What COP28 Means for Climate Coverage

The call for “transitioning away” from fossil fuels is historic, yet far from enough. Our coverage can help audiences understand how much further, and faster, the world has to go.

Activists stage a protest on day thirteen of the UNFCCC COP28 Climate Conference on December 13, 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Fadel Dawod/Getty Images)

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Is the COP 28 agreement “a historic deal that will spell the eventual end of fossil fuels?” the Guardian’s Fiona Harvey asked. “Or will it be one more step on the road to hell?”

The answer, Harvey astutely suggested, could well be both. The tension between those two outcomes is something journalists need to understand, scrutinize, and make clear to our audiences going forward. Our coverage needs to embrace the duality long at the heart of international climate negotiations: what science says that humanity must do to avoid climate breakdown, versus what our political and economic systems want to do.

Although COP28’s final text did not endorse the phase-out of fossil fuels that science says is necessary, its call for “transitioning away” from fossil fuels is undeniably historic. “[T]his result would have been unheard of two years ago, especially at a COP meeting in a petrostate,” said Mohammed Adow of Climate Shift Africa, a leading voice of developing countries. “It shows that even oil and gas producers can see we’re heading for a fossil free world.”

Advocates of climate action hope that the unprecedented call to leave fossil fuels behind will persuade government officials and private investors around the world that, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres told fossil fuel backers, “whether you like it or not, a fossil fuel phase out is inevitable.” In 2015, the Paris Agreement’s surprise endorsement of a 1.5-degrees-C temperature rise target sent a similar message, which led governments and financiers over the past eight years to increasingly abandon coal as a money-loser in favor of wind, solar, and energy efficiency. Now, Jennifer Morgan, the German government’s climate envoy, said that COP28’s signals “are clear: If you are an investor, the future is renewable. Fossil fuels are stranded assets.”

The crucial question, as always with the climate emergency, is how fast a fossil fuel phase out happens. The Paris Agreement did help bend the curve — instead of heading for a 4-degree-C future, we’re now on track for roughly 2.5 degrees C — but even 2.5 degrees C would bring utter catastrophe, and global emissions are still not falling. Until fossil fuels are phased out, “the world will continue to become a more dangerous, more expensive and more uncertain place to live,” said Dr. Friederike Otto, the co-founder of World Weather Attribution.

Nevertheless, it’s a measure of how profoundly the political terrain has shifted that petrostates at COP28 were forced to talk about something they had kept off the agenda throughout the 31 years since the UN Earth Summit in 1992: phasing out fossil fuels. This shift in terrain opens up a host of fresh angles for journalists. We should be pressing government and corporate leaders on how fast they will phase out fossil fuels, why they continue (so far) to back massive taxpayer subsidies for fossil fuels, and when rich countries will finally provide the financial aid they are legally obligated to give poor countries so the latter can leave fossil fuels behind as well.

Pursuing such stories will help journalists highlight the many shortcomings in the COP28 agreement. Both climate finance and climate adaptation were sidelined in the final text, a huge problem on both moral and practical grounds, and the newly established loss and damage facility remains scantily funded. Unless poor countries get the money needed to go green, their future fossil fuel emissions will worsen climate impacts that endanger rich and poor alike. And without many billions of additional dollars to help vulnerable communities boost their resilience to the extreme heat, storms, drought, and rising seas that rich countries’ emissions have caused, countless people will suffer and die.

Yes, Dubai made history, but it’s a complex history: a success and a failure all in one. Now, as the negotiators, activists, scientists, and fossil fuel lobbyists head home, our work as journalists has only begun.

From Us

CCNow Q&A. We spoke recently with Lawrence Carter, founder and director of the UK-based Centre for Climate Reporting, which, on the eve of COP28, uncovered an ambitious, multipronged strategy by Saudi Arabia to artificially boost fossil fuel demand for years to come. Carter, one of the reporters on the story, shared his team’s approach to investigations and what reporters everywhere should make of leaders’ dubious promises of climate action. Read it at Columbia Journalism Review.

Appreciations. We’re grateful to newsrooms that covered COP28 and committed to helping communities everywhere better understand the key takeaways from the UN summit. And a special shoutout to the newsrooms that dropped their paywalls to make climate journalism more accessible to a wider audience.

The Covering Climate Now team wishes you all happy holidays and a great start to the new year!

Staff Picks for 2023

CCNow’s team selected some of our favorite work on climate change this year.

Revealed: How Colonial Rule Radically Shifts Historical Responsibility for Climate Change

To me, you really can’t talk about climate change without acknowledging the role of colonialism in its origins. This Carbon Brief analysis does just that. It calculates total historical emissions by country taking colonial rule into account. So, for example, the UK’s share of emissions doubles, while India’s share declines. Looking at colonial rule like this provides a vital intervention to the prevailing narrative about the crisis and how we can go about solving it. Plus, it’s got really great graphs!

Amanda Braitman

Warming Signs

For Warming Signs, a five-part docuseries, CBS News’ national environmental correspondent David Schechter traveled to the world’s fastest-warming community in Svalbard, Norway, to find out what scientists there are learning about how global warming is changing our climate. How are communities in the US affected? CBS News and Stations brought the story home by complementing the series with local climate impact stories focused on the impacts of rising seas levels and the growing unpredictability of winter weather — and what can be done about it. Schechter wrapped the series up with an hour-long special, “On the Dot.”

Judy Doctoroff

What’s the Link Between Climate Change and Flooding in New York?

In this short segment, NBC national climate reporter Chase Cain uses the power of TV to show how climate change affects people’s lives at the local level, checking all the right boxes for good reporting: connecting climate change to extreme weather and fossil fuels and giving scientific context. He makes the climate story relatable to everyone, in one case by using a sponge to help illustrate the impact of rising temperatures.

