Brian Lehrer: Brian Lehrer on WNYC on day six of Climate Week NYC, which coincides with world leaders gathering here for the Annual UN General Assembly. Normally on The Brian Lehrer Show, we do a climate segment of the week on Tuesdays, but this week we brought Climate Week here by airing a segment every day in conjunction with Covering Climate Now, a media collaboration that includes this show and WNYC and other news organizations.
This week, we've already spoken with a few of the winners of the Covering Climate Now 2023 Journalism Awards. Today, we have another recipient with us, a Journalist of the Year Award. Three people, including two who were on the show earlier in the week, have been awarded this. Today, it's Damian Carrington, environment editor at The Guardian. In his 15 years as an environment correspondent, he has showcased accountability journalism at its finest, says Covering Climate Now.
A few of his pieces highlighted in his award include his reporting on carbon bombs, so-called, and methane bombs, so-called, in which he detailed exact names and locations of projects that threaten to push the planet past the 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, which is the goal of the UN to keep it within that as well as the corporate and governmental agents responsible for their funding. We'll talk about that as well as some of the events of this week at the UN, including the Climate Ambition Summit. Damian, thanks for coming on. Welcome to WNYC.
Damian Carrington: Thanks very much, Brian. It's great to be here.
Brian Lehrer: Can I start on your recent story about the UK, in which The Guardian is obviously based, not being invited to speak at the Climate Ambition Summit, which Secretary-General Guterres said was only for countries serious enough about climate change action?
Damian Carrington: Of course, yes. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has been really outspoken about how serious the problem of global heating is. He talked about opening the gates of hell this week. In his role, he can't command things to happen around the world, but he can certainly put pressure on political leaders. This week in New York he said, "Come and talk, if you're a national leader, about the great new things that you're doing to try and cut carbon emissions," but the UK did not come up with any, and therefore wasn't invited. Our prime minister, Rishi Sunak, decided as a result, I think, not to come.
Brian Lehrer: Your article is headlined UK Absent from Key International Statement on Climate Action. Did a statement come out of Wednesday's Climate Ambition Summit and it was signed by a number of countries, not including the UK?
Damian Carrington: Almost. There was a collection of countries. At the UN climate talks each year, there are coalitions of like-minded nations that try and operate together to amplify their interest. There was a Climate Ambition Group of which the United Kingdom had been a member in the past few years. As some people might remember, the UN Climate Summit COP26 was hosted in the UK in 2021.
The most recent statement from that group, the Climate Ambition Group, did not include the United Kingdom. Our new prime minister, relative new prime minister, doesn't show a great deal of interest in climate change, and frankly, with an election coming next year, I think for some reason he thinks it's in his political interests not to be seen as a climate warrior.
Brian Lehrer: Did the Climate Ambition Summit accomplish anything in your view?
Damian Carrington: It's a really good question because as you know, there is no world government and most people would be thankful for that. Therefore, the UN can't compel countries to do things, and therefore it is about trying to cajole and press and prod. To set the big picture, action is being taken on cutting carbon emissions. A few years ago, we were probably on track for something like three and a half or four degrees of global warming, which could be civilization-ending, according to most scientists.
At the moment, we look like we're on track for about 2.8. That's still going to be really bad because we've seen all around the world, not least in the United States this year, the impacts of climate weather, and that's at 1.3, 1.4 degrees. 2.8 is going to be really bad, but things are happening. Renewable energy is really cheap. Electric cars are coming on track. Electrical heating systems like heat pumps are growing very rapidly.
The problem is that this is a race. We need to get there as quickly as we can to minimize the harm and the suffering from people around the world. These political events like the Climate Ambitions Summit this week in New York, can achieve things when leaders stand up and give sort of broad indications of direction that can influence the rest of the economy in terms of car makers and energy companies, and so on. It's not kind of a simple case of implementing a law or a regulation. It doesn't work like that, unfortunately, in the international arena.
Brian Lehrer: You mean the leaders who were at the Climate Ambition Summit on Wednesday said stuff, but they didn't have the power to force stuff to happen?
Damian Carrington: Sorry, Brian, just say that again.
Brian Lehrer: The leaders who were at the Climate Ambition Summit said stuff on Wednesday, but that doesn't mean stuff's going to happen in their countries.
Damian Carrington: Well, it's easy to be quite cynical given how poorly the world has responded to climate change over the last 20 years. Brazil was one of the countries speaking, and since the change of government there, with Lula returning after the Bolsonaro years, deforestation in the Amazon has dropped dramatically even in the short period of time that Lula's been in charge. Canada's Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was also allowed to speak there. He talked about reducing and reforming fossil fuel subsidies in Canada, which of course is a big energy producer.
