DeBriefed 15 March 2024: Global methane surge; Europe faces ‘urgent’ climate risks; Surprising origin of Trump’s ‘drill, baby, drill’


Welcome to Carbon Brief’s DeBriefed. 
An essential guide to the week’s key developments relating to climate change.

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Methane on the rise

NEAR-RECORD LEVELS: Methane emissions from the fossil-fuel industry rose to near-record levels of 120m tonnes last year, “despite technology available to curb this pollution at virtually no cost”, according to Agence France-Presse. Reuters added that the high levels of methane emissions were produced despite commitments by companies and governments to plug leaking fossil-fuel infrastructure, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) annual methane tracker report.
MORE METHANE: Separately, a new study in Nature concluded that US oil-and-gas infrastructure emits three times as much methane into the atmosphere as government estimates suggest, the Associated Press reported. According to New Scientist, the study was based on nearly one million aerial surveys of methane leaks, creating what one of the scientists described as “the largest such dataset that has ever been assembled”.

Europe’s climate risks

MAJOR SHOCKS: The European Environment Agency (EEA) has issued its first assessment of the “urgent” climate risks facing Europe, the Guardian reported. More action is needed to address half of the 36 significant climate risks, such as wildfires and other climate disasters, according to the report, the Guardian said. The Financial Times noted that, according to the EEA, the EU is at “higher and higher” risk of major financial shocks from climate change.
DECIMATED FARMING: Meanwhile, Politico reported that the European Commission is working on legislative proposals that would “severely weaken” environmental requirements for agricultural workers in the EU, amid ongoing farmers’ protests across the continent. This is despite advice by top EU scientists that agriculture “must become more sustainable or it will be decimated by climate change”, the article added.

  • ZAMBIA DROUGHT: More than one million people face food shortages and malnutrition in Zambia due to crop failures triggered by drought, according to an Oxfam report covered by Down To Earth. Much of southern Africa continued to face record temperatures.
  • TRANSITIONING AWAY?: The US Export-Import Bank, a federal institution that finances projects overseas, has voted to put $500m toward an oil-and-gas project in Bahrain, according to the New York Times. It noted that this was viewed by critics as “out of step” with US pledges to move away from fossil fuels.
  • SHELL BACKTRACKS: Oil giant Shell has weakened its emissions target for 2030 and dropped its goal for 2035 entirely, in an update to its “energy transition strategy”, Bloomberg reported. Carbon Brief explained the changes with charts.
  • YOUTH AT RISK: Young activists, including climate campaigners, must be better protected from online attacks, arrests and physical threats, according to a report by UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders Mary Lawlor, covered by the Guardian.
  • GAS BOOST: UK energy secretary Claire Coutinho announced plans to support new gas power plants, claiming that without them the country could face “blackouts”, the Press Association reported. Ministers later confirmed that unabated gas would still only meet around 1% of demand in 2035.
  • ELECTRIC SWAP: Mexico’s parliament has agreed to amend the nation’s General Law on Climate Change to support programmes that facilitate the replacement of combustion-engine cars with electric and hybrid vehicles, according to Excélsior.

$1 trillion

The amount that India has asked developed countries to provide in climate finance each year from 2025 as a minimum to help developing countries deal with climate change, according to the Times of India.

  • New research in Nature estimated that global economic losses from heat stress could reach 0.6-4.6% by 2060. Major losses came from health impacts, lower labour productivity and disruptions to supply chains, the study found.
  • Fears about Covid-19 reinforced climate change concerns rather than providing a distraction from the crisis, according to a new survey of 28 European countries published in Climate Risk Management.
  • Newcastle University in the UK is asking members of the public to participate in a survey into “uncertainty distress” in relation to climate change.
UK emissions fell 5.7% in 2023 to lowest since 1879* outside the general strike in 1926

New Carbon Brief analysis based on provisional government data showed that UK emissions fell to just 383m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) in 2023. This marked the first time emissions have fallen below 400MtCO2e since Victorian times. However, this drop was mostly unrelated to deliberate climate action by the government. Instead, much of it came about due to a drop in gas demand, driven by factors such as higher electricity imports from French nuclear plants and warmer temperatures. The analysis was covered by the Times and was the focus of an editorial.

