Susan Joy Hassol, director at Climate Communication, shares her work on climate science communication and provide tips for how local journalists can cover climate change in their communities. Carla Anne Robbins, adjunct senior fellow at CFR and former deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times, hosts the webinar.
Susan J. Hassol and Parag Khanna, “America’s Next Great Migrations Are Driven by Climate Change,” Scientific American, October 2021.
“Climate Reporting MasterClass,” Interactive, Climate Matters in the Newsroom.
OCI Team, “Banking on Climate Chaos 2021: Fossil Fuel Finance Report,” Oil Exchange International, March 2021.
“Climate Communication/SciLine Quick Facts,” Interactive, SciLine, American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Tom Bartelme, A Surgeon in the Village, Beacon Press, March 2017.
Meera Subramanian, A River Runs Again: India's Natural World in Crisis from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka, PublicAffairs, August 2015.
Energy and Innovation
CASA: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Local Journalists Webinar Series. I’m Maria Casa, director of the National Program and Outreach Department here at CFR.
As you may know, CFR is an independent nonpartisan organization and think tank focusing on U.S. foreign policy. This webinar is part of CFR’s Local Journalists Initiative created to help you draw connections between the local issues you cover and national and international dynamics.
Our programming puts you in touch with CFR resources and expertise on international issues and provides a forum for sharing best practices. Thank you all for taking the time to join the discussion today. I want to remind everyone that this webinar is on the record, and the video and transcript will be posted on our website after the fact at CFR.org/localjournalists.
Today, we will discuss “Reporting on Climate Change” with our speaker, Susan Joy Hassol, and host, Carla Anne Robbins. We’ve shared their bios with you so I’ll just give you highlights on their distinguished backgrounds.
Susan Joy Hassol is director of Climate Communication, a nonprofit science and outreach project of the Aspen Global Change Institute. She was a contributing author of the sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the senior science report writer for the National Climate Assessments published in 2000, 2009, and 2014. Ms. Hassol was also a training lead for the National Science Foundation-sponsored project “Climate Matters in the Newsroom,” which provides training and localized climate reporting resources to journalists.
Carla Anne Robbins is an adjunct senior fellow at CFR. She is faculty director of the Master of International Affairs Program and clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs. Previously, she was deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times and chief diplomatic correspondent at the Wall Street Journal.
Welcome, Susan. Thank you very much for being with us today.
Carla, I’ll turn it over to you now to start the conversation and then we’ll open up to the group for questions.
ROBBINS: Thank you so much, Maria, and thank you so much to everybody at CFR for making this happen, as usual, and thank you so much, Susan, for joining us. And thank you to all of the reporters and producers and everyone else who is on with us today. We really appreciate what everybody is doing in journalism. We know it’s not an easy time, particularly in the local news business.
So the way we’re going to do this Susan and I are going to chat for about fifteen or twenty minutes, and then we’re going to turn it over to you all for questions and comments, and we know you will have lots of them. And if things occur to you while we’re chatting, please just throw them up into the Q&A also. This is very informal. And the real thing here is we really want, you know, substance and—as well as technique.
You know, Susan is a great, great source about how to do the business of this, about how to cover, you know, complicated technical things in an accessible way, and which is just a wonderful thing. So we are here to help both in framing stories and how to get to the bottom of them.
So, Susan, thanks so much for doing this. This is a great opportunity to talk about coverage and all the resources that are out there, including the ones that you yourself have developed. But before we dive into that, you know, can you give us a quick update—and this is—I’m going to be selfish and I’m going to ask you what I want to know.
Quickly, what happened in Glasgow so far and what should we be looking for in the coming days? Because, you know, I must admit, I am right now—I mean, I’m a pretty smart person and I read the papers really closely, and I can’t tell whether I should be cautiously upbeat about what’s going on or filled with my usual climate despair.
HASSOL: I guess I’d have to say both. So let me just set the scene for you. Holding a giant international climate conference during a pandemic is not easy and it’s more than a bit chaotic. It’s a bit like a three-ring circus over there. Nearly forty thousand people are registered for a venue that has a maximum capacity of ten thousand because of COVID restrictions. All the hotels in Glasgow were booked way in advance. You have diplomats sleeping on people’s couches. You have other people staying a half an hour away and commuting in in the morning, and then you have these giant lines with everybody.
So it’s kind of crazy. But let me give you a few takeaways for me from the first week so far or less, just the first few days of the COP.
Number one, methane is the new black. (Laughter.) They got more than one hundred countries to pledge to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. So it began as a few countries—the U.S. and the EU—and they picked up more than a hundred countries. This is important because methane, while there’s much less of it in the atmosphere than there is of CO2 and it has a much shorter lifetime than CO2—carbon dioxide—methane only lasts about a decade—it’s 80 percent more heat trapping than carbon dioxide over a twenty-year period.
So methane is really important. It comes from every aspect of the fossil fuel industry. It comes from coal mines and it leaks from pipelines, and it comes from wells and all of this, right? So it also comes from agriculture. It comes from the burping of cows and from landfills and from rice cultivation.
The good thing about cutting methane is that we can get almost—we get immediate health benefits and almost immediate climate benefits because of its short atmospheric lifetime. So it’s really important. It’s only about 16 percent of greenhouse gases but it accounts for a much larger part of the near-term warming.
So like I said, I get excited about these things. That’s only one of the things I want to mention. Protecting forests is another thing. So a hundred countries, including countries like Brazil, which is very important because of the Amazon, and Russia and China, altogether encompassing about 85 percent of the world’s forests, have pledged to end deforestation by 2030 and work to restore forests and natural ecosystems.