Your listeners might be kind of surprised to know that there's about $7 trillion a year in fossil fuel subsidies. That's both in sort of direct money and in terms of the damage to health and economies, which the fossil fuel company is not held accountable for. That's about $13 million a minute. Some work is happening on that, but you won't be surprised to hear that we are still a very long way from where we need to be in terms of really tackling this problem.
Brian Lehrer: We've been talking about the UK because you're with The Guardian, but we should say the UK wasn't the only country with a low presence at this climate summit. Other major emitters absent this year included China and India. The United States, while somewhat present with John Kerry, President Biden's climate envoy in attendance, was barred from speaking. Is it worth saying something about the politics behind being invited to speak versus just attending the conference?
There's some level of exclusion or nonparticipation among the biggest polluters in the world. We could talk about the UK. We could talk about Canada. We could talk about Brazil. They're all important countries, but when you come down to it, if the US, and China, and India aren't full participants, then we can't move the needle that much. Or do you disagree?
Damian Carrington: No. It's certainly true that the US and China, as the world's two biggest polluters, are absolutely critical. Back in 2015 at the Paris Climate Summit, which did produce a kind of voluntary agreement, which was nonetheless very influential and has helped address the problem to some degree, a coordination between the United States and China was really critical to getting that through.
In terms of this week, President Biden's done a lot through the Inflation Reduction Act to move things along, but probably didn't have enough shiny new things to persuade Antonio Guterres that he deserved a speaking spot. China, diplomatically speaking, they hate being told what to do. They don't like being seen to respond to threats or inducements. Therefore, I think that's one reason why they didn't play.
France was not invited to speak, and nor was India, which is a kind of large and growing source of emissions, even though per capita, the billion Indians actually are not responsible for a great deal of CO2 emissions individually.
Brian Lehrer: Looking forward, I see that the Covering Climate Now Conference at Columbia University yesterday made some news. The former UN Climate Chief, Christiana Figueras, told people there that fossil fuel companies should be excluded from the upcoming COP28 Climate Summit, saying, "If they're going to be there only to be obstructors and only to put spanners into the system, they should not be there."
This comes after years of advocating for the presence of oil companies in policy-making discussions because obviously, they're players. What's your take on this? Why was the fossil fuel industry present in the first place at Climate summits. What does this potential evolution of the UN stance toward exclusion signal to you?
Damian Carrington: Yes, it's a really central question. The question is, given that oil and gas companies in particular are so critical to the way the world currently works in terms of the provision of gas and oil, do they need to be part of the solution or are they, in fact, the critical interests which are holding back progress? People have argued it each way.
Certainly, at the end of November, we'll see the latest UN climate summit, COP28. That's going to be in the United Arab Emirates, which, as you'll know, is a large producer of oil and gas. They've certainly come down on the side that the oil and gas industry needs to be involved as part of the solution because they've appointed as president or overseer of that UN summit, Sultan Al-Jaber, who is also the chief executive of the national oil company, which has enormous expansion plans.
Christiana Figueres was the UN's top climate diplomat, the UN's climate chief in 2015 when the Paris climate change agreement was put together. I know Christiana quite well. She's a force of nature. She's an extraordinarily effective, energetic, and enthusiastic person. I think for a long time she felt that trying to keep those big oil and gas companies inside the tent, as it were, was the way to go forward.
I think it's actually really significant that somebody of Christiana's stature has finally changed her mind this year and come to the conclusion that actually those big fossil fuel interests are not going to be part of the solution. We've certainly seen that over the past decades, where large companies like ExxonMobil and others have known perfectly well from their internal research what was happening with climate change, but denied that in terms of their public positions and now being prosecuted for that. A couple of weeks ago in California, they've started a case against them.
I think it's worth remembering that the fossil fuel industry is probably the most lucrative industry in the history of the world. They've made about $1 trillion a year in pure profit for the last 50 years, and that's an extraordinary amount of political influence and power. I think, certainly, Christiana and lots of people in climate change have come to the conclusion that they're really not our friends.
Brian Lehrer: Before you go, as I mentioned earlier, you've been selected as one of the journalists of the Year by Covering Climate Now, the media consortium that obviously is focused on covering the climate. You were selected as one of three journalists of the year, in large part due to your accountability reporting regarding major emitters. I just want to get a thought from you on one of the pieces that they highlighted. It's on what you call "carbon bombs." Tell our listeners what you mean by the phrase, by the term "carbon bomb" and why you identified 195 different oil and gas projects in their planning phases as being included in that terminology.
