2011 Asia Media Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam

24-25 May, 2011

Climate change stories are compelling content

During the two-day Asia Media Summit in Hanoi, President of IGSD, Durwood Zaelke, spoke to its 600 media experts from 50 different countries and regions around the world on why climate change stories made compelling content that would attract viewers to their platforms.  His presentation is available below. A video of his presentation is available here.

Last year, IGSD co-hosted a seminar at the 2010 Asia Media summit in Beijing, China focusing on the  fast (non-CO2) half of climate change, the role of media in raising awareness, and mobilizing the world to act. More information available here.

24 May, 2011 - President, Durwood Zaelke:

“I would like to thank the organizers for the opportunity to address this important audience, and for the opportunity to visit the beautiful country of Viet Nam and the wonderful city of Hanoi.

The purpose of my presentation is to explain why mainstream media should care about climate change and why climate stories are the content that will get the viewers you want.

Here’s why: climate stories are not just environmental or sustainable development stories.  They are much more.

The media covered climate fairly well leading up to Copenhagen climate meeting in 2009. But when that meeting didn’t produce a successful climate treaty, the media began to lose interest. Enough time has now passed, and it’s once again time to give climate change the coverage it deserves.  There are many powerful climate stories to cover.

Climate induced extreme weather events

Climate stories are literally about life and death, about floods in Pakistan and Australia, wild fires in Russia and Australia, and typhoons, cyclones and tornados throughout the region and the world, including yesterday in the US where hundreds have been killed this year.

Wildfire risk and prevalence

Climate stories are about national security, border security, and refugees fleeing climate disasters that we’ll see more and more of in the coming months and years.

  • Increased occurrence of wildfires is another probable outcome of climate change (NASA, 2010)
  • Fire activity is worse in periods of drought. Studies on Asian wildfires show a correlation between drought and higher CO2 emissions from wildfires (NASA, 2009)


Climate change and conflict

Climate change is about regional conflicts over scarce resources, including water and food.

Take the Himalayan-Tibetan Plateau – the Third Pole. The Plateau is warming at more than twice the rate as the global average. Maybe more.

Don’t be lulled by the global average temperature for climate change. It’s regional warming that will strike first. More than 80% of the glaciers in the Himalayan-Tibetan Plateau region are melting. First, you’ll get too much water from the dangerous glacial lakes the melting water forms. Then you’ll get too little water as this vital source of dry-season water dries up.

  • Climate change is expected to increase exacerbating events such as floods, droughts, cyclones, desertification, diseases, water scarcity, and declining food production (Allouche, 2010; UNHCR 2009; German Advisory Council on Global Change 2007)
  • Developing countries likely face a higher risk of political instability as a result of climate change effects (Smith & Vivekananda, 2007)

Rivers Originating in Hindu-Kush-Himalaya-Tibetan Glaciers

The Himalayan-Tibetan Plateau feeds many of the major rivers of Asia, including the Mekong, the Ganges, and the Yangtze.

When the water from the Himalayan-Tibetan Plateau runs low, there won’t be enough to irrigate the crops in the dry season.

Too many people will be fighting for too few crops. Regional conflicts will be inevitable. So climate change is about water and it’s about peace too. Climate change is about the end of the world – for some peoples and some places – when land they depend upon is underwater or otherwise no longer able to sustain them.

Sea Level Rise

The latest prediction from two weeks ago is that global sea levels will rise up to 1.6 meters by the end of the century—2.5 times the predictions by the UN from 2007.

There was a new report just this morning in the Viet Nam News about sea level rise in Australia.

  • Global sea level is projected to rise by 0.9-1.6 m by 2100 and Arctic ice loss will make a substantial contribution to this
  • This is more than two and a half times higher than the 2007 projection 0.15-0.6 meters by the IPCC

Asian Cities at Risk Due to Sea-Level Rise

Asia will be hit particularly hard by sea level rise.

65% of Asia’s population is vulnerable; $35 trillion in assets are at risk by 2070.

  • - 13 of 20 most populated cities in the world are port cities
  • - 65% of Asians live in regions and port cities that will be affected by sea level rise
  • - $35 trillion in assests will be affected by 2070, with the highest proportion in Asia

Climate change is about the biggest re-ordering of the global economy and the global energy system the world has ever seen.

Climate change stories are about who controls the commanding heights of our civilization, the old fossil fuel economy or the new clean green energy economy.

Climate change is about the race between accelerating warming and accelerating impacts on the one hand, and the accelerating technology solutions to climate change on the other hand.

These solutions are the good news stories and are as important and as interesting as the bad news stories about disaster and the apocalypse. There is a big audience for the good news stories, including stories about new technologies like Ecospec in Singapore, with their revolutionary CO2 capture technology.

Climate stories are about the next generation of billionaires-in-the-making who are building the green tech companies of the future. Asia will play a leading role here.

Before I continue with the good news, let me give you a few specific facts about climate that may interest your audiences.

First, the accelerating warming that we’re seeing is bringing us closer and closer to passing sensitive temperature tipping points that will lead to catastrophic and irreversible impacts, including sea-level rise of many meters, the die off of our forests, and the shifting of monsoons. The most frightening part of climate change is about the feedback mechanisms that we’re already seeing, where initial warming sets off a cycle that feeds upon itself and leads to still more warming, with the possibility of run-away warming that would be beyond our ability to control.  Here’s how it could happen.

