Somini Sengupta
International Climate Reporter, The New York Times

From California wildfires and Gulf Coast hurricanes to flooding in China and Pakistan, the impacts of climate change have grown increasingly evident this year. And whether it is agricultural workers, low-income and minority communities, or the world’s poorest in the Global South, the severe inequities in who bears the burden of climate change as well as in air and water pollution is also receiving growing recognition. Journalists play a critical role in telling the stories that help illuminate how climate change affects families and workers around the world. 

In this edition of Columbia Energy Exchange, host Jason Bordoff is joined by one of the leading reporters today writing about the links between a warming planet and such issues as race, conflict, natural disasters, and big tech: Somini Sengupta

Somini is the international climate reporter for The New York Times. A George Polk Award-winning foreign correspondent, she previously worked in other capacities at The New York Times as its United Nations correspondent, West Africa bureau chief, and South Asia bureau chief. Somini has covered nine conflicts, including Darfur, Iraq, Syria and Sri Lanka. In 2016, she wrote a book called The End Of Karma about the exploding youth population in India and what that might mean for the future of India and the world. She grew up in India, Canada and the United States, graduating from the University of California at Berkeley. 

 

Transcript

[00:00:00]
Jason Bordoff:  Hello and welcome to Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. I'm Jason Bordoff. From California wildfires and Gulf Coast hurricanes to flooding in China and Pakistan, the impacts of climate change have grown increasingly evident this year. And whether it is agricultural workers, low-income and minority communities, or the world’s poorest in the Global South, the severe inequities in who bears the burden of climate change as well as air and water pollution is also receiving growing recognition. Journalists play a critical role in telling the stories that help illuminate how climate change affects families and workers around the world.

And one of the leading reporters today, writing about the links between a warming planet and such issues as race, conflict, natural disasters, and big tech is Somini Sengupta at The New York Times, my guest today. She is the International Climate Reporter for The New York Times, a George Polk Award-winning Foreign Correspondent. Somini previously worked in other capacities at The New York Times as its UN Correspondent, it’s West Africa Bureau Chief, its New Delhi Bureau Chief. In 2016, she wrote a book called The End of Karma about the exploding youth population in India and what that might mean for the future of India and the world. She grew up in India, Canada and the United States, graduating from the University of California at Berkeley.

Somini Sengupta, thank you for joining us on Columbia Energy Exchange.

[00:01:37]
Somini Sengupta:  Thanks so much for having me.

[00:01:38]
Jason Bordoff:  Well, look, I've really enjoyed your reporting for a while and looked forward to this conversation for a while. I wanted to start just by asking, I've been reading your reporting for a very long time and you've had a remarkably interesting career covering conflict regions and war zones and reporting from some of the poorest nations in the world. So why climate change? This was a topic I suspect, one might have thought for years, the science reporter at a place like the Times might cover. I presume, given your distinguished career, you had some say and what you thought would be interesting to do next in your career. Why is climate change something you're writing about now?

[00:02:17]
Somini Sengupta:  Yeah, that's a good question. I have been a foreign correspondent for about a decade by the time I started on the climate team. I went to West Africa, as my first posting, and as you said, I was in a number of countries in conflict, Liberia, the Darfur region of Sudan, Congo, I covered the US invasion of Iraq for a little while. And then I was bureau chief in New Delhi. I was the first Indian American bureau chief there. And then I stayed behind in Delhi for a couple of years to work on my book, to start reporting my book. I came back, I did a variety of things. But a few years ago, when the Times was expanding its climate coverage, I thought, you know, this is going to be a really great thing for me to wrap my head around.

Because I had not paid attention to climate change, per se. Certainly, I hadn't studied the science in all my years overseas. But I certainly did see the hand of climate change, often, the invisible hand of climate change, playing a role in some of the disasters I covered, some of the kind of slow burning change I was seeing. So in 2008, I remember writing about sea level rise affecting people in Bangladesh, affecting salinity in the soil. So it had certainly been on my radar. And I think in 2007 or 2008, I went up to one of the glaciers in the Indian Himalayas, with a glacier scientist, who really was trying to raise the alarm at how fast the glacier was receding. And so for me, as you rightly point out, the challenge has been to school myself on the science and to sometimes read the scientific papers like three, four or five times to make sure I understand it, to call the authors and ask what probably appears to be really dumb questions to them to make sure I understand it, but then to have the science in for my reporting, but have the real reporting be about people.

