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COP28, Polluter Accountability, and Upgrading the Climate Narrative (Podcast Transcript)

[Anna]: Today we’re talking [about] COP 28, the United Nations Climate Conference, which came to a close yesterday, December 13th, after two weeks of negotiations. We’ll start with the sort of good news.

For the first time ever, in the 28-year history of COP, the agreement that all 198 countries signed onto finally has language around the need to move away from fossil fuels. You’d think that that would have been there from the start: fossil fuels are the main cause of climate change. But the influence of fossil fueled nations, companies, and lobbyists has been that strong for this long– which brings us to the pretty bad news.

While the deal does call for reducing emissions, it does not require a phase out of fossil fuels. That specific term, phase out, is what climate scientists and activists have been calling for, adamantly, since there’s really no way to solve climate change without putting an end to fossil fuels, as swiftly as possible.

More than a hundred countries support a phase out, but of course, petro-states, like Saudi Arabia, do not. So this is what we end up with– a compromise– including loopholes that might actually set us back. For example, the agreement acknowledges that some countries may need to use quote-unquote transition fuels, and everybody knows what that means: methane gas, AKA natural gas– greenwashing at its finest. 

Methane is a heat-trapping, climate-warming gas 80 times worse than CO2 in the short term. It is worth noting that earlier in the conference, 50 fossil fuel companies, including Saudi Aramco, pledged to reduce their methane emissions by 80 to 90 percent by 2030, and the U.S. pledged to do the same by 2038, through regulating the nation’s industry. 

It’s likely that where the bulk of the methane will be coming from is developing countries. The agreement basically offered concessions to developing countries to be able to grow their economies, or at least not jeopardize them, while ultimately making the transition to clean energy.

Another potential loophole in the agreement involves carbon capture and storage. This technology is still in the early stages of development, but the fossil fuel industry is investing in it heavily so that whatever carbon they emit, they can just capture and store. No harm done, right? Wrong. 

Carbon capture and storage basically just allow polluters to keep on polluting and distracts us from doing what we unequivocally need to do: End fossil fuels. This was the message of Licypriya Kangujam, 12 year old climate activist from India, who interrupted one of the main sessions at COP28 to protest climate inaction on stage.

“Act now! Our governments must work together to phase out coal, oil, and gas! Act now! We want permanent solutions!”

The fact that a 12 year old child felt the need to do this at a very strict anti-protest conference just goes to show how dire the situation is. The science clearly shows that continuing to burn fossil fuels, even at half the rate we are today, is a death sentence for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people– especially in the global south, where most have barely contributed to climate change at all, and yet are often suffering its worst impacts. 

Clean energy is the future, and it’s already here. We just need a lot more of it. That’s why the agreement out of COP28 calls on countries to triple their clean energy production by 2030, by the end of this decade. And the agreement specifically mentions nuclear power, which is another first and a huge win. More than 22 countries, including the U. S., have pledged to triple nuclear power capacity by 2050. It takes a little longer for nuclear, and there are groups working to expedite the process. 

Whether we can actually achieve these clean energy targets and other related goals in the agreement all comes down to the funding. Who is going to pay for it? And how do we get them to? 

Climate finance was a big topic at this year’s COP, not just in terms of mobilizing capital for ramping up clean energy production, but also, I think more so, in terms of helping the country’s most vulnerable to climate impacts prepare for and recover from these impacts: droughts, floods, food and water insecurity; the list goes on. A loss and damage fund was set up at COP28, but wealthier nations have only contributed about 700 million so far– just a fraction of the trillions that poor, vulnerable nations need in order to adapt to our rapidly changing climate. 

Climate adaptation is important. I’d argue it’s just as important as climate restoration. Because ultimately, restoring the climate gets us to the point where we don’t have to be constantly adapting and playing catch up with climate chaos anymore. The climate will have been restored, back to levels we know we can survive and thrive in long term.

There are ways to do this. Safe, scalable, permanent, and cost effective ways to do it. But do you see any language around climate restoration at COP? No. We’re still stuck on net zero and 1.5 degrees. 

For a refresher, net zero basically means the amount of emissions going into the atmosphere is equal to the amount being taken out. The billions of tons of CO2 already in the atmosphere will continue to heat up the planet and wreak havoc until we take it back out. 

We need carbon removal as a massive, ambitious, international effort. Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is not good enough. You guys, we’re already at 1.3 degrees. And every tenth of a degree counts, but clearly this approach is not working. 

And besides, why settle for that when we can reverse warming? The SpaceshipOne podcast actually has an episode all about climate restoration and the specific methods– for example, carbon negative cement production. So go check that out to learn more. It’s such an awesome, inspirational idea and we need more people talking about it for it to really blow up and replace net zero as our quote unquote North Star in decision making spaces like COP. 

