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.