Because I do think that the story of climate change certainly as I see it today is a story of people. The story of climate change is, to me not a story of degrees or parts per million. And the story of climate change is not a story of future risk, but very much a story of a now risk. So, I am less keen to tell you what the models show will maybe happen a 100 years from now or even 50-60 years from now, though I find that fascinating and terrifying. But I am really keen to understand how is life on a warming planet, a planet that's already warmed. How is that changing life for ordinary people like me and the people I love?

And perhaps even more importantly, how are we going to live now on a planet that we have inexorably already warmed and is on a trajectory to warm even more? How are we going to live now? So those are the questions that I really try to tackle.

[00:06:06]
Jason Bordoff:  And how do you think about writing about that with -- for the question of attribution to climate change? And how do you hear about it when you talk to scientists? Of course, we know there have been wildfires and hurricanes and droughts. And we also know that climate change will make these more frequent, more severe. So when you say we are seeing the impacts today, I was struck by the extent to which for example, the recent California wildfire coverage drew such a stronger connection to climate change than often in recent years, I've seen natural disaster reporting to do. How do you think about writing about that and attributing things to climate?

[00:16:40]
Somini Sengupta:  So look, some heat waves and droughts, thanks to sometimes very rapid attribution studies, we can say fairly soon after the event that this particular extreme heat event or this particular drought was x times more likely because of climate change. At other times, we can say, what's happening in the background that affects a particular extreme weather event. And so for these wildfires, it was imperative to say how climate change had altered the landscape, how, if there was so much abundant fuel, to burn, because of very high temperatures, and the drying of the brush.

But we were also, it was also imperative to say that it is not just about climate change in the background, but it's also about forest management. And it's also about buildings and infrastructure and houses being close to the wild lands. So it's very important to tell our readers what we know, and what we don't know.

[00:08:02]
Jason Bordoff:  And what's been most surprising to you, in three years now of covering the climate beat about climate change that you didn't quite realize or was unexpected?

[00:08:13]
Somini Sengupta:  I think two things. It has become really very plain, stark, perhaps the inequity that is baked into climate change, in the sense that often, the people who are paying the highest price are those who are least responsible for causing the damage. And by that, I mean, for example, people of Bangladesh, or the pastoralists in the Horn of Africa, who have seen their assets, their livestock die, year after year, because of a drought that stretches on, because of rainfall that is so erratic, that they simply can't make a living as they did, herding their flock from one place to the other. And these are people who have a very small carbon footprint, of course. They are not responsible for very much of the emissions of greenhouse gas emissions that form that warm blanket around the planet.

So that has become quite clear. And this year, I've been working on a series of stories that were sort of calling inequity at the boiling point, because these are really stories of inequity. So that has become very plain to me in these last three years. And I guess the other thing that I should have realized a long time ago, is how much needs to change in order for us to live on a hotter planet. And in order for us to live better, how much has to change, the way we transport ourselves from one place to another, the way we eat, the way we grow our food, how we heat our homes and cool our homes. I live in New York in a pretty old industrial building that's been converted into a residential building, and the windows leak in the summer, and in the winter, the insulation is really poor.

It is very difficult to sort of, convince the management of the building to put solar panels on the roof. We finally have a gas boiler. I think before that there were these oil trucks that were coming in and you know, putting oil in the boiler for winter heating. I mean, it just seems like the way we are living is -- it really does not match the way we ought to be living. So that that has become really quite sharp to me.

[00:11:24]
Jason Bordoff:  Just so I understand your second point, the magnitude of the challenge, the scale of things that have to change, is that what you mean, this is not just about electric cars, and solar and wind, it's about changing how we make steel and cement heavy industry, how we heat our buildings is that was that point you are making?

