Overall, however, the difference between how African and non-African outlets approached the story reveals a lot about the global politics of climate change and public health generally.
Africa is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As the world’s poorest continent, it is the least equipped to adapt to the impacts, yet it struggles to be heard in international negotiations over how to deal with the problem. At the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, for example, African governments walked out in frustration at wealthier nations’ reluctance to discuss binding emissions reductions. One senior African negotiator told the Guardian that industrialized nations were working out “a ploy to slip through provisions that are not amenable to developing country efforts. It’s playing dirty.”
Over the last decade, the establishment and development of the world’s carbon markets have been no more inclusive of African governments. A GreenBiz story picked up by Reuters at least hinted this. Carbon for Water, it said, “brings carbon finance to Africa, which so far has received less than 5 percent of all carbon finance revenues.”
On some level, then, it is understandable if African media outlets feel a lack of incentive to cover the carbon market and the importance of emissions reductions. Asked why he focused on health more than on carbon credits, Nairobi Star reporter Hilton Otenyo wrote in an e-mail, “I personally felt the common Mwananchi [a Swahili word for citizen] understood nothing about carbon reduction and by extension carbon credits. It goes without saying that clean drinking water is a problem to many people.” He added that, “The little feed back we have received from our readers is that the Vestergaard Frandsen company is here in western Kenya basically for business in carbon credit and not to help them.”
It’s understandable that the African outlets mostly focused on the continent’s dire health needs. But the program presents an opportunity to explain carbon-credit initiatives to an audience that may not already understand carbon reduction or carbon credits, or distrust the people administering them. Local audiences should understand the need for carbon reductions, their universal appeal, and that ultimately Africa stands to benefit the most if global partnerships to combat climate change are effective.
Non-African outlets, including those in the US, face the same problem, only in reverse. People in the US, Europe, and elsewhere have been openly skeptical—with good reason—about the real potential for carbon credits to curb climate change. A new type of carbon credit, therefore, is big news for people who are interested in a successful carbon credit market. But a focus on the carbon market at the expense of simultaneous health benefits does not help to disprove the sentiment that Otenyo described: that Carbon for Water is in Kenya only for business interests, and not to help local people.
Non-African outlets could have expanded and improved their coverage of the program’s potential benefits to Africa. Most of their stories focused on how the Carbon for Water program has created a unique carbon-credit model, but they could have helped non-African audiences understand the very real and surmountable problems that continue to devastate countless lives around the world. The lack of balance in international climate politics could also use a little more attention.
So while African outlets should be educating their audiences on the importance of emissions reductions and carbon credits, non-African outlets should be better educating their own audiences not only on Africa’s lack of clean water, but also on climate policy discussions, and the importance of who has been leading those talks—and who has not. Although Vestergaard Frandsen paid for me to be in Kenya and blog about the campaign, my point is not that journalists could have covered Carbon for Water in a way that better suited the company’s interests. Rather, it is that they could have covered it in a way that more clearly connected priorities in one part of the world to those in another.