Media outlets from NBC to Mother Jones have called the Paris climate change deal “landmark” and “historic.” Obama declared it “a turning point for the world.” But many climate change activists and scientists decry the deal as woefully insufficient. Brooke talks to Andrew Revkin, who has been reporting on climate change for more than three decades and writes the New York Times blog Dot Earth, and Jonathan Katz, who covered the talks in Paris for the New Republic, in an attempt to find some clarity amidst all the conflicting commentary.
BROOKE: Media outlets from NBC to Mother Jones have called the Paris climate change deal “landmark” and “historic.” Obama declared it “a turning point for the world.” But many climate change activists like Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, decry the deal as woefully insufficient. James Hansen, the NASA scientist who drew attention to climate change in 1988 called the deal “a fraud.”
Clarity is hard to find amid all the conflicting commentary. But we’re gonna try.
Andrew Revkin has been reporting on climate change for more than three decades. He writes the NYT blog Dot Earth. Thanks for coming on Andy.
REVKIN: Great to be with you.
BROOKE: And Jonathan Katz covered the talks in Paris for the New Republic. Hi, Jonathan!
BROOKE: How is it covered in the U.S., aside from the general confusion that I cited in the intro?
KATZ: This Jonathan. Every day when I would come home from Le Bourget, I would kind of check in on social media and see like oh I wonder what people in the states are saying about this. And of course they were saying basically nothing. Everybody was talking about Donald Trump, they were talking about the shootings in San Bernardino, they were talking about ISIS, there were very very few people who were talking about the climate conference.
BROOKE: Andy, when the deal was finished, it did get a lot of coverage, but mostly I saw it covered as a political issue.
REVKIN: It is covered that way in large part because the news media look for news often though the filter of what we think news looks like. And it's covered as a strategic thing, who wins who loses, what strategy was used, and those stories are all important, but they do miss that kind of reality of the background of forcings on the system which are changing our planet in ways that henceforth for actually millenniums there will be no new normal coastline. I mean, to me, as I think I told you on this show about 10 years ago, that's breaking news!
BROOKE: But that's not we hear! We see things more like what does this mean for Obama's legacy.
KATZ: This is Jonathan again. it was sort of the usual suspects, but you had people like Jonathan Chait --
BROOKE: In New York Magazine.
KATZ: In New York Magazine, exactly, yeah. And Tom Friedman's column in the New York Times was sort of similar, they kidn of rushed out to show that this was a big win for the Obama administration. It was very much what the state department was trying to sell, which is what the White House was as well. Which was basically that this is American leadership and this is Obama who's come in and he's making this deal happen, and the thing that that really missed was that any kind of real discussion about what exactly it was that the United States was trying to accomplish.
BROOKE: Because it's still such a touchy issue in the U.S. this whole climate change thing. Do you think that lead the mainstream press to go easier on this deal than they otherwise might have?
KATZ: Yeah, I definitely think there's been a little bit of walking on eggshells in terms of really criticizing the meat of the deal because people know that in the United States if you give an inch to the crowd that just essentially wants everyone to stop talking about climate change until we're all living under water, they'll take it and run with it and try to use it to change the topic as quickly as possible. Because we just have this really messed up debate in this country with basically one half of the conversation at least trying to cope with reality of climate change, and the other side with its head just completely buried in the sand, and so you had a lot of Republican media, like the National Review who were trying to blow holes in the deal just so they could prove it was a giant waste of time and it was nothing you should pay attention to, but what that missed was any kind of real conversation about what this deal did and didn't do, and the reasons that it did and didn't do it.
BROOKE: So what does this deal do? And not do? Andy?
REVKIN: Remember this is just the thumbnail sketch of a full deal that would be adopted by 2020. it basically creates a binding process by which countries individually pledge to change course from business as usual from carbon dioxide and these other gasses and on deforestation, and the rich countries have firmed up the language by which they will create a fund that will compensate poor ones for climate impacts that are the result of these changes in the system from the warming that's happening. What they've created is an architecture for getting everybody in a very nudgy, Cass Sunstein way, getting everybody to move forward and one of the promising things going forward - and this relates to the media too, not just the conventional journalist media, but the transparency that's imposable on the world now in terms of tracking deforestation rates or how much coal is being used is very promising because it makes this more doable without having kind of a global carbon police. One demonstration of this is that just ahead of these talks China came out with much more honest numbers for its coal based emissions and I think that shows you that it's just getting harder to cheat. think about volkswagon, they cheated for 4 or 5 years, but the revelations that lead to that came from independent analysis. That's doable on a global scale now more and more, and also the remote sensing satellites in terms of things like deforestation. So, there is a promising prospect of having progress without a carbon police.
BROOKE: So this deal calls for or firmly suggests that 187 countries pledge to cut their emissions to limit global warming to 2 degrees celsius above pre industrial levels, which people say is impossible to achieve, so is this purely symbolic?
KATZ: This is something that people were talking about a lot. The problem was we're already on track to go past that based on the emissions that have already been emitted, and when you add up the individual countries pledges that are the voluntary part of this agreement, we're gonna blow right past that really quickly, so what's the point of even having that language. The main thing that people were saying that was positive was that at the very least we have this as a goal, then countries can at least shame one another or talking to one another in bilateral negotiations they can say, hey look you agreed to this and we agreed to this and let's both go for this together, and that maybe in some way through some kind of international body we might just be able lean closer to that target.
REVKIN: There are so many fantastical aspects to this whole process. We are not even remotely engaged in the kind of energy push that you would need to decarbonize the world that is still more than 80% dependent on fossil fuels, where the United States the nuclear power plants that we have are all old, and we're not building or designing new ones, where the demand for energy that goes for progress is fundamental and not subject to diplomacy. i wrote a couple of years ago about a knife fight between two families in the himalayas over firewood, and they need any kind of energy more than they need firewood, because they've already just depleted the trees of all the low hanging branches.
