Covering Climate Now

Cover the COP26 climate summit like our lives depend on it

October 28, 2021
The SSE Hydro, on of the venues for COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland. Photo by Ewan Bootman/NurPhoto via AP

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration co-founded by CJR and The Nation strengthening coverage of the climate story. The author is CCNow’s deputy director.

THIS JUNE, AT THE G7 SUMMIT held in Cornwall, England, journalists had a hot scoop about a bicycle. To commemorate the meeting, President Joe Biden had gifted the host, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a modern, lightweight take on a classic English tourer, hand-made at a bike shop in Philadelphia and emblazoned with the Union Jack. CNN, BBC, and The Times of London, among others, ably reported the details — among them, that Johnson, in exchange, had given Biden a framed picture of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, apparently printed off Wikipedia. (The latter detail, it turned out, was not entirely true, according to a Washington Post fact check.)

The summit came amid a coronavirus pandemic still raging in much of the world, and leaders were there to take up questions of their collective economic recovery and global vaccine distribution. Yet these issues were not all that captured attention. Additional press highlights included: “Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was spotted jogging up and down the beach … ‘at quite a pace’” (Politico); “Remember the Trump balloon? Now there’s one for Biden, too.” (The New York Times); “The body language of [French president Emmanuel Macron’s] meeting with Mr. Biden stood in contrast to his first with [Donald Trump]” (The Wall Street Journal).

Human-interest coverage like this has its place, and I’m personally as compelled as the Post was by the splendor of the Cornish Riviera. But the stories were emblematic of a sorry trend in outlets’ approach to international conferences. That is: Newsrooms publish plenty of substantive reporting — as all the above did during the G7 event — but it’s the lighter, tabloid-style fare that claims top spots on homepages. Geopolitics, meanwhile, are often contorted to fit the simplest-possible analyses. For example, following Cornwall, a bilateral talk between Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin was covered as a title fight. “After about three hours of talks, the two leaders emerged, separately, and offered professional respect for each other, like two skilled boxers describing the other’s prowess,” the Times reported.

COP26, the United Nations climate conference that will convene next week in Glasgow, would be an excellent time for newsrooms to break from this mold.

The follow-up to the 2015 conference that yielded the Paris Agreement, COP26 is where leaders either will or will not reach consensus on a path to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius — which science says we must, if humanity hopes to prevent catastrophic breakdown of the Earth’s climate systems. While many international conferences might strike the average person as distant or abstract, COP26 is a story with tangible, even life-or-death, implications for audiences worldwide. If only for the two weeks of this conference, the press must choose substance over style.

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There will be no shortage of substance to go around, to be sure. Questions on the table at COP26 pertain to fossil-fuel use, the rise of renewables, and the speed of our clean energy transition; to migration, disaster resilience, Indigenous rights, and the obligations of rich countries to their developing peers; and not least to our oceans, our forests, and wildlife everywhere. Heads of state from more than 120 countries are committed to be in Glasgow — with noted absences expected, including of Chinese president Xi Jinping — in addition to thousands more diplomats and activists.

The stakes could not be higher, and yet most countries’ plans to cut emissions remain drastically insufficient. Many have pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century, but often  those promises don’t square with actions on the ground. To cap heating at 1.5 degrees C, the world needs to slash emissions by 45 percent compared to 2010 levels by 2030, but current pledges leave the world on track for a 16-percent increase in emissions by the end of this decade, according to a UN report issued this week.

For newsrooms big and small, whether on the ground in Glasgow or watching from afar, here is roughly how COP26 will go down: The conference  kicks off with a two-day “leaders’ summit,” during which heads of state will give speeches outlining their countries’ respective positions. Many leaders will depart, but that’s no time for journalists to look away, because then the substantive dealing truly begins — timely coverage of which can spur diplomats and negotiators to do better. Activists and Indigenous groups excluded from the formal proceedings (during the event, these people occupy a “green zone” outside the official “blue zone”) will be at-the-ready to call out every whiff of diplomatic sweet talk and empty rhetoric.

Should any of this seem too wonky for a given newsroom’s scope, there are countless human and local angles to take on COP26; the negotiations are, after all, about whether humanity secures a livable future or surrenders to ever-worsening hurricanes, droughts, floods, and wildfires.

What newsrooms should not do is leave COP26 only to the international or science desks. In fact, the best coverage of COP26 would treat it like journalists treat the Olympics — a sports story, at its core, but one that extends to virtually every other area of news coverage. For two weeks, COP26 should be a fixture of front pages, homepages, and daily news broadcasts. Even the presumed “boring” parts — the diplomatic corollaries, perhaps, to racewalking and golf — deserve attention, because just as every Olympic sport leads to a final medal tally, goings-on in Glasgow will lead to a closing ceremony of sorts: a deal, we hope, to save us from ourselves.

Indeed, it’s clarifying to realize that just as there was a Paris Agreement after COP21 in 2015, there will be — barring failure by governments — a “Glasgow Agreement” after COP26. Like its predecessor, a successful deal will represent a leap forward in the climate fight, setting in motion far-reaching changes across the world and in many aspects of our lives.

It’s notable that the press is better prepared for this moment than it’s ever been. Back in 2015, climate coverage was still all-but-absent from major outlets; journalists believed, incorrectly, that audiences weren’t interested in climate change and — due to the politicization of the issue, especially in the US — feared that an honest accounting could be construed as partisan hackery. An analysis of Paris coverage by the Brookings Institute found that journalists often compensated for unsureness about the subject matter by fixating on attention-grabbing celebrities, like Bill Gates. “As a result, most articles did not focus on the major issues being discussed in Paris,” Brookings observed. “This is a shame, because coverage of the conference sets the stage for public understanding of … what matters in the coming years.

Since then, climate coverage has advanced by leaps and bounds. Large newsrooms have added climate desks and verticals, while even those with the least resources have scraped and retooled to tell the climate story better. And so, journalists should be equipped to avoid past mistakes. Yes, there will be gaffes and oddball occurrences in Glasgow. Some of them will be very funny. But even if a president is caught tugging on a locked door, even if Boris Johnson goes for a morning swim or jogging in his dress shoes, newsrooms must, for all our sake, keep focus on the story that matters most.

About Covering Climate Now

CCNow, a partner of CJR, collaborates with journalists and newsrooms to produce more informed and urgent climate stories, to make climate a part of every beat in the newsroom — from politics and weather to business and culture — and to drive a public conversation that creates an engaged public.

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