[00:11:42]
Somini Sengupta:  Sure. It's about how we make steel and cement, yes, sure. Most of us aren't thinking about making steel or cement. So I'm talking about the everyday things that touch our lives, are touched by climate change, such as where we can grow food, but also on a hotter planet, we're going to have to change the way we do a whole lot of things.

[00:12:08]
Jason Bordoff:  Right, right.

[00:12;09]
Somini Sengupta:  So yes, to your point, making steel and cement, absolutely, to reusing and recycling more stuff. There is no reason that, an old iPad of mine cannot be fully recycled and remade. I mean, I fail to understand why we're not doing that now. And we will have to do that very, very quickly, in order to have a pretty good chance of averting the worst impacts of climate change. You know, because as many of your listeners know, we are kind of on that three degree Celsius trajectory now, still.

[00:12:58]
Jason Bordoff:  Yeah, which means a lot of things will have to change in how we will…

[00:13:01]
Somini Sengupta:  Yes, a lot of things will have to change in how we live, and therefore a lot of public policy will have to change. And on things that don't strike you as climate-y. Yeah? So for example, when I talk to farmers in much of the world, in the global south, a lot of the stuff they grow, with backbreaking labor, putting all of their resources into it, can't get to market because the roads are bad, because they don't have good refrigeration for their produce, or they don't have a really good granary, you know, that will keep grains dry. So, a climate solution to cut down on food loss and waste, which is a huge source of global greenhouse emissions; one solution to that would be to build better roads, to have better refrigeration systems. So you know, the tomatoes and the watermelons don't rot. And a truck doesn't turn over on a rutted road somewhere, in India, and all that food, all that produce that was grown is now just scattered on the road side will go into a landfill and produce methane.

[00:14:33]
Jason Bordoff:  The equity series you mentioned is great. And I think if I remember correctly, it was what prompted me to reach out to you in the first place and see if you'd make time to join us on this podcast. One of the things that I thought was important about it, just want to ask you to comment on it. You mentioned a minute ago, Bangladesh, the Horn of Africa. When people think about who suffers the impacts of climate change and not necessarily bearing responsibility, one might often think of the global south. You talk about here at home as well, agricultural workers, low income communities in Harlem and in Columbia's backyard. Can you talk a little bit about what you have seen, particularly as we're having this moment of conversation where the environmental movement and the racial justice movement are coming together in a very powerful way. What you've seen in terms of the impacts of climate change here in the US?

[00:15:25]
Somini Sengupta:  I think climate change is one of the most profound inequities of our time. A hotter planet does not hurt equally. And so whether that is global inequity, or inequity within our own country, if you're poor, and you're marginalized, you're likely to be more vulnerable to something like extreme heat, because you might be unable to afford an air conditioner. You might live in a part of town where there really aren't that many trees, where the urban heat island effect is so much greater. You may have just poor access to healthcare, which alone might make you more vulnerable. You may be far more vulnerable to flooding risks, because, you know, as we saw so plainly so starkly in Katrina.

In a story that we did, when was it, I guess it was in early August, we did a series of stories where photographers went out in the countries where there are based to document really how people were experiencing, how one individual in one place, was experiencing extreme heat. So we spoke to a refugee in Greece. He was a refugee from Afghanistan, who lived in Greece in a kind of makeshift apartment on a rooftop of a building. And he slept outdoors, he had no source of cooling, he basically took himself to a park and cooled himself off during the day. We spoke to a family in Texas, who had been very badly affected by Hurricane Harvey in Houston. They had had to basically leave with their valuables in a backpack and sort of wade through the streets that had turned into rivers and be rescued.

So now when the heat wave this summer hit Houston, they were really struggling to keep cool to stay cool in a very small, mobile home that they lived in. Insulation wasn't great. They couldn't afford to turn on the air conditioner and keep it on all day long. There was a real issue, the family was struggling to pay all the bills. And so they had covered the windows to keep out the sun, like keep the curtains closed all throughout the day, the air conditioners, they could only turn on at night. And because their water bills were high, when I spoke to them in like late July, early August in steamy Houston. They were showering every other day, because otherwise the water bill would be too high.

