle room. We’ve got critical, dramatic, picture-rich, information-rich stories: The Cambo oil field, which I mentioned; the insane plan to sink a coal mine, yes, a coal mine in the north of England, which is still rumbling on, which every single member of the entire British Cabinet is terrified of even talking about or on or off camera. We’re running out of time. These are the sort of stories around which you hang the policy.
Alex Thomson: So go for the issue, go for the planet, go for the coal mine, go for the coal power station, go for the new motorway network or whatever it’s going to be, because biodiversity, environment is all part of the same thing, and that’s what you go to. And you hang the policy around that, because all this is now post-COP where we put in improved NDCs, or most countries did except for India’s wasn’t much better than the one before, and Brazil’s was even worse, but most countries at least made some of it. Now, they are pledging to do more. It’s an ongoing process to the next COP. You’ve got the policy, you’ve got the promises, you’ve got the rhetoric, you’ve got the hot air, but it’s around these actual stories, these events, these happenings, that’s where the journalism, the real rich feeding ground for journalism lies.
Alex Thomson: And the second thing, just very briefly, keep giving people the tech story, the breakthroughs, the things which are going to get us through this, keep giving them that. Mark began with an extraordinary one, this new research, which I hadn’t heard on carbon. That means there is always hope. And the worst thing that journalists can possibly ever do is engender despair. And that, in part, is exactly what the matter end of the fossil fuel industry wants, they want despair. A part of them wants, there’s nothing we can do about that. So that’s what I’d say on that, Eva.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thanks, Alex. Disha, did you want to? Since you’re our science journalist expert on this panel, I think, at least as far as I can tell. I’m certainly not one.
Alex Thomson: Nor am I.
Mark Hertsgaard: Do you have anything you’d like to add to Eva’s question?
Disha Shetty: So, I’m a big fan of ground reporting. So sometimes, with a lot of these big policy announcements, it can make it look like these policies affect a lot of people. And then when you really go down to local communities, you realize their needs are very different or some of these claims are very exaggerated. So I would just say, take any policy announcement with a pinch of salt. And then, go to the ground and see how it’s affecting people; talk to farmers, housewives, just see how.
Disha Shetty: For instance, at every COP now, renewable energy is being projected as this solution, but it’s not really when you… I did some reporting in Western Ghats, which is a biodiversity hotspot in India, and small hydropower projects, for instance there, create as much destruction as they’re projected as viable solutions. Solar power can displace indigenous communities because you need that land. And often, it disproportionately affects vulnerable populations already on the fringes of society in certain countries. And so I would just say that no matter what policy you’re covering, it’s always a good idea to at least once or twice in a year, to go to far fetched communities and really look at, are these policies really working? And often, the answers is it isn’t, they aren’t. And our solutions aren’t really solutions sometimes.
Mark Hertsgaard: And again, from some of our previous work at Covering Climate Now, as you cover solutions, remember that solutions are not just in the realm of technology and they’re not just even in the realm of policy, they can also be in the realm of activism. Certainly, Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future, that has been a solution to climate change, if only because it forced the issue onto, let’s be honest, it forced us in the media to finally break our climate silence and start talking about climate change at a highly visible way. Now again, that’s not a plea for us to be carrying water for activists. That’s not our role. We are journalists. We should cover activists, however, as newsmakers, just like we cover politicians as newsmakers and CEOs, holding them to account, but also sharing their perspectives with our audiences as appropriate.
Mark Hertsgaard: So next question now, I’d like to go to, and again, I apologize in advance if I’m mispronouncing your name, Judith Mernit, I think? She’s a freelance journalist. She’s connected, as many of us are, with the Society for Environmental Journalists here in the United States. If you’re not part of SEJ, check them out. Judith Mernit, can you go ahead with your question please?
Judith Mernit: Sure. Thanks for taking my question. I just wanted to push back a little bit on this idea that individual responsibility is the big lie. I do understand that corporations have pushed this idea on us as a way of absolving themselves of responsibility, but I think maybe it’s gone a little too far in that, one thing is that giving people individual actions to take to combat the climate crisis is a hedge against frustration and despair. If I can say, “Oh, I put solar panels on my roof and that’s an action that helps the climate,” then I start to feel like I can move forward on the future and on combating climate.
Judith Mernit: And I also think that, and I’m talking about mostly people in high-consumption, developed societies right now, like the one I live in, where if we’re changing our individual behavior, we are public influencers. We’re all influencers in a way. And the corporations change by public opinion and public pressure, and that comes from people understanding that they can do something and that something can be done. When I put solar panels on my roof, my neighbors imitated me. Suddenly, everybody is trading in their SUVs for Teslas in our neighborhood because it’s the thing to do. And I think that that consumptive, that behavior of consumers can put pressure on corporations, and I think people need to know that. So, I’m just wondering what you all think the role is for individual responsibility? And Stephanie answered it a little bit in an interesting way, but what is the role that we can tell people, here’s where your individual action might come? Thanks.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thanks, Judith. Stephanie, could I ask you to start with that? And then Alex and Disha, if you want to add, please do.
