Russia’s war on Ukraine poses sweeping challenges, and opportunities, for climate reporting. Suddenly the only existential threat that matches climate change, nuclear war, is back on the table. Recession looms as fossil fuels, still the lifeblood of the world economy, appear scarce. After decades of oil companies’ climate lies, another harrowing IPCC report gets almost overlooked as war crimes and mass resistance in Ukraine command newsrooms’ attention. These are some of the issues we discussed in a Talking Shop webinar, which you can view in the video above.
- Nathaniel Bullard, Chief Content Officer, BloombergNEF
- Naomi Klein, Senior Correspondent, The Intercept
- Sammy Roth, Energy Reporter, Los Angeles Times
Mark Hertsgaard, CCNow’s executive director and the environment correspondent for The Nation, moderated the Talking Shop.
Key takeaways from the event, lightly edited for length and clarity, as well as a complete transcript, are below.
Covering existential threats
Mark Hertsgaard: We chose the title of today’s talking shop quite deliberately. Suddenly the one issue, the existential issue that matches climate change, nuclear war, is back on the table. And just as most of the media was all but silent for way too many years about the climate threat, so did the media largely ignore the nuclear threat. And now it has to play catch-up, notably on the question of a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
Avoiding Big Oil’s talking points
Mark Hertsgaard: Fossil fuels, which are still the lifeblood of the world economy despite the spectacular gains of wind and solar, are feared to be scarce, driving prices higher and inviting political demagoguery. Here, journalists need to be vigilant about not getting spun by the usual suspects, who historically have seized upon such crises to champion their “drill baby drill” agenda, whatever the facts may be.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a climate story
Sammy Roth: Ukraine and the Russian invasion is an energy story. And every energy story is a climate story in 2022, because energy is at the heart of what’s going on here, the burning of coal and oil and natural gas. You look specifically at what’s playing out here, one of the reasons Russia has the military might that it does and so much geopolitical influence, and one of the things that makes it so difficult to deal with Russia is its huge exports of oil and natural gas. Europe is highly dependent on them.
As journalists, it would be irresponsible at this point to be looking at a story that’s about fossil fuel exports and fossil fuel production, and not think about what are the climate implications of that…
Providing historical context as oil prices rise
Naomi Klein: One of the things that journalists can do in a moment like this is recognize that in moments which are frightening and confusing … there’s a greater appetite for context and history. During wars, people reach for their history books. And there’s that terrible saying that wars are how Americans learn geography. They are also how Americans learn history.
We’ve been in this story before. I’m talking to you from Canada. The price of oil when the invasion of Iraq began was $30 a barrel. By 2008, it was over $100 a barrel. In the intervening years, the rush for the Tar Sands in Alberta opened up. Why? Is it because they discovered oil? No. Digging up that heavy, high-carbon, sludgy oil became economic when the price of oil [went up]…. How do we cover this emergent policy debate? I think sometimes the way we cover it is by saying, ‘What is masquerading as a serious policy debate about energy security is actually just a cash grab.’
The climate reality of new energy investments
Naomi Klein: If you’re going to build a $20 million LNG export terminal, how long does that terminal need to be in operation for the investors to get their money out? Chances are they’re banking on it being in operation for two to three decades to get that investment out. How does that align with what our carbon budget is in the context of the climate crisis?
Expanding topics and conversations
Nathaniel Bullard: The Overton Window [i.e., what’s considered acceptable to think and talk about] is now wide open….Things that were kind of a science experiment or think tank level of discourse are now very much more viewed as both nearer term and more imperative. That’s all for the good, for the kind of deep decarbonization [that’s needed].
Recent articles by our panelists:
- The Shock of the Old, the Promise of the New, Nathaniel Bullard
- Toxic Nostalgia, From Putin to Trump to the Trucker Convoys, Naomi Klein
- Ukraine is a climate story. Because everything is a climate story, Sammy Roth
Mark Hertsgaard: Hello, and welcome to another talking shop with Covering Climate Now. I’m Mark Hertsgaard. And today’s subject is war, oil, and crimes: reporting the climate story. Covering Climate Now is a collaboration of more than 500 news outlets that reach some 2 billion people around the world. We’re organized by journalists for journalists. We help colleagues in newsrooms everywhere do a better job of covering the defining story of our time. If you’d like to join us, or if you’d like access to our abundant reporting aids, please visit our website at coveringclimatenow.org.
Now, Russia’s war on Ukraine, I think we can all agree, is posing sweeping challenges, but also game changing opportunities for climate reporting. We’re here today to help all of us think through the issues, and how to provide the kind of coverage that best serves our audiences. We chose the title of today’s talking shop quite deliberately. Suddenly the one issue, the existential issue that matches climate change, nuclear war, is back on the table.
And just as most of the media was all but silent for way too many years about the climate threat, so did the media largely ignore the nuclear threat. And now it has to play catch-up, notably on the question of a no-fly zone over Ukraine. A global economic recession also threatens. Fossil fuels, which are still the lifeblood of the world economy despite the spectacular gains of wind and solar, are feared to be scarce, driving prices higher and inviting political demagoguery.
Here, journalists need to be vigilant about not getting spun by the usual suspects, who historically have seized upon such crises to champion their “drill baby drill” agenda, whatever the facts may be. And meanwhile, after decades of oil company climate lies, another harrowing IPCC report almost got overlooked, as war crimes and mass resistance in Ukraine understandably commanded newsrooms’ attention. Yet somehow the media must keep the climate emergency in the public eye.
As John Mecklin, the editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists said in an interview with Covering Climate Now last week, “Yes, other issues are important, but if we don’t pay attention to the existential issues first, there won’t be a civilization for those other issues to play themselves out in.”
