Climate Justice Takes Center Stage In Madrid

12:02 minutes

World leaders at COP25
 Tensions were playing out this week and last at the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid. Credit: Flickr/UN Climate Change

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This story is part of Degrees Of Change, a series that explores the problem of climate change and how we as a planet are adapting to it. Tell us how you or your community are responding to climate change here.

As the climate crisis deepens, the effects are increasingly ravaging developing nations, which had little or nothing to do with warming the planet. Now those nations are asking industrialized countries to help them deal with the damagebut major powers, like the United States, don’t want to pay up

Those tensions were playing out this week and last at the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid, and New York Times climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis joins Ira to catch us up on that international drama. Plus, Pierre-Louis will review Exxon Mobil’s recent victory in court, a sobering new report about Arctic warming, and how climate change is causing fish to flee their former waters, creating a geopolitical conflict about fishing.

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Segment Guests

Kendra Pierre-Louis

Kendra Pierre-Louis is a senior reporter for Gimlet/Spotify’s How to Save a Planet podcast.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. The climate is changing, and because we need to deal with it now, we open the next chapter of our series, Degrees of Change. Our series explores the challenges of a changing climate and how we, as a planet and a people, are adapting to the crisis. Coming up, a look at how the climate connects to transit, but first, we’re going to check in on the gatekeepers, the decision makers, the controllers of the purse strings.

Many of them were in Madrid at the UN Climate Change Conference this week, and last– and an ongoing conflict was playing out there between developing nations, which are largely bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, and industrial powers like the US, who are largely– well, they largely created the crisis, but don’t want to pay to help those developing nations deal with it. Kendra Pierre-Louis has been following that news. She’s a reporter on the New York Times climate team and joins us here in our New York studios. Welcome back, Kendra.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Thanks so much for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about this big theme of the Madrid meeting– is climate justice. What does that mean?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Right, so climate justice essentially says that a handful of nations really are disproportionately responsible for climate change, and that as we deal with this climate issue, that those countries that created the problem have to also do things to sort of equalize the harm that they’ve caused to other countries. And so, whether that’s transitional technology– so helping them invest in renewable energy so that they can more quickly modernize without increasing carbon emissions, or if they’re slammed by a hurricane, providing some money to help them recover from that storm.

But what happened at COP was a draft proposal was circulated, and I think Emily Atkin at HEATED sort of was the first one to report this– in which the United States wanted to make sure that it was not going to be held responsible for other countries because of our climate issues– or climate emissions. And not only not held responsible, but would continue to not be held responsible, even as we pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, I mean, was that a surprising thing? Who’s surprised by that?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: I guess it’s somewhat surprising. It comes out of this earlier study that came out of the Paris Climate Agreement, which said that they would study how that blame gets distributed. And in that, it said that, even as we study who’s responsible and who bears the brunt, we’re not going to hold countries liable. And so it is kind of surprising, because it’s sort of doubling down on making sure that they’re not going to be held liable based on the contents of that study.

And so there was a huge protest– I think on Thursday, I want to say– from people from developing nations, and indigenous people, and youth climate activists, and some people got kicked out of the facility. And some people said, this is part of the growing trend of the corporatization, and the big nations pushing their weight around, and not really dealing with the fact that so many people are being harmed who didn’t create this problem.

IRA FLATOW: Did they have any rationale for saying we’re not going help you?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: So the document that was circulating is kind of leaked, and so I don’t think anyone really– so there hasn’t been an ongoing conversation with the United States government as to the underlying rationale. It’s been leaked to two separate sources. Emily got one, and I think BuzzFeed got one. So we don’t really know why they’re doing it. We just know that they have been circulating this draft proposal.

IRA FLATOW: But what do the developed nations in general say when you ask them to pay? What’s their rationale for not?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: The developed nations?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I mean, if we’re asking–

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: They’re saying it’s costly.

IRA FLATOW: It’s costly.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: It’s money, yeah. I mean, if you can avoid paying– if I hit your car with my car, and I can avoid getting a ding on my insurance, or I can avoid fixing your car, I mean–

IRA FLATOW: It’s just good business. That’s good for business.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: A lot of people would avoid that money. So I think a lot of it is that it’s really costly. And also, depending on the impact, we’re talking billions or trillions of dollars.

IRA FLATOW: Is it only money we’re talking about, or is there other kinds of assistance? Could there be food, or shelter, or something else?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah, but all of those have monetary value. And in earlier COPs there was a lot of conversations around transfer of technology, so cleaner coal powered plants, or cleaner solar panels, and helping developing countries invest in those things, and jump over. And that’s been to varying degrees successful. A lot of the developing countries are still heavily investing in coal, and so that energy transition hasn’t really happened either.

IRA FLATOW: Is there some way out of this impasse that we’re talking about?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: I feel like that’s a question for someone at a much higher pay grade. But the thing that I guess is still kind of hopeful is remembering that a lot of these tensions and these conversations that are happening are not technical conversations. So we have the technical capacity to reduce carbon emissions. We have the technical capacity to live within our carbon budget. Those are all real. The question is how we get there, and that is where a lot of this tension is happening.

IRA FLATOW: And then so that meeting is over, or is finishing up?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: It’s finishing up. I think it technically ends tomorrow, I want to say.

IRA FLATOW: Do they come out with some statement–


IRA FLATOW: –when it’s over, and try to make good with everybody who’s there?


IRA FLATOW: Let’s go on to your second story, and it’s an interesting one also.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: It’s really who pays and who bears the brunt.

IRA FLATOW: It’s always about the money, isn’t it? Following the money. Let’s talk. It’s about ExxonMobil, and a civil case charging the oil company with fraud. Tell us about that. Remind us about that.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Right, so New York state basically said that Exxon was double booking– that they were keeping one set of books that they were presenting in regards to climate change that they were presenting to the public, and they were keeping an internal set of books that kind of completely disregarded climate change that they were keeping internally. A judge on Tuesday basically said that the case was not correct. It wasn’t fraud.

