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The Planet Keeps Warming, But U.S. Media Interest Cools

Climate summit(s) in Cancún

by Miranda Spencer

After the anticlimax of the COP-15 climate-policy negotiations in Copenhagen last year (Extra!, 2/10)—in which the more than 190 UN-member nations walked away with a non-binding statement of intent cobbled together in secret by the U.S. and a few other wealthy nations—public and press expectations for this year’s COP-16 meeting (11/29–12/10/10) in Cancún, Mexico, were low.

Greenpeace activists send out a message as the climate change talks end in Cancún, Mexico. But if the world is burning and everyone ignores those sounding the alarm -- especially a media tasked to inform the people -- what can be done? (Photograph: Elizabeth Ruiz/EPA) At least in part reflecting this pessimism, there has been a “steep slide” in climate reporting this year, Columbia Journalism Review’s science blog (Observatory, 11/24/10) noted. Few major corporate news media outlets even planned to send reporters to Cancún; as Washington Post lead environmental writer Juliet Eilperin told Observatory, “It feels like there is absolutely no momentum…. What will there even be to cover in Cancún in terms of public policy or reader interest?”

Setting aside the oddness of an often-reactive news media predicting the (lack of) news, if a meeting of the world’s nations upon which the fate of the Earth potentially hinges isn’t a story, what is? As Bolivia’s UN ambassador, Pablo Solon, wrote in a Guardian (11/30/10) op-ed,

I wonder whose [low] expectations [the media and negotiators] are talking about. Do they think the 1 million people in the Bolivian city El Alto, who face increasingly chronic water shortages from the disappearance of glaciers, have low expectations? Do they think Pacific Islanders whose homelands will soon disappear beneath the rising sea have low expectations? I believe that the majority of humanity demands and has high expectations that our political leaders should act to stop runaway climate change.

Given those stakes, the press of the world’s second-biggest greenhouse-gas emitter might well be expected to send reporters to Cancún and make the talks and surrounding issues a top ongoing news story.

Unfortunately, that was far from the case. As Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman (12/6/10) reported as her camera panned over scores of empty chairs, “[last year] the press room was packed…. It’s empty now.”

The only coverage an Extra! search of the Nexis media database from the start of the talks through the day after their conclusion (11/29–12/12/10) found on broadcast network news was a piece on logjams and low expectations on CBS’s 2–6 a.m. newscast (Up to the Minute, 12/9/10) and a three-sentence item on CBS Morning News (12/7/10) about an underwater Greenpeace protest coinciding with the talks, while the PBS NewsHour (11/29/10) had four sentences noting the start of the meetings. USA Today, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News all stayed home and almost entirely ignored the talks. (USA Today found COP-16 such non-news that the only coverage Extra! found on the talks was a mention in the travel section—12/4/10—and a Jay Leno joke—12/3/10.) This record puts these major corporate news media behind the more modestly endowed Christian Science Monitor and California’s Contra Costa Times, both of which sent reporters.

Those who did journey to Mexico—including the New York Times’ John Broder, the L.A. Times’ Margot Roosevelt, and Eilperin of the Post—focused mainly on the “wonkish” UN negotiation process (Washington Post, 12/7/10), often “likened to a zombie” (New York Times, 12/12/10), “where progress is measured in verb tenses and punctuation changes” (New York Times, 11/30/10)—though occasionally they did take a longer view.

Eilperin’s coverage included a page-one story (12/10/10) about efforts of individual nations, states and businesses who are “cobbling together patchwork solutions to preserve forests, produce clean energy and scrub pollution from the air” outside the UN system, and Roosevelt (12/5/10) had a page-one story on the climate struggles of 43 island nations.

The Post (12/8/10, 12/12/10) and the Los Angeles Times (12/10/10) were the only two national outlets during the talks to cover REDD, a proposed formal system for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation by paying nations in the global South to preserve forests. The highly contentious market-based mechanism became part of the eventual Cancún Agreement. The articles mainly discussed the business implications of REDD and mentioned indigenous and global South objections only in passing.

But as a successful end to the meeting looked questionable, developing countries—particularly Bolivia, whose outspoken president, Evo Morales, was present—were portrayed as an obstacle to saving the COP process from irrelevance. “Last December, a group of nations led by Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba and Sudan played the role of spoiler in Copenhagen,” the New York Times reported (12/8/10), and the Post (12/7/10) wrote that efforts to forge North/South cooperation “have not quieted criticism from left-leaning Latin American delegates who have threatened to derail the talks.”

