The media should make the link between local environment issues and climate change.

The Centre for Science and Technology Policy Research (CSTPR) at the University of Colorado-Boulder, US, has an interesting continuing research. It tracks media coverage on climate change and global warming in 50 newspapers being published in 20 countries across six continents.

The study also includes India, and four English language dailies are included — Hindustan Times, Indian Express, Times of India and The Hindu.

The results are published in the form of graphs. The lines in the graph are jagged — with sharp peaks and deep ravines.

PEAKS AND TROUGHS

The lines for all the continents mostly follow the same trends, thereby indicating that there is a global pattern to media coverage on climate change. The highest peak (the highest media coverage), in all continents corresponds to November-December 2009 — just before, during and after the Conference of Parties (CoP) to the Climate Change Convention held at Copenhagen in Denmark.

The Copenhagen CoP attracted intense media and public attention all through the world because the international community was to decide the roadmap for reducing climate change from the time the Kyoto Protocol ended in 2012.

Most of the other peaks correspond to mostly other CoPs and to extreme weather events. After the Copenhagen CoP failed to achieve the desired results, media and public attention on climate change reduced.

The peaks corresponding to post-Copenhagen CoPs are smaller.

The CSTPR graphs are not the last word on media coverage on climate change, but they indicate the trend. For one, 50 newspapers are not representative of the global media.

Newspapers do not completely represent the print media. When it comes to climate change, the electronic and the Web media have been playing a very significant part in generating global public attention in the recent years.

GLOBAL-LOCAL LINK

The CSTPR graphs indicate what facets of the climate change story attract the media.

The Climate Change CoPs have become annual rituals for the media. For instance, in India, during the CoPs, there are media reports on the country’s position vis-à-vis the other countries, and also our gross and per-capita emission figures. There are stories on the national policies on climate change.

That is where the “gap” in the media reporting on climate change comes in. There are national and international stories on climate change policies. More of these stories are reported during CoPs. There are also stories on climate change when extreme weather events, such as the current drought in Maharashtra or floods, occur. However, what gets missed out as climate change discussions in the media are local environment stories.

Local environment stories — say, of local deforestation, urban waste mismanagement or reducing water flow in rivers — continuously appear in the media, in the newspapers, television channels, radio programmes and on the Web. But these stories are rarely linked to the larger issue of climate change.

As a result, the media misses an opportunity to discuss climate change in relation to local issues. In turn, the public and the policy makers miss out on such a discussion. For instance, there was a news story recently stating that due to increasing heat and dryness in the moist forests of Kerala, king cobras have been moving towards the plains and into villages at the edge of the forests.

King cobras are large snakes and news stories about them always attract public attention. However, this news story stops short of asking the question whether climate change is the cause of increasing dryness in Kerala’s moist forests.

Having caught the reader’s attention with the story, if the journalist had taken the discussion to climate change, the reader would have connected the abstract concept to something tangible happening in real time.

Unfortunately most stories on the impact of climate change deal with projections on what would happen in 20 years’ time. “In the long run we are all dead,” said John Maynard Keynes.

In 20 years, certainly many of us are dead. Whether dead or alive, 20 years is too long for a reader, viewer, listener or a policy maker to care about today. But if somebody were to tell him or her that because of his/her action there could be a king cobra in the backyard, there could be a more immediate think-through.

Communicating climate change is complex. Much of climate science is still uncertain. Climate scientists talk in “ifs and buts” because they have not unequivocally linked many of the effects of climate change with their presumed causes.

At least in the recent years the scientists dare to say some of the extreme weather events “could be” caused by climate change.

In August 2010, when simultaneously the Indus river system flooded over in Pakistan and extreme dryness caused wild fires in Russia, scientists hesitantly linked these events to climate change in public.

THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

When the science itself is still uncertain, it is even more difficult for journalists to state the cause and effect linkages through the media. No responsible journalist would want to be alarmist.

Much of the problem for journalists is because climate change is seen as something alien to our day-to-day environmental issues.

In fact, it is a mere add-on. In the context of local media reporting, climate change is not a subject in itself but an angle to the regular stories that journalists report.

In the king cobra story, it would have meant asking a few additional questions. Is the increased dryness in Kerala’s forests a one-year occurrence or is it part of a trend?

If it is part of a trend, then is it an indicator of climate change?

The king cobra is an indicator species, but what would happen to the evergreen forest habitat if the climate is changing?

The answers to these questions would have immediately linked the local story to the larger issue of climate change. With the climate change angle included, this story would have then registered an additional count against The Hindu newspaper in the CSTPR study.

But more than that, it could have brought in the abstract subject of climate change into local discussions, and the local legislator and parliamentarian may have taken this discussion to the State Assembly and the Parliament.

The CSTPR’s continuing study gives a useful indicator to assess media’s effectiveness in communicating climate change in the coming months and years.

If instead of the sharp peaks and ravines the graphs show more of mid-altitude plateaus, then it can be safely assumed that the media has become more effective in bridging the “gap” by linking local environmental issues to the larger discussions on climate change.

(The author is regional environment manager with Panos South Asia. Views are personal.)

(This article was published on April 16, 2013)
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