So this is important and it’s good news. But—here comes the skeptical side—this kind of thing has been pledged before, and it was pledged in Paris in 2015, and, in fact, what’s really happened is that deforestation has accelerated since then. So they’re hoping to bring economics to bear. They’re hoping to make it actually, you know, better economically, make forests worth more alive than dead.
But the amount that’s committed in Glasgow to this is still just a fraction of the spending on fossil fuels. So we know we have a problem and—yeah.
Another thing I thought was interesting was something called the CleanTech Breakthrough Alliance, and this is more than forty countries representing about two-thirds of the world’s economy, including the U.S., the U.K., India, China. They said they would coordinate on the global introduction of clean technologies, and the first five of those—clean electricity, electric vehicles, green steel, hydrogen, and sustainable farming—and what they’re trying to do is speed the tipping point at which green technology is more affordable than dirty fossil fuel technology.
So this is really important. Already in the area of clean electricity we see this as a reality. Solar and wind are the cheapest forms of new energy right now, even cheaper than any of the fossil fuels.
Fourth, there were some new and stronger pledges for 2030 targets made by India and China, and for the first time that brings the projected global warming below two degrees Celsius for the first time, if the pledges are all met. So this is a whole another story because, you know, pledges are not policies, and if there aren’t policies put into place to implement the pledges then the pledges aren’t going to be met. But and, of course, 2 C we know is actually not a safe level at all. We’re already not at a safe level at 1.2 Celsius and, you know, the goal of 1.5 (Celsius) is not even in sight with the current pledges.
The other thing that may be interesting is that ending coal is maybe going to be the next target. So eighteen countries are pledging now to phase out coal and stop building new coal plants, and that’s important. But some of the biggest users of coal—China, India, Russia, Australia—are going to keep fighting from having any phase-out of coal enshrined in what comes out of this COP.
So, of course, we have good news that the U.S. has rejoined the High Ambition Coalition after withdrawing from Paris under the last administration. There’s some good things happening on finance. There’s a goal to give the developing countries $100 billion a year to develop in a cleaner way and also to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Again, this was something that was pledged five years ago and hasn’t happened. But on we go.
Now, you also asked me about what to watch for. I would say what to watch for is mind the gap, and what I mean by that, if any of you have ever travelled in the U.K. you know that they say mind the gap when you’re getting from a subway train onto the platform, or vice versa, that little space between the cars. The conductor always says mind the gap.
Well, so I’m going to tell you, there are a couple of gaps you should be looking for. One is an ambition gap. I already mentioned the countries have not even pledged yet to bring their emissions down to the point where we would not exceed the 1.5 degrees Celsius target. So there’s an ambition gap.
Two, there’s an implementation gap. They’ve made all these pledges but they don’t have the policies in place to implement them, and the United States is a great example of that. President Biden is making pledges on behalf of the U.S., but we’re trying to get a bill through Congress right now that is held up, and if that bill doesn’t go through and we don’t get all those policies we’re going to have an implementation gap and so is the rest of the world.
And number three is the production gap. This is really interesting. So there’s nothing yet in the Paris Agreement or any of the things that we’re seeing going on at the COP that phases out fossil fuels, and so if we’re continuing to develop new fossil fuel resources, in fact, by 2030 the world is on track to produce twice the amount of fossil fuels that will be consistent with a 1.5-degree target.
So we have a big production gap, and the UN Environment Program and the Stockholm Environment Institute recently put out the 2021 Production Gap Report, and we’ll get you the link to that. It’s a really important report.
So I would say mind those three gaps, and I probably have been talking for too long so I’m going to take a breath and let you ask me another question.
ROBBINS: So I am, you know, a—you know, I am a national reporter, I admit. But I think I’ve been doing this long enough and talking to local reporters long enough to begin to see some really potentially cool local stories in this. But you’ve been working with local reporters.
I want to go in to my editor right now and my editor is going to say to me, listen, you know, I already get the—you know, I’m getting the news wire. You know, I get the AP. I pay for that. Or I get the New York Times news wire or whatever. They’ve got reporters in Glasgow. What can I possibly write right now out of Glasgow that will make this accessible to my local readers for them to pay attention to this?
Are there any, you know, local ways of approaching this so that people can—this is like a massive gathering of people and pretty important. Is there any way to make what’s going on right now relevant to people?
HASSOL: Oh, absolutely. You know, there are some reporters who are so good at this, who are so great at making the local connection to these global-scale things. One of my favorites is an award-winning journalist named Tony Bartelme. He works at the Charleston Post and Courier, and he’s amazing at telling big important stories through the lens of his local community.
So a great example, he did a story called “Chasing Carbon,” and, you know, we know carbon is an invisible gas, right, and we know that it’s coming from everywhere, that—in where we all live, right. So how do you make the invisible visible? Tony found a company that has an infrared camera that can see carbon dioxide, this invisible gas. He got them to ship it to him and he took it around Charleston and he pointed it at everything.
He pointed it at vehicles. He pointed it at power plants. He pointed it at buildings. And it was really remarkable because you could actually see the small amount of carbon dioxide coming out of a Prius, and then he pointed it at a big SUV and you saw the big amount of carbon dioxide coming out of the SUV. So he was taking this global story and he was making it really local.
He also did a story called “Every Other Breath,” and it was like a mystery story about plankton, and it turns out that what the every other breath refers to is that plankton provide half of the oxygen that we breathe. So they also play a role in climate change. And so he tells these stories about climate science, essentially, but in a way that makes them very, very local.
