Climate Conference? What Climate Conference?

The annual UN climate conference is well underway in Durban, South Africa. But you wouldn’t know it. Interest in these ‘COPs’ (Conference of the Parties) seems to have waned quickly following the fiasco at COP15 at Copenhagen two years ago. There was much expectation that COP15 would give rise to the next big treaty, to replace the Kyoto Protocol. What we got was the feeble Copenhagen Accord, a mealy-mouthed two and a half pages of vague temperature targets. COP16 in Cancun agreed only to ‘park’ the sensitive issue of proposed emissions cuts and the current COP17 appears doomed to similar deadlock. Canada has announced that it will not accept further emissions cuts, bringing it into line with its southern neighbour. This isn’t really a shock and is somewhat disingenuous given that Canada has entirely ignored its previous commitment to reduce emissions by 6%, instead increasing its emissions by 34%. Japan and Russia have also refused to countenance further emissions cuts, leaving no chance of a comprehensive reductions agreement.

It appears that this apathy and lack of agreement is feeding through into minimal media coverage. Wind back the clock 2 years to Copenhagen and the world’s media and leaders, including President Obama, descended on the Scandinavian capital in order to observe history and bask in the glory of a Treaty that never came. The acrimony that followed COP15 and hopelessness of progress at COP17 combines to ensure that the big beasts of the world political stage will stay away from what many now see as a pointless exercise. Even a repeat of the 2009 ‘Climategate’ emails release last weekend failed to spark the interest of the world’s media not, as some suggest, because that story has run out of legs but more likely because the chances of agreeing a global treaty on emissions reductions has run out of legs.

All in all, unless you are in some way involved in climate science and emissions reduction, you could be forgiven for not knowing the Conference was even happening. And another year passes when we could have been taking the urgent action required. I get the impression that there is a ‘You go first’ issue hampering the process. Governments all seem to accept the science that shows that without urgent action, temperatures will rise to such an extent that human existence in parts of the world will become impossible in some places and much more difficult in many others. And the evidence shoes that early action is cheaper than mitigation after the event. So why can’t they agree? It’s a question of political reality. Most Governments don’t think that their electorates will accept some of the changes that will be needed in order to achieve the emissions reductions. This ‘shyness’ suggests to electorates that the action is not really needed and we enter a negative feedback loop. “If it was a serious issue, our Government would take action,” is inevitably what the public begin to think, and as the public becomes more relaxed about the requirement to act, so Governments become ever shier of taking action. We need to break this loop. But how? I’ll explore that in a post soon…….

UN chief Ban Ki-moon makes climate plea at Dhaka summit

From the BBC

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has urged world leaders to establish a climate fund to help those countries worst affected by climate change.

Speaking at a conference in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, he said efforts must be made to create a $100bn (£63bn) Green Climate Fund.

The global economic crisis should not deter such efforts, he added.

The event was organised by the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), which connects countries affected by extreme weather.

Mr Ban said governments meeting in Durban later this month for UN climate talks must make concerted efforts to help countries likely to bear the brunt of climate change.

“Governments must find ways – now – to mobilise resources up to the $100bn per annum as pledged. The fund needs to be launched in Durban,” he said.

“An empty shell is not sufficient. Even in this difficult time we cannot afford the delay.”

He said taking action against climate change was not a luxury.

“It is an imperative which we have to do in all the circumstances. We cannot ask the poorest and the most vulnerable to share the brunt of this impact.”
Climate refugees

Mr Ban also said he expected the Durban meeting to find a compromise on the Kyoto Protocol, to reach a broader comprehensive climate agreement in the future.

The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997, mandated relatively modest reductions of emissions of greenhouse gases by industrialised nations.

The CVF was formed in 2009 by countries including the Maldives, Bangladesh and other small island states at risk from cyclones and rising sea levels.

Experts say a 1m rise in sea levels would flood more than 15% of Bangladesh and create millions of climate refugees.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said the response from the world community so far had been slow and inadequate.

“Climate change has been seriously affecting us. We are bearing the brunt of the damage though we made negligible or no contribution to the menace. This constitutes a serious injustice and must be acknowledged by the global community,” Ms Hasina said.

Members of the forum argue that their own efforts to cut carbon emissions will also put moral pressure on richer nations.

How climate scepticism receives little coverage outside the English-speaking world.


The world wide web, where climate change is most vociferously debated, is predominantly an Anglo-Saxon medium.

For we native English speakers who’ve never needed to become fluent in other tongues but speak the language of climate change daily, this raises an intriguing question: is it possible that we’re getting a distorted view of the “climate debate” globally, simply because we’re missing what’s going on elsewhere?