Stephanie Ebbs: Yeah. I mean, the point is well taken. I think that there is a history around this kind of narrative, but at the same time, we try to present options for people in how they take this information. So I think personally, I’ve had a lot of discussions with colleagues and I try to our coverage in… For example, there’s a connection to policy, there’s a connection to who leads the country. So, helping people become more informed on these issues more broadly, and encouraging them, maybe not encouraging, maybe the wrong word, but helping them understand the connection between these issues and elections in their community, that is like voting is a personal action. That is a personal role. We don’t tell people how to vote. We don’t tell people how to evaluate positions or policy. But helping them make the connection between these climate headlines that they may be seeing, and the issues they care about, and climate change, there is both a systemic and personal component to all of these things.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thanks, Stephanie. Disha, Alex, do you want to chime in or should we go to the next?
Alex Thomson: Yeah. I mean, I’m broadly in agreement. I didn’t want for a second to give the impression that we, as individuals, should take no action. Again, I’m more optimistic that I think we are all taking action because our whole entire culture is changing, and it’s changing across the world. We get this stuff. We know this stuff. In a few years time, electric cars and whatever are going to become cheaper, if there are other models available than Teslas. So that’s all going to happen, but do not be under any illusion whatsoever that if we are going to keep to 1.5, then it is governments and it is the fossil fuel industry who are going to be needing to change. And the fossil fuel industry has not shown that it is susceptible to public opinion; it’s lied, it’s deceived, it’s engaged in a raft of criminal activities globally to maintain its profits, just like big tobacco did before. It’s no different, it’s exactly the same problem, exactly the same issue.
Alex Thomson: So on the one hand, in terms of us changing, I’m optimistic because the world is changing, we’re all changing with it and that’s great. And we’re all making changes, and we’re all getting consumer changes that we increasingly afford, which is absolutely wonderful. But we know who the enemy is, and we know how they’ve got to be brought kicking and screaming and made to change. And it’s governments which will make them change. We spend $50 for every human being on the planet, subsidizing oil and gas. That is, as John Kerry said, an insanity. And it is. That’s where you’re going to save the planet, not by changing your own individual car.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thanks, Alex. And you’ve given me a-
Disha Shetty: I just want to say something.
Mark Hertsgaard: Just one second, Disha. You’ve given me an opportunity to mention to everyone, if you’re not already following the year-long series Climate Crimes that Covering Climate Now is doing with the Guardian newspaper, please do. Climate Crimes is about the climate lies and other crimes that the oil and gas companies have perpetuated for literally decades now, very much along the lines of big tobacco. Climate Crimes, check it out, it’s on our website and also the Guardian website. Trying to put back into the public narrative, the fact that these companies have been lying about this. And to make it worse, as Alex just mentioned, we subsidize them, nevertheless. Disha Shetty?
Alex Thomson: And Mark, if I may, buy Michael Mann’s latest book on exactly that right now, and it’s all there for you.
Mark Hertsgaard: Yes.
Alex Thomson: And he savages, rightly, the Murdoch media empire, who’ve been complicit and fellow conspirators in this.
Mark Hertsgaard: And that book by Michael Mann is called The New Climate War. All right, Disha, sorry to cut you off.
Disha Shetty: No problem. So two things I want to add. One is that individual responsibility will come into play when an individual’s carbon footprint is extremely high. In much of the developing countries, that isn’t true. And so, it is a more global not-conversation about how much more you can do. If your carbon footprint is already close to zero, there isn’t much. And that’s one of the reasons why a lot of the climate movement doesn’t resonate with the young people in African and Asian countries, because our priorities are not the same and our consumption levels are not the same.
Disha Shetty: Second is, we tend to take for granted that democracy is present everywhere, and it isn’t. It is again a global not-thing, but also India is the world’s largest democracy in terms of population. But again, in south Asia, that’s not common, certainly not common in a lot of countries across the world. And so, that limits how much individuals can do, I think.
Stephanie Ebbs: And my-
Mark Hertsgaard: Another example-
Stephanie Ebbs: Yeah?