Joining us today to illuminate how we as journalists tackle these challenges is a truly stellar group of colleagues. I’ll introduce them all at once, and then question each of them in turn. In the second half hour it’s Q&A. We’ve already gotten some strong questions from your RSVPs, and you’re welcome to add more of them in the chat box.
In the chat box, please include your name and affiliation along with your question. If I call on you, then you unmute your microphone, click the okay in the popup window, and ask your question. Afterwards, we’ll send a link to everybody who RSVPed to this, a recording of the session, and if we can, a rough transcript. And finally, a reminder that this session is on the record.
Now, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our panelists, our three panelists. First, Nathaniel Bullard. He is the chief content officer at BloombergNEF, and a weekly contributor to Bloomberg Green. Second, Naomi Klein. She’s a senior correspondent for The Intercept, a professor at the University of British Columbia, and the author of many books, including “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” And Sammy Roth. Sammy covers the Energy Beat for the Los Angeles Times, where he writes the Boiling Point newsletter on climate change in the environment in California and the American West.
Welcome all three of you. You’re doing spectacular work. I’m so glad that you’re here with us to share your expertise today with all of us as we talk through these issues. Sammy, I’m going to start with you if I might. You wrote a piece, just shortly after the Russian invasion, that was headlined, “Ukraine is a climate story. Because everything is a climate story.” Can you briefly explain what in particular makes Ukraine a climate story, and how you got that point across in your piece?
Sammy Roth: Sure. And thanks for putting this together. I’m excited for this conversation. I think the short version is that Ukraine and the Russian invasion is an energy story. And every energy story is a climate story in 2022, because energy is at the heart of what’s going on here, the burning of coal and oil and natural gas. You look specifically at what’s playing out here, one of the reasons Russia has the military might that it does and so much geopolitical influence, and one of the things that makes it so difficult to deal with Russia is its huge exports of oil and natural gas. Europe is highly dependent on them. I think about a quarter of Europe’s oil, and about 40% of its gas comes from Russia. The U.S. is much less dependent than Europe, but you look at what’s happening to gasoline prices here, and you see the impacts play out globally. You look at Russia’s ability to fund a venture like this, it’s all oil and gas.
I think as journalists, it would be irresponsible at this point to be looking at a story that’s about fossil fuel exports and fossil fuel production, and not think about what are the climate implications of that, especially because the countries involved, the players in this, they are doing that. The European Union before this invasion was already thinking about, how do we solve these joint goals of less dependence on Russia, and reducing the burning of fossil fuels to address the climate crisis?
And the invasion of Ukraine has kicked that into high gear. The EU just came out last week and said, okay, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to get 10 million electric heat pumps into homes by 2030, so that we don’t have to depend as much on Russian gas. We’re going to make big investments in renewable hydrogen production as another option to get off of this. We’re going to look at what we can do with efficiency. That matters for Europe, that matters for the United States, because these are global technologies and global marketplaces. And if they’re able to drive prices down, that could have benefits for the United States.
So when you look at all of these different pieces together, when you look at the political debate that’s playing out in the U.S., as you mentioned, should we increase oil or gas production to deal with this? And if so, what would that mean for our climate goals? It’s just irresponsible as journalists, I think, to look at all of these factors and to not put climate at the center of that conversation, because that underlies everything.
Mark Hertsgaard: I want to ask you a question about how you made that argument in your own newsroom in a moment, but you mentioned the new EU approach here. Doesn’t that EU approach also envision at least two liquid natural gas terminals, the construction of two LNG terminals to bring in liquid natural gas, which of course is, LNG for the people who don’t know, is an absolute climate nightmare.
Sammy Roth: Yeah. Frankly, I didn’t know that detail, but I’m not super surprised. I mean, one thing that’s already been seen over the last few months that I’ve noted in my reporting is that even in the run-up to this invasion, U.S. liquified natural gas exports to Europe have been on the rise for price reasons. I mean, cargos that were going to Asia before have been going to EU to deal with the high prices they’re seeing there. And that’s an issue.
I mean, one of the places where I think the oil and gas industry in the U.S. might have some success coming out of this crisis is making the case to the Biden administration, you’ve got to start permitting more of these LNG export terminals, so that we can supply more of our abundant shale gas to Europe to help them with Russia. That was something that the industry was pushing before Ukraine. It was something that the Biden administration had actually shown openness to. They didn’t seem like they were really going to stand in the way of that. That’s absolutely something that’s got to be taken into account.
Mark Hertsgaard: And then, I do want to ask you about your newsroom. We like these talking shops to be a combination of the substance of the issues, but also very practical advice for journalists about how you navigate getting your work out into the public realm. So you have, I think, from my conversations with you in the past, you have a very supportive newsroom, the editors value your work, they value the climate story. Your newsletter, Boiling Point, is a big success for them. But for journalists who may not be working in such an encouraging and supportive environment, do you have any specific advice on how they can win the argument at the 10:00am story meetings about, hey, as you said, it’s irresponsible for us not to talk about climate if we’re talking about Ukraine and energy?
Sammy Roth: Yeah. I guess I’m not sure what I would say for editors at the 10:00 AM story meeting because I’m just a frontline reporter, so I’m not usually at that meeting. So we have an environment desk at the L.A. Times. We have an environment team, an environment editor. I’m not actually on that team, I’m on the business desk and report to the business editor here. I mean, historically the Energy Beat at the L.A. Times has been much more traditional business focus, the ins and outs of transactions of big companies and stock prices and what’s happening with electricity prices or gas prices. That’s fine, that’s all relevant stuff that people care about. When I came into the Times, I came in with a desire to tell climate stories and to make the Energy Beat a climate beat.