One he did that was amazing recently—and I actually connected him with a scientist in the Arctic that I know—he went to Greenland. He went to the Greenland ice sheet with a scientist from NASA who studies it, and he helped people in Charleston, South Carolina, understand what’s happening on the Greenland ice sheet and why it matters to Charleston—how it affects sea level rise, how gravity changes when the ice on Greenland melts to make the sea level rise worse along the southeast U.S. coast than other parts of the world.
So I did a lot of work in the Arctic. I was the writer of the “Arctic Climate Impact Assessment.” So I spent about four years working with hundreds of scientists in the Arctic. And I coined a phrase at that time, which is that the Arctic is nothing like Las Vegas. What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. It affects the rest of the world.
Tony is one of the reporters who is excellent at taking these big global issues and getting them down to the level of his local community and how it matters.
Mira Subramanian is another great reporter. She did a piece—a series for Inside Climate News called “Finding Middle Ground,” and I suggest that as a way of thinking about sort of the politics of climate change and how people deal with that, even within families.
So another thing that I would mention to you is not to forget about focusing on responses, so how is your region responding to climate change. So I was just talking about the forests and preserving the world’s forests. Well, what about preserving forests here in the United States? What about fossil fuel production here in the United States in the Permian Basin, you know, and all of the kind of things that we know about that are going on in our own states, in our own communities?
You can talk about those responses, how they’re affecting what’s going on where you live. Something with solar. Is there a lot of wind? Is there push back against those responses? And talking about solutions is not advocacy and it’s not cheerleading. You should look at responses and solutions with the same skeptical and critical eye that you look at anything that you report on.
But those are the kind of things that I think people would like to know about. You know, there’s Project Drawdown that looks at the global solutions, but Georgia Drawdown is looking at the solutions in the state of Georgia. And so you can find out. You can look into what are the solutions that matter, the responses that make a difference where you are and how are people implementing those.
ROBBINS: So that’s—I mean, I think—I mean, that’s fabulous, and those stories all—and we put up the links into chat, and thank you for that—those stories seem to make, you know, making it local in a way that—you know, for the longest time people said that, yeah, they sort of got that climate change was a problem but because they didn’t see it and because it wasn’t immediate, it just wasn’t salient. And that’s—you know, we get enough local problems right now to not think about something that’s going to hit us ten, twenty, thirty years down the road.
That said, and I think extreme weather in its own right has—you know, has made—brought that home and now that scientists can say definitely there’s a relationship between extreme weather and climate it makes it easier for us as reporters to write about.
I’m a policy freak. OK. I worked most of my career in Washington. Is anybody doing any work—is there a way for us as reporters to be able to look at the sort of commitments that President Biden is making and say, what does this mean for my community?
I mean, take something like green steel. What does it mean if I live in a town that makes steel? Does this mean that, you know, they’re going to shut the plant down or that, you know, that some other state does better, potentially, in green steel so that’s the end of—you know, that’s the end of my plant?
I mean, are there people who are slicing and dicing these commitments and translating them into local dollars and cents, local job implications?
HASSOL: I think that’s probably just getting started now, and we can find some resources for you on that. But, you know, a lot of these things are really new ideas and so but there are organizations like the Rocky Mountain Institute—RMI—and Energy Innovation that do look at these things and look at the implications for jobs and for local economies.
You know, I think it turns out that, you know, if you’re in a steel-producing region, green steel could be a really good thing because it’s going to be a way that we can keep doing this without destroying the climate.
So, you know, the idea here is not that we’re going to shut down our economies, that we’re going to change our economy. We’re going to change it to one that can do the same things without using fossil fuels. So we don’t want fossil fuels. What we want is mobility. What we want is cold beer and hot showers.
If we can get those things using solar and wind and battery storage and geothermal, then we’re good. And so, in fact, if you’re in a state like West Virginia, for example, a very prominent state these days for obvious reasons—Senator Manchin—the coal industry is going out and they’re going out not only because of climate change, but because it’s not economical anymore and because there are other problems with mining coal, and because miners get black lung disease. I mean, there’s a lot of reasons to phase out fossil fuels.
But there are new ways for people in West Virginia to make a living, and so the—what Biden is putting forward with the Build Back Better Act includes retraining, includes new ideas to help local economies with clean energy. And, you know, also those mines, they need to be reclaimed. Those wells from oil and gas, they leak methane, and part of this methane pledge is to stop those leaks, to plug those leaks. There are jobs involved in plugging those leaks. The same people who drilled the wells can be involved in plugging leaks.
You know, this is the same thing as oil companies don’t have to see themselves as oil companies. They can see themselves as energy companies and they can put the expertise that they have in geology, for example, to work on geothermal energy and those who did the offshore oil can now be doing offshore wind. So many of the same kinds of skills and employee base can be put to work for things that are not going to destroy our future.
ROBBINS: Great. So I want to talk just a little bit about the resources you’ve helped develop. But I’ve now been—we’ve now been talking for twenty-two minutes and we have a limited amount of time here.
So please, you know, raise your hands. Put questions in the Q&A for us. You know, you guys have a lot more—many more questions, I’m sure, than I do and much more expertise on this than I do. So please do not hold back. So while you’re thinking about your questions, don’t think for too long. Please throw them up.
So you’ve developed a whole bunch of them. I was looking at some of them this morning. There’s this Climate Reporting Master Class. Can you talk a little bit about that?
ROBBINS: And we’ll put the links into the chat so everybody can see about this.
HASSOL: Sure. So one of the things we’ve been doing with our “Climate Matters in the Newsroom” program is we’ve been—we were having in-person workshops. Well, then COVID happened and we said, oh, my gosh, we can’t get twenty-five journalists in the room with experts anymore to do a workshop for two days. What are we going to do?