Mark Hertsgaard: … of what an excellent panelist we have today is that Disha has just foreshadowed one of our coming Talking Shops, which is going to be, how do journalists hold power to account in countries that are not democracies? And it’s no coincidence that some of the real laggard governments at COP26 and previously are not really full-fledged democracies. I’m thinking about Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, Brazil under Bolsonaro. How do journalists function to play our civic role of holding power to account? We’re going to be getting to that in a future Talking Shop webinar in the year 2022. Before I go to the next question, Stephanie had a quick comment on this. And then I’m going to go to David Schechter at WFAA in Dallas.
Stephanie Ebbs: Thanks, Mark. Yeah, just quickly one more thing I wanted to add on this is that I think for myself, which is at a general news organization, I try not to approach climate stories as if everyone has the same level of familiarity with the topic. And a perfect story would have something for everyone, something for someone who is completely unfamiliar with climate change or climate science, renewable energy, all those things, and something new for someone who does. But I think one thing to keep in mind on this conversation on systemic versus personal roles is that we don’t want to only make stories for an audience that is already educated and very knowledgeable and following these issues. We want stories that will expand that audience to hopefully everyone being interested and invested in these issues.
Mark Hertsgaard: Bring them into the tent, folks. Okay. And now, I’m going to turn to my friend and colleague David Schechter. He’s with WFAA. I’m going to turn to my friend and colleague, David Schechter. He’s with WFAA in Dallas, Texas and if you think ExxonMobil did not like Alex Thomson’s story this summer about their lobbyists who talked a little incautiously, you should think about what the Texas Governor said about David Schechter’s coverage going into COP. David Schechter.
David Schechter: Thank you, Mark, and Alex, you got me thinking a lot about, you said that 100 companies are responsible for, I think, three quarters of the CO2 emissions. So, as a local reporter and also someone who covers Dallas, but covers Texas and try to be region about it, I know the history of misinformation and disinformation with oil and gas companies is pretty well documented and continues to be really well documented, the ads that they place and where they place them and all that stuff.
David Schechter: I’m wondering if anyone on this panel, including Alex, if you can talk about how to report on getting the confidence? This is a question, a word I’ve used a lot about having the confidence to take on an ExxonMobil or a Shell for their practices in a climate where the companies we may work for may not see them as being anything but just corporate citizens. So, reporting on those industries and specifically on those corporations and making those into regional or local stories that you could actually tell.
Mark Hertsgaard: Alex?
Alex Thomson: Goodness. Well, the bigger the price, the better the incentive, I would say, David. I’m always amazed when people talk about Texas because of course, Texas is the place you go to see really big scale solar renewable energy as well. So, there’s an upside to all of this, as you’ll know better than I.
Alex Thomson: Look, I mean, I’m very lucky. I work for an organization which gives you, and I don’t care whether you’re a journalist or a dentist or an undertaker, whatever you do in the enlightened world. If you’ve got an employer who will give you the two most precious things, the two T’s, time and trust, then you’ve got all you need in many ways. And I’ve been given a lot of time and a lot of trust down the years to pursue people and organizations to nail down a story.
Alex Thomson: I mean, I did one story which it took 16 years to nail the people, but we did it, at the extreme end of things. I would like to hope that any editor gets out of bed to nail the big stories and in a way, at regional and local level, there are amazing stories. I mean, in my country, they’re barely covered now because regional newspapers have been so eviscerated in the UK and it’s a tragedy and it allows these people to get away with it. So, I just say, I’m sure you’re like me, that’s why you get out of bed in the morning because there is no better feeling than when you finally do nail a story and get it out there, then you feel, right or wrong, you’ve made a little change in the world. That’s why we do it.
Mark Hertsgaard: I’d like to, unless Disha or Stephanie absolutely have a tearing need to comment there, I’d like to go to our next question and this is from Kelsey Simpkins. She is a science writer at the University of Colorado Boulder. Kelsey.
Kelsey Simpkins: Thank you. So as Mark said, I’m a science writer at CU Boulder and we’re a big leader in climate and environmental energy research. So, it’s great to be here today. We are actually hosting an event within weeks of COP27, wrapping up next year with United Nations Human Rights to highlight the human rights element of climate change. It’s called the Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit. And you can look that up online and we of course, are looking for coverage. But my question is really more around this element of the fact loss and damage were not successfully addressed at COP26 and this is a huge issue. And like you’ve said, anything that covers humans is a really great story, right? If we want to cover polar bears, cool. But if you want to cover and you want to cover the physics of climate change, great. But I feel like there’s this huge opportunity to really cover the human rights element and the human struggle in climate change and I’m curious if you also see that as something that can help move the needle ahead of the next COP meeting.
Mark Hertsgaard: So, loss and damage and human rights. Both key critical issues. I’m going to turn first to Disha.
