On climate deals, beware the word "historic"
It's a trap!
It is important for leaders of high-polluting nations to put a positive spin on the outcomes of global climate talks. An easy way to achieve said spin in to market the outcome as “historic.”
This is what leaders like U.S. President Joe Biden and COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber are doing in the wake of COP28. Following the final deal, each called the outcome “historic”—a word that’s since graced the headlines of numerous major news outlets’ stories about the deal, alongside words like “unprecedented” and “landmark.”
These quotes and headlines are not inaccurate. The final deal at COP28 is technically historic, in that it is the first deal that specifically calls on all nations to “transition away” from fossil fuels.
The problem with these quotes and headlines is that they convey almost zero meaning. Because when you leave a massive problem like climate change unaddressed for decades, almost anything you do represents “historic” progress.
This has long been one of my frustrations with media narratives about government- and corporate-led climate change action. Too often, they adopt the preferred spin of polluters who are attempting to frame the bare minimum as monumental.
It’s like watching a massive corporation get praised for giving healthcare to 10 percent of its employees, all of whom are at the executive level. Sure, it’s nice they’re finally giving healthcare to someone, and technically it’s historic. But that is probably not what I’d lead with.
Again, it’s not wrong to call the COP28 outcome historic. But I worry when I see a mass of headlines with the term that people might skim them and walk away misled about the true state of progress toward a safe climate future, thus leading to more dangerous climate delay.
So I urge anyone reading climate news, both today and in the future, to keep this in mind: Just because a country or corporation did something “historic” and “unprecedented” to slow climate change, does not mean they did something laudable, effective, or in line with their responsibility. It merely means they did more than they ever did—which, in most cases, is very little.
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Oh, and about that “historic” outcome…
Though the final deal reached by 200 countries at COP28 does call for nations to “transition away” from fossil fuels, it also contains a few key loopholes for the fossil fuel industry to continue its path toward dangerous, irreversible warming.
Chief among these loopholes is language that specifically endorses the use of “transitional fuels”—aka, methane gas and liquified methane gas—to achieve decarbonization.
Specifically, the final agreement “recognizes that transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security.”
“So while ostensibly encouraging some sort of transition, the agreement explicitly endorses a continued dependence on methane—a great majority of it sourced through hazardous fracking—for decades to come,” Seth Gladstone, media director at Food and Water Watch, told HEATED.
He added: “This means we’ll see increased drilling, more fracking, more pipelines and more export infrastructure—despite the fact that in order to maintain a chance of avoiding the worst of climate chaos in the future, science dictates that we start rapidly reducing fossil fuel extraction and burning now.”
“COP isn’t the game; it’s just the scoreboard.”
Though it is our primary job at HEATED to shine light on polluters’ attempts to lull you into complacency, we felt bad leaving you with solely frustrating COP28 news.
So to end this week, we thought we’d leave you with this quote that friend-of-the-newsletter Bill McKibben gave in an interview with Vox’s Paige Vega published on Monday, emphasis ours:
The good news is that COP isn’t the game; it’s just the scoreboard. The U.N. climate summit is where we add up how much pressure people successfully built up in the last year.
What we got from COP28 was clarity about where we are. The status quo is clearly trying to transition away from fossil fuels as slowly as possible, even though science tells us we need to move as fast as possible.
This year’s extraordinary heat meant that there was enough pressure to produce something—in this case, an agreement to begin a transition around the world. That doesn’t mean countries are going to live up to it. It’s going to take extraordinary pressure to hold them to their word here. …
What happened in Dubai by itself is not important. But if it becomes the lever by which we halt further development of fossil fuels, that’s something. Today, we’ve got one more arrow in the quiver. And our job is to make use of it. If we thought someone was going to go to Dubai and solve the problem for us, it’s not going to happen because the oil industry is incredibly strong and in a lot of ways controls these processes. But this one sentence is a concession. Let’s make that concession hurt.
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