How can journalists help tell the story of climate change?

Photo © V. Krebs
Photo © V. Krebs
19 June 2007

Journalists play an important role in today's life, perception of reality and agenda seating. They shape and influence public opinion. How can journalists make sure that climate change not only gets media coverage, but is seen and understood as a priority by those who can make a difference? What are the key issues surrounding climate change? How will climate change effect population flows and migration, refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs)? Who should pay the bill for the consequences of climate change? These and many more questions were on the agenda during the Media21 workshop held from 4 to 8 June 2007 in Geneva.

ICVolunteers was involved in providing logistics, research and welcoming services to the Media21 Conference. It also documented the event with both reports and photographic coverage. The Media21 Global Journalism Network Geneva (http://media21.squarespace.com) is a program of the Swiss-based media network, InfoSud. It is designed to enhance broader public awareness of global issues, not only through better news coverage worldwide, but also through more effective interaction between the media and important information resources such as donor governments, United Nations agencies, NGOs, the private sector, academics, and other specialists.

The one week long conference was the first of part of a two-week pilot program for 16 experienced journalists from both the developing world and industrialized countries. Throughout the week, journalists from the developing world were given background briefings, panel sessions, interviews, and networking opportunities with key representatives from the United Nations, international NGOs, donors, institutes, academia, and private corporations. Journalists actively contributed to the debates, got an opportunity to produce materials about climate change for their newspapers.

This was followed by a two-day field trip to the Swiss Alps to explore the impact of climate change on mountain communities. Week Two incorporated visits to Mauritania and Kenya to report on the effects of climate change on local economies, farmers, nomads, security, migration, refugees, water resources, and fishing. The journalists then returned to Geneva for one day of debriefing. Participating journalists were encouraged to write articles and blogs or to produce broadcast programs for distribution to their own media and via the website Media21 website.

On Tuesday, 6 June 2007, at the International Conference Centre of Geneva, presentations by representatives from WWF, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Cimera and the ProAct Network provided a basis for a lively discussion between the participating journalists regarding the relationship between climate change, corporate responsibility and the media. Moderator Charles Adams, an international lawyer, focused the discussion on issues related to accountability and possible legal action to hold those who acted irresponsibly accountable, among other topics.

Is prevention still possible? How can we address climate change as a whole?

As pointed out by Charles Adams, the fundamental question is to see if, at this stage, prevention is possible. Answer: probably not. So, what needs to be done and can be done at this point?

There seemed to be agreement on the fact that politicians are the ones who can influence environmental regulations, financial contributions by those who are responsible and public opinion more generally speaking. Yet, the challenge with most politicians seems to be that they typically have a short-term vision: they worry about their mandate or their reelection, not about what it going to happen in 50 or 100 years time. The same is true for many citizens. It is difficult to portray that longer term vision, especially in countries such as India and China. How could rich and industrialized countries possibly tell them that they cannot get what Europe and North America have had for decades? This is clearly a challenging message to get across, underlined Philippe Boncour from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

A journalist from the Philippines pointed out that there is now much more focus on the question of migration than in the past. He underlined that in fact migration was not a new issue for a country such as the Philippines, where conflict has been chasing away local populations. "What is new is that the media focus now sees climate change as a benchmark," he said. The connections between environment, ecosystems and agricultural practices are highly complex. And if the world has 9 billion people and all the sudden there are fewer locations where they can live, we will face a massive problem."

Another participant pointed out that everybody suddenly seems to be talking about global warming and climate change. "It makes you think of the hype around the Y2K - the millennium bug." Charles Adams agreed, but also pointed out that while this might be true, but that it was precisely the hype around Y2K that had helped avoid serious issues and problems. If it were as simple with climate change, that would be great.

Who should pay the bill?

"It is largely proven that countries in the North (North America and Europe) have greatly contributed to climate change. They should also pay for some of its consequences," was the message of several workshop participants. Philippe Boncour pointed out that the question is how to bring the relevant governments to accept this and do something about it.

The spread of HIV/AIDS might have an impact on malaria, as individuals' immune systems weaken. In the same way, as a consequence of the climate shifts, soil may deteriorate, which in turn leads to migration. We do not understand nor control all the impacts and indirect consequences that such shifts may have on the flora and fauna worldwide. According to WWF representative, Kit Vaughan, 20 to 30 % of all species are likely to disappear due to climate change. Coral reefs, one of the world's "lungs," will be dying even with an arbitrary rise of only 2 to 3 C˚ in global temperatures.

And what are the consequences for human beings, who are a species too? Kit Vaughan asked, "Do you think that, for example, Brighton in the UK would be willing to massively take on board fishermen from Senegal?" Probably not... Yet, history shows that migration does not always have a negative impact. David Stone, from the ProAct Network, underlined that indeed the potato plague in Ireland lead to massive migration to the Americas of thousands of people. Today we know that the impact of that migration was positive for the United States of America.

But who should pay for the cost? The bill is not small: the panel pointed out that 50 billion dollars are needed according to Oxfam; 40 billion according to the World Bank. A journalist from Pakistan regretted that those who should pay are not ready to assume this kind of responsibility. Another journalist, from the Seychelles, phrased it as a sample question, not simple to answer: "We from small islands, what should we tell our people?" Or yet in other words, "Where should we go?" While there is discussion and negotiation with Australia and New Zealand, it is less clear that there is true acceptance of massive migration to these countries.

How can journalists be messengers?

So, for journalists the key question is how to tell the climate change story in a way that has the potential for making a difference. One way, it was suggested, is to make the voices of those facing the worst effects heard - the general population, those who are the victims of the decisions taken at the other end of the world. They could be called climate witnesses, demonstrating the impact of climate change. The press, as such, has the role of a magnifying glass. This is also why responsible journalism is the way to go, focusing on fundamental questions and telling the story in such a way that it can be understood by leaders and decision makers.

The journalists who participated in the Media21 two-week pilot project now are studying the consequences of climate change and looking at specific examples of how the story can be told, both regarding the Swiss Alps and Africa.

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