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.