Without More News Coverage, Carbon Bombs Will Quietly Proceed

The Guardian’s investigative piece on carbon bombs is a hard story to process. But journalists need to start taking it seriously.

Photograph of an oil field

Very rarely does a news story make me genuinely frustrated. Sad? Sure. Disappointed? Of course. Wanting action? Almost daily. But for me — a person who tends not to get angry — full-blown frustration feels like it comes from a place of personal failure. 

There I was, on a beautiful May afternoon in Orange County, California, sulking around my apartment complex shaking my head and thinking in expletives. I was listening to a podcast from The Guardian breaking down a five-month investigation they had just completed which, I quickly realized, was one of the most important climate investigations in history.

The investigation laid out the story of future planned oil and gas exploration and development, relying on data that is not publicly available. The Guardian specifically zeroed in on “carbon bombs” — projects that emit over one billion tons of carbon dioxide from start to finish. For context, in a single year — 2019 — the entire world emitted 59 billion tons of carbon dioxide. One billion tons is a massive amount. The investigation determined that the world’s largest fossil fuel companies are collectively planning 195 carbon bombs which, together, would blow right past global climate targets and emit 646 billion tons of carbon dioxide. To fund these projects, the companies will collectively spend 387 million dollars per day for the rest of the decade.

This news hit me like a lightning bolt. My mind went in a million directions.

Why are they doing this?

But solar and wind are cheaper!

Where is the government?

Was I right to go into journalism and avoid activism?

How do I make this less overwhelming for my audience when I’M OVERWHELMED?

I knew immediately that this story would merit more than one episode of The Sweaty Penguin. This investigation changes everything.

The following weekend, I shelved everything else and spent hours researching experts on specific carbon bomb sites. I invited several to appear on The Sweaty Penguin. In that short bit of research, I observed that each of the 195 projects has its own story, nuances, stakeholders, and solutions. If I could make a dent in that, I could use my personal set of skills to help make a difference.

Yet I remain frustrated. How did I, a climate communicator, not see something like this coming? How could I justify making a story less overwhelming if I could barely process it — if it overwhelmed me? Suppose I lay down in front of an oil rig on the Permian Basin. Would this be helpful, or would it just mark me as the least rational individual in the room? I know logically that it can’t be my personal responsibility to take down 195 fossil fuel mega-projects. But I can’t help but feel like I have to do everything in my miniscule power to stop it.

On May 26, Covering Climate Now and The Guardian co-hosted a Twitter Space on carbon bombs where listeners heard from the original authors of the report. I had the opportunity to ask a question, and was so humbled when the moderator shouted out that The Sweaty Penguin had done a follow-up report. Later that day, The Sweaty Penguin suddenly gained two dozen new Twitter followers. I asked my colleague if she knew where they came from. “Didn’t you notice?” she replied. “There were over 1,400 people in that Twitter Space!”

When I proceeded to tell family, friends, colleagues, and basically everyone else whose ear I could bend for a moment about carbon bombs, I was met with mixed reactions. I don’t believe the hard numbers hit others the way they hit me, but most people trusted me when I warned of the significance of this investigation. For the most part, people were happy for me. I gained some recognition via this Twitter Space. I had some new angles on the investigation in the works. I was successfully lining up expert interviews. Many around me saw this as a big career boost for me as a climate communicator.

I found this hard to process. I know climate activists who actually enjoy activism and coalition building. For myself, I would much rather climate change not be an issue so I could pursue other interests and feel good about the decision. I entered college as a film and television major, hoping one day to write for a sitcom or late-night television show. But I found I had a knack for climate communication, and climate change was too serious for me not to give it my all. Though I’ve found a niche that fits my skill set via The Sweaty Penguin, I look at my friends working to make it as comedy writers and feel a little left out. The only comedy I get to write is about oat milk, plastic straws, and jellyfish. 

Thoughts of how carbon bombs might affect my career never entered my mind. If I become famous but the carbon bombs proceed as planned, that’s a colossal failure. My true career goal is for my job as a climate communicator to become obsolete. If climate change were under control, I would happily pursue other interests. Even if my coverage of the carbon bomb story should take off, (1) the fact remains that we are nowhere near where we need to be on climate; and (2) if my coverage gets attention, that means other, bigger names aren’t doing the story justice. Why didn’t other national news outlets have the intense reaction I did? I don’t care how the carbon bomb story gets addressed, or by whom. I just want it addressed.

I know the story is overwhelming. I know it doesn’t play well as “news” — yet. But when it develops that numerous carbon bomb projects are government-sponsored, the only path forward is public awareness. When global climate targets are quietly being undermined and people don’t know about it, that’s news. The story doesn’t have to be all numbers. There are 22 carbon bomb projects being planned right here on U.S. soil. That’s 22 concrete, local, personal stories to write.

I think I’ve somewhat processed the carbon bombs themselves now. I am channeling my frustration into constructive action to ensure I cover this story adequately, which may lead to new insights and even progress. But this second piece — that I might take advantage of openings left by journalists who didn’t get the memo — is still one I can’t wrap my head around. However hard I work to create content around carbon bombs, until other journalists start taking the story seriously, I’ll feel a very personal frustration. I’d much rather have help than credit. This story is too important.

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Ethan Brown

Ethan is a recent graduate of Boston University from Bethel, Connecticut with a dual degree in Environmental Analysis & Policy and Film & Television.


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