We decided to do the Climate Reporting Master Class, and through generous funding from a foundation, the One Earth Fund, we were able to do this at no cost to journalists. So everyone is free to come and take the Climate Reporting Master Class. You’d take it mainly on your own time. So there are videos that we’ve recorded by experts in every aspect of climate science and solutions, and you can hear from all those experts in very short videos, like, three- to five-minute videos, and there are also lots of other resources there for you.
So it’s a great opportunity. We also do monthly live events. We’re on a little break from those right now but we’ll get started again. And when I say live, I don’t mean in person. I mean, live virtual events like this where you can come listen to an expert and ask your own questions. So that’s a great resource and we’ll put that in the chat for you.
Another resource—you know, you mentioned extreme weather and I think this is really important because extreme weather is the way most people experience climate change. We don’t experience the slow—you know, the gradual increase in average temperature.
We experience climate change because it’s affecting extreme weather. It’s making the heat waves more frequent and much hotter. It’s making the heavy rain heavier and it’s making the droughts longer and deeper. We’re seeing worse wildfire seasons burning more acreage, all of that. The hurricanes are stronger. The sea level is higher and the storm surge is higher.
So what we did was we developed a set of quick facts for any story specifically for journalists to help you connect the dots between particular extreme weather events and climate change. So if you’re in the Pacific Northwest and one of—and that horrific heat wave happens that doesn’t just break a temperature record by a tenth of a degree like they usually do but breaks it by ten degrees, I mean, that was just completely insane, right. That town, Lytton, in Canada that broke the record—heat record by ten degrees and the next day it burned to the ground—I mean, this stuff is really—it’s mind boggling.
What we did was we took all of the scientific literature on the connections between heat waves and climate change and we put it in a fact sheet for journalists in plain language with all the resources, also connecting you to experts that you can interview on this subject and pitfalls to avoid.
So it’s a really great resource, and we did it on a whole bunch of things related to extreme weather and climate change. There are nine of these and the links in the chat, you should bookmark that link because it’s just a great go-to resource and we’re going to be keeping them up to date. So—
ROBBINS: Yeah, I saw you had one on environmental justice—
HASSOL: We do.
ROBBINS: —and one on agriculture as well as extreme weather, and one of the things I really loved—and I was showing this to my husband, who, after covering politics for years covered science at the Washington Post and I saw that you have an I need an—there’s an “I need an expert” button there, which I—I think this is the AAAS that does this, and I love the idea that you can click on a button and tell them what you need and tell them your deadline, and if you’re looking at a particular report whether it’s embargoed and all. I love the idea of hot and cold running experts. It would be—it really—(laughs). So can you ask for someone who actually can leak me—like, you know, someone who can leak me information, too, while you’re at it? But I felt that was a very, very cool thing because there are people here who can, you know, help you translate that and I think the accessibility of that is—I thought was a very, very cool thing.
Come on, you guys. You guys are being very quiet today.
HASSOL: I want to mention something about that resource. So the part of the AAAS—that’s the American Association Advancement of Science—is called sci-line and it’s like sci-line like byline, but science. So it’s everything to do with science, not only climate change but COVID or anything related to science.
ROBBINS: Vaccines? Yes?
HASSOL: Yes, and it was started by Rick Weiss, who is a long-term Washington Post reporter. You probably know him.
ROBBINS: I worked with Rick Weiss.
HASSOL: All right. So because he knows what you know, that sometimes you just need an expert and you don’t have one. They have put together a database of all kinds of scientific experts on every subject. And, right, you just let them know what you need and what your deadline is. They will get back to you right away.
And the neat thing is they have really vetted these experts not only for people who are really top in their field and credible but also for people who know how to talk plain language and can speak to a reporter and give you quotes you can use instead of just rattling on in a way that you go, wow, is he smart—what did he say?
So I think what they’re doing with that is really great and it comes from—as I say, from a reporter who knows what reporters need.
ROBBINS: So I have a question, and this may sound—I don’t know how to say this—you say that this is an advocacy, and it’s not because, you know, climate is like—climate change is like evolution. There’s, like, not another side of this. At the same time—oh, we have questions. Yay. OK. I will pose that question later. Maybe not.
Rory Linnane—or is it—(changes pronunciation)—Linnane? Rory, do you want to ask your question and can you identify with whom you work? Because I don’t have that list immediately in front of me.
Q: Hi. Yeah, I’m a(n) education reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
So, hopefully, this isn’t too far afield from what the subject is supposed to be. But I was wondering if you could talk at all about what school districts should be doing for climate resiliency, so both in terms of their own climate impact but also just with climate change coming, you know, what they should be thinking about in terms of, like, supply chains for their meals, which is something that’s a problem now. Not necessarily from climate change, but, you know, what should school districts be thinking about and investing in now in anticipation of climate for their climate change?
ROBBINS: Thanks. Good question.
HASSOL: Interesting question.
ROBBINS: An adaptation question. Yes.
HASSOL: Yeah. So there’s things that need to be done at the level of small towns, at the level of school districts. There’s also a lot of teaching around climate change that needs to be done at the level of school districts. So a resource for that is the CLEAN Network, all caps, C-L-E-A-N—it’s actually Climate Literacy Education Network—and they have lots of great resources that you can use in the classroom to teach about climate change.
Now, the other piece of this—and there’s also the National Council on Science Education, I think, NCSE. And they also do a lot of work around this. So one of the problems some school districts have is that because of where they’re located some people don’t want them teaching about climate change in the classroom, because they see it as a partisan issue. Which is very unfortunate because, as you say, there’s not two sides to this. But in terms of what school districts can be doing, I think everybody really needs to be looking at are we—we’re not even really adapted to the climate that we have, you know? (Laughs.) You know, we don’t even really do a very good job of dealing with the kinds of disasters that are happening here and now.