[00:18:36]
Jason Bordoff:  What do you, I mentioned a moment ago, the reckoning with racial injustice our country is going through now. And I think environmental issues, which the environmental movement historically, some, I would say has been a wealthy and somewhat white movement. It's changing and we are connecting it more strongly to some of the issues you just talked about. What do you think the consequences of that are?

[00:19:02]
Somini Sengupta:  I think one consequence is a perhaps belated recognition among large mainstream environmental organizations, a belated recognition that there's been quite a bit of environmental justice organizing going on for quite some time in the United States.

They may have been more community based, more local, they may not have been part of the larger movements. So one, I think environmental justice issues and organizing have been going on for quite some time. I think that there is a much more pronounced recognition that the environmental hazards have affected both low income communities and Black and Latinx communities in the United States. We did, my colleagues did an incredible story earlier this year about how the legacy of redlining, racist, urban, planning, left neighborhoods in many U.S. cities, they took a close look at Richmond, Virginia, how that had made, largely black neighborhoods, significantly hotter. And so as temperatures rise, it's people who had lived in these redlined neighborhoods, who were feeling the impact so much more.

I went to California in mid August, when the fires were just beginning. Central California was in the throes of a heatwave. And it was easily like by mid to late morning, temperatures were soaring to a 100 degrees. And there were warnings, you know, by like the air quality control boards of local communities for everyone to stay indoors, because the air was hazardous. It was really unbearably hot, but guess who couldn't afford to stay home? Agricultural workers, almost all of them immigrants from Mexico, and they couldn't afford to stay home because if they stayed home, to protect their health, they wouldn't get paid. They relied on daily earnings and so I remember a 19 year old girl, who I met, who was working in the cornfields.

Her father had lost his job during the pandemic. So she joined her mother in the fields this year. And she had started work at 4:30 in the morning when it was dark, when it was still a little bit cool. And she could see the fires in the distance. And she was harvesting corn, not corn that we were going to eat, not corn even that animals were going to eat, but corn for table decorations. She was harvesting decorative corn under some of the most hazardous conditions having to stop work by 10:30 or 11 o'clock because it was so unbearably hot. Coming home, she said exhausted. You know, she said that there were days during those weeks that she found it hard to breathe, she had a headache. But she kept working because if she didn't, she wasn't going to get paid.

[00:22:52]
Jason Bordoff:  And even aside from severe wildfire conditions, I mean, a lot of the earnings are happening from labor done outdoors in a warming planet. And as you've written about, particularly around the world, in the global south, parts of the planet that projections tell us the human body may soon have difficulty perspiring to be where it's physically unsafe to be outside for extended periods of time. I just want to come back to those parts of the world and the kind of impacts you're seeing, but ask you how they're perceived there. So do the communities on the ground you talk to in the places being severely affected by drought and heat waves attribute it to climate change? Is there a sense of concern?

I mean, one of the criticisms you hear in the US often with action on climate change as well, why should we do it? Because none of the rest of the world cares about this problem, they're not going to do anything. How do you perceive the way climate change is viewed as a driver of the conditions you're seeing in Sub Saharan Africa or South Asia?

[00:23:57]
Somini Sengupta:  It’s a really good question. And I can only tell you anecdotally what I hear, and I am really keen to see better, bigger public opinion polling in the Global South, because the polling that I've seen about concern about climate change, wanting governments to act more those polls have largely been, the ones that that I've seen, have largely been in Europe, some Asian countries, wealthier Asian countries and the United States. But having said that, anecdotally, I hear especially people in the countryside, right, who work on the land, who live off the land, who say very clearly, yes, we can see very plainly that the climate is changing, particularly the rains, the rains are erratic. I've heard this again and again.