And that wasn’t something where I ever really sat down and had a conversation with an editor and laid out like, “Okay, here’s what I’m going to do differently. I’m going to put emissions at the center of this and I’m going to hold companies accountable for when they’re not reducing emissions. And I’m going to write about state politics and local politics as it relates to this stuff.” I just kind of started doing it. I think by a combination of telling stories that actually resonated with our audiences and bringing in expertise to it, and showing that I could tell smart stories that people wanted to read that would bring subscribers into our newsroom, it kind of did the job for me.
I do have supportive editors fortunately, but I don’t think that’s a product of them being preternaturally disposed to wanting climate stories or to me having done a great job of convincing them up front, you’ve got to let me tell a story like Ukraine is a climate story because everything is a climate story. I just started doing it and doing it well, and that built the support for it internally. I don’t know that that strategy is going to work everywhere for everyone, but I would say to journalists, listen to this if you have this desire to move in this directions maybe don’t make it seem like such a big deal to your editors and scare them off. Maybe just start doing it. And if you do it well, they might come along for the ride.
Mark Hertsgaard: I think that’s very good advice. Don’t make it look too hard to them. They don’t like that. And I would say one other thing at the risk of embarrassing Sammy a little bit here. If you’re in a newsroom like that, show them the work that people like Sammy Roth, and not just Sammy are doing, and know that this is something that is getting readers or viewers and listeners, as the case may be. And that always does, in my experience, get the attention of editors.
Now I’m going to move on to my esteemed longtime colleague, Naomi Klein. And at the risk of embarrassing her, I will say that her recent Intercept piece, folks, if you haven’t read it, it is truly a tour de force. It brilliantly wove together so many aspects of the Ukraine story, climate change, disaster capitalism, the opportunism of the fossil fuel lobby. Naomi, what I’d like you to talk about, if you will, is how can journalists now make sure that they’re not being duped by that whole drill baby drill agenda while still accurately reporting the unfolding policy debate? How do we do that as journalists?
Naomi Klein: Sure. And thanks for your kind words, Mark, and for all the work that the Covering Climate Now team has been doing too. You’ve had a huge impact on the prominence of climate coverage, and I think created a virtuous cycle in a lot of newsrooms. So thank you so much for that.
It’s interesting you mentioned drill baby drill, because it’s a reminder that we’ve been in this story a lot. And I think one of the things that journalists can do in a moment like this is recognize that in moments which are frightening and confusing, like the one that we are in now, there’s actually a greater appetite for context in history. During wars people reach for their history books. And there’s that terrible saying that wars are how Americans learn geography. They are also how Americans learn history.
I think putting some of these talking points that are coming at us so fast and furious, in the context of previous crises, you mentioned “The Shock Doctrine”. That story begins and ends with Hurricane Katrina. And this classic example of what I call the shock doctrine of using a crisis to ram through the preexisting wishlist. And I reported on this leaked document that first was reported on the Wall Street Journal, which was the minutes of a meeting held at the Heritage Foundation two weeks after Hurricane Katrina blasted through the levees in New Orleans. And it was a Republican study group meeting, at the time chaired by Mike Pence.
And they came up with 32 free market solutions to Hurricane Katrina and high oil prices. And it was everything from introduce school vouchers to privatize the school system, to open up ANWR to new oil and gas drilling, and build new refineries on the Gulf Coast. I think it would be a great service to just round up all the times at the same talking points have been repurposed for other crises. And push really hard on the timelines. How quickly are those export terminals going to be operational? And how is that actually going to help the people of Ukraine? And what are other mechanisms that might be able to move much faster?
We are in the middle of a narrative shift. And I think part of that narrative shift has to do with the really great reporting that people on this call have been involved in that has fed into a public opinion shift where the public has turned onto oil and gas companies. They have been the bad guys. They should have been in a lot of these stories, and I think what we’re seeing now in the rush of this coordinated flurry of talking points saying, the solution, the stand with people of Ukraine by opening up new oil and gas reserves and so on, and drill baby drill. This is the oil and gas industry and their PR advisors saying, “You get to be the good guys. You get to be the heroes of this story. You get to rebrand your desire to capitalize on soaring oil and gas prices” — because that’s what this is all about. This is about the fact that it has become much more profitable to do all of this, because you we’re seeing, I don’t know where the prices are now, but I think higher than they’ve been in a decade, right?
We’ve been in this story before. I’m talking to you from Canada. The price of oil when the invasion of Iraq began was $30 a barrel. By 2008, it was over $100 a barrel. In the intervening years, the rush for the Tar Sands in Alberta opened up. Why? Is it because they discovered oil? No. Oil became, digging up that heavy, high-carbon sort of sludgy oil became economic when the price of oil … it wasn’t counted. Much of it was not even counted towards global oil and gas reserves. This benefits Putin. As Sammy was saying, a lot of Russia’s oil is in the Arctic, right? It’s not economic at under $80 a barrel. So, this opens up new vistas of oil and gas exploration. So, we need to explain all of this as well.
I think it’s, the answer is the same as it always is. It’s context, and not getting swept up in the narratives of the simple wartime narratives of good guys and bad guys and heroes and villains, which are being seized upon by the oil and gas industry for their own purposes, that have little to nothing to do with Ukraine. So, you also mentioned like, how do we cover this emergent policy debate? I think sometimes the way we cover it is by saying, what is masquerading as a serious policy debate about energy security is actually just a cash grab, if that makes sense.
Mark Hertsgaard: A cash grab?
Naomi Klein: Well, a scramble for resources that were uneconomic when the price of oil was lower. What worries me is how this plays out. For instance, in Indigenous territory, where, as I mentioned, I’m in Canada, and we’ve had some really really brutal crackdowns on Indigenous land defenders, who are trying to stop a natural gas pipeline that’s going to a new, massive new export terminal. This has nothing to do with Ukraine. But what we’re seeing is an escalation of this sort of scramble for these resources where there’s been a sort of uncertainty in the industry, where is it really worth it? Right? Are they really, is it worth the risk? Is it worth the bad press? Is it worth all the repression to build these pipelines, especially when it’s, we’re talking about really high cost extraction, right, whether it’s the Tar Sands and the Trans Mountain Pipeline or these massive new export terminals.
