Why UN climate summits like the one in Durban are challenging, but worth covering
DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA—It’s not easy to be a climate reporter. You have to understand the science of climate change, as well as the politics and the economics. You need to cover energy policy, forest issues, agriculture, oceans, and industry. You have to follow both global and local politics. You need to be able to communicate with both scientists and laymen. You need to keep up with events all over the world, from China to Africa to America, and from the Arctic to Antarctica.
Basically, it’s like drinking from a fire hose every day.
That goes double for covering the annual two-week climate summits organized by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the treaty organization which brings together representatives of nearly 200 countries to try and negotiate a way to prevent the planet from overheating. Climate change is already a highly technical and difficult subject to explain. Covering a Conference of Parties (COP), as these gatherings are formally known, is like entering a world of its own, with special rules, hierarchies, and traditions.
You become part of a kind of bubble—jockeying amongst all the delegates, lobbyists, youth activists, academics and assorted experts for snippets of privileged information and insight that you can feed to the outside world. At the same time, you have to constantly bear in mind that your audience is not familiar with the arcane language and bureaucratic procedures of international negotiations, or their alphabet soup of acronyms such as AOSIS and LULUCF.
This conference bubble is a massive one. There were an estimated 17,000 people at the recently concluded COP17 in Durban. Over 1,500 journalists sought accreditation, according to the UNFCCC press office—and these numbers represent a major decrease from the attendance at the Copenhagen Summit two years ago. Indeed, expectations for any kind of meaningful outcome in Durban were so low that some of the most familiar US climate journalists decided not to attend.
But while the number of US journalists from mainstream media at these summits seems to be dwindling, the number from developing countries appears to be steadily increasing. At the first two climate conferences I covered while working as a journalist for a Thai newspaper—COP2 in 1996 in Geneva and the famous Kyoto Summit in 1997—there were only a tiny number of journalists from the Global South. By COP13 in Bali, an analysis of the press registrations showed that around 9 percent came from developing countries, in addition to hundreds from the host country Indonesia. Although there was no similar analysis of this year’s numbers, there certainly seemed to be better representation in Durban, particularly from the larger, emerging economies such as Brazil, South Africa, India, and Indonesia.
The location of the summit obviously has a major bearing on who can attend, so there were also more journalists from other African countries in Durban, as well, compared to most other COPs. As I explained in a recent interview with Public Radio International’s Living on Earth, climate change isn’t treated with the same urgency in the US as it is in Europe and the developing world, especially in the least developed countries and small island states that are considered the most vulnerable.
This dynamic was reflected in one of the more important geopolitical shifts at the Durban summit: The European Union, which has taken on binding emissions targets under the Kyoto Protocol, teamed up with the least developed countries and small island states—reportedly with encouragement from Brazil and South Africa—to push for stronger and faster action by the notably reluctant China, India, and USA, the world’s three largest greenhouse gas emitters. Previously, the developing countries had generally remained united under the banner of the G77 negotiating group, consistently pushing for more action by developed countries but refraining from making similar demands on the large emitters in their own group.
This shift by the most vulnerable countries away from Third World solidarity and toward their climate interests was widely noted in the Durban coverage but not well analyzed—the exception being this piece by the BBC’s Richard Black. Was it due to the pending demise of the Kyoto Protocol, which had enshrined the division between North and South? Was it the lack of sufficient commitments to keep global warming to an average temperature rise of two degrees Celsius? In fact, there has been little good coverage over the years of the presumably fascinating political tensions that must exist within the G77. One wonders if journalists from developing countries have been persuaded to avoid reporting on such tensions, or perhaps they just don’t think they’re newsworthy.
The other side of this shift is that the US, China, and India now seem to have found at least a modicum of common cause in their reluctance to act more quickly. And that may also be reflected in the media attention paid to the summit in China, or lack thereof.
“This time the conference is not a hot topic in China,” says Liu Lican, a former journalist who is now a project manager at the International Center for Communications Development. “Not many Chinese media sent their reporters to South Africa. I observe environmental news every day and most media are [pre]occupied by China’s [own] air pollution in recent environmental reporting.”
Media representation from India, meanwhile, seemed quite strong in Durban, both from mainstream news outlets and through a cohort of reporters sent by the Center for Science and Environment. The non-profit’s strident calls for equity—a code word at the talks for more action by the developed countries—were again reflected in the impassioned plea by the Indian environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan during the final night of negotiations: “Am I to write a blank check and sign away the livelihoods and sustainability of 1.2 billion Indians, without even knowing what the EU roadmap contains? I wonder if this is an agenda to shift the blame on to countries who are not responsible [for climate change].”