I've heard this from farmers in the west of India. I've heard this from farmers in Bangladesh. I've heard it from people in Central America from coffee and corn farmers in Central America, from the pastoralist communities in East Africa. I've just heard it time and time again, we cannot what we knew to be the seasons, we no longer know. Incidentally, I've also heard it, one of the first stories I did was talk to olive growers in Italy. And olives, very hardy crop, ancient crop that's accustomed to dry, arid temperatures. They still need like some predictable weather. So, anecdotally, particularly from farmers, I'm hearing it again and again. But the other thing that we should also keep in mind, that some of the worst impacts of climate change are also wrapped up with other bad public policy.

So I'll give you one example, I went last year to India to write about how India is already in the throes of a very serious water crisis, which is projected to get only worse. And climate change means that in some places, there isn't water when you need it. And in other places, there's way too much water when you don't need it. So you know, they're sort of cursed by this too little too much at the wrong times in the wrong places. And I remember going to talk to a farmer in the west of India, smallholder farmer, he was growing some wheat, some corn, some oil seeds, and there was really no water and his crops were failing, he did not have any access to irrigation. And he was even struggling to get drinking water for his family. And he was relying on buying drinking water for his for his family.

Now, right down the highway, there were some sugarcane farmers who I met. The sugarcane farmers were relatively close to some irrigation channels, they also had money to drill down under the ground and basically pump the aquifer dry. There were incentives for sugarcane farmers to do this. There were sugar mills in the area that enjoyed extensive government support, some of the sugar mills were owned by people in politics or connected to people in politics. And so there was this completely twisted incentive system. That meant that whatever water was there in the aquifer was being pulled up to grow sugar in a country where diabetes rates are very high and growing, whilst subsistence farmers right down the street, really were struggling to even grow food crops and having to buy drinking water.

So I say this to just make the point and there are other examples of why sea level rise is affecting coastal residents in Manila so badly? Well, it's affecting coastal residents so badly, because there's been a lot of groundwater extraction, the land is sinking. It's subsiding at the same time that sea levels are rising, and it's affecting the people who live along the coast, just terribly. So I say this to just point out that when climate change comes on top of other public policies that are ill suited for this era, it just, you know, climate change exacerbates an already bad situation, if that makes sense.

[00:29:19]
Jason Bordoff:  It does. Yeah, and that's really interesting. And if you talk to leaders in these countries, as you often do, and India is a good example, I think, you know, one often hears commitment to lowering emissions and expanding renewable energy, but also a defensiveness that this is a problem of cumulative emissions and we were not responsible for causing the vast majority that are up there already. And we're trying to meet rapidly rising energy needs, increase energy access, deliver increased prosperity to people who have a fraction of the per capita GDP that we in the West do. Do you think at the same time, the carbon budget is what it is and so these are also the countries with the fastest growth rate of emissions going forward. So, we need to do something about that. Is there a sort of, is that a false choice, in your view, this tension between action on climate change and meeting demand for rising energy and prosperity around the world?

[00:30:18]
Somini Sengupta:  I mean, there are three questions, right. One question is, as you quite rightly point out, the carbon budget is what it is. And so there's the question of, well, who gets to spend the remaining carbon budget? Is it those of us who have spent most of that carbon budget already? Do we get to all spend it the same way? Or to those who don't even have electricity to have a refrigerator at home, to have milk for their children? Do they get to spend it faster and more of it? So that's like, that's the first question. Difficult one to answer, it's ultimately a diplomatic question.

The second question is, if you are like India, using fossil fuels, to provide energy for your citizens, who does that help and who does that hurt? India is, remains attached to coal. So much so that just recently it has opened up its coal mines to foreign investment for the first time. So who does that help and hurt? Well, if you live near a coal mine in India, you breathe in all that dust from the mining, if you live next to a coal fired power plant in India, you breathe in the emissions that come from there.

So, you know, it's some of the poorest Indians pay the price of the pollution that comes from those fossil fuel projects?

And three, what makes more economic sense, right? So if the price of solar is dropping really quickly and according to the IEA, in many places, is now a cheaper source of energy than coal. Then what actually make sense economically for your particular country? So I think these questions, and there are probably others that that I'm not thinking of, are among those that that have to be answered.