And while all three papers acknowledged that the agreement would “have scant near-term impact on the warming of the planet” (New York Times, 12/12/10) and that even the most ambitious UN deal proposed this year would have fallen short of the greenhouse-gas reductions scientists say are needed to keep global warming from exceeding 2° Celsius, the ceiling agreed to in the Copenhagen Accord, they generally treated the outcome as overall a “success” (New York Times, 12/12/10) that “salvaged a UN-backed process that was close to failure” (Washington Post, 12/12/10) and “rescued the 20-year climate negotiations from what appeared to be imminent collapse” (L.A. Times, 12/12/10).

Such an assessment was generally not shared by participants in three alternative climate summits that paralleled COP-16 and were far livelier and, arguably, more productive.

Organized and attended by grassroots and other nongovernmental organizations and individuals, they resembled the World Social Forums, but with an environmental justice focus. They featured free public presentations and workshops that involved people from all over the world, particularly from indigenous communities and others in the global South, who collaborated to debate the underlying causes of the climate crisis, offer their own best practices and forge alliances for cooperative actions.

Though distinct, they shared a theme—“Change the system, not the climate”—and all challenged what they called “false solutions” to climate mitigation and the trend toward market-based approaches, such as REDD, that “commodify” nature. Most of all, the alternative summits challenged nations to drastically cut their emissions and bring the less powerful into the solutions process. (For a critique of the Cancún Agreement that reflected the alternative summits’ perspectives, see CounterSpin, 12/17/10).

The three alternative summits, Klima-Forum10, Diálogo Climático, and the Alternative Global Forum for Life and Environmental and Social Justice, brought together thousands of people, but earned nary a mention in U.S. corporate media; the closest they got was a passing Post mention of on-site anti-REDD protests (12/8/10) and a Post acknowledgment (12/7/10) that “indigenous groups will march through Cancún’s streets Tuesday to challenge the idea of allowing private interests to pay to preserve tropical forests.”

When that march to the official summit was halted by a phalanx of heavily armed guards supported by a Black Hawk helicopter, not a single U.S. media outlet covered it. The L.A. Times’ Roosevelt, who wrote a piece on climate protest movements on the paper’s blog (12/13/10), told Extra! via e-mail:

With limited time and difficult logistics, it was better for reporters to try [to] cover what was actually happening in the negotiations and in the expert seminars (…which also included indigenous people), given that we had access to many of the same people—and the same views—both inside and outside the talks. When you think of what will have an impact on the climate, what was happening inside the venue was more important than the protests outside. One is substantive. The other symbolic.

It’s true that, given the maddening distances between the official venues and the three people’s summits, anyone reporting them would almost have to make a special mission to do so.

But the events’ very existence shows there were still many groups who were either shut out of, felt constrained by or wanted no part of the UN meetings—even as they sought to influence them. This was true even for credentialed attendees: Prominent Indigenous Environmental Network director Tom Goldtooth and Grassroots Solutions for Climate Justice activist Diana Pei Wu found themselves banned from proceedings for criticizing the UN process (Democracy Now!, 12/9/10, 12/13/10). Those TV-news-ready events weren’t covered by the corporate media, nor was the removal of other activists who held a vigil at the talks against what they said was the silencing of civil society, which led to the alleged beating of a Reuters photographer (Democracy Now!, 12/13/10).

And the fact remains that Democracy Now! and other alt/green media, along with Reuters and other wire services following COP-16, did seek out and report on the alternative forums. Not to mention the numerous Latin American and other international media who did.

So are chunks of the largest-audience U.S. media ceding coverage of global climate policy—however unproductive it has been—to these other media? Maybe: The largest press delegation to Cancún, it turns out, was from the Climate Change Media Partnership, which provided fellowships to 35 journalists from 29 developing countries to the UN summit—including 10 U.S. reporters whose outlets’ own budgets couldn’t accommodate the trip. Their print and multimedia stories appeared daily in their home outlets and can be viewed on the website Climate-Partnership.org.

Miranda C. Spencer, who writes frequently for Extra! on the environment, spent nearly two weeks in Cancún, where she attended all three alternative summits.

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