Damian Carrington: Absolutely. We defined "carbon bomb" with the help of a researcher called K. Kühne. What it is is a fossil fuel reserve, oil or gas or coal, which if fully exploited, would lead to the emission of one billion tons of CO2. That's about the annual emissions of Japan. It's a large amount, and that was just the minimum. Some of them are many times that size. There are lots in the United States and Canada, lots in Russia as well, but they are all around the world. We describe them as carbon bombs because if they get fully exploited, they will blow up the climate.
The fact is that we already have far more oil and gas and coal in reserves than we could possibly use and maintain a stable climate, and yet oil and gas companies in particular are still looking for more. That was part of that investigation as well through long and careful analysis of all the investment plans and exploration plans that these companies have.
We found out that the top 12 oil and gas companies around the world are planning to spend about $100 million a day between now and 2030, finding more oil and gas where we already have more than we can safely burn. I think it was a way of really just showing up how for the oil and gas industry, they're just making a colossal bet against the world, taking effective action on stopping climate change. If they win, they make a lot of money, but the world burns. That's what we really want to highlight.
Brian Lehrer: That's the carbon bombs. You also covered 1,000 super-emitting methane sites, the terminology "methane bombs," which are even more potent than "carbon bombs," you write.. What countries contain the most methane bombs? Can you put their potency into perspective for our listeners?
Damian Carrington: Yes, I think methane often goes under the radar a little. Methane is just another word for natural gas or fossil gas, the thing that heats people's dinners up every day. The problem with it is it's extremely potent greenhouse gas. Over about 20 years, it's 80 times, that's 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It's responsible for about a quarter to a third of all the global heating that we experience at the moment. I was really interested in looking into this.
Whilst oil and gas companies are pretty good at hiding what they do, the one thing they can't hide from is satellites. In the last three or four years, satellites have become very good at spotting big leaks of methane all around the world.
I worked with a company called [unintelligible 00:16:11] to look into this data. We spent a while analyzing it, found that there have been more than 1,000 so-called super-emitter events in 2022. Unsurprisingly, quite a lot were from the United States because there's a lot of oil and gas activity there, a lot in the Middle East as well. The thing that surprised me, which was the place with the most of these methane super emitters were Turkmenistan.
I don't know about your listeners, Brian, but certainly I didn't think about Turkmenistan very often before I came across this. It's a repressive secretive state in Central Asia, about which we hear very little, but they have these enormous leaks. The biggest one was 427 tons of methane per hour. Maybe that doesn't sound so much, but because of its potency, that's equivalent to running about 60 million regular US cars running on gas at the same time.
The really frustrating thing about this is that the solutions to stopping these leaks are generally very simple. It's really just about in the case of Turkmenistan, having old and faulty and badly-maintained equipment. Tightening up these things wouldn't cost them much. They'd almost certainly make more money from capturing that gas than it would cost them to fix it. This was something we really wanted to highlight.
In the United States, that had the second biggest methane super-emitter event that was in Pennsylvania in the fracking fields there. We sent somebody up there. The local people were saying it sounded like a jumbo jet taking off when it went. President Biden, through the IRA Act, is hoping to crack down on this by fining people or companies that leak large amounts of methane. It's double-edged. It's a very powerful greenhouse gas, but actually the solutions in that case tend to be quite simple.
Brian Lehrer: Well, thank you so much for your reporting and for explaining it so clearly and in plain English here. I think it's a real service to the listeners and obviously to your readers of The Guardian. My guest has been Damian Carrington, Environment Editor at The Guardian, and one of the three recipients of a Covering Climate Now 2023 Journalist of the Year award. Those awards announced this week by that media consortium, which includes the Brian Lehrer show in WNYC, as the Climate Ambition Summit and the UN General Assembly and Climate Week NYC were all going on. Damian, thank you very, very much for joining us today.
Damian Carrington: Thank you very much for having me. It's been a pleasure. Thank you for highlighting this important issue. I should say, otherwise my bosses will kill me, that The Guardian is an international media organization these days. We cover the United States and everywhere else in the world. If any of yout readers or listeners, rather, are interested, please take a look. Thanks again, Brian. Appreciate it.
Brian Lehrer: Thank you. Obviously, yes, there is Guardian US, which we have journalists from on this show on a pretty regular basis. Yes, The Guardian is a global news organization that has a US outlet as well as its home base in the UK and other places too. Listeners, that concludes our Climate Week NYC five-day series here on the Brian Lehrer Show. I hope it was of value to you.
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