[00:32:52]
Jason Bordoff:  And so why is it, for the reasons you just said, concerned about local air pollution, as well as climate change and dramatic declines as you said, in the cost of renewables plus some degree of battery storage, although not for days or weeks at a time? Why is it so hard to move away from coal still today?

[00:33:10]
Somini Sengupta:  I did a story a couple years ago, that tried to ask this question. In the US and in Europe, to a large degree, coal doesn't make economic sense. It is not growing. But in Asia, particularly China, India, and to some degree, Southeast Asia, coal has continued to grow very fast. In part, it's because there are, it's the incumbent. Coal is often financed by public banks. They are often parastatals, you know, mining companies, power companies, they're often state owned companies. So the infrastructure to finance and build and maintain coal fired power plants is very much in place. And it's been hard to disrupt that, it's been hard to push away the incumbent. There are now growing pressures, financial pressures to move away from funding new coal projects.

And one place to watch really, really carefully is, of course, China. Right? Because China has promised now to not only peak its emissions well before 2030, but also fully decarbonized its economy before, when is it, 2060. They have a goal before 2060. Now for China, that means how to get off coal. China is the world's largest by far consumer of coal. It finances coal projects, not only at home, but all over the world. And so, you know, how will China move away from coal is a really big question that will determine to a large degree the future of coal, and therefore, how fast the planet warms.

One thing that I might add, one big question that I think that we're going to be asking is, what is the future of gas? Not only what's the future of fracking in the US, there's going to be a really interesting political debate. You know, if the Democrats are elected to the White House, there's going to be a very interesting political debate about the future of fracking. There are progressives in the Democratic Party, who are very much opposed to that. And of course, there are some very powerful labor interests and others who are big champions of fracking, but also the question of what role does gas play in some of these big countries in the global south that still have to provide electricity to lots of lots of people? Is it really I mean, is the world saying, well, there should be fracking here, but over there, they should just make do with solar lamps? Is that really what we're saying? And if that's the case, that will surely not only intensify energy poverty in the Global South, but further global inequity.

[00:36:42]
Jason Bordoff:  Just so I understand, and you're right, obviously, about the fracking debate in the US. And we should note for listeners, you know, fracking is as much or more about oil as it is about gas. So it's also been the reason the US has more than doubled its oil production. But the question of gas globally, again, the carbon budget is what it is. But the challenges are very different. And part of that is meeting rising demand for power. And there are more options, including renewables to do that. But also clean cooking fuels. And I think in India, the fastest driver of projected gas demand growth is the industrial sector. Was the point you were making that sort of the concern about the role of gas can come at the expense of cleaner development and air pollution in those places?

[00:37:27]
Somini Sengupta:  Well, I think the question that I was simply posing is who gets to use gas and expand their gas infrastructure in the coming years? And do you build that infrastructure like for the next 50 years? Do you build that infrastructure, you know, as a bridge, as an energy bridge? Or do you say, the people of say, Kenya or Uganda, if they want energy, they really should just rely on solar lamps. And there shouldn't be any gas projects financed there because as we know, gas is a fossil fuel and produces emissions that that we can't afford. So, I think the role of gas in the energy picture globally, is going to be an interesting debate going forward.

[00:38:21]
Jason Bordoff:  For sure, especially as we have some new satellites being launched, that'll give us better data about what the methane footprint of gas, methane leakage looks like. And I'm just quickly on the question of why it is hard to move away from coal. And it strikes me you did so much great reporting on this, you know, the question of jobs, just the political economy challenge, because it is such a large employer in a country like India, not just the coal industry itself, but the railways and something like half the revenue for Indian Railways comes from moving coal.

[00:38:52]
Somini Sengupta:  In China. It's a ginormous employer.

[00:38:55]
Jason Bordoff:  Yeah. So what do we do about that? I mean, there's no easy answer. But I'm just curious in your reporting, if you had thoughts on how to address the economic dislocation, which we know is a big political challenge in the US, and it's a much smaller share, obviously, of employment.