Elena González

The Path to Radically Lower Emissions Tucked Away Inside the Devastating IPCC Report

Too much climate coverage has inaccurately channeled the view that the 1.5-degree-Celsius target is hopelessly out of reach. The Guardian’s environmental editor Damian Carrington’s careful reading of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report uncovered a “map of climate optimism” that lists 40 actions governments and others can take to cut emissions in half by 2030, as a 1.5-degree-C future requires. Those 40 actions “require no new technology,” Carrington notes, but rather “a resource heavily lacking so far, the political will to push aside vested interests and radically pursue the policies that will work.”

Mark Hertsgaard

Heat’s Hidden Risk

A forensic examination of 33-year-old Stephan Goodwin’s last days in Arizona’s extreme heat starkly illustrates how people with schizophrenia are at increased risk for heat-related injury and death. Affecting less than 1% of the population, recent research found that 8% of those who died in a 2021 heatwave in Canada had a schizophrenia diagnosis; The Washington Post reports that it’s “potentially the most dangerous preexisting condition in a rapidly warming world.” Goodwin’s story is part of “The Human Limit” series, which takes a critical look at how climate change threatens health.

Anna Hiatt

How Climate Change Is Making Us Sick

Some 20 million people are forced from their homes each year due to climate change. But it’s not just humans. Animals, the diseases they carry, and lots of other living things are migrating, including bacteria, algae, and fungi, reports Zoya Teirstein for Grist. New diseases are popping up and old ones are making a comeback. The northeastern US, where I live, is seeing a “massive proliferation” of ticks that carry Lyme disease. It’s all projected to get worse, giving us another reason to act on climate change and report on it with the seriousness it deserves.

Karin Kamp

In Harm’s Way

The Marshall Project and Grist used a long-form comic to report on a unique part of the Tulare Lake flooding in California over the past year: prisoner vulnerability, a huge climate justice issue. The images highlight the humanity and vulnerability of prisoners, who are generally hidden from view for most people. Two points were gut punches: that California sees prisoners as resources during an emergency, and that prison planning treats prisoners as hazards, rather than as the ones facing hazard.

Maya L. Kapoor

Apocalypse Urbanism: Cities for an Uninhabitable World

Planned desert cities draw massive capital investment and urbanist enthusiasm for their zero carbon, climate-friendly architecture. But are they really the futuristic utopias leading the way for global city planning? Yes and no. In this article for The Architectural Review, anthropologist Gökçe Günel unpacks the hyper-exploitative, settler colonialist, and ultimately status quo–reproducing downside of these desert utopias.

Natalie Li

Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World

Naomi Klein’s newest book is a compelling critique of the increasing polarization that has shaped the dominant narratives about major global issues, from the climate crisis to the Covid-19 pandemic. Through an investigation of her doppelganger — Klein is often confused online with the feminist turned right-wing conspiracist, Naomi Wolf — Klein explores the fun-house version of reality that is the “mirror world,” how our current political frameworks are failing us, and resistance to seeing ourselves in the other. It is an essential read at a time of unfolding crises and collapsing trust in political institutions and news media.

Mekdela Maskal

Repowering the West

In a sprawling, ongoing series, Los Angeles Times climate reporter Sammy Roth takes audiences on a road trip across the western US to explore complex and often contentious realities of the energy transition. Each chapter comprises a short video and written stories that unpack energy projects from multiple angles, with an eye towards cleaner and more equitable solutions.

Andrew McCormick

Margaret Renkl’s New York Times Op-eds

Margaret Renkl has been writing opinion pieces for The New York Times for years, often about the plants and animals in her backyard in Nashville, Tenn. But this year, more and more, she spoke to the fragile state we’re in, often taking a spiritual approach to thinking about the climate crisis. “You look for reasons to feel that it’s possible that everything will be OK, especially in response to the climate and extinction crises,” she told the Times in a piece about her new essay collection. “There’s a line between grief and joy. If I can occupy that exact space, that’s my goal.”

Kyle Pope

The Brilliant Inventor Who Made Two of History’s Biggest Mistakes

Author Steven Johnson’s article for The New York Times tells the story of a man you probably haven’t heard of: Thomas Midgley Jr. He came up with not just one, but two world changing inventions that seemed wonderful at the time but turned out to be, um, not so great: leaded gasoline and “the first commercial use of the chlorofluorocarbons.” (Ozone layer!) It’s both a great read and a helpful reminder to always be wary of the unanticipated consequences of new technologies — something I keep in mind when reading about solutions for climate change.

Theresa Riley

Pakistan’s Trans Community Battles Climate Catastrophe and Exclusion

In this article for The Third Pole, Pakistan-based journalist Adeel Saeed explores the burden of climate change on Pakistan’s transgender community. Saeed’s article is a well-researched, innovative, simple but effective piece of journalism that ticks off all the good practices of climate reporting with apparent ease. It is both deeply personal and broadly relevant, and it raises a crucial question: How much do we know about the ways our own communities are enduring climate change?

Santiago Sáez

The Broken Earth series

This year, I read The Broken Earth series — a trilogy by N.K. Jemisin imagining a world that is deeply changed by climate disruption. Though it’s fantasy/sci-fi, it’s easy to recognize references to our current crises, and get a glimpse of a civilization reckoning with a future that may lie ahead for us, too. The main characters are women and girls, which is such an important representation in this genre and also for identities who are at the frontline of climate impacts. The Broken Earth series is seamless, deep, and just captivating! I couldn’t put it down.

Lili Zay