War, Oil, and Crimes: Reporting the New Climate Story

March 27th, 2022 - by Mark Hertsgaard / Covering Climate Now

Russia’s War on Ukraine Creates
Opportunities for Critical Climate Reporting

Mark Hertsgaard / Covering Climate Now

(March 15, 2022) — Russia’s war on Ukraine poses sweeping challenges, and opportunities, for climate reporting. Suddenly the only existential threat that matches climate change, nuclear war, is back on the table. Recession looms as fossil fuels, still the lifeblood of the world economy, appear scarce.

After decades of oil companies’ climate lies, another harrowing IPCC report gets almost overlooked as war crimes and mass resistance in Ukraine command newsrooms’ attention. These are some of the issues we discussed in a Talking Shop webinar, which you can view in the video above.


Mark Hertsgaard, CCNow’s executive director and the environment correspondent for The Nation, moderated the Talking Shop. Key takeaways from the event, lightly edited for length and clarity, as well as a complete transcript, are below.

Covering Existential Threats

Mark Hertsgaard:  We chose the title of today’s talking shop quite deliberately. Suddenly the one issue, the existential issue that matches climate change, nuclear war, is back on the table. And just as most of the media was all but silent for way too many years about the climate threat, so did the media largely ignore the nuclear threat. And now it has to play catch-up, notably on the question of a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

Avoiding Big Oil’s Talking Points 

Mark Hertsgaard:  Fossil fuels, which are still the lifeblood of the world economy despite the spectacular gains of wind and solar, are feared to be scarce, driving prices higher and inviting political demagoguery. Here, journalists need to be vigilant about not getting spun by the usual suspects, who historically have seized upon such crises to champion their “drill baby drill” agenda, whatever the facts may be.

Russia’s Invasion Is a Climate Story 

Sammy Roth: Ukraine and the Russian invasion is an energy story. And every energy story is a climate story in 2022, because energy is at the heart of what’s going on here, the burning of coal and oil and natural gas.

You look specifically at what’s playing out here, one of the reasons Russia has the military might that it does and so much geopolitical influence, and one of the things that makes it so difficult to deal with Russia is its huge exports of oil and natural gas. Europe is highly dependent on them.

As journalists, it would be irresponsible at this point to be looking at a story that’s about fossil fuel exports and fossil fuel production, and not think about what are the climate implications of that…

Providing Historical Context as Oil Prices Rise

Naomi Klein: One of the things that journalists can do in a moment like this is recognize that in moments which are frightening and confusing … there’s a greater appetite for context and history. During wars, people reach for their history books. And there’s that terrible saying that wars are how Americans learn geography. They are also how Americans learn history.

We’ve been in this story before. I’m talking to you from Canada. The price of oil when the invasion of Iraq began was $30 a barrel. By 2008, it was over $100 a barrel. In the intervening years, the rush for the Tar Sands in Alberta opened up.

Why? Is it because they discovered oil? No. Digging up that heavy, high-carbon, sludgy oil became economic when the price of oil [went up]….  How do we cover this emergent policy debate? I think sometimes the way we cover it is by saying, ‘What is masquerading as a serious policy debate about energy security is actually just a cash grab.’

Climate Reality of New Energy Investments 

Naomi Klein: If you’re going to build a $20 million LNG export terminal, how long does that terminal need to be in operation for the investors to get their money out?  Chances are they’re banking on it being in operation for two to three decades to get that investment out. How does that align with what our carbon budget is in the context of the climate crisis?

Expanding Topics and Conversations

Nathaniel Bullard:  The Overton Window [i.e., what’s considered acceptable to think and talk about] is now wide open….Things that were kind of a science experiment or think tank level of discourse are now very much more viewed as both nearer term and more imperative. That’s all for the good, for the kind of deep decarbonization [that’s needed].

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