So it was essentially thrown out, and New York was asking, I think, for $1.6 billion in restitution. And it’s one of the more recent really big cases that have had a conclusion, but the judge in the case was pretty clear to say that it only applies to fraud. It doesn’t absolve ExxonMobil from responsibility for contributing to climate change, and there are still a number of climate cases that are making way through the courts in the United States and overseas.

IRA FLATOW: If I read it correctly, the judge said this is not an environmental case. It’s a case about the law.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah, and securities fraud, essentially. And he was essentially saying it doesn’t qualify under that, but that he was not making any bold claims broadly, just this specific case.

IRA FLATOW: And the case about fraud was that Exxon Mobil didn’t tell its shareholders about the impact of climate change on its stock, and the judge basically said, you didn’t bring me any shareholders. Whose ox has been gored here? But how can you prove that? You can’t prove?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Yet, right. So that’s always the question. That’s one of the conversations that happens a lot within the energy sectors. They’re essentially calling it– and the divestment push– is they’re calling it the oil cliff, which is everyone’s holding these oil stocks. And we’re still using oil and gas, and they’re still producing, but if we, at one point, stop using so much oil and gas, someone is going to be left holding those shares. And the question is, who’s going to be left holding those shares?

IRA FLATOW: And meanwhile, the price of gas is plummeting down. That’s another topic. Let’s move on to another story. This one is a really interesting story about the Arctic melting this week.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah, so it was the annual arctic report card. It comes out– it’s the 14th– actual arctic report card. It comes out roughly this time every year, and basically what they found was it was, I believe, the second lowest for summer sea ice extent. So they look at it at the end of summer because that’s sort of the lowest level of sea ice extent you’ll get. And then they often will also look at it in the spring, the beginning of spring, because it’s had all winter to grow, and for that it was the 7th. But basically the big takeaway is that the Arctic is still really bad. The last six years have been the lowest levels for sea ice extent.

So I think for the summer sea ice extent it tied three ways in the past six years, so it’s still really bad. And the other kind of disconnect– there were two really big things that came out of it. The first was it was the first one– Arctic report card– that sort of explicitly talked about the indigenous people who live in the Arctic and depend on sea ice for their livelihood. And it included an entire chapter from them about how it’s affecting their life, from transportation to the fact that a lot of their homes are built on permafrost that’s now thawing. And the roads are buckling. Their houses are collapsing. So there’s that element, but also–

IRA FLATOW: They’ve had to move, haven’t they?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Yes, they’ve had to move, and also the other kind of issue with the permafrost is I joke that what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. And so permafrost, which is essentially soil that has been frozen solid for at least two years, but in many cases, has been frozen solid for hundreds of thousands of years– for a really long time– as it thaws, it releases methane. And it releases greenhouse gas emissions. And so what people are afraid of happening is that there’s a point at which it starts thawing. It releases so much emissions that it kind of creates a feedback cycle.

IRA FLATOW: The tipping point.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: A tipping point, where it thaws so much that it reinforces additional thawing, and additional climate change, and additional climate warming. And there’s some evidence that we may have hit that point in Alaska.

IRA FLATOW: We weren’t supposed to hit that for a while, right?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah, and it’s not definitive. I want to be really clear. It’s not definitive. They only know what they’re seeing in Alaska. There’s a question mark about whether or not it’s happening in the Arctic overall. If it is happening across the Arctic, then it’s very concerning.

If it’s happening across the Arctic at the same scale that it’s happening in Alaska, then it is very concerning. If it is not happening, that means we’re not at that point yet, which, again, means we still have time. And the general consensus among scientists is we need to continue operating not as if we still have time, but as though we have not yet hit the point of no return. So we need to acknowledge that we have a very limited window within which to do anything about climate change, but also recognize that we are still within the window, which we can still do something about climate change.

IRA FLATOW: Because you have to have hope.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: It’s not just about having hope, but if you– not to bring it back to a car analogy, but if you’re in a car, and a car cuts in front of you, and you don’t at least try to slam on the brakes, the difference between hitting a car at full speed and hitting it when you’ve slowed down a little bit– there is still a difference.

IRA FLATOW: You’re going to hit the car.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: You’re going to hit the car, but one might be survivable, and the other one might not be.

IRA FLATOW: I got you. Quickly, we have one other just story of the climate about fishing. The fishing population is moving, right?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah, so what’s happening worldwide is, as the oceans get warmer, and they’ve absorbed 93% of the warmth that we’ve sort of created because of releasing greenhouse gas emissions, the fish in the warmest chunk in the tropics can’t stay there. It’s too hot, and the oceans get warmer, they have less oxygen, so they’re heading to the polls.

So the story was about Iceland, and what happened in Iceland is the capelin moved. And you probably don’t know capelin, but it’s used a lot in like roe, and we eat their fish eggs, and it’s used a lot in processed fish products. And so that has gone away, and the capelin fishery had to shut down for two years in a row. It’s never happened before. But on the other side, they’re getting mackerel, and so that’s actually creating geopolitical tensions between Iceland, and the European Union, and Norway, and the Faroe Islands, because they’re accusing Iceland of overfishing and not fishing to a degree that’s sustainable. And actually, that fishery has lost its sustainability quota certification.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ve heard about food problems coming out of climate change, and that’s beginning to happen. Thank you. Thank you, Kendra. We’ve run out of time. There is so much. There is so much happening, isn’t there? Going on there. Kendra Pierre-Louis is a reporter at The New York Times climate team, and we have links to her reporting up at ScienceFriday.com/climatemeeting.

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