At the Paris climate talks, media coverage takes a turn

December 1, 2015
Igors Jefimovs

“Never have the stakes been so high because this is about the future of the planet, the future of life. And yet two weeks ago, here in Paris itself, a group of fanatics was sowing the seeds of death in the streets.” —French President François Hollande

“What greater rejection of those who would tear down our world than marshaling our best efforts to save it.” —United States President Barack Obama

The 2015 United Nations climate summit kicked off in Paris this week on a somber but defiant note, as world leaders confronted the long-term devastation posed by global climate change against the backdrop of the devastating terrorism that recently struck France’s capital.

The initial media coverage of the two-week summit of nearly 200 countries reflected this solemn tone, as did symbolic images of empty shoes that lined the streets of Paris following French President François Hollande’s security decision to cancel the planned climate march Sunday.


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It’s a departure from the more formulaic coverage that usually accompanies climate summits, which conventionally start with overly optimistic stories of what could be accomplished; follow with stories of discord and rancorous rhetoric between developing and developed countries; and end with a grand finale that is more fizzle than pop. The massive, overly optimistic coverage of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, for example, ended in a burst of pessimism when the conference utterly failed in reaching its goals.

The arrival of heads of state at the start of the UN summit, held at Le Bourget in the northeastern suburbs of Paris, also stamped “urgent” on the proceedings, propelling coverage to the top of the worldwide news cycle. In the past, global leaders waited until the eleventh hour, arriving only at the end of a long summit in hopes of putting together the finishing touches. By then it was hard to sew together the tattered pieces of a conflict-driven meeting.



The initial Paris coverage also focused on a triumvirate of countries that may determine the outcome of the 2015 summit, which seeks to strike an accord to dial down manmade emissions of greenhouse gases that are already impacting the planet. China, the United States, and India are the top three emitters of destructive greenhouse gases, and thus they have the biggest impact on climate change, as well as the most to lose.

Indeed, stories, photos, and videos from Beijing and New Delhi noted the dire air pollution that blanketed both cities as the Paris climate summit began, while a Chinese scientific report released this week painted grim scenarios of climate change’s coming toll in rising seas and dwindling water supplies.



A bilateral climate announcement by the US and China, trumpeted in November 2014, by Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping, helped set the stage for the Paris meeting. But the wildcard is the third leader, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He staked out his country’s position in a commentary in Monday’s Financial Times before speaking at the Paris meeting.

Noting that developed countries bore more responsibility for past fossil fuel use that accelerated climate change, Modi wrote that “justice demands that, with what little carbon we can still safely burn, developing countries are allowed to grow.” The FT got the jump on the story with a Monday front-page headline: “Modi tells rich nations of their duty to lead climate change fight.”



A New York Times’ front-page story Tuesday on the Paris talks echoed India’s importance: “Narendra Modi Could Make or Break Obama’s Climate Legacy.” The story noted that “India, the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas polluter, has emerged as a pivotal player in shaping the outcome of a deal on which Mr. Obama hopes to build his legacy—or whether a deal emerges at all.”

While developed nations such as the US are calling for universal cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, developing countries, led by India, contend that “they deserve to increase fossil fuel use as their economies grow or else receive billions of dollars to make the transition to cleaner energy,” noted the Times’ story by environment reporter Coral Davenport from Paris and Ellen Barry from New Delhi.

While climate change has often languished in news coverage, the Paris climate summit offered an opportunity for media outlets to show greater commitment in terms of visibility and resources: more reporters on the ground at Le Bourget and around the world as well as expanded use of multimedia resources online to help readers and viewers dig into the science, economics and politics of a potential global climate deal. Political cartoons also added a succinct note of skepticism. International New York Times editorial cartoonist Patrick Chappatte drew a wind turbine and a bespectacled man reading a list of climate pledges, with the tagline “Paris weather forecast: Winds expected.”



Most important to the quality of the coverage is the expertise of the journalists covering the event. Environment, energy, and science beat reporters, as well as veterans of past climate talks, led the coverage at most major outlets, such as The New York Times (Davenport and Justin Gillis), the Financial Times (Pilita Clark), The Washington Post (Steven Mufson), and The Guardian, which has perhaps the largest amount of Paris coverage. Wire service reporters with deep expertise on the story included AP’s Seth Borenstein (who was also tapped for a PBS Newshour interview) and a team from Reuters.



Nonetheless, with world leaders flying home, the summit now turns to the nitty-gritty details as negotiators seek to work out a climate deal over the next 11 days before the leaders swoop back in for the finale.

For the cognoscenti interested in blow-by-blow coverage, many news outlets, such as Reuters, are offering “live” blogs and updates of the meeting, while the Twitter hashtag #COP21 (shorthand for the 21st Conference of the Parties) offers its own running commentary.


Whether novice or knowledgeable on all things climate, those following the story may also benefit from one of the myriad explainers or checklists that sought to put challenging climate information into bite-size consumer chunks. Some of the most edible were NPR’s Ten things to know about the Climate Talks; The New York Times“Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change;” BuzzFeed’s “Everything You Were too Embarrassed to Ask about the Climate Talks in Paris;” or the official website of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change’s “Get to know the issues.”

For sports fans, Guardian environment editor John Vidal offered “Fantasy climate football: A footy fan’s guide to the Paris summit.” (Hint: the US is most like Manchester United, China like Liverpool, etc.).

Nature News also took a novel approach, with a comic book on the 25-year quest for a climate treaty titled “The Fragile Framework: Can Nations Unite to Save Earth’s Climate?” It ends with a long cliffhanger: “The framework to fix the planet is coming together, but it is fragile and far too small. The job of finishing the task will fall to future generations.”

Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.