In some cases, investors have pulled out because it’s just not, it just hasn’t been worth it. Right? Kinder Morgan pulled out of Trans Mountain and the Canadian government had to come in and buy it for them. But when the price of oil is soaring at the levels it’s at now, they’ll take a lot of bad press. That plays out on the bodies of Indigenous people. It plays out on the land, and I think those, we have to keep covering those stories as well.
Mark Hertsgaard: So, I heard about three different, great story ideas for anyone who’s on this call to follow up on. I had forgotten Naomi, that Mike Pence was part of that meeting, so there’s a politics story. Go back and look at Mike Pence, who is, of course, now preparing to run for President in 2024. Also, the Indigenous angle here that how this reverberates, but then above all, this is a business story, and looking at how the price level of oil changes all of these other politics. That’s really key to get into, and Nat Bullard’s going to help us with that in a moment. But Naomi, I want to follow up with one more question for you first, quickly here.
You talk in your piece about how a Green New Deal is really sort of, leave the politics aside, that’s what we really need at this point to deal with all of these crises. So, because it would deal with climate at the same time as getting, reducing the outside world’s dependence on petrostates like Putin. And Putin, of course, is not the only petrostate. So, can you speak for just a moment about how to cover that argument, again, without looking like, oh, you’re an advocate, you’re a liberal, you’re a Democrat, you’re carrying water for AOC, whatever it may be.
Naomi Klein: Mm-hmm. Well, I think pushing on the timelines because I think that one of, the big talking point now is it’s easier to just liberate more oil and gas than it is to do this infrastructure switch. They’re both, they both require major infrastructure investments. They both take time, whether we’re investing in green infrastructure or we’re doubling down on oil and gas. I think that we are, that we are already getting a kind of second chance at Build Back Better. It’s being repackaged and there’s some rebranding going on, on both sides, right, as energy security. I would argue actually, that part of what needs to happen is we need to look at the history, — and so somebody in the chat talked about this being an all-global north panel and I think that’s a fair critique — but I would say given that it’s an all-global north panel, we should look at the global north history of Second World War energy mobilizations, right? There’s some important lessons there that relate to what a Green New Deal would look like in a time of war. There was an energy crisis during the Second World War because the Allies needed to free up oil for the military. So, a lot of things happened very, very quickly. Quicker than rolling out renewable energy infrastructure, which can happen quickly, but not as quickly as the Ukraine needs. But what can happen quickly is we can actually consume less oil and gas. So, during the Second World War leisure driving was virtually eliminated and public transit use in the United States went up by 87%. In Canada, it went up by 95%. So, people just consumed less of it, changed their lifestyles to, in that case, free up oil and gas. In our case, it would just be to consume less of it as we invest in the infrastructure — whether you call it Green New Deal, whether you call it Build Back Better — of the post- carbon economy. The key to, the reason why this history is really important is because this is sort of treated as unspeakable and un-sayable in US politics. The reason for that goes back to the infamous Carter sweater speech, right? When he said, “Turn down the thermostat,” and he was wearing his sweater and shortly thereafter, he lost the election to Reagan. It has become an article of faith in American punditry that you cannot ever ask Americans to sacrifice anything, or you will lose an election.
But one of the sort of little historical notes that’s worth digging into is one of Carter’s advisors on that speech was Christopher Lasch, and he criticized Carter after the fact, because he said that he had told Carter that if he was going to ask Americans to change their lifestyles, he had to go after the rich. He had to go after the over-consumers, and it couldn’t be this message of everybody’s equally guilty. We’re all sort of slovenly over-consumers, which was sort of the message of the speech. It has to be targeted to say, actually, certain people are the ones who need to lead this. If we look at the Second World War, the way that the energy rationing worked and all of the rationing worked, was that it was the messaging was fair shares for all. There were high-profile crackdowns on celebrities and big businesses to show that the over-consumers have to lead this.
Actually, the poorest people consumed more under rationing. So, I know rationing is like, nobody likes to talk about it, but honestly, if we’re talking about energy during a wartime, I think it’s really dishonest to not talk about consuming less, because that is the only thing on the immediate timelines that actually have an impact on this conflict, this very, very urgent humanitarian crisis is, are we going to consume less oil?
Mark Hertsgaard: Thanks. That’s Naomi Klein of The Intercept, and everybody note of course, has been documented the top 1% of wealth owners are responsible for our gargantuan share of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. I’m going to turn now quickly to Nathaniel Bullard of Bloomberg. Nat, I was so struck in the piece that you did, that you talked too about the price shock of the 1970s, and how that was a hinge point for world history, and that the major economies decided after that, we’ve got to get off of oil and they did, largely. They cut the oil dependence of the OECD economies by 50%. That’s five zero percent, within 15 years. You write that today we face a similar moment, but that the goal has to be not just energy security, not just taking economic leverage out of the hands of Putin and other petrostates, but it’s got to be climate-friendly energy. “Decarbonize everything” was your direct quote. So, can you lay that out a little bit, and do you see world leaders moving in that direction?
Nat Bullard: Thank you Mark for having me, and thank you as well to everybody who’s joining to listen. I’ll begin with a quick qualification, which is that I’m not a journalist. I’m a columnist, writing once a week as a component of what I do for BloombergNEF. BloombergNEF is a group, we’re about 250 people within Bloomberg LP itself. We cover and analyze essentially, the business of what we hope will be a very deep decarbonization of the global economy. So, I’m usually writing from a very kind of evidentiary and generally very data and analytically informed perspective, generally drawing off of what we have ahead of us. Yes, I, like Naomi, found that this was actually a moment for history, more than anything. A bit of analogical thinking, being very valuable when the trajectory is very uncertain, but where the Overton Window, which is what I’ll be working on quite a bit in the next coming pieces, is now wide open. For those of you not familiar with this, it’s a bit arcane.
