‘Groundbreaking’ and ‘historical’ are some of the words major news organizations used to describe the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris where countries around the world unanimously adopted an agreement that sought to halt human-caused climate change.
While this is the first time a binding decision forcing countries to be conscious of their impact on climate change, there is some speculation on whether the agreement will really make any difference.
The media’s coverage before and following the conference was mainly very positive with articles such as Historic Paris climate deal adopted, 196 Countries approve historic climate agreement and Has history been made at COP21?
However, as the deal states, as much as countries will be held accountable to report their emissions, it will be in a “non-intrusive, non-punitive manner, respectful of national sovereignty.”
Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna said during a news conference: “There will be elements of the agreement that will not be binding,” meaning that if countries miss targets, they won’t risk penalties.
After some confusion from reporters, McKenna put it simply: “That includes forcing countries to make promises, but not forcing them to keep them.”
Timmons Roberts, professor of Environmental Studies at Brown University in Rhode Island says there are some aspects of the Paris Summit that could indeed be considered historic.
He says the fact that virtually all countries came in with climate change plans and set up five-year cycles where ambitions will be adjusted accordingly is a first step in the right direction.
However, Roberts says the outcomes were problematic because they’re non-binding.
“There’s no enforcement mechanism. There’s really no way to be sure that it’s going to be enough to avoid dangerous climate change,” he says.
He also says there has been no focus on equity and fairness based on who created the problem and who had the capacity to do anything about it.
Roberts and a team of students in his Climate and Development Lab at the Institute for Environment and Study at Brown, tracked electronic media coverage of the climate talks in the four highest-circulation print news sources in the U.S.: The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and USA Today.
The news sources published a total of 424 articles on the conference. Their findings were that citizens of the U.S. only received a partial understanding of the core issues of the climate change negotiations.
Most articles mainly included coverage of what world leaders like President Barack Obama and celebrities such as Bill Gates said about the climate change agreement.
Many articles did not focus on major issues being discussed in Paris but rather gave broad updates on the progress of the negotiation.
They also covered speeches and positions of U.S. President Barack Obama and other major world leaders and the actions or stances of other leading nations.
Sonya Gurwitt, an environmental studies student working on research of media coverage of the climate change agreement at Brown, says most of the articles focused on other aspects of the agreement apart from the legally binding nature.
Franz Hartmaan, executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance, says he wasn’t surprised by the outcome of the Paris Summit and the media’s coverage. “There was no expectation for the world leaders to come up with a legally binding agreement,” he says.
“Had that been the expectation and had that failed, then the media would have been all over that,” says Hartmaan. “But the expectation was that people were going to come together and make promises that have never been made before. But many of the world leaders that were there were not in a position to do anything other than promise to implement the ideas that were in the Paris declaration.”
The UN needed all countries at the table, particularly the worst carbon emitters, like the U.S., China and Saudi Arabia.
“The challenge with any international agreement like this is that when leaders come to events like Paris, many of them did not have the legal authority to sign a binding agreement,” he says.
However, Hartmaan is still critical of the lack of commitment required by the decision.
“It’s obviously better to have a binding agreement signed and governments need to work towards that,” he says. “We seem to find a way to do that whenever we talk about trade agreements that do very little for 99 per cent of people but make corporations really happy.”
Hartmaan says the media’s role going forward should be to continue covering updates on the progress of the countries cutting down emissions.
“I hope that the media sees this as an extraordinarily important issue and continues giving it the coverage that it received leading up to and following the Paris Climate Change Accord,” says Hartmaan.
“Before the Paris Accord, many media outlets continued doing the ‘he said, she said’ story line,” he says speaking about how journalists have been trying to feature a climate change denier to show different perspectives in many articles on the topic.
“The media ended up implying to the public that those who thought climate change wasn’t real were actually fairly significant and had evidence behind their claims.
“They gave the very small portion of climate change deniers a huge platform,” he says. “The days of giving climate change deniers any column space have passed us.”
Mark Hume writes a weekly column for the Globe and Mail, which often challenges the prevailing orthodoxy on environmental issues.
He says when covering a large event like the Climate Change Conference it is difficult for reporters to step away from daily press conferences and come up with original content.
“When you cover a conference everything is pretty much at the mercy of the organizers,” he says. “Everything is planned and there’s a flow of information to the media.
“Everyone is herded around like cattle and you get your photo ops and your press conferences and everybody just gets handed the message,” says Hume.
Still, Hume says he was unimpressed by the media’s coverage of the conference. “It seemed to be a big show and not a real lot of in-depth analysis of what it meant,” he says.
“I don’t think that anybody at the time was writing ‘this isn’t a breakthrough. This is all just spin that isn’t really going to go anywhere,’ which is where we seem to be several months later.”
Laurel MacDowell, an environmental historian at the University of Toronto, has written multiple publications about the environmental history of Canada.
She says there needs to be pressure from the public and the media in order to keep politicians committed to the promises they made in Paris.
“The problem is going to be not only getting the media to continue covering the issue, but a real problem is going to be to get politicians to move beyond the commitments made at the conference … which also requires the media to be putting some pressure on,” she says.
“They won’t follow through unless there’s pressure. And the pressure has to be by activists and it has to also come from the media and journalists or from social media.”
Coverage of COP21 by major news organizations.