BROOKE: So how is this a turning point?
REVKIN: Because the process has acknowledged this. it used to literally be a magical thinking process, Kyoto protocol was magical thinking.
BROOKE: In what way?
REVKIN: It had binding targets and tables but it had all kinds of loopholes, we now acknowledge we can't solve this how we thought we could. This was the first time since covering this since 1988 not in the treaty diplomacy, but at least in the ancillary announcements commitments to basic research and development to say we need more science here, too, we don't know how to do this. And those were all like to me tweaks in the right direction.
BROOKE: Now one reason the agreement isn't legally binding is because the US got everyone to agree to change the word shall to should. Because requiring accountability could allow the Republicans in Congress to kill it. It seems like these climate deniers yield a disproportionate influence over global climate change policy. Jonathan, did this come up in Paris?
KATZ: Yeah it was really surprising to me, basically the head European climate change negotiator from Spain, Miguel Arias Canete, gets up and he's answering a question about why this agreement can't actually require cuts to emissions or actually require that the developed countries, the rich countries pay money that they have said or at least vaguely implied that they would pay to help developing countries and seriously poor countries deal with the effects of climate change, and his answer was congress, the senate and the Republican party. Big spanish dude with a white beard who's standing up in front of the room and blaming the republicans for this. And i have a feeling that to a certain extent that might have been a little bit oversold. US presidential administrations don't really need any help not wanting to be bound to international accountability. But nonetheless, the specter of the Republican party was haunting Europe across this entire conversation.
REVKIN: I wrote a piece earlier in the year called No Red and Blue States when it comes to renewable energy progress, and even regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant,this was based on Yale and Utah State study, state by state they came out with a map of country's attitudes toward a federal investment toward renewable energy research and also into restricting carbon dioxide from power plants as a pollutant, and there's no red and blue. That whole map that we live by in political reporting goes away when you're asking those kinds of questions. By making it all about your views on the severity of global warming that enables the polarization of an issue where they're actually behind the scenes there's a lot of common thinking.
BROOKE: So what about the polls that suggest that a large percentage of Americans don't believe in climate change?
REVKIN: Those polls -- don't get me started! The only poll that matters both in terms of politics and how many people are reading these stories that we're all writing are how salient is global warming to you. The ones that just ask you "what worried you?" Pause. Almost everybody fills in that blank with the economy, healthcare, you know, getting my kids to school. And climate change perpetually since the 80s has not budged really in its salience.
KATZ: There is something really interesting though and you've probably seen the same thing, Andy. Is that there is a shift that is going on even in the rhetoric of very senior people in the Republican party. Comments that Jeb Bush has made about climate change, even comments from people like Charles Koch have made about climate change, there's more of an appreciation that it's real and they're trying to find other ways to talk about it, basically saying it's not really going to be catastrophic, or yeah it's real and people are affecting it but that's not the whole story, or the problems that we're seeing, we're really not gonna see until so far down the road that we don't even need to talk about it now. So the upshot for them is still the same, which is basically don't touch the oil industry, but they're starting to have to admit that reality is reality. And it's going to be really interesting to see how that debate changes even over the course of the coming presidential election and after that.
BROOKE: So what's the story that isn't getting told here?
KATZ: The thing that's disappointed me the most about seeing the way that this thing has been covered, is the way that this is still treated by most of the press in the United States as being this sort of esoteric side issue. I mean, at the Republican debate in Las Vegas, there wasn't a single question asked on CNN about the Paris talks. The only time that climate change came up at all was for John Kasich of Ohio to make fun of the fact that there was a climate summit at all, he said that it should have been canceled and basically the 33,000 people who came to Paris to talk about this thing should have all switched expertise and started talking about ISIS instead. And then i think at some point Donald Trump made some kind of weird dumb joke about it. And that was it. When this is our world. this is the central core issue that people in my generation, i'm 35 years old, for the rest of our lives, this is going to be the most important stuff that we deal with. And yet the coverage just sort of assumes that it's like "oh yeah, it's this boring thing, and people went to Paris and they ate baguettes, and they had this conversation, and now let's talk about ISIS." When really compared to climate change, ISIS is the sideshow. It's really frustrating to me, i just wish that more people who were paying attention to this would begin to understand that.
REVKIN: The media still are reflecting how we as a species, h sapiens, the salient aspect of us is still largely built around the here and now, demeaning things that are local to you, I hope that artists and psychologists and everyone along with engineers and political science students is thinking I have a role to play here. And seeing if there's a way for us to integrate information in ways that give us a longer view of how we act, what we invest in. How can we build a reader who is able to step back and capture the big picture, I don't know, I don't know what the answer is there.
BROOKE: You said we have to build a news consumer that can handle this stuff, but that's just not how the business works.
KATZ: I have good news and bad news. And they're the same thing. Which is that this is becoming breaking news. This is happening in real time. For instance, I just came back from the Caribbean, I was out there talking to farmers and the farmers are reeling right now from a really really bad drought. I was in Cuba a couple of weeks before that and the same thing was happening in Cuba as well. And there's nothing more local, there's no more local news than farmers not being able to grow crops because the weather's changed. You can actually go out to places and you can see the effects on people's day to day lives, and the good and bad news for journalists is that that's going to make telling these stories a lot easier and it's also gonna shift the needle in terms of what public opinion.
BROOKE: Well thank god for that. [All laugh] Jonathan, thank you very much.
KATZ: Thank you.
BROOKE: Jonathan Katz covered the talks in Paris for the New Republic. And Andrew, thank you very much.
REVKIN: It was great to be with you again.
BROOKE: Andrew Revkin writes the New York Times blog, Dot Earth.