‘Drill, baby, drill’: The history of Trump’s favourite slogan

Carbon Brief explores the history of a slogan claimed by Donald Trump, but with roots stretching back to Sarah Palin and, prior to this, the Black Panthers.

The senior Republican who first used the phrase tells Carbon Brief that he is critical of Trump and those who want to “drill with abandon” today.

In a recent interview with Fox News, former president Donald Trump summarised his plans for US fossil-fuel production if he wins the election this year, by saying:

“We are going to – I used this expression, now everyone else is using it so I hate to use it, but – drill, baby, drill.”

Despite Trump’s assertion, it was Michael Steele, the US politician who was the first African-American lieutenant governor of Maryland and chair of the Republican National Committee, who came up with the slogan

Addressing the 2008 Republican National Convention, he told the crowd:

“Let’s reduce our dependency on foreign sources of oil, and promote oil-and-gas production at home. Let me make it very clear: Drill, baby, drill, and drill now.”

Speaking to Carbon Brief, Steele said that the slogan came to him late at night, after a fit of “writer’s block”.

“Donald Trump…his BS aside, had nothing to do with ‘drill, baby drill’,” stressed Steele, who today is a staunch critic of the Republican presidential candidate.

The phrase was used by supporters throughout the campaign of Republican John McCain in his unsuccessful presidential bid against Barack Obama. 

It became particularly associated with Sarah Palin, the climate-sceptic Republican vice-presidential pick, who said in a debate with her Democratic challenger Joe Biden:

“The chant is ‘drill, baby, drill’. And that’s what we hear all across this country in our rallies because people are so hungry for those domestic sources of energy.”

In the years that followed, the phrase was repeated endlessly by Republican politicians, as well as in comment articles and political analysis. (It did, however, see a dip in popularity following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.)

There was some bemusement at a slogan that appeared to have been derived from “burn, baby, burn”.

That phrase, which has since made its way into everything from disco songs to hot sauce, was originally associated with Black nationalist group the Black Panthers and particularly the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. It was chanted as buildings were set on fire, amid civil unrest sparked by police violence against an African-American man.

Writing shortly after the Republican National Convention in 2008, journalist Derrick Z Jackson alluded to this when he wrote in the Boston Globe:

“This 93% White gathering blithely stole from the race riots of the ’60s to lustily chant ‘drill, baby, drill’.”

For his part, Steele told Carbon Brief that his intention was to use a colloquial expression to “connect it to something that was very real” – namely, cutting US reliance on Middle Eastern oil. He said:

“Unfortunately, a lot of people use it…in a way that they don’t fully appreciate what the point was, and the point was the self-sufficiency of the American spirit.”

He added that “it’s not just ‘drill with abandon’, it’s also the idea of drilling responsibly”, noting that, with the growth of electric cars and other technologies in the US:

“‘Drill, baby, drill’ may at some point in the future change to…‘plug, baby, plug’.”

Nevertheless, Steele accepted that while he will “always be there to remind [Trump]” of where the slogan came from, it is out of his hands now:

“My only regret is that I didn’t copyright it and put it on a T-shirt.”

‘OIL COLONIALISM’: The latest episode of the Drilled podcast explored how Nigerians are “resisting oil colonialism” after Shell announced at the end of 2023 that it was shutting down its onshore operations in the country.

CLIMATE PLOTTERS: An article in Sierra examined what it called a “conspiracy to take down wind and solar power” across the US, made up of “climate-science deniers, right-wing think tanks and fossil fuel shills”.
KYOTO ON STAGE: The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, UK, is putting on a production of Kyoto, a play that dramatises the UN climate summit in 1997 that gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol.

DeBriefed is edited by Daisy Dunne. Please send any tips or feedback to [email protected]

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  • DeBriefed: Global methane surge; Europe faces ‘urgent’ climate risks; Surprising origin of Trump’s ‘drill, baby, drill’


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