According to the latest report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) at Oxford University, it is eminently possible.

Media coverage in countries that speak tongues other than English, it says, is very different.

The report – Poles Apart: the International Reporting of Climate Scepticism – can’t be considered a truly comprehensive global snapshot in that it’s looked at only six countries, albeit important ones – Brazil, China, France, India, the UK and US.

Lead author James Painter, a former editor of BBC output to Latin America, selected two newspapers from each country, trying to find one broadly left-wing and one broadly right-wing.

So there’s another caveat – this is a toe-dip into media coverage rather than a comprehensive survey. And as James acknowledges, in the case of China the distinction between left- and right-wing isn’t terribly useful.

When RISJ last dipped into this issue about a year ago, it found that journalists from major developing countries such as Brazil, China and India had outnumbered their western peers in the chilly halls of the UN climate summit in Copenhagen – and had hardly reported anything of the “scepticism” demanded by editors of publications in the US and UK.

The new report compares and contrasts coverage in the six countries I mentioned above, in two periods.

The first fell in 2007 – the year of the last major Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report – and the second was in 2009/10, just after Copenhagen and the “ClimateGate” revelations.

Even given the caveats over the nature of the sample, some of the conclusions are stark.

– The four papers surveyed from the US and UK aired sceptical voices much more often than the other eight, accounting for 80% of all the articles in the sample
– The frequency of sceptical voices after “ClimateGate” increased in all but one paper; but far more so, and from an already higher base, in the UK and US
– A much greater proportion of sceptical statements in US and UK papers came from politicians (as opposed to scientists) than in the other four countries
– The type of scepticism reflected in papers other than those in the UK or US was almost invariably of the “it’s not that important an issue” or “the human component is over-stated” variety rather than “it isn’t happening”

The point about the relative oddness of the US/UK approach (and you’d have to throw Australia into that mix as well) has been made in other forums as well.

One of the most telling voices in the RISJ report is that of Cardiff University researcher Adam Corner, who speaks of his work in Africa:

“In Uganda… climate change scepticism is nowhere to be seen.

“The seasonal rains that once arrived with precision are now erratic and unpredictable. When your living depends on the fertility of your farmland, the climate is vitally important.”

Assuming that news media reflect social discourse would be a dangerous thing to do, admittedly; but the view that in this case it might it is given some shrift by these comments, as well as by global surveys indicating more concern in developing countries than, say, the US.

But it’s not just the developing world that leaves sceptic voices aside.

Even in France – home to an active climate-sceptical lobby linked to former minister Claude Allegre – voices opposing climate action or questioning climate science were largely absent from coverage.

Trying to understand why there should be this difference between the English-speaking samples in the report and everyone else is not simple.

The notion RISJ suggests is political lobbying. The US, it argues, has a culture of lobbying that is deeper, richer and more ingrained than anywhere else; and the lobbying industry encompasses journalists and newspaper proprietors.

Has this spilled over into the nation sometimes dubbed the 51st State as well?

Clues come in an additional chapter in the report, which looks at 10 UK newspapers – virtually all the national dailies, in other words.

Among other things, it shows the success that the the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) has had in inserting itself into national discourse since its establishment in 2009 – a success noted this week by the conservativehome blog, which describes it as “one of the most important think-tanks in Britain today”.

“The two most quoted sceptics by far in the second period (2009/10) were (GWPF founder and director, respectively) Lord Lawson and Benny Peiser (more than 80 times between them)…” concludes the RISJ analysis.

The next most frequently quoted was geologist Ian Plimer. He is not British, but came to the UK at an opportune time – in the wake of “ClimateGate” – to promote his book Heaven and Earth.

And he mustered a mere 13 references.

In other words, the political lobby garnered more appearences – many more – than scientists. It was also far more prominent than academics questioning other parts of the “establishment” position, such as the economics of tackling climate change.

An additional RISJ finding is that in both the US and UK, right-wing papers reflected sceptical positions more than left-wing ones and increased their sceptical coverage more after “ClimateGate”.

Poles Apart doesn’t nail the issue completely, but its broad conclusion may be familiar to many:

“The weight of this study would suggest that, out of this wide range of factors, the presence of politicians espousing some variation of climate scepticism, the existence of organised interests that feed sceptical coverage, and partisan media receptive to this message, all play a particularly significant role in explaining the greater prevalence of sceptical voices in the print media of the USA and the UK.”

To those who despair of the success of sceptical lobbying, the message is clear: learn one of the languages of Brazil, China or India.

Even French might do at a pinch.