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Copenhagen or Babel? A climate conundrum

Richard Black | 11:32 UK time, Tuesday, 16 November 2010

It's the time of year when an environment correspondent's thoughts turn inevitably to the UN climate summit.

A little less than a year after filing into the frozen wasteland of Copenhagen's Bella Center, we're looking this year to the sunnier climes of Cancun in Mexico.

Already the wordplay is being sharpened: rather than (No)-Hopenhagen, are we talking about Cancan, Cancan't, or Cancouldawouldashoulda?

Human chain protest on island

Cancun should not be the end of the UN climate road, activists insisted earlier this month

While UN officialdom begins its attempts to manage expectations, editors in news organisations (including this one) are asking how they should cover the summit, what readers/listeners/viewers might be interested in, and how to place Cancun in a historical landscape transmuted by Copenhagen.

There may be some useful thoughts in a new report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) at Oxford University, in partnership with the British Council.

Written by former BBC correspondent and editor James Painter, Summoned By Science surveys how news organisations around the world reported climate change during those two tumultuous weeks.

Among the findings is that less than 10% of articles (from the media groups and countries surveyed) majored on climate science, the overwhelming majority focussing on the political dramas played out in the conference halls.

And what of "Climategate", the heat surrounding the batch of e-mails stolen from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit immediately before the summit?

Countless thousands of words since have been written about this incident, and the fallout from it - notably by Fred Pearce in his thorough, readable and provocative book The Climate Files.

For James, the question is whether the media gave too much or too little prominence to the e-mails during the Copenhagen summit.

His conclusion: far too much was made of the episode by certain publications in certain countries, but almost exclusively in English.

Expanding that notion, he concludes that in the developing world, the voices of "sceptics" or "deniers" were hardly heard at all.

It might depend how you define such terms, of course.

Wind turbines on row of houses

Climate journalism has been buffeted by powerful winds over the last year

Across the entire piece, the most widely quoted group of people - as you'd expect - was the political leaders of countries engaged in the talks, and some of them would fit comfortably inside a working definition of "climate-sceptical".

Nevertheless, it's an intriguing conclusion - especially set alongside the finding that the countries with the biggest volume of Copenhagen coverage were Brazil and India, while Brazil and China gained the distinction of each dispatching more than 100 journalists to the talks.

For what it's worth, I don't agree with the view that there was too little science in Copenhagen reporting.

The time for science was surely beforehand, in painting the background; something we had been doing for years.

At Copenhagen itself, there was so much politics that articles were already bursting at the seams; after all, the entire summit was predicated on appreciation across the political scene that the basics of the science were settled, "Climategate" or no.

Whatever you make of these conclusions, the question for many of us is how best to proceed.

As the report notes, there is evidence of "climate fatigue" among audiences, and even among editors.

Some editors, judging by comments in the report, were persuaded by "Climategate" that the entire edifice of climate science was a crock, and have chosen to cast an already "difficult" subject out of their news pages and programmes.

Yet the fundamental reason for reporting climate change - because it threatens major changes to our lives, and the prospects of future generations - endures.

Summoned By Science discusses all kinds of potential remedies, from greater scientific understanding among journalists to higher awareness among scientists about how to use social media to disseminate findings.

The debate is, in truth, a pale shadow of the one that has been going on within science itself in the wake of the numerous inquiries into "Climategate", and the UN-commissioned review of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

But it may be just as important, given that the mass media remains the most significant conduit for information on the issue.

With Cancun about to dawn, this is an ideal time for some new ideas.

Over to you.


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