What you may not realize if you’ve never been to a climate COP is that although the negotiations are the most important part of the conference, they’re also just a small part of it. There are hundreds of exhibitions, side events, meetings and demonstrations that take place in and around the summit on any and all issues related to climate change—which is such a huge subject that it encompasses everything from adaptation to zooplankton.
For journalists, this means it is a veritable gold mine of information, events and experts that can be tapped to generate compelling, locally relevant stories about this difficult topic and sent to audiences back home. Even the negotiations themselves—although often derided as being glacially slow-moving, over-ambitious, overwhelmingly complex, and lacking in much real-world relevance—still serve as one of the most reliable annual sources of news and headlines on climate change. That’s important because the nature of climate change as a slow, abstract shift with hard-to-pinpoint impacts makes it notoriously difficult to find news pegs.
That’s one of the reasons that my organization Internews has joined with two others—Panos and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)—to form the Climate Change Media Partnership - to send over 160 journalists from the developing world and the US to the climate summits over the last five years. This year the CCMP brought nineteen Fellows from fifteen countries to Durban where, in addition to covering the negotiations, they reported on everything from the extent of snow cover in the Himalayas to transport options in Indonesia.
Keeping track of all that’s going on at the COPs has always been difficult, but made easier in recent years by following hash tags on Twitter such as #COP17 or #UNFCCC. The advent of digital media has changed things in other ways. The environmental, advocacy and lobby groups that attend the summits have always served as important sources of information and analysis, but now they can distribute it much more easily themselves, as in this insightful piece in The Huffington Post from Jake Schmidt of the National Resources Defense Council, rather than having to work through the mainstream media.
The use of new media was one of the topics during Climate Communications Day, the first-ever daylong event at the summit organized by and for journalists and communicators, initiated by Internews and IIED. Over 170 reporters, bloggers, press officers, advocates, delegates, and scientists participated in sessions focused on innovative ways to explain climate issues to the public using not just the news media but also film, technology, business, religion, and even games.
For journalists, it was emphasized, the central challenge of climate change reporting is the need to turn this global issue into local stories by humanizing them and making them more visceral. In a sometimes heated discussion that reflected both traditional tensions and the rapid changes sweeping the media field, journalists and activists hotly debated if they should allow advocacy to creep into their reporting, although there was general agreement that the mainstream media has failed to convey the urgency of the situation.
A panel on the role of governments and multilateral institutions included a discussion of the little-known Article 6 of the treaty, which enjoins member states to “promote and facilitate … public awareness programs on climate change and its effects.” Achim Halpaap of UN CC:Learn described it as an “orphan article” because it receives such little attention and support in practice. “Everybody agrees it’s important but few are willing to fund it,” he said.
Government support of journalism can be controversial. The news media in the US often suspects such efforts are a threat to their independence. But that has not stopped the National Science Foundation, for instance, from launching its own media outreach efforts on the subject.
According to a new study led by James Painter from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University that looked at climate coverage in the US, UK, China, France, India, and Brazil, climate change deniers are also active in the media. This is particularly true in the US and UK, which accounted for about 80 percent of the stories found to be quoting skeptical voices. “Over 40 percent of the stories where such voices were included were found to be in the opinion pages and editorials as opposed to the news pages,” the study reports, and Painter noted that these views often co-existed with solid science-based reporting in the news sections.
The skepticism most prevalent at these climates summits does not concern the scientific basis for human-induced global warming, but rather whether these UN congregations will ever bring about effective, collective action to prevent it. Such doubts were on full display in the widespread media coverage of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action that finally resulted from the COP17 negotiations, thirty-six hours after the summit was due to end.
Although some viewed it as a “significant political breakthrough”, and others dismissed it as a failure, most saw it as simply a modest agreement that included some technical advances but once again postponed any hard decisions. The general consensus seems to be that it saved the UN process but not the planet, which is now on track to undergo a potentially disastrous three-to-four degree Celsius rise in global average temperatures by the end of the century.
The outcome from Durban sets us up for another Copenhagen-like summit circus in 2015. Even if a significant agreement emerges then, it wouldn’t initiate action for another three to five years. Meanwhile, the scientific reports keep raising new alarms, and the really important experiments and advances in climate change prevention and adaptation will be taking place on the local, regional and national levels. But the climate conferences will remain one of the best places to find out all about them, and that’s why journalists will continue to find these summits well worth covering.