It came up a lot in context of Trump shifting the Overton Window, in terms of what was politically acceptable discourse, but it applies within other realms as well. In this case, we can think of it as shifting to open up what it is that we are able to discuss within polite discourse, and that’s considered acceptable in thinking about otherwise, maybe fairly static discourses. So, in this case, it’s things that were within kind of the analytical realm that I would see 2040 potentialities at best, like Europe’s trajectory on importing gas from Russia now become 2025 political imperatives or sooner. I mean, actually they’re immediate political imperatives, and they’re now being written by the very institution that emerged from the first of the oil crises, the IEA, as something that can be enacted very quickly. I find this pretty extraordinary. It’s actually almost hard to keep up with these sorts of things, mostly because there is no glide path from the prior to the present.
It just sort of emerges almost immediately as something that is now considered viable, and it takes a shock to be able to make those things possible. But, it has to be funneled on with a lot of mechanics, essentially. That is, the capital that’s available, and the capital markets that are going to process doing all of this sort of thing. Naomi referenced this well, but things do need to be built, whether that’s an LNG terminal to ensure that Europe’s gas balance doesn’t run to zero in the middle of future winters, or the things that will, in the future, obviate that LNG import capacity and storage capacity, which is a great deal of renewables. It will require unlocking hundreds of trillions of dollars of capital that needs to be invested to build things. In so doing, it will require making societal decisions about our imperatives that I know in Europe’s case, and in particular, parts of North America as well, will be politically complex in terms of what gets built by whom and where, in particular.
Some of it may take the form of, will your local homeowner’s association allow you to put solar on your roof, and are you going to be … is anybody going to look askance at you putting ground source heat pumps in your yard? Some of it is much more complicated. It gets into issues of land, equity, things of that nature. I don’t think that we have yet really gotten close to deciding upon it. But the window being open means that I think things that were kind of science experiment or think tank level of discourse are now very much more viewed, both nearer term and more imperative. That’s all for the good, for kind of deep decarbonization of things that were previously seen as far off, but they need to then be followed up upon with a lot of mechanics, as I say.
Mark Hertsgaard: Let me ask you, since we’re talking so much about finance and business and economics — my sense, having been on the climate beat for a long time is that many of our colleagues who report on climate do not feel like they’ve got a lot of expertise in the economics realm. Yet, what we’re hearing today is that this really, economics is essential to this story. Can you, as somebody who is an energy economist, can you give us just a couple of pro tips for people who need to get up to speed quickly to understand the basics of how economics plays into these other parts of the story — the geopolitics, the domestic politics — you need to have some ground in economics, don’t you?
Nat Bullard: There’s one very sort of simple rubric here for thinking about a shift from a predominantly combustion or molecular transformation-driven energy sector, which is today’s, most of it. You either burn things or you take chemicals that have come out of … You take source materials, oil, and gas out of the ground and turn them into something else, into a future that involves either renewably sourced molecular inputs, whether those are bioenergy type of things, or nothing, in the case of wind and solar. And the way to think about this is that the former involves relatively little capital expenditure, upfront investment, but a great deal of long-term operating expenditure, that is, spending on stuff, buying on a persistent basis and a variable cost way the fuel and the other energetic inputs that you need to make things happen.
A greener future is actually quite the opposite. Almost all of your spending comes up front. You have to invest in hardware, but those are things that then run on the margin at a very low cost and sometimes for quite a long time. So the total spending needs to rotate in a complex way. It’s simple in one sense, right? It goes from OpEx to CapEx, but it’s complicated because there’s a huge difference in the way that that money gets allocated.
This is more than a decade ago now, but the best sort of encapsulation of this that I’ve heard comes from Harish Hande, who runs SELCO, the solar and electric light company in India. And he, when I met him in 2011, was providing capital so that people could do solar lanterns in their homes and in their small businesses. And he said, “My entire business exists because I’m bridging this inconsistency, if you will, within a group of consumers for whom 10 rupee per day is absolutely doable as an expenditure, but 300 rupees per month is impossible.” So moving from a small recurring operating expenditure to a big one-off capital expenditure proved to be very challenging.
This is the single like two line version of what we have to go through on an economic basis with almost everything that’s happening today. And it’s hopefully not too complicated to express, but it’s quite important in terms of understanding what the challenges are. It’s why there’s, and it’s funny, I’ll give you an analogy on this, it’s why partly you see debates about getting rid of gas taxes at moments like this when prices are high because you’re carving a little bit of people’s day-to-day operating expenditures, but you’re also carving them off in a way that, remember, these are essentially regressive taxes, is that people at lower incomes pay proportionately more for energy, and so these things matter proportionally more when they change on the margin.
The other thing I would say is to make sure that you’re seeking the most current information possible. There’s a real challenge in particular when seeking things that have gone through either a complex interagency or a peer review process, is that they are probably incredibly well-vetted and also irrelevant in terms of informing the contemporary market. And-
Mark Hertsgaard: That peer review process does take a while sometimes.
Nat Bullard: No shade. I mean it. I actually find that the peer review for kind of the science that helps me think about what’s coming in the long future is very useful, but for pricing dynamics, it’s not particularly informative. So seek the best information that you can find. A lot of it is public. A lot of it can also be had on demand. I find in particular that institutions like the IEA are very forthcoming with good information, as for that matter are my colleagues should you want to reach us and ask for something.
Mark Hertsgaard: I was just going to say.