[00:39:11]
Somini Sengupta:  It's a smaller share of employment, but also in India. I mean, it's not like coal represents some giant share of the jobs pie in the country. It's a country of 1.2 billion people. New jobs are going to have to be created for all the young people who are coming of age. As you know, and as I've written in my book, India is the youngest country in the world, which means its job creation challenge is just enormous. You know, 1 million people turn 18 every month and enter the job market. It is just an unenviable challenge, for any country. So, I think that it would be, it would be facile to just say, a country like India cannot get rid of coal because of jobs. Job creation generally is just a huge challenge for a country like India.

[00:40:23]
Jason Bordoff:  You also noted about half the world's coal use is China, which is also building coal plants around the world through Belt and Road. What did you make of the 2060 net zero announcement? Is that meaningful?

[00:40:38]
Somini Sengupta:  Well, yeah, I mean, it's hugely meaningful, both diplomatically and actually. It's meaningful diplomatically, because it was such a stark contrast right to what the US’s position is. China was sort of staking out its role in the climate fight. And actually, as we know, there is no way to bend the emissions curve without China and without very swift, radical action from China. Certainly, that still vague 2060 target. And, as to reiterate, the target was to be carbon neutral, by before 2060. Right? But it was vague in how it's going to get there.

So in some ways, this buys China some time. Just sort of reveal the specifics by China some time to watch what the US is going to do, particularly after these elections. But it is just an enormous challenge for the factory of the world to decarbonize its economy. So I was that it was, in some ways, like, the biggest sort of climate news, this fall was the China announcement, and I'm just very keen to see how it gets there. And to your point, I'm really keen to see whether that means it's going to totally change the fossil fuel projects in the Belt and Road, or is it just going to say, well, we're going to cut down on carbon emissions within our borders, but we're still going to go ahead and push for the construction of a coal fired power plant in Kenya, for example, next to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, by the way.

[00:42:49]
Jason Bordoff:  Yeah, I had been there and it's a stunning place and very controversial this coal plant is. Now trying to start for a while about greening Belt and Road, I'm not sure it has happened yet. Do you see any movement in that direction, either from China or from the recipient countries, which seemed to be expressing growing concern, maybe for environmental reasons, maybe for geopolitical and debt reasons, around these Chinese investments?

[00:42:13]
Somini Sengupta:  You know, I don't see the Kenyan government necessarily showing growing concern, I do see very successful efforts by Kenyan civil society to push back against that. So I went to Lhamo a couple years ago to write about it. And the lawsuits have held up the construction of this plant all this time. So I don't see enough consistent evidence yet that it's a green Belt and Road. Yeah, on the contrary, I'm waiting to see particularly given China's latest announcement, how green it's going to get. Just one last point on China, China watchers have told me again and again, that China doesn't make promises that it doesn't think it can keep.

So how it's going to get to the carbon neutral goal before 2060, I think it will be one of the most interesting stories over the next several decades.

[00:44:28]
Jason Bordoff:  Yeah, and I guess everyone will be looking at the 14th five year plan for near term. Because as you said, when China puts something in the five year plan, they have a pretty good track record of meeting those goals. How do you think COVID will, how are you seeing it change the outlook for the energy sector or for climate because all saw the pictures of clear skies over Delhi and everyone said, Oh, everyone's going to realize that they want to live this way from now on and I think I just looked this morning, Indian Oil demand is pretty much back to where it was before.

[00:45:00]
Somini Sengupta:  Now, it’s pretty much back to where it was. And air pollution is back to where it was. And I live in New York City. And I can't tell you how horrid traffic is.

[00:45:08]
Jason Bordoff:  Well, people are avoiding the subways. So they're taking to personal vehicles, I think more and more.

[00:45:13]
Somini Sengupta:  I think there is some evidence of that, even though there isn't evidence of the subways being a super spreader place, really anywhere in the world. It's a question of making public transportation safe. So how does COVID impact the whole picture? I mean, in some ways, the pandemic and the economic collapse gives the world and particularly the biggest, richest countries in the world, a door to walk through, to really rewrite their economic trajectories. Lots of money is being poured in to revive the global economy.

