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Is media part of the solution or part of the problem?

By Darryl D’Monte

The North-South divide on climate change is very marked. An international congress of journalists held in New Delhi in October 2009 discussed how reporting on the issue could help clinch an agreement at the all-important Copenhagen meet in December

Journalists are often faulted for taking nationalistic positions on highly controversial issues such as climate change.  Indeed, in my introductory remarks at the recent Congress of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ) on the theme, ‘Bridging North-South Differences in Reporting Climate Change: Journalists’ Role in Reaching an Agreement at COP15 in Copenhagen’, I asked whether the media was part of the solution or part of the problem on this issue.

Many organisers of the event held at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, at the end of October 2009 were justifiably worried that the inaugural session might prove acrimonious and lead to a further divide in the already heavily entrenched positions of the global North and South on climate change.

In her keynote address, Sunita Narain, the editor of Down to Earth magazine, likened the debate on climate position to a conversation in a divided world where interlocutors were deaf, though not dumb. In other words, where people tend to talk at each other rather than to each other. She hastened to declare that her position was not that of a ‘naysayer’, as so many Northern critics of India’s stance (including the media) suggest.  According to her,  greenhouse gas emissions are linked to economic growth and so, when one talks of greening growth, the very concept of growth has to be reinvented.

She also clarified that figures are by no means value-free. “Every number (related to the quantum of emission cuts, deadlines and levels) is politics.  Get behind the numbers,” she told the 100-odd journalists from several countries attending the meeting.

She didn’t mince words about the North murmuring in the corridors of UN climate negotiations that some compromise could be worked out in Copenhagen next month. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” she admonished. As for the US position, she raised the question of whether the Kerry-Waxman domestic emissions proposals in the US would actually increase emissions till 2030 if offsets (trading) are going to be permitted, as expected. “It will be bad for the planet if a domestic law takes precedence over a multilateral treaty,” she concluded.

In his keynote address Bryan Walsh of Time magazine confined himself to the US situation.  Dwelling on the changes in the US with the new administration, he explained initiatives such as the Waxman-Markey Clean Energy and Security Act which would finally put a declining cap on US carbon emissions between now and 2050. The legislation was passed by the House of Representatives and now awaits the vote in the more conservative US Senate. Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer and John Kerry are holding hearings for their version of a cap and trade bill, which is similar to the one put forward by Waxman and Markey but proposes a slightly tighter carbon cap in the short term.

 “All of this will have resonance internationally,” Walsh said. “The US Senate needs to accept any international climate treaty, so America will have little leverage at the talks until Congress shows that it can live with carbon reductions at home. President Obama has made it very clear that he will not repeat what he sees as the mistakes of the Kyoto Protocol, when the Clinton Administration agreed to global carbon cuts at the COP summit, only to see the treaty decisively repudiated in a 95-0 vote in the US Senate, and then finally dropped by President Bush shortly after he took office. Obama’s team is very unlikely to agree at Copenhagen to any carbon cuts that the Senate won’t support at home. The cap and trade bills making their way through Congress should give the US room to negotiate internationally.” 

Asking the question, “So does that mean it is clear sailing from here to Copenhagen?” Walsh said, “I wish that were the case. That’s because, far from being poised to finally lead on climate change, there’s a risk that the US could see a backlash against global warming policies at home. While the people in power in Washington have changed over the past year, the political realities they need to contend with at home and abroad have not. If anything, the climate for action on global warming in the US today—and I mean measureable and verifiable action, not just rhetoric—is not much better than it was during most of the Bush Administration. If the US is truly to lead in Copenhagen, it will require the most of President Obama.  And I’m not sure that he, or anyone else in his White House or the Congress, is truly up to it.” 

In response to questions, Walsh also referred to the “knee-jerk negativism” exhibited by ultra-conservative television channels like Fox News. He deplored the US media’s treatment of the new economic opportunities presented by the New Green Deal as just one more issue about business, rather than the life-or-death matter that it is. He said he regularly receives hate mail from Time readers. At the same time, with the passing of the Bush era, there was less space in the American media for climate sceptics. “They don’t have the influence they once did,” he said. 

Yet, he noted, “There has been a notable backslide in public concern over global warming in the US. We assumed that after the groundbreaking 2007 assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific case on global warming was definitively closed. I certainly wrote that, and I imagine so did many of you. But not every American has heard the message. A poll released last week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that just 57% of Americans believe that the Earth is actually getting warmer [emphasis added]—down from 71% in a similar poll held in April 2008. Incredibly, just 37% of Americans believe that the Earth is getting warmer due to the burning of fossil fuels and other manmade causes—down from 47% last year. And altogether just 35% of Americans believe climate change is a very serious problem, down from 44%.

He stated quite candidly that the US media have hardly any exposure to other countries, with the bulk of US reporters having never travelled abroad.  Having worked in Hong Kong and Japan, he said, he had learnt to report the complexity of issues related to climate change. Every time it rains unseasonably (as it has on India’s west coast recently), is it because of global warming?  With regard to the retreat of glaciers – a major issue for the IFEJ Congress – one needs time-series data to chart and verify such trends. The problem is greatly compounded by the reluctance of scientists to express themselves on what is, after all, a nascent or young science. Much of the reporting, therefore, tends to be anecdotal.

Eric Roston, who has written a book called The Carbon Age and teaches environmental journalism at Duke University in the US, observed that while, in the US, climate change reporting is primarily data-driven, the few weeks he had spent in India had made him aware that it was also people-driven: it was about “how we live now,” as he put it. His compatriot, James Fahn of Internews in Chiang Mai, Thailand, added that the trick was to turn a global issue into a local story by avoiding the politics and concentrating on adaptation in the developing country context. He noted that the US was “like a developing country” in terms of environmental reporting. Herve Kempf, the environment editor of Le Monde, was more acerbic when he commented that, in general, the media serve as the “5th pillar of corporate autocracy”.

Many participants, particularly those from industrial countries, raised the question of what future there was for journalism itself, as we know it. Indeed, Martin Aagard said he had been made Climate Editor for the Danish newspaper, Politiken, over the past year, but was not sure he would still have the job after the gathering in Copenhagen next month.  As chair of this session I observed that there was unlikely to be any major breakthrough in his capital but the meeting will probably start the ball rolling and lead to subsequent meetings over the year. Still, the very fact of insecurity on the part of journalists in Europe and the US is palpable – not least due to the decline, if not demise, of newspapers and reading itself in that part of the world.

To return to the question I had asked at the beginning of the Congress: is the media part of the solution or part of the problem? No one would hazard a conclusion. But, judging from the array of opinions voiced at the Congress, it would be fair to summarise that it is a bit of both.

InfoChange News & Features, November 2009