How the media is creating a climate for change

The media has helped turn public opinion in favour of action on climate change Copyright: Greenpeace

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IPCC chair R. K. Pachauri calls on journalists to maintain focus on the scientific rationale for action in their coverage of climate change.

The media has played a central role in spreading awareness on climate change over the past two years. I find this particularly satisfying because when I was elected vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1997, I highlighted the importance of outreach for disseminating IPCC reports as rich sources of scientific knowledge on climate change.

I felt that the IPCC, whose mission is to carry out assessments of all aspects of climate change, must try harder to reach out to policymakers and the public across the globe.

Robert Watson, who chaired the IPCC at the time, asked me to set up a task group on outreach and communications strategy. But this was essentially just a preliminary effort because, among other activities, the IPCC soon created its own website, which has been regularly updated ever since.

Around the same time, the IPCC started inviting the media to interact with its officials at every major event or opportunity. This approach intensified in 2002, when I was elected chair of the IPCC, and shortly afterwards we recruited a full-time official to help with our outreach efforts.

Deep impact

When the first part of the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report, The Physical Science Basis, was released in Paris in February 2007, the large hall at the UNESCO headquarters, where the press briefing was held, was overflowing with media representatives. There were about 300 journalists present and around 50 TV cameras.

The findings of that report, and subsequent working-group reports released in Brussels and Bangkok, reached an impressive and widespread audience. In India, where coverage of climate change had previously been modest, several national newspapers began publishing detailed articles on the IPCC's scientific findings, and a small group of news writers carved out a prominent role for themselves by focusing on climate change. It was a similar story on Indian TV, with climate change suddenly becoming a subject of news.

Other countries had similar experiences, and the impact on public opinion and policymakers has been dramatic. The most important outcome of this outreach effort was the award of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC and environmental campaigner Al Gore, which was essentially the result of the widespread dissemination of knowledge on climate change by the scientific community on behalf of the IPCC.

A climate of intent

When the Fourth Assessment's final synthesis report was released in Valencia, Spain, in November 2007, the media had already developed an appetite for climate change. Several national and international newspapers featured the report's findings on their front pages, with some calling it the IPCC's strongest report ever.

The media coverage helped to create a climate of positive intent for action at the 13th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2007. Even in the United States — a country that has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol — public opinion, particularly among the young, began turning strongly in favour of action to tackle climate change. And Barak Obama's engagement with climate change issues is likely to have been a factor in his being elected president.

It is therefore fair to say that the media has helped turn public opinion in favour of action on climate change. And this attitude has seeped into the negotiations that began with the 2007 Bali meeting and continued in Poznan, Poland, late last year.

The road to Copenhagen

There is also every reason to believe that the way the media engages with this issue over the next six months will have a major impact on the outcome of the UNFCCC talks in Copenhagen later this year, when international climate negotiators will establish a new global climate deal to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

What provides hope, and is particularly refreshing about the media's actions so far, is the fact that many journalists have shown remarkable scholarship and a penchant for in-depth analysis in their coverage, providing objective and unbiased analyses of the IPCC's findings.

But one concern is that the current logjam in negotiations is leading some sections of the media to focus on the debate's political aspects, concentrating on different countries' positions. This comes at the cost of coverage on the scientific rationale for action, which must remain the driver for negotiations.

The road to Copenhagen must be based on awareness of the scientific basis for climate change — and this requires the media to remain actively, yet responsibly, engaged.

R. K. Pachauri is chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and director-general of The Energy and Resources Institute in India.