Analysis: Floods, Fires, Dysfunction — Another Year Ahead of Faltering Steps on Environment, Energy
EDITOR'S NOTE: This analysis from SEJournal’s Joseph A. Davis provides an overview of our “2024 Journalists’ Guide to Environment + Energy” special report, which looks ahead to key issues in the coming year with numerous SEJournal TipSheets and Issue Backgrounders, each linked below, for more insight.
The year 2024 will be another year in which the world is on fire, a year of burning hope and searing images, and a year of transformation. Another year in which humanity bets everything.
The key meeting of the world’s countries on climate change (known as COP28) will actually culminate in December 2023, but probably won’t deliver the kind of “breakthroughs” and “landmarks” that the news media narratives demand.
It’s just one of the global treaties
people hope will save the planet —
but it definitely won’t do so this year.
It’s just one of the global treaties people hope will save the planet — but it definitely won’t do so this year.
The Biden administration will complete the undoing of the Trump rollbacks in laws, regulations and programs protecting public health and the environment. But the year 2024 will also determine whether Biden gets a second term — or whether Trump gets another chance to roll environmental protections back again.
The auto and utility industries will lurch forward on their energy transition (bravely named), but it will be a bumpy road with unclear signage and detours. Congress and the environmental movement will continue a while longer with their dysfunction and self-sabotage.
The news media will continue to change profoundly. Local newspapers will continue shrinking and folding. But new media — and still newer media — will keep sprouting like mushrooms feeding the hope that truth-based journalism will survive and evolve. Smart, young people, told that journalism is no longer a viable profession, will continue to find niches, to adapt and to survive, however underpaid. No, the revolution will not be televised, but it may be livestreamed from your smartphone.
COP28: Strap in for a bumpy climate future
The United Nations’ December negotiations in Expo City Dubai will likely settle little, and 2024 will probably see ongoing efforts to tug the world’s nations onto a greener course, or merely to clean up the mess left over from the COP28 meeting.
Climate control advocates want the world to do the only thing that can help: abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible. The oil, gas and coal industries have other ideas. They are pushing a number of technologies (like offsets, carbon capture and hydrogen) that will allow them to keep emitting carbon dioxide.
Developing (forested) nations, meanwhile, want to get paid — but the evidence is mixed as to whether they can preserve their carbon-absorbing forests.
- Special Backgrounder: COP28 Will Be Earth-Shaping News in 2024 and Beyond
Disasters: Watch for knock-on effects
In recent years wildfires, hurricanes, floods, droughts, famine, heatwaves and displacement have been news — and environmental journalists have covered them while trying to build people’s awareness that they are often caused by global heating. Advances in attribution science have made this easier.
Currently, Earth is in an El Nino phase that will last at least into 2024 and that will make some disasters worse. The special local and regional harms of climate change (for example, the melting of permafrost in remote Alaskan villages) will continue to need environmental coverage.
Meanwhile, wildfire smoke is today an environmental health issue all over the country.
- Special TipSheet: Dangerous Inland Flooding in Reporters’ Forecast
- Special TipSheet: Home Insurance Likely To Be a 2024 Climate Story Near You
- Special TipSheet: Do Home Buyers Have a Right to Flood Risk Disclosure?
- Reporters Can Address Uncertainty Over Local Risk of Rising Seas
- Wildfire Smoke — Now a Local Story in Unaccustomed Places
Biodiversity: Ocean life at risk?
The grand and difficult effort to preserve the planet’s vast biodiversity will continue; it’s been going on for decades. There have been an array of international treaties and national laws to help the effort. One example is CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
Most of these have big meetings every year and, in a good year, they close loopholes. This year, one to watch is the International Seabed Authority. It may regulate (but could also delay) deep seabed mining for polymetallic nodules, which could threaten ocean ecosystems.
- Special TipSheet: Seabed Mining May Dredge Up Real Minerals, Fishy Worries in 2024
Energy Transition: Global sales of EVs surge
The “energy transition” — the global replacement of greenhouse gas pollution with climate-friendly energy like wind and solar — has been happening for years, often without government intervention.
In many ways, it makes financial sense. Automakers have already committed tens of billions of dollars to electric vehicles, and utilities have invested in renewables because they are cheaper. Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has added tens of billions more. It remains to be seen whether EVs will appeal to drivers or reach a good enough price point.
But without green electricity and a grid to deliver it, and batteries to store it, the question may be academic.
- Special Backgrounder: Both Sides Now — How Permitting Reform May Affect Fossil Fuel, Clean Energy Industries
- Special Backgrounder: Electric Vehicles Will Be Burning Rubber in 2024
Pollution: Still hurting the most vulnerable
Sadly, the story of ongoing pollution harming the environmental health of citizens has not changed enough. Yes, much progress has been made since Congress passed major environmental laws in the 1970s. But air and water pollution still exist, and the government is still struggling to enforce the rules.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is still battling with polluters to enforce its power plant rule to limit utility air emissions (which worsen both environmental health and global warming). More money will be available to check lead in drinking water in 2024, but local and state agencies have been slow to dig up lead service lines. The victims are kids. Waste incineration is pumping noxious and toxic pollutants into the homes of people too poor to move away. Floods are mobilizing toxic wastes once thought safely contained at Superfund sites. The EPA and the states in 2024 will continue the difficult effort to control toxic PFAS chemicals in drinking water. New funding and programs will help journalists find environmental justice stories in 2024.
- Special Backgrounder: How To Power Through Your EPA Power Plant Rule Coverage
- Special TipSheet: Funding To Replace Lead Pipes Is Just the Start of the Story
- Special TipSheet: Waste Incineration May Put Toxics Into Local Air
- Special Backgrounder: Painful Process Underway of Regulating PFAS in Drinking Water
- When Extreme Weather Amplifies Hazardous Waste Threats
- Funding Initiative May Help Surface Overlooked Environmental Justice Stories
For more, visit the full “2024 Journalists’ Guide to Environment + Energy” special report.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 41. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.