Nat Bullard: Yeah, we’re happy to provide, as well as to provide some frameworks on where things might go. A good example, if you want to know what it might cost to do a pretty much complete decarbonization of the energy, the global energy sectors — the transport industry, power buildings — by the middle of the century, our best analysis is that it’s between $92 and $173 trillion. A bit of a range, I admit, that’s because there’s multiple scenarios within that, but that at least is one way to put a pin in some framing of things.
Mark Hertsgaard: Let me stop you there, Nat. because we need to get to the Q&A.
Nat Bullard: Sure.
Mark Hertsgaard: But I will also put in a plug there for your colleagues at Bloomberg Green. Folks, if you don’t feel up to speed on economics, one of the best and most readable and accessible sources on energy economics is Bloomberg Green. They are a partner of Covering Climate Now, I’m happy to say, and also, don’t miss the writings of all three panelists here. They all write about this in a very accessible way.
And getting back to the Green New Deal point, one of the key economic issues there is that when you invest in energy efficiency where you’re renovating houses and so forth, the cheapest energy is the energy you never have to produce in the first place. So we talk a lot about solar and wind, but the real unsung hero in energy economics and climate friendly energy economics is energy efficiency, where you stop wasting so much energy by putting in better windows, better lighting, better furnaces, and so forth, which also has the political advantage of putting a lot of people to work. So you can check that out further. There’s a lot of literature on that.
So now we are going to switch to the Q&A, and I think that the first reporter up is Bruce Ritchie at Politico. So, Bruce, if you’re with us, please unmute yourself, click okay, and let it rip.
Bruce Ritchie: Thank you. I guess a lot of reporters cover state governments and local governments and in a lot of regions where there’s a lot of either denial of climate change or initiatives such as clean energy initiatives are stifled or even preempted. What do you all think about what kind of suggestions can you offer to reporters in those areas covering the issue at that level?
Mark Hertsgaard: Sammy, do you want to take a shot at that?
Sammy Roth: Sure. That’s a good question. It’s obviously different for me in California, but I think a lot of the questions that you might want to ask are similar. I mean, this transition to cleaner sources of energy, to electric vehicles, to solar and wind, it’s happening everywhere to some extent driven by economics, regardless of whether there’s policy on top of that like there is in California pushing it along faster. So I think the kinds of questions I would be asking are how are state legislators responding to that? Are they making provisions to try to get electric vehicle chargers installed to serve the EVs that people are buying? If it’s an oil and gas state, are they doing retrograde type of stuff, trying to do economic policy to help defend the oil and gas industry and keep production going? Are they making it difficult for solar and wind farms to get built, or what tax provisions are they assessing on those facilities?
Obviously there’s the simpler stuff of if they’re out there denying climate change, I mean, I think that shouldn’t just be taken for granted. That’s a story that can be written once and again and again when necessary. I don’t think people should be allowed to forget about that. But I think a lot of the policy issues that you’d want to address and that you’d want to focus on are the same as I would in a state like California. What are they doing with building codes? Are there local governments? I mean, even in conservative states, in Idaho, Boise, for instance, has done all sorts of stuff trying to get to 100% clean energy, trying to get people to install geothermal heat pumps to get off of the gas system. And you have a lot of state legislatures that are making it difficult for cities that want to move faster. Salt Lake City in Utah is another good example.
So I still think there are lots of stories that can be told there that are thematically similar to what you would do in a bluer place.
Mark Hertsgaard: I would add in there too that there’s an interesting and even dramatic tension in those kinds of stories to look at the mayors. The mayors across the country, red and blue state alike, whether they’re Democrat, Republican, or Independent, mayors have to fix things on the ground in realtime. And there is a real division, I would say, between the national GOP position on this and GOP mayors. For example, I think it’s the mayor of Indianapolis, he was one of the big promoters of, I don’t think he used the word Green New Deal, but that’s basically what he’s talking about. And why is that? Because it’s going to put people to work in his community. So I think that’s another excellent way to get into that, when you can find, just for the dramatic tension in a story, you can find a GOP mayor who is in favor of this, or go down to Miami. The mayor of Miami is a very articulate Republican who nevertheless does not drink the Kool-Aid on climate change because his city is going underwater.
Okay, the next question is going to be from Cat Clifford of CNBC. So Cat, if you’re with us, unmute please and ask your question.
Cat Clifford: Hi there, can you hear me?
Mark Hertsgaard: We hear you fine. Thank you.
Cat Clifford: Oh, good. Okay. Thanks so much for this panel. Glad to hear from you guys. I’m just curious, and this has actually come up a couple times at the very top and you guys have touched on it a bit already, but just was interested in thoughts, guidance for managing in a newsroom where perhaps the editorial page or people in another instance who are prominent talking heads or anchors either way might sort of be running in conflict with some of the work that the reporters in the climate section like me would be doing? And that, it’s kind of mind-boggling sometimes, but I don’t know if you have any guidance or thoughts? Thanks.
Mark Hertsgaard: Guidance and thoughts on how to navigate when the anchor, i.e. the star, is talking climate nonsense and you’re trying to do climate reporting. Anybody want a swing at that?
Nat Bullard: It’s not a Bloomberg problem
Mark Hertsgaard: It’s not a Bloomberg problem, that is true.
Nat Bullard: And so, I’ll pass.
Mark Hertsgaard: Naomi, do you have any thoughts on that?
Naomi Klein: I mean, it depends how up for a fight you are, Cat, but I think what I was saying earlier about digging into how often we have heard identical talking points in other contexts. Sorry, my dog is rolling around grunting behind me if you hear strange noises. So I think matching up some of the most prominent pundit talking points direct from the horse’s mouth, oil and gas lobbyist talking points with Joe Manchin’s talking points is always a fun story. Sorry, it’s just this dog. I might need to pass it over to Sammy.
Mark Hertsgaard: No, the dog doesn’t bother us, Naomi. Just continue.
Naomi Klein: It’s just that you can’t see her. You just hear her, which I…
Mark Hertsgaard: We don’t even hear her very much.