And the world has been handed an opportunity to revive the global economy in a gray direction, or a green direction. The studies that I have seen so far that look at where stimulus funds are going, the news is not good. There is much more money going into the gray economy than going into the green economy. But this certainly is there will be more money. And there will be more political fights over which direction that money will go to. But it's very rare, right? Certainly in my lifetime, I have not seen a moment when the masters of the universe get to sort of, you know, rewrite the trajectory of the global economy with trillions of dollars. That is the moment that we are in.

[00:46:58]
Jason Bordoff:  Yeah, and I think that's right. And we’ve developed an online tool, energypolicytracker.org, that is tracking how public money for energy and recovery packages is being spent. And it's about half hydrocarbons now. And about a third, I think, clean energy. And so yes, it still tilts in that direction. How has COVID affected your work? I mean, your job is to travel the world and tell stories, I presume it's harder to do that by zoom.

[00:47:24]
Somini Sengupta:  Oh, you're making me so sad. Yes, it's made my work incredibly difficult. And in the first few months of the pandemic in New York, I wrote about the pandemic. I went out and interviewed people standing in front of Elmhurst Hospital, because that was the need. And as a reporter, I felt like I needed to bear witness to what was happening in my city. So that's what I did. And then I returned to telling climate stories, and we've had to be innovative, we've had to really pivot. So sometimes I work with, as in the case of this big heat project, I work with photographers, who are already based in other countries. And they either hold their phone up, you know, to the farmer in Guatemala, who they're taking pictures of, and I quickly talk to that farmer and do a quick interview, or I do interviews on the phone with the subjects of those stories. On some occasions, I travel, I went to the Central Valley in California, started at the top of the valley near Lodi, and went all the way down to past Bakersfield to write about the farmworkers in the heat and the wildfire smoke.

So, it has definitely changed the way I report and I really look forward to being able to travel again at some point soon. Because it is imperative for the reporting that I do, for the kind of reporting that I do, which is stepping into the lives of others, it is really imperative to be there.

[00:49:21]
Jason Bordoff:  And just ask a final question. I ran out of time about your craft. So what are the most compelling ways to tell stories about climate change? And how do you find that the work of journalism can move people? We see them in the trends, we see it in Paul Nova now a growing sense of concern with climate change, but probably still not where I think it should be. It's a hard story to connect with people on sometimes. How do you do that, what works what have you found effective?

[00:49:50]
Somini Sengupta:  Um, I think my readers would be able to tell you what they find more readable than me, but I just think, I tell stories of the way people live. And I tell stories of both human struggle and resilience, how they cope. And so to me, again, the story of climate change is less a story of parts per million and less stories of degrees Celsius or degrees Fahrenheit. It's really a story of how that woman who I met in coastal Manilla, how she handles life after storm after storm knocks down her bamboo and tin house, on the edge of the water. What her decisions are, how she protects her family, what she needs from her government to be able to live in an era of sea level rise. Those are the stories that I care about. And my way of telling those stories is to listen, listen some more, and for a brief moment, step in to their shoes, and understand their lives and tell that story to my readers, who are far away living very different lives.

[00:51:35]
Jason Bordoff:  Well, as a reader, I will say it is effective and powerful. Because we don't get to see the issues, you know, someone who say, does what I do every day, how it impacts people. And this is not impacts decades or a century from now or just on polar bears it is on how people are living their lives every day more and more today. And so thank you for I've enjoyed, as I said, your reporting for a long time. And really thank you for making time to talk with me and all our listeners this morning. I appreciate it.

[00:52:06]
Somini Sengupta:  Thank you so much for having me.

[00:52:08]
Jason Bordoff:  And thanks to all of you for listening to this episode of Columbia Energy Exchange. For more information about the podcast or the Center on Global Energy Policy, visit us online at the energypolicy.columbia.edu or follow us on social media @ColumbiaUenergy. Somini Sengupta, thank you again for joining us. Thanks to all of you for listening. I'm Jason Bordoff, we'll see you next week.