That’s not what hope looks like, is it? But those empty chairs, as soon as I saw them outside the main plenary hall at #COP25 in Madrid, I recognized a metaphor for this disturbing and deeply disappointing climate summit (story linked here).
Listen to Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, whom I interviewed after a panel discussion in which he participated:
“In the last 10 years following the climate talks, they have never been as bleak and disappointing as this conference. The science is staring us in the face and school children are taking to the streets in their millions, and yet at the global climate summit countries are blocking progress and watering down climate action. It’s disgraceful and politicians are simply not doing their job of protecting the planet.
“We need to see countries committing to new and improved climate plans next year. That regular review and ratchet mechanism was what made the Paris agreement an effective tool for reducing emissions, but countries are dragging their feet and they are putting us all in danger.”
My final story from my sixth climate summit details what happened and didn’t happen, and in the final section, explains why. It all comes down to leadership. And until the U.S. reengages in this process in a positive, not destructive way, hopes for the Paris Agreement coming close to achieving its climate mitigation goals will be remote.
This story here, my third of ultimately five stories from COP25 in Madrid, Spain, was truly a team effort. It also illustrates the challenge and thrill of journalism — learning a new topic from scratch, finding just the right sources you’ve never met before, working with an editor in Indonesia and one in Vermont to put together a complex and nuanced environmental story about an ecologically sensitive part of the world (North Sumatra) with an rare and endangered great ape (Tapanuli orangutan).
Thanks to Isabel Esterman, Mongabay’s Indonesian editor, and Glenn Scherer, my editor at Mongabay, for putting me on to the story, then assisting prodigiously in putting all the pieces together about an Indonesian hydroelectric company, a dam-in-the-jungle project, the Tapanulis’ habitat and a serious question over carbon emissions.
After arriving at the cavernous venue on the outskirts of Madrid, Spain, on Friday, December 6 (happy birthday, Dad) for my first day at the 25th UN Climate Summit, I wondered around in a jet lag haze until I received my credentials, got my bearings, and figured out the venue’s layout. Then I contacted a reliable source and said, “I’m ready to get started.” And he was ready to brief me and put me in touch with the exact sources I needed — including one (Bill Moomaw of Tufts) who I’ve been eager to talk with for nearly two years.
The story, linked here, is a follow up to my pre-COP25 story of a week ago, only this one is far more detailed, and in many ways far more accurate and realistic. It simply doesn’t seem to matter to the delegates and leaders of the world’s largest economies that they alone hold the fate of the planet in their hands. And they are utterly failing.
When we were making our coverage plan for COP25 in Madrid, my longtime editor at Mongabay, Glenn Scherer, made an unusual request: “Try to find at least one upbeat story. The site is filled so such much gloomy news about the environment, we could use it.”
I had written about the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative in September 2019 and knew representatives from the group would be at the UN climate summit. Over breakfast with IRI’s program director in Peru, Laura Vargas, the idea slowly emerged as we spoke that she was exactly the story Glenn was requesting. Here’s the story. What a remarkable woman.
“IRI has given me a goal of defending life and nature on a global scale, and a deeper sense of purpose.”
Leaders of the 24th UN Climate Summit. Photo courtesy UNFCCC
For the fifth time in five years, The State of Things, the noon program on WUNC out of Durham, which reaches half of North Carolina, had me on live to talk with host Frank Stasio about the UN climate summit. The location this year, 2018? Katowice, Poland.
Protesters, for the second year in a row, bring the surreal Trump Administration’s fossil fuel message at the UN climate summit in Poland to a halt with a long, loud, boisterous outburst.
In November 2917 in Bonn, Germany at COP23, I managed to get into the Trump Administration’s only public event at the conference. I called it one of the strangest panel discussion in COP history. Trump representatives, heedless of the perils of climate change and its causes, urged the use of more fossil fuels and essentially advertised that the US has plenty to export. This year, as I report here, the administration held only one event again, and once again touted the use of fossil fuels. Both years, protesters interrupted the event, chanting loudly and then marching out, leaving the room half empty (as planned). My story here at COP24 in Katowice, Poland focuses on the outraged responses to Trump’s villainous attitude toward the environment.