Naomi Klein: Yeah. Yeah, so I think digging up the historical examples and just digging up the coordination, I mean, I think folks should be shamed because there are so many of these high profile pundits who are just directly echoing the talking points of the oil and gas industry and that is a story in and of itself if you are in a workplace where you might be able to get away with it.
Mark Hertsgaard: Let me intervene here too because we got a second question like that and they asked to be anonymous because they don’t want blowback inside of their own newsroom, but I will just say it’s coming from a newsroom that all of you, you would recognize the name. And I think what Naomi said there, her first comment about, well, how up for a fight are you is really the question. I grew up in TV news. My dad was a TV news anchor. I know how that hierarchy works inside of a news division. And if you are a young reporter and you take on the anchor, you are risking your career. So let’s be clear about that.
That said, I think that there are ways to get around that. And in particular, one thing to do, and Covering Climate Now has found this to be useful in talking to our colleagues in television in particular, is to point out graciously, politely, et cetera, to the editors and news managers and so forth, that there is a commercial reason to do smart climate coverage now.
This is not like it was 10 years ago where you had to cram the climate story down people’s throats. That is outdated information, the idea that people don’t want to hear about this. In fact, the latest social science research indicates that over 70% of the public does want to know about this. And if you’re talking about the demographic that TV really cares about, which are the people under the age of 40, under the age of 45, that number is even higher. And indeed, even among self-identified Republicans, self-identified Republicans, and this is in the United States under the age of 40, over 50% of them want more information about climate change. Okay?
So if you as a news outlet are catering to that minority of 10%, 20% of people who are still drinking the Kool-Aid about how climate change is fake and a hoax and all of that, you’re missing 70% to 80% of the audience, and that’s not a business model that your bosses should be happy about. So if I were you, I would try to make that kind of an argument and not get into a pissing match with the anchor because you’re not going to win that one.
All right. Unless anybody else has something to add to that, we’re going to go next to Tiara Walters from the Daily Maverick. Those of you who don’t know, the Daily Maverick is a terrific investigative news outlet in South Africa. Tiara?
Tiara Walters: Thanks much for the opportunity, Mark. My question is really about inflection points in ethical reporting. And of course, one might say journalists are not activists, but we do need principles. For instance, who in their right mind would today debate the pros and cons of Apartheid? Likewise, we all know natural gas, a fomenter of and rising temperatures is not what we need in an ideal world, and yet top gas scientists make a good point when they say gas burns more efficiently than crude or coal and is thus a critical bridge fuel. How are reporters to treat such assertions by people who are admittedly world experts in their field against, for instance, the urgency necessitated by a planetary emergency?
Mark Hertsgaard: Wow. That is a lot to unpack in that question. Does anyone want to volunteer or should I… I think that’s something that actually all three of you could comment on. I’m just looking across my screen. I’m going to start with Sammy, then Nat, then Naomi.
Sammy Roth: Putting this one in my lap here to deal with.
Mark Hertsgaard: Just to start with, Sammy.
Sammy Roth: It’s a really good question. And yeah, I’ve written a lot about the gas industry in California and the Western US, and it’s interesting in California, especially because we’ve pretty much gotten off of coal power. There’s just a tiny little bit of coal left on the electric grid in California. So when you talk about the power sector here and other remaining major sources of emission, obviously there’s transportation, but outside of that, it’s natural gas. It’s 40% of our electric supply. It’s home heating and cooking, which is like 10% of emissions when we count all residential and commercial buildings. So it’s become a major focus of the state of California. That’s the main climate question here now outside of transportation is how do we get off of gas or how do we get off of fossil gas at least?
I wrote in a piece recently trying to sort of parse through how I deal with these kinds of ethical questions. I’m not an activist, but I am comfortable saying that I have a vendetta against carbon emissions as a reporter. They’re clearly a societal detriment for a bajillion different reasons. There’s an urgent need to get carbon emissions down as fast as possible. And so this is something that has to be dealt with and that you have to take seriously.
I will say, I treat the gas industry different than I would the coal industry, for instance. I’m organizing a panel right now for Society of Environmental Journalists, which everyone should check out if they don’t know that organization, they’ve got a conference coming up in Houston, and I’m trying very hard to get a gas industry representative on my panel, along with the electric industry and along with environmental justice, because I think that’s… The big gas companies now are doing stuff related to hydrogen, they’re doing stuff related to biofuels. There’s lots of hard questions and important questions to ask about whether there’s value in that. And if so, where does the value come from and are there detriments and side effects. But it’s something that I take seriously as a reporter. I definitely… It’s not the coal industry, the worst and dirtiest of the fuels, that’s clearly on the way out. There’s important conversations to be had here around what do we do with gas and how do we handle the fact that it does bring a lot of value from a reliability and affordability perspective while knowing that we still need to get off of the fossil stuff as fast as possible.
I’m kind of running in circles here, but the answer, I think is that it’s a good question and a tough question to deal with, but I think as journalists, we need to keep our eyes on the ball of how do we get emissions to zero as fast as possible, and dealing with gas is a big part of that.
Mark Hertsgaard: Sammy, quickly before going to the others. There’s a note in the chat from our colleague at KQED up here in San Francisco, where I am, Ezra David Romero, who points out that there’s a lot of coal that nevertheless, although not being used here in California, is being shipped out of California through Richmond, which is in the Bay Area here. And that there’s local activists who are trying to stop that. Can you address that point please?
Sammy Roth: I see that coming from Ezra. I’m glad he brought that up. Not something that I’ve been focused on based down here in Southern California, but no, absolutely. Just because there’s only a little coal on the electric grid here doesn’t mean that California has no coal nexus whatsoever. Good point.
Mark Hertsgaard: Good. Naomi or Nat, would you like to weigh in on this whole question of how we talk about gas?