Disha Shetty: So for me, this is not a peripheral issue. This is the issue. As a journalist covering climate change in the developing world, for me, it’s extremely frustrating to report on communities when they ask me, and this has happened to me when I was reporting in Sundarbans, which is the world’s largest mangrove forest and it’s an area that Sundarbans spreads across India and Bangladesh. And there are these islands that are going underwater and while reporting there, one of the villagers whose entire house, basically it’s no longer there because the waves have torn it down. He asked me, “What can I do?” And the answer was nothing. He wasn’t responsible for it. There was nothing he can do about it and that’s true of most communities. Most communities in Himalayan region, across the Bay of Bengal region, they’ve done nothing to contribute to this problem.
Disha Shetty: And that’s essentially, we are going back to the issue of historical emissions and that’s something that isn’t covered a lot in the global north because it does hold their own countries to account. And as global south reporters, we do keep harping about it, but I don’t think it really makes a lot of noise outside our own countries and I was at COP on a CCMP fellowship, which brought journalists from 20 different developing countries to COP to cover it. Otherwise, I would not have been at COP.
Disha Shetty: So, the number of journalists and the mix of journalists covering COP itself is extremely wide, extremely global north, extremely developed countries. So, obviously the way it’s covered, the way the results are covered has developed world lens to it. And so, if you’ll talk to any journalist from the developing world, they’ll tell you human rights is the biggest issue for us. It’s not something that sort of is at the bottom of our list. It’s at the top of our list and if it also sort of comes on the top of the list of journalists in the global north, that’s going to make a difference to the larger conversation because of the disproportionate voice that they have.
Mark Hertsgaard: Alex, did you want to speak up on that and if not, I have a point to make, and then we’re at the top of the hour.
Alex Thomson: Yeah. I mean, just two points arising under COP, the two key failures, clearly the failure to pay for loss and damage and the clearly the failure on the richer part of the world to stump up the money that they should. Those are the two key failures and that’s absolutely where feet have got to be held to the fire in the coming year where Alok Sharma knows they’re the key failures. He told me they were afterwards. It’s obvious. So, he’s going to be there working towards that. We just hope that they retain their position because obviously they’re central to human rights. Of course they are.
Mark Hertsgaard: Stephanie, did you want to add to this?
Stephanie Ebbs: Well, I would say this is something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot because as a US-based journalist, this was my first COP. I have not covered international policy extensively, obviously outside of the climate change space. And it is really striking how in the US, obviously we’re an American news organization. We’re very focused on the politics and the conversation going on here, but nothing happens in isolation, especially on this issue. So, I think it is important to make those connections. And my goal is to create more opportunities to bring those questions to the policymakers, to ask someone like John Kerry, ask senators, ask the people who we hope to hold to account as journalists, is this a policy decision that you have made to let this happen? And if so, why is that considered the right path for the US in your opinion and what’s going to happen next?
Stephanie Ebbs: In the US, we have covered, you’ve seen a lot of stories about climate refugees and the possibility of this happening. It is happening now and the next question is what’s going to be done to help those people? And I think there’s a lot of questions that American journalists can start putting more to our government or our officials on making sure that those concerns of other parts of the world are part of our repertoire of questions and coverage.
Mark Hertsgaard: And indeed those concerns will have, I think, increased visibility at COP27, which is happening in December, next December, obviously, in Egypt. And it is an Africa hosted COP and sources of mine say that therefore there will be much more attention to the loss and damage issue. And if you’re not quite clear on the difference between loss and damage and adaptation and mitigation, please go to the Covering Climate Now website. We explain all those differences. In brief, mitigation is about turning down the temperature. Adaptation is about dealing with and becoming resilient to the impacts that are here and bound to increase. And loss and damage is what Disha’s talking about there in the Sundarbans.
Mark Hertsgaard: I too have been privileged to do quite a bit of reporting in Bangladesh in that very region. We’re talking about things that there is no adapting to. When your village has been destroyed, it is a loss. It is a damage. Those people who are dead are never coming back. That is loss and damage as opposed to adaptation. And that’s why social justice and human rights and these other issues that we talk about are so intricately interwoven with all the topics that we’ve been discussing today.
Mark Hertsgaard: Before I thank our panelists, I’d like to remind all of you, if you could, stick around for 90 seconds afterwards, take a survey about the kinds of topics that you want Covering Climate Now to do in future Talking Shops. And with that, I will, with very deep thanks in my heart, thank all three of our superb panelists today. Stephanie Ebbs of ABC News, Disha Shetty, an independent public health and science journalist from India, and Alex Thomson, the chief correspondent at Channel 4 News in the UK. I’m Mark Hertsgaard and I’m with Covering Climate Now. We are so glad to have all of you. Please stick around. Come to the site. Bring your news outlet. We invite all comers and we thank you very much and wish you a very pleasant day.