I think part of the reason climate restoration hasn’t really made the big splash yet is it’s almost too advanced compared to where we are right now with, you know, still squabbling over fossil fuels. Some people are saying that this year’s COP was a success just given that we got a transition away from fossil fuels into the agreement, but again, that is the most basic no-brainer, bare minimum. It should have been there to begin with. So, that begs the question: why wasn’t it? 

I think in order to understand that, you have to understand how pervasive the power of the fossil fuel industry truly is, and just how many lobbyists and representatives they have at these conferences, swaying the agenda and the narrative and the diplomacy in their favor. It took 25 years to even get the words fossil fuels into the final text of a COP agreement. That was at COP 25 in Madrid in 2019. 

Now, four years later, we have some improvement, a transition away from fossil fuels. But remember, it’s not the actual full phase out we need. And it’s no coincidence. I mean, over the last 20 years, the fossil fuel industry has been given at least 7,000 passes to attend COPS, and their presence has only grown bigger in recent years. 

This year, it was the biggest ever, with almost 2,500 fossil fuel lobbyists granted access into the conference, four times more than any previous COP, vastly outnumbering the delegates from the country’s most vulnerable to climate change, such as small island nations losing their home to rising sea levels.

Not to mention, COP28 was held in Dubai, a prominent oil producing nation, and headed by the leader of one of the world’s biggest oil companies. Like, this is a climate conference. Conflict of interest much? And next year’s COP is going to be in Azerbaijan, another oil and gas producer. 

And look, I get it– fossil fuels still make up the bulk of the world’s energy supply. That’s the reality. So it’s almost unavoidable that a COP will be held in a pro-fossil fuel country. But that’s one thing. It’s another thing entirely to welcome in record numbers of fossil fuel lobbyists when they have shown they are not there to engage in good faith on solutions. They are only there to greenwash, delay real climate action, and protect their short-term profits. That’s it. 

It’s actually really important that we call them out and talk with the people in our lives about it, because most people don’t know and that’s what the fossil fuel industry wants. That’s how they get away with it. We’re not gonna stand for it. We’re gonna spread awareness, hold them accountable, get polluters out. Make them pay, and take action in whatever ways we can. 

I actually have a resource for you, dear listener, to help with that. I gave a presentation on climate communication last week to some colleagues at the Anthropocene Institute, the sponsor of the SpaceshipOne podcast, so I thought I’d share it here with you all. It’s mostly based on findings from a report called Later is Too Late, which has been a common refrain among activists, especially at COP28. I hope you find it as interesting and useful as I did.

**musical interlude**

Hi everybody, I’m Anna Michel. I work on SpaceshipOne. And today I’m going to be talking about climate communication. So, there was actually this study that was conducted over the summer this year. And they just came out with the results last month, and it was in partnership with the Yale Program on Climate Communications. 

They found that the most powerful message around climate change is one that is emphasizing protecting Earth for future generations. They surveyed 60, 000 people across the world, across most of the G20 except for Russia. That’s 70 percent of the world’s population being represented and 80 percent of the world’s emissions, so it’s one of the most comprehensive climate communication studies ever. 

They had a control group in each country and a treatment group in each country. The control group was asked the same questions as the treatment group, but they did not receive any narrative. They just were asked questions like, do you support climate action, etc. The treatment group was asked those types of questions, the same ones, after receiving one of three narratives. One of them was about polluter accountability [and] the fossil fuel industry. The other one was about clean energy [and] prosperity. And the other one was about an urgent need for generational responsibility, protecting Earth for future generations, and that one outperformed all the rest by a lot. In fact, it resonated 12 times more with people from all the countries than a narrative about climate jobs, for example. 

I’m going to read the actual full narrative that they gave the respondents: 

‘You don’t have to be a scientist to see how our climate has changed. Extreme weather events, like extreme heat waves, floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts are becoming more frequent and more severe. The last eight years were the hottest ever recorded in human history. Our overheating planet is already putting lives and livelihoods at risk. It’s hurting our farmers, over polluting our cities, reducing our water supply, and costing us billions in damage from extreme weather. Most importantly, it’s putting our children’s futures at risk. 

It’s our responsibility to leave behind a safe, livable world for future generations. If we don’t stop polluting, it will only get worse. Carbon pollution stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years, so the effects cannot be reversed.’– I would beg to differ, but that’s another presentation– ‘Yet, today, the world continues to emit more heat trapping carbon pollution than ever. It’s cooking the planet. We need immediate action on climate change, because later is too late.’ 