Tom Steyer, one of the United States’ most influential environmental activists, at COP24 in Poland. Photo by Justin Catanoso
Reporting for my first story — linked here— at my fifth United Nations climate summit started shortly I arrived at the sprawling venue in Katowice, Poland. There was a reception at the US Climate Action Center, the unofficial hub of acitivity on the part of the United States in the age of Trump, who refuses to pay for a national pavilion like other countries.
I got to hear Tom Steyer speak, someone I’ve been reading about for years. A billionaire from his Wall Street days, he has turned his fortune into political and environmental activism that helped stop the XL Pipeline and promote a youth vote in the 2018 midterm elections that helped Democrats retake the US House of Representatives. Interviewing him one-on-one, and then hearing him speak the following night at a private event, gave me my story idea. The Trump negotiators obstructive pettiness, which emerged in a Saturday evening session, ended up leading the story. Great editing by Glenn Scherer of Mongabay.
For the fifth consecutive year, I will attend and cover a United Nations climate summit, my fourth for Mongabay. The 24th climate meeting in Katowice, Poland — a coal city in the EU’s second-largest consumer of coal for energy (behind Germany) — is a paradoxical choice. It also highlights the challenges world leaders face in what is no question the most important climate meeting since Paris in 2015. The link to my story is here.
There has been precious-little urgency among nation’s since the Obama Administration led the drafting and signing of the Paris Agreement. Plenty of action is taking place at the non-state level among mayors, governors, and corporate leaders. That’s all good. But something important is missing, as one of my best sources told me for my story:
“It’s easy to blame these leaders, and they deserve some of the blame,” Phil Duffy, executive director of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, U.S., said in an interview. “But at some level, there has to be popular support for action to be taken. And people aren’t clamoring for it.
“When I look at the properties of Hurricane Florence [which flooded the North Carolina coast], I see the signature of climate change. But somehow that doesn’t get through to the public. And leaders aren’t motivated to tell the truth, or to say that we really need to undertake radical, societal change. They believe correctly that it wouldn’t fly” with the public,” said Duffy.
Those innocuous-looking pellets, processed mostly from farmed pine trees in the Southeastern US, are a potential game breaker for the Paris Agreement goals, as I explain in this story.
It is perhaps the most consequential story I’ve reported on climate policy since I started in this space five years ago. Thanks to Don Lehr, my very first climate science source, whom I met at COP20 in Lima, Peru, in 2014, for tipping me off. And thanks also to a host of expert sources in tutoring me on biomass and carbon neutrality, entirely new topics for me. No longer.
Professor Doreen Stabinsky, pictured above, told me: “Why does the IPCC appear to accept inaccurate emissions accounting?” She then answered: Because “IPCC scientists are technocrats. It is not a neutral body. There is a lot of politics behind the positions of individuals on the IPCC. Their meetings are often loudly political.” Stabinsky speaks from firsthand knowledge: she studies the nexus between environmental policy and politics at College of the Atlantic, Maine.
While the Obama Administration — including John Kerry shown here at the Paris summit — was instrumental in successfully negotiating the 2015 accord, the international community at COP22 says it is committed to moving forward without the US. China is likely to fill the leadership void created by Trump. Photo courtesy of the US State Department
My Mongabay editor Glenn Scherer requested this storyover the first weekend of the 22nd United Nations Climate Summit in Marrakesh. I had already written a world reaction story to the stunning election of a boorish, bigoted charlatan as the next president of the United States. But Glenn wanted me to keep after the story. I’m glad I did. The specter of Trump hung over the entire conference and dominated almost every question at every press conference, and more than a few side side discussions.
Appearing at the mid-week press conference, Secretary of State John Kerry said angrily: ““This is bigger than one person, one president. We have to figure out how we’re going to stop this [Trump’s plan]… No one has the right to make decisions that affect billions of people based solely on ideology or without proper input.”
Jonathan Pershing. Photo by Justin Catanoso
Lead US negotiator Jonathan Pershing added: “It is no longer a question of whether to accelerate the [Paris] Agreement’s implementation, but rather a question of when and how.”
The offshoot: world leaders felt compelled to pledge an even stronger allegiance to the historic Paris Agreement, to not back away from their carbon-reduction pledges, and to do so with or without US participation or leadership. China now emerges as a potential leader in climate action, a development with grave implications for US trade and military policy and alliances. My story captures many of the storylines that dominated the final week of COP22.
Entrance to COP 22, UN Climate Summit, Marrakesh, Morocco. Photo by Justin Catanoso