Arctic Sea Ice

Arctic sea ice could be gone by 2030 – in less than 20 years.

The risk of run-away warming is most severe and immediate in the Arctic, where loss of summer sea ice is destroying the reflective shield of white ice and snow that currently sends a good deal of the sun’s incoming rays back into space.

When we lose the Arctic’s reflective ice shield, it is replaced with darker land and water, which warms even faster.  This growing warming then starts to melt permafrost—what we once called permanent frost—and this releases more CO2, along with methane and methane hydrates, which are even more powerful climate forcing gases.  This also leads to more wildfires and more black carbon and more CO2.

The Arctic is the DEFEATOR. If we lose the Arctic, we lose the climate battle. Civilization as we know it will be defeated. If we lose the Arctic, we lose the Himalayan-Tibetan Plateau much faster. If we lose the Arctic, the monsoons will shift sooner, and the forests will die off faster.  We can’t let the loss of the Arctic defeat us. Before I get back to the good news, let me add one more frightening fact about CO2, which comes from our use of fossil fuel and contributes more than half of our current global warming.

Long lifetime of CO2

Here’s the frightening fact: a major part of CO2 stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years, causing warming.

About 20% of CO2 emissions will be warming our world for many thousands of years. This is astounding, and it’s little appreciated, even among climate experts. We’re putting something into the air that will harm our ancestors for as long into the future that we humans have existed in the past. We’ve been walking the Earth for maybe 200,000 years. Part of CO2 will be warming our future world even longer.

We are guilty of Planetary malpractice.

Enough of the bad news. Let me spend my final couple of minutes on the good news.

We actually can cut the rate of warming in the Arctic by two-thirds in the next few decades fairly easily.  Yes. We can. We can do it simply by controlling our local air pollution better.

Arctic and other snow and ice regions are especially vulnerable to black carbon pollution

We have a chance to save the Arctic by cutting two local air pollutants: black carbon soot and ground level ozone.

Black carbon does its damage two ways: it warms the air, and it reduces reflectivity when it darkens snow and ice.

  • - BC is 50% of 1.9 C warming in Arctic since 1890 (Shindell & Faluvagi 2009); Cutting BC emissions could reduce temperatures in the Arctic by 1.7° in the next 15 years (Mark Jacobson, 2010)

- BC and its organic co-pollutants are responsible for just under half of the total springtime melt in the Himalayas (Flanner at al. 2009)


Black Carbon

We already have the technologies to do this. And in many cases, we already have the laws and institutions as well.  This is astounding.  Cut local air pollution with existing laws on the books and save the Arctic.

And in the meantime, cutting black carbon soot can save more than two million lives a year. And cutting ground level ozone can improve crop yields that now are reduced by this climate pollution. The United Nations is just finishing a brilliant assessment of black carbon and ozone, to be released next month by UNEP.

One other key point: when you cut black carbon and ground level ozone, most of the benefit is local. And the climate cooling is fast: it happens within days to decades of when the cuts are made. Not thousands of years like CO2.

Here’s another key climate point you should know. We’ve already solved an amount of climate change equal to the contribution from CO2. And it wasn’t from the Kyoto Protocol climate treaty. It was from another treaty, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

This 23 year-old treaty has done 10 to 20 times more to protect the climate than the Kyoto Protocol. It has phased out 96 chemicals that destroy the ozone layer and cause global warming, including CFCs, and now HCFCs – chemicals used in 240 industry sectors, including air conditioning, mobile air conditioning, refrigeration, and foam blowing. And when you go back to the early efforts to stop using CFCs when the world was first warned by Nobel Laureates Molina and Roland, we’ve solved a part of the climate problem equal to CO2. This is a miracle the world should be told about by the media.

One final story.  Even if we cut the local air pollutants—the black carbon soot and the ground level ozone—and even if we cut the HFCs, and even if we cut CO2 to zero, we still could lose the climate battle. There is one more key piece of technology we need to perfect and deploy. A technology that will suck excess CO2 out of the atmosphere on a time scale of decades, as compared to the thousands of years the natural cycle takes.

Can we do this?  The answer is yes. In fact we already have a brilliant technology for sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere. It’s called photosynthesis.  And it’s how plants grow.

We need to expand our plants, our biomass, our forests, our wetlands, our mangroves, and our grasslands. Especially here in Southeast Asia with its rich forest cover. This would suck more CO2 out of the atmosphere, in years to decades.

But we also need to turn some of the biomass we create with photosynthesis into a stable form of carbon, and put it back into long-term storage. Do we have the technology do this? As a matter of fact, the technology we need has been in use since the pre-Columbian Indians used it in the Amazon. The Portuguese called it Terra Preta, or dark earth.  The pre-Columbian Indians made it by setting their biomass on fire, covering it with dirt, and letting it burn with very little oxygen. Today the process is called pyrolysis.

We now make biochar with modern kilns that produce both bioenergy and biochar. Biochar has been used for centuries as a soil enhancement.  It can dramatically improve crop yields. Brilliant stuff for this alone. And now we know that it also can put massive amounts of CO2 back into permanent storage.  Many countries in the region have biochar projects, some decades old, including the Philippines, Japan, Laos, and Australia.

So when you look at climate change, look at the relationship to your disaster stories. And look at the relationship to your technology and business stories.

And help educate and entertain an audience that will be increasingly interested in this topic.