And so we have to think—we can see how those things are changing. So we know we’re going to have to deal with heavier downpours, and flooding, especially in river floodplains and near coastal zones. Some of these things we know what to do, right? You put in bigger culverts, for example, and you deal with the storm water systems, right? So there are some things that are engineering problems. Another thing a school district could be looking at is something like putting solar power on the roof of a school. That’s something that’s going on with schools, with churches. And, you know, that’s something that you work within a local government to think about.
Another big thing is heat, right? So we’re seeing more extreme heat. And we’re seeing it everywhere, and some places worse than others. Not every place is air conditioned, because they haven’t had to be in the past. So you want to be looking at things like that. Now, of course, the problem with air conditioning is that it uses electricity, and if we’re getting that electricity from fossil fuels, we get one of those vicious cycles going. There are other things you can do to cool buildings. You can paint the roofs white. You can do some other things with windows, with shading. So this is a whole new arena right now of resilience. And there are whole networks.
There are, for example, the Department of Interior has these regional climate science centers that are actually called Climate Science Adaptation Centers. And so find the one in your region and you can find all kinds of stuff about resilience from them. So I would suggest that as a good resource. Another good resource for you are the state climatologists. Every state has its own climatologist. And they have an office and they can help you with these kinds of things. So these tend to be very locally specific, and so that’s why I’m trying to give you these sort of more state, local and regionally specific resources. But they should be able to help with those kind of questions.
ROBBINS: Are there people who, you know, work on—beyond those government resources—are there people who are developing, like, best practices for adaptations for cities, or for school districts, or for—was that—because this relates to—I’m going to jump to Sheri McWhirter’s question as well, then get back to David Schechter. But are there—are there particular people who are developing best practices on, you know, engineering, and building, and architecture, and all of that, that a reporter could turn to, to take a look at?
HASSOL: Absolutely. So many cities have—or, counties have sustainability officers. And some states or localities have resilience officers. So I would look to those local resources, because the thing about these kinds of adaptations is they are inherently local. And so they’re going to be different everywhere. You know, what you need in the Southwest, where it’s hot and dry, is very different than what you need in the Southeast, where it’s really humid and moist. So but there are—there are exactly the kinds of things that you’re talking about.
ROBBINS: And you may not know the answer to this, and I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but are there places that you consider sort of gold standard places—local places that are doing a good job of resilience of adaptation, that one could look at to—if you wanted to, say, you know, write a story about this and say that this might, you know, have—be a model for what we should be looking at in our neighborhood?
HASSOL: I have heard about things like that. The city of Chicago may be one of them. One of the things that’s happening too is that some areas are starting to look towards considering themselves climate havens. And so a lot of the states around the Great Lakes, for example, and Vermont and New Hampshire, places where it tends to be cooler and wetter. And especially if look around, like, Duluth, Minnesota, or Detroit, places where there’s been sort of an emptying out from, you know, Rust Belt kind of—those are places where it might actually be good to go.
I wrote a piece for Scientific American with a colleague just recently on climate migration in the United States. And that’s another link we can put in the chat for you. It’s really interesting that we’re going to have to pull back from the coasts, up out of the south, away from the very dry Southwest—depending on what we do. Unless we get very serious about reducing the emissions that are causing climate change very soon, we are going to see a really—a major restructuring of where the populations live in this country.
The Southeast in particular, so many problems—from heat and humidity, to, you know, how they’re going to supply enough power for all the air conditioning use, to all the coastal issues, hurricanes. I mean, look at Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida. So many vulnerable places. North Carolina, the state that I live in, a lot of low-lying areas that are seeing this sunny day flooding, which is not just flooding on rainy days but on sunny days. And that’s sea level rise, right?
So we’re seeing—we’re going to see a real structuring—a real restructuring of where people can live unless we get very serious very fast about reducing future climate change. So that was another thing I was going to point you to in terms of what localities are doing. Some of them are saying: Well, how can we change where people live? How can we attract more people to other places that are better for them to live?
ROBBINS: So, thank you. Sheri McWhirter, do you want to ask your question, or should I read it?
Q: I’d be happy to. Thank you.
ROBBINS: Thank you. And Traverse City is a beautiful place. I’ve been there.
Q: It is. So I’m one month into my new job as the climate change reporter for MLive. I think I might be the first statewide climate change reporter in Michigan.
Q: So it’s a big responsibility and I’m grateful for this chance. My beat is climate change, infrastructure, and energy. Climate change is easy to get people to read about. People are talking about it more. But what’s your advice on engaging readers on stories about infrastructure problems associated with the climate crisis? Now, infrastructure, it just does not sound sexy to most readers. (Laughter.) And I’m wondering how to get the most eyeballs focused on this issue, because it’s important.
HASSOL: Yeah. So if you call it infrastructure, I can see that it’s not—(laughter)—that’s not going to be the way, right? So but water in the streets? People care about water in the streets, right? That’s infrastructure, right? That’s our stormwater systems and our culverts and all of that, right? So we’re going to have to do stuff with all that to make it work, right? Also, mass transit is infrastructure. And so whether people have access to good mass transit that gets them from one place to another, and, you know, how is that going to work? And is it going to be electric? And where’s that power going to come from?
