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.