I can see why that’s powerful. For me, it kind of dispelled this myth that older people don’t care as much as younger people about climate change. They actually addressed that directly in the report. It found that, in fact, across the world, younger people are slightly less concerned actually, than older people, which is counterintuitive for me at least. But it goes back to just how powerful this narrative is, of generational responsibility, of leaving behind a safe, livable world for our children, our future generations. 

So they made a lot of other great points in the report about effective framing of climate narratives. The whole thing about holding polluters accountable was still really effective. One in four participants thought that individual behavior change was helpful for climate action, but everybody else was very much in agreement that governments and companies are the ones who are responsible for making the big changes that we need to see for climate action. 

And that’s consistent with, you know, when you look at who is actually responsible for climate change in the first place. It’s, by and large, governments and corporations– not that those entities aren’t also made up of people; we the people do vote for our elected representatives, and we buy products from big companies.There’s an argument for personal lifestyle change when and where possible, especially in higher emitting countries like the US. We have contributed the most [emissions] to climate change as a country, historically.

But overall, they found that focusing on holding polluters accountable was really effective– along with the progress that we’ve already made on the clean energy front. Over 75 percent of the respondents across all the countries agreed that the government should be subsidizing clean energy, and that we should limit carbon pollution from major corporations. 

So there is broad support for climate action policies around the world. And I think that’s an important thing to know when you’re talking about climate change– to be able to point to that and say people want this. The world is united in wanting climate action. Political polarization is really not that big of a deal outside of the US. We are a lot more polarized than other countries. We’re, in fact, four times more polarized on average. 

Across the world, we want climate action more than we don’t want it. Supporters outnumber opponents eight to one across all demographics– across age, across race, across income, across all countries. And ultimately what motivates us in the ways that we view climate and what we can do about it is protecting what we love. So I thought that was powerful. 

Okay, so that’s great– we know why we want to talk about climate change. But then that gets into well, how do I even go about talking about it? Do I have enough background information to be able to feel confident in my ability to talk about it? That is part of it, but I do want to encourage people to not worry so much about that, because most of the time you’re not going to be getting into the nitty gritty science of climate change with people. 

Before you even utter the words climate change– especially if that person is not as familiar, or not as politically aligned– before you even say climate change, get to know their values and beliefs. And then you can make the connection to climate change later on. But, you know, start with people and stay with people. That’s the #1 tip. And these tips are coming from ecoAmerica. 

Just a little fun side note: I actually did an ecoAmerica workshop, working with these climate communication tips, in 2018, the year I graduated college after doing my thesis on climate communication, and it’s amazing how many of these tips still stand. They stand the test of time.

So, number one: focus on people and what they care about, and kind of weave climate change into that. For example, if someone says they care about family– I mean, it’s pretty obvious with family: do you want to protect your children’s future? Do you want them to be able to have clean air, clean water, et cetera? 

And then this kind of gets into the second tip, which is: make it real. If you just look at the news, you see that climate change is happening in the form of increasing extreme weather. In fact, you don’t even have to really say climate change, especially when you’re speaking with people who don’t have interest in being on that level. They are going to sometimes be turned off by the term climate change. And if you can just simplify it into extreme weather, then it’s a bit more effective, because it’s down to the reality of what’s happening. 

We’ve got to normalize talking about this stuff, because it is just everyday stuff. You need energy to do pretty much anything. Where does that energy come from? And what does that mean for the air that we’re breathing? You don’t want to spend too much time on that because it can get very doom and gloom very quickly. So then you’ll move on to the solutions. 

Whether that’s personal lifestyle changes, if they seem interested in that– and those don’t have to be inconvenient. You can frame it as not just a benefit for the climate, but a benefit for your health. For example, eating plant-based is not only good for the climate, it’ll lower emissions by a lot, but also, it’s better for your health. You know, it’s lower cholesterol, lower risk of heart disease, and even increases your life expectancy, ultimately. There’s lots of co-benefits to climate solutions that you can talk about. 

Or it can look like advocating for those like larger systemic changes that we need, like voting for the right people and just supporting those policies like clean energy subsidies and stuff like that. Clean energy is not just about the energy being clean and the climate being safer and more stable because it’s lower emissions. It’s also about energy independence and energy sovereignty. 

When we don’t have big oil controlling the supply of our energy and the prices and everything, and taking way more money from our tax dollars than we even realize, then we actually have control over our own energy, and that is huge. And that’s what’s fair. And that’s a lot of what you can talk about if somebody is concerned with fairness. 

Again, keep focusing on what they care about, because the whole point is to connect, at the end of the day, and be empowering. Bottom line is, in order to do something about climate change, we have to be able to talk about it, right?