How to wake up the media to climate change

As the UN flounders, climate change keeps coming. Jeff Rutherford of Fair Earth Consulting and InterNews calls for journalists to recognize the stories outside of the conferences and talks.

Climate change is last year’s old news. This is the feeling you get reading the press, talking to reporters, or just wandering the quiet corridors of the most recent UN climate talks in Tianjin, China.

You might get an entirely different feeling in a Pakistani village isolated from the rest of the world by catastrophic flooding, or in a Russian town surrounded by burning forests. In such places, to suggest that climate change is old news is unforgivably cynical.

 But that is where we seem to find ourselves today, wedged between the failure of Copenhagen and the depressed expectations for Cancún.

 So what are journalists to do? Pundits predict the demise of the UN climate change system, while readers and editors are losing their appetite for the alphabet soup of COPs, MOPs, and REDDs. And as the bad news on the ground piles up the public is either overwhelmed or numb, and tune it all out with a turn of the page or click of the remote control. Another disastrous flood in Indonesia, or another town in Australia torched by a wildfire? What does that have to do with us?

However, there are still places journalists can turn to for engaging, accurate climate change stories. And the people and organizations who have a sense of hope or urgency can remind them of these things.

First, it is important for journalists to recognize that the UN system is not synonymous with either climate change or the world’s response to it. Richard Black of the BBC reports that “there is tangible fear among some long-time observers that the UN process is close to becoming moribund.” They might very well be right.

And the European Commission’s chief negotiator Artur Runge-Metzger told reporters on 4 October at the start of climate change talks in the northeast Chinese port city of Tianjin, “We need to show that we are not a bunch of bureaucrats who have lost the belief in action on climate change.” Well, that’s something that talks might not be able to show. Actions – or the lack of them – speak much louder than words.

Without question, the ultimate failure of world leaders and the UN system would desperately hamper the global transformation that will be required if we want to avoid leaving our progeny an unlivable planet. And the journalists who cover the UN climate system have their work cut out for them.

But the political stratosphere of the UN is not the realm of the vast majority of the world’s reporters. Journalists live on the ground, and that’s the place where they need to be covering the news on climate change.

There exists a vast expanse of local, national, and regional stories of people, organizations, companies, and cities doing remarkable things to make the world a better place. They are not waiting for the world’s leaders to learn to compromise and think beyond the immediate moment. They’re doing their part today. These are stories with real human interest, real human drama, that can point the way for readers and viewers to set aside their apathy and pitch in to make a difference. Community forestry is an excellent example of hands-on climate action, but journalists don’t often make that connection.

Next, it’s important for journalists to gain perspective on climate change. Every rainy day when you want sun, or sunny day when you need rain, is not evidence of climate change’s effects. Floods in Bangkok happen because a megalopolis was built on a river delta. Empty reservoirs happen because of poor water policy and management. Sure, climate change might be exacerbating these problems, but journalists are not doing their readership a favor by letting agents of human stupidity or incompetence get off the hook by blaming the weather.

Part of gaining perspective is understanding the weird new world we’re entering. Climate change is not a crisis, because the term ‘crisis’ implies a limited time frame. We are entering a phase in human history with no predictable ending. This is not something we can solve. We can mitigate the problem – we must mitigate it if we have any ethics at all – but it’s not going to go away. Reducing the odds that our descendants’ inheritance will be a radically degraded one requires fundamental changes in just about everything we do. It will require an elemental change in the very way we think. Journalists need to start exploring the stories that this realization make possible.

Overall, one of the lessons emerging from research on both climate mitigation and adaptation is the importance of – surprise! – good development. To capture the public’s attention, it’s not always necessary for organizations to create completely new projects or programs. Sometimes it’s a matter of explaining – to managers, to donors, and to the media – how ongoing work has implications for climate change. For example, community forestry programs that avoid deforestation or enrich degraded woodlands are doing their part to mitigate climate change. If these community forests are protecting water sources or producing diverse and edible forest products, then these are also important measures to help people adapt to the impacts of climate change.

It’s more than likely that the media serving these communities is unaware of the climate implications of community forestry. The same is true for sustainable farming, empowering women, and community development. If the journalists who are feeling disenchanted with the UN climate system dig back into good development work, they will find the stories that wake up the public.

Climate change is a much bigger story than UN texts, talks, and hair-pulling. We need to remind journalists of this.

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