So energy is a really interesting story. Everybody uses it every day. Everyone knows how dependent we are on it, and how bad it is when the power goes out. There’s—I would just tell the stories of how people are living with and without energy. And what it’s going to mean to make this transition to a clean energy future. Because one of the really interesting things about it is it doesn’t just reduce fossil fuel use and help us with climate change. It makes a whole bunch of other differences too. As soon as we start burning less fossil fuels, we send less kids to the hospital with asthma. You know, it cleans up the air, it cleans up the water, it does lots of other good things.
So, you know, when we make our communities more walkable it makes them safer, it gets people to talk to their neighbors more. So there’s lots of things that go on that are technically infrastructure. But if we talk about it just in terms of how people live their lives, right? Like what I said earlier, you know, we don’t like fossil fuels, we like mobility. We like cold beer and hot showers. If you talk to people about it in that way, where are we going to get the energy to power everything? Then I think it really does help people think about that. You know, for example, one of the things we’re looking at right now as an infrastructure change are some places are banning natural gas pipelines.
Well, we call it “natural gas” but that’s actually sort of just a marketing term for the industry. It’s methane gas. And there’s nothing natural about digging up billion-year-old carbon and pulling it out of the ground and burning it or releasing it into the atmosphere in the geological blink of an eye. So I call it methane gas. So all of that, though, so talking about not having new gas lines run in new neighborhoods, because eventually we’re going to have to get off of that. So they want for people to use electric heat pumps, which are more efficient and use electricity. And then we can make that electricity with renewable energy. So that’s the kind of thing that’s also an interesting local story. What are we doing with that? How are we powering the things that we all need and rely on to live?
ROBBINS: Isn’t there also—I mean, not that we want to do the if it bleeds it leads approach to this. But, I mean, on the risk of—to go back to the resiliency question, or the adaptation question, I mean, infrastructure’s taking a beating because of climate degradation. I mean, Texas is a perfect example. And you talked about—you know, we talked about that. The fact that Texas didn’t—you know, we didn’t expect this weather, and look what it did to our grid. You know, what is it doing to bridges? What is it doing to roads? What is it doing to things that we just basically take for granted that are infrastructure? I mean, it would seem to me that there’s—just the beating that things are taking would seem like—you got a great beat. Congratulations with that.
And I suppose the answers to that go back to the same question we were asking with the school districts, which is the resiliencies and best practices questions are where it seems to be. Is there stuff in the infrastructure bill that—you know, that’s really, like, going to deal with that? I mean, I can’t figure out what’s in any of these bills.
HASSOL: Yes. So build back better is really about that, right? So we now have so many billion-dollar disasters—that is, disasters, each one of which costs over a billion dollars to deal with. If you—NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, keeps track of those. And we just had a record number of them in the past year. So it was—and it’s not getting better, right? We’re seeing a big increase in these multibillion-dollar disasters. Those things are affected by climate change in a very big way. And the Build Back Better Act does look at building them back, as it says, better, in a way that takes into account climate change.
You know, engineering has long been done by looking in the rearview mirror. You know, we basically build for the climate we’ve had, not the climate we’re going to have. Well, that used to work when climate was stationary. But climate change has changed that. And we are no longer in a stationary climate. We are in a climate that is changing and keeps changing. So it’s not like we get a new normal and we get to build for the new normal. It’s going to continue to change until we stop emitting the heat-trapping gases that are causing the problem. So, yes, we need to start building our roads and our bridges, taking into—and our water systems. The pumps, the pipes, the canals. You know, they’re spending $300 million in Miami on a system to pump water out of the streets.
All of this stuff is affected by climate change and will continue to be. And so we have to take all that into consideration the way we build back our infrastructure and the way we harden some of our infrastructure to these kinds of disasters, which are unnatural disasters. People like to call them natural disasters. But they’re not natural anymore. So I call them unnatural disasters. And I wrote an article by that name.
ROBBINS: So, David, sorry, I skipped over you because we were on infrastructure. Do you want to ask your question? This is David Schechter from WFAA-TV in Dallas, who probably knows a lot about the problems there.
Q: Yeah. Thank you for—so much for doing this.
Actually, we just did a—ran a story on Monday night about sea level rise on the Texas Gulf Coast. A ten-minute story. It’s the most watched story all week so far on our—on our website. People are particularly interested in it, and the connection between what happens in Glasgow and what’s going to happen on the coast of Texas is very clear.
ROBBINS: Can you share that with—you’ll share that with us, and we’ll push it out to everybody.
Q: Sure. So my question specifically is what—at the end of COP26, what would be a way for—I’d like to—judgement’s not the right word, but come to some conclusions for the audience, to say this was a success or this was a failure. Or, I mean, maybe it’s a little bit of both. But how would you determine what the bar is to say they want to Glasgow to do this, they didn’t do it or, you know, that kind of thing?
HASSOL: Yeah. So I think it’s going to come down to minding those gaps that I mentioned earlier. It’s going to be taking a look at what did they pledge to do? What are they ready to implement? And how different is it going to be than what’s been done before? So I like to believe—I mean, I know that the intention is there. These are all people of very good faith that are going and negotiating and working really hard to try to move us out of this crisis. We are in an emergency now. And I think we have to judge them—and I understand what you mean about that. You don’t want to judge harshly, but you do want to judge. We have to judge by what happens in reality, right?
Are the—are the pledges going to be made real with policies? Are these countries going to be able to get the policies through to do what they say they’re going to do and are we going to see those changes? The money that they pledge, the $100 billion a year, is that going to really happen in terms of moving money to the developing countries so that they can leapfrog over the industrialization, the dirty development that we did—leapfrog straight to clean energy? We have to help them do that because half the boat can’t float and half sink. You know, if they—if India keeps building coal plants, it hurts all of our climate. So we have to help them to develop in a cleaner way. And that is possible.