Nat Bullard: I’m happy to offer a few thoughts on it. It’s a very useful question. The first is that just make sure that we’ve very clearly stated what’s publicly available in the science regarding this. So, gas is about half the emissions per, at least within the power sector, per unit of power generated. The second, I think it’s important… And that’s just fact. I think the second then is to query anybody who is, if not advocating for its, but is simply stating its either presence or supremacy depending on their view, how long they think that will last and what needs to be done to change it. What might happen to change it. So I’ll give you a good example is that you’ll have advocates on one side, maybe protecting saying we’ll be burning gas forever, but a German federal minister just the other day said that gas, which is often expressed in this view as a bridge fuel system that we will be using for some decades in between coal and I assume nothing, with emissions. And he said that’s essentially dead.
That actually allows you to look right through even what people are talking about right now about building up better end of year gas storage levels, and even building more import capacity. That these are essentially done. These are something that might happen once, but will not be repeated. And I think it’s important to continue to query the “so what” that comes after that. Most of these conversations I find, people tend to present them as if there’s a sort of a false binary, that we say one thing, somebody representing another group says another, and then that’s it. And that there’s no further interrogation of the, “do you see that changing? What would need to change that? Do you believe in changing it?” That sort of thing I think is very important.
Because at least in my experience, companies are asking those questions because they do not expect to be able to do the same business forever. They often do not express this particularly publicly, but they themselves are thinking past that point. And so I think it’s important to query as much as possible from anybody who has such a sort of definitive position, where and how and when they see that changing.
Mark Hertsgaard: Now, let me quickly follow up before turning into Naomi. You mentioned on the gas that the science says that it’s about 50 per percent of the coal, but doesn’t that calculus change once we take into account the role of fracking?
Nat Bullard: Well, it’s not the role of fracking. It’s the role of what they call fugitive emissions. And that comes from anything. Any process involving natural gas. If you essentially have a leak in the process, that’s gas that is 27 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So yes. And that’s also something we’re doing is being, okay, have you accounted for what we would call either a lifecycle analysis or maybe a fuller analysis of everything that goes in? Because these are very ring fenced and therefore, very convenient things as if you could sort of like transport magically all of the molecules needed for these processes to the place of combustion without anything in between, what does it mean?
So I think that it’s important to factor those in as well, where in possible, where necessary and ask people if they think that’s part of what should be, could be, or should be addressed by the proponents of those value chains, let’s say. A lot of times people want to sort of abstract them away as something that is not their concern.
Mark Hertsgaard: Yeah. Interrogate, interrogate, interrogate, folks. That’s a lesson that keeps coming out here. And I also, being in a rock and roll band, I just heard a great title for another band, the magic molecules. Naomi, can you speak to this too? And then we’re going to wrap it up. You need to unmute, Naomi.
Naomi Klein: Yeah, sure. I think it’s worth mentioning that a lot of this is about, bringing it back to Ukraine, a lot of this is about meeting Germany’s needs for gas and it’s worth reminding ourselves that Germany has some of the strictest rules against fracking because they think the price is too high. Germans have determined that the local impacts of fracking on water, the fears about earthquakes and the methane impacts are such that they don’t want to do it. And so I think that there’s a real question that we should be asking. Why should Americans, Canadians, wherever it’s coming from, bear those risks if Germans are not willing to take them themselves? And are there other ways that we can accelerate a clean energy transition that don’t carry those same risks?
But I think, I would just say all of this points to the need for basic newsroom education, hearing from climate scientists who really are experts on things like the life cycle of methane and what our carbon budget is and equip journalists to be able to ask the tough questions, okay. If you’re going to build a $20 million LNG export terminal, how long does that terminal need to be in operation for the investors to get their money out? What are they banking on? Chances are they’re banking on it being in operation for two to three decades to get that investment out. And if their own documents are making those projections, how does that align with what our carbon budget is in the context of the climate crisis? This isn’t hard to do, but we have to have the tools to be able to do these basic calculations.
Mark Hertsgaard: This is a really important point, folks. When you hear all of the talk about we’re going to build this terminal and we’re going to drill and we’re going to do that, it gets back to something that Sammy and Nat have both touched on. Compare the time scales. We have a very short term, immediate crisis in Europe now to keep people warm in the winter. But if the answer is, we’re going to build terminals, we’re going to drill, those are 20 and 30 and 40 year investments. And that locks us into so much more carbon emissions over time. That 1.5 degrees, forget 1.5 degrees, probably forget 2 degrees. So these are the kinds of dynamics that we really need all of our stories to bear in mind. And that’s why we invited these three panelists here today because their reporting gives a template for how you can very responsibly cover all of these different aspects of the story: the climate part, the energy start, the geopolitical part — all of that is possible to do. And that’s why we urge you, if you haven’t already, please do read their work and also go and visit our website Covering Climate Now. We’ve got a lot of resources on this so that you can be solid, you can be authoritative, and always when you can, you want to put your story into the local context as we talked about.
So I will leave it at that. But first of course, I will once again, thank all of you who are here today. Those of you who are not able to attend, we will be sending a transcript and a recording of this. I also have to pass along apologies from our colleague at the BBC, Angus Foster. He’s the climate editor at the BBC. He had agreed to ask the first question in the Q&A today, but the time difference changed this week in the UK. So he thought we were starting in about two minutes. So he apologizes to all of you. He wanted to be here for this, and we’ll do it with him next time.
Meanwhile, I want to extend once again, my deep personal thanks to Sammy Roth of Los Angeles Times, Naomi Klein of the Intercept, and Nathaniel Bullard of BloombergNEF. You have graced us with your presence and your expertise. We thank you very much, indeed. And we thank all of you for being part of Covering Climate Now, go to our website. We’ll see you next time. Have a very pleasant day. I’m Mark Hertsgaard.