So I think the way we have to judge is not going to be able to be determined the day after the COP is over. It’s going to be determined over time. Are those pledges, are those monies actually being transferred? Is it really happening? You know, one of the things that I’m looking at a lot these days is the production gap. And so the fact that we are still developing new fossil fuel frontiers. Now, the U.S. is actually the worst offender on this. Most—a lot of the—the U.S. has more new production of oil and gas on track for the next ten years of any other country. So is the U.S. going to change that? Are we going to pull back from some of those plans that are in the pipeline, as it were?
Then there are frontiers that the fossil fuel industry, the oil and gas industry in particular, are going into in Africa, in South America and Southeast Asia, places where they have not developed before for oil and gas but they’re looking at these new exploration blocks, and they want to build new pipelines. And so how, when we know we need to phase our fossil fuels, we need to ramp down production, why are we still looking at new frontiers? So I would judge by whether we are actually stopping some of that. The banks that finance all of this, all of these fossil fuel projects are financed by banks. Some of those big banks—some of the top four are U.S. banks. So there’s an organization called BankTrack that tracks the financing of all of this fossil fuel development.
Those are all ways that we can look and say: Is the government—are our governments going to do something about that? Is it all just talk? Or are they going to actually stop new fossil fuel development in other places, in frontiers? Are we going to slow down on this—are we going to stop this new development within our own country? Are we going to keep building new pipelines? Why are we throwing good money after bad, when we know we’re going to have to ramp down production? Why are we still building and investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure when we know that it is incompatible with the targets and the pledges that we’re making?
So that’s the way I would look at this. And I would hold people’s feet the fire, and say: You’re saying all the right stuff, but are you doing it? Are you walking the walk? Those are—those are few thoughts on that subject. And, you know, by the way, tomorrow there’s a side event on these new fossil fuel frontiers that I’m talking about. You can actually join it virtually via Zoom. And I’ll ask Morgan Block, who’s with us, to put that information in the chat. And you can register and attend that event and learn about more what’s happening in some of these frontiers in African and South America and Southeast Asia. I hope that’s helpful.
ROBBINS: That’s hugely helpful. But is there also—I didn’t mean a but in that, but, yes—in transition, I remember after Paris that there were, like, all sorts of trackers that people set up to—because there are so many moving parts here. You know, who is giving money? Who’s, you know, made what pledge? How do you track, you know, how close they are to their pledges? And, you know, I’m a bear of limited brain, and I’d like to have grids and spreadsheets. And I’d like somebody else to do the work for me, preferably.
Can you recommend ways to—you know, people who are going to be doing that, or are already doing it, so we can pay attention to, you know, what’s the Green Climate Fund? Who’s—you know, who’s given what money? Who’s, you know, falling behind on their pledges on their INDCs [Intended Nationally Determined Contribution]? I mean, you know, who are the good people who are actually slicing and dicing the numbers in a way that’s accessible that we can—we can pay attention to answer the question that was posed about how far along we are and how far we have to go?
HASSOL: Yeah. So the U.N. Environment Program does a pretty good job of keeping track of all that. And then there are other sort of think tank, do tank type things, like RMI and Energy Innovation. You know, for example, you were mentioning before about the infrastructure bill and how hard it is to know what’s in it, and what’s going to do what. Well, Energy Innovation took a look at that and broke it all down and said: OK, here are all these different policies. Here’s how much emissions would be reduced by each one of them. So that when Senator Manchin, for example, said he wants to pull out the one where it was carrots and sticks for the utility companies and the power plants, they were able to say, well, that was 40 percent of the emissions reductions right there. So if we don’t do that, what are we going to do instead?
So there are organizations that track this. Stockholm Environment Institute is one that puts out a lot of good reports around these kinds of issues. And I’ll keep an eye out for other things and let you know, but, yeah, there are usually—even the New York Times, who has a hub right now in—
ROBBINS: What do you mean, even the New York Times?
HASSOL: (Laughs.) That they—that they have also—they’ve got several reporters over there. And they will put together something like that that I think would be useful. And I said “even” because it’s actually, like, I mean, a media source as opposed to—
HASSOL: They’re really doing a lot of climate right now, and I think they’re doing a really good job.
ROBBINS: That’s right. I can cheer on all of my former employers. (Laughs.)
So RMI, I just looked it up. This is RMI.org, transforming the global energy system to secure a clean, prosperous zero-carbon future for all. Looks like it’s a good—and Energy Innovation is?
HASSOL: Energy Innovation, LLC. Morgan can probably put the link in the chat for you all. So, you know, our website, ClimateCommunciation.org, we have a lot of—we curate resources, right? So I know that one of the things—like you say, how do you know if something’s a good source? How do you know if it’s a credible source? If you just Google “global warming,” you know, you’ll go right to the Heartland Institute, which is a climate denier group, right? So you have to be careful. So what we do is on ClimateCommunication.org, which is our website, we have a set of resources. And there’s articles, reports, websites. And we’ve picked, you know, maybe no more than ten in any given category. And so there you can find Energy Innovation and a group called Climate Interactive, and some others that we recommend as being really good, credible sources for this kind of thing.
So if you go to our website, you’ll—you can go to those resources. You can also see some of the articles. For example, I mentioned the one on climate migration. You’ll find that there. I also just did one that just came out yesterday in Scientific American. And it’s called “The Three Things We Have to Do to Tackle Climate Change.” And it basically boiled down this whole big complex set of solutions to three things: phase out fossil fuels, deploy clean energy, and protect our forests. And then of course, I give you some more detail under each one, but that’s—you’ll find that there. And the one I mentioned, “Unnatural Disasters,” about how to talk about and make the connections between climate change and particular types of extreme weather, that article is there. And two that I did for the New York Times, including one that’s framed on the wall behind me, about the connections between heat waves and climate change and the deaths that we’re seeing pile up from the heat impacts of climate change.
ROBBINS: So, as I was saying before about this, is it’s not like there are two sides to this. Like evolution. That said, there must be some sort of textured debate about remediation, about, you know, which policies are the better policies and what costs are the better costs. How do we get a sense of—because, you know, we’re reporters. We don’t want on the one hand, on the other hand on climate change. On the other hand, we do want more texture in our reporting. How do we get that? I mean, how—you know, where—I mean, maybe, you know—where, perhaps, as the areas of debate, or at least healthy discussion in any particular area, if I wanted to take a look and at least feel a little bit better in my soul that I didn’t—I understand it’s not advocacy. But I always feel a little bit uncomfortable if I feel like everybody’s agreeing in all my stories.
HASSOL: Yeah. (Laughs.) So not everybody agrees on all the details of how we tackle this, right? So we know we have to get—we have to go to carbon-free energy, right? Then the question is, what are the best carbon-free sources? So when you look at a supply curve and you say, OK, we want to do this, but we want to do this the least expensive way possible, not the most expensive way. So we’ll start with the things that are the cheapest—that is, energy efficiency. And right now solar photovoltaic is the cheapest form of new energy. We’re doing better with storage. And then you go all the way up the supply curve.
At the very far end of the supply curve you’ll see nuclear power, currently the most expensive way to generate electricity, but it’s carbon free. And that’s good. We need carbon free baseload electricity. We have 100, roughly, nuclear plants in this country. We want to keep them online as long as it’s safe and as long as we can, because we don’t want to have to replace that carbon-free energy. There’s a debate about whether we should be investing in a new generation of nuclear power. Right now there’s nothing that’s cost effective and that can be done fast enough to really make a big contribution. But there are people who advocate that we need to be making that investment to see if there’s something that we can come up with there that can help us.
That’s not agreed across the board. Many people say, why not just deploy the stuff that we have now that’s safe, that’s cheap, and that we’re ready to deploy? So there’s some disagreement there. There’s some—still some debate about how we’re going to get the last 10 or 20 percent. I think we feel pretty comfortable that we can get the first 80 percent done, but there are some hard to decarbonize sectors. Long-haul air travel is one of those. Are we going to do it with hydrogen? You know, we know we can do short-haul flights with electric, but the long-haul flights, we need the density—energy density, and we don’t know how exactly we’re going to get there. And there are some others.
So there is some healthy debate on exactly which policies and exactly which technologies will get us there. There’s some debate about carbon capture and storage, and how much we should be investing in carbon capture technology. Thus far, it’s very expensive and it doesn’t capture much at all, right? So we don’t have—we would have to develop the infrastructure—to use that word again- that’s more than all of our current oil and gas infrastructure just to capture and store carbon. Most people think—the people that, you know, are really looking at this objectively—it’s not likely to happen. However, those who want to keep us still using fossil fuels are pushing hard for more carbon—more of this carbon capture and storage technology. And there’s quite a bit of money for that in the Build Back Better Act. Not everyone thinks that’s a good idea. So those are some of the places where I think you can find some honest disagreement among credible sources.
ROBBINS: So we have two minutes left. Unless somebody has another question? Just is there a country that does—that’s sort of leading edge on this? That, you know, is doing things that we should—we should be looking at?
HASSOL: Iceland is one. Costa Rica is another. These tend to be countries that don’t have giant populations and also have some good natural resources. So Iceland is quite blessed with hydroelectric resources and geothermal resources. So those are two great renewable resources. And they’re 100 percent renewable. So that’s pretty cool. So you want to look to how they’re doing it, and how they’re using it. And they use it even for big industry. So, you know, we can also do a lot better with transmission. So there’s a lot of hydroelectric in Canada. And they could be using some of that in the U.S. Northeast if they worked on better transmission lines. So that’s a piece of this that we’re going to have to be looking at. But those are a couple of countries. And some of the small islands are working really hard.
And, you know, we’re doing pretty well in the U.S. There’s been, you know, a big increase in solar and wind recently. But we’re going to need a lot more. So we’re on our way, but we’re not there yet. So we’re winning, but not fast enough. And in the case of climate change, we’re racing against—we’re racing against time, because winning too slowly is the same as losing. So, yeah, we just need to do everything faster—as much as we can, as fast as we can.
ROBBINS: Thank you so much. I’m going to turn this back to Maria, but I want to point out that Susan Hassol tweets at @climatecomms. And worth—very much worth following her. And I thank you all so much for joining us. Please share everything that you write and things that you want us to do. We will also be pushing out a lot of the things that were in the chat as well, if you didn’t have time to copy and paste. And over to you, Maria.
CASA: Susan Joy Hassol and Carla Anne Robbins, thank you very much for speaking with us today. And thanks to all of you across the country for joining us. As Carla just mentioned, we will be sending you a list of the resources mentioned during this conversation along with the link to the recording and transcript of the webinar, once it’s been posted on our website. I encourage you to follow Carla on Twitter at @robbinscarla and Susan at @climatecomms. Please also visit CFR.org and ForeignAffairs.com for further coverage of climate change and analysis of the national and international trends affecting the United States. We welcome, as always, your suggestions for future webinars. You can reach us by emailing [email protected]. So thank you again for joining us today and see you next time.
ROBBINS: Thanks so much.