Appeal to climate reporters everywhere: Don’t follow the Climate Circus!

L to R: Sam Labudde (EIA); Eric Soulier (Canal France International); Nalaka Gunawardene (speaking); and Durwood Zaelke (IGSD)

Every year, a couple of weeks before Christmas, a big Climate Circus takes place. The venue city keeps changing, but the process is always the same: it attracts thousands of people – from government officials and scientists to activists and journalists – who huddle in various corners, chat endlessly and gripe often during two chaotic weeks. Then they disperse, rather unhappy with the process…only to return to more of the same a year later.

This is how I see the annual Conference of Parties (COP) of the UN Climate Convention, or UNFCCC. Their last big ‘circus’ was in Copenhagen, Denmark — when the world held its breath for a breakthrough in measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that warm up the planet. But, as with many previous conferences, Copenhagen over-promised and under-delivered.

The next COP is to take place in Cancún, Mexico, in December 2010. We can expect more of the same.

I’m not always this cynical. I’m certainly not a climate skeptic or climate change denialist. But I came to this conclusion after covering climate change stories for over 20 years, and having seen the kind of distraction the annual Climate Circus can produce on the media coverage and fellow journalists.

My contention: COPs were intended for treaty-signing governments to come together, bicker among themselves and make slow, painful and incremental progress on what needs to be done to address the massive problems of global climate change. While the core of these conferences remains just that, over the years they have gathered so much else — side events that now completely outweigh the political conference, and often overshadow it. I’m not convinced that this is where the real climate stories are, for discerning journalists.

I made these observations in some plain speaking done during a panel at the Asia Media Summit 2010 in Beijing, China, this week. The occasion was the Asia-Pacific Media Seminar on Ozone Protection and Climate Benefit, one of several pre-Summit events held on 24 May 2010 — and the only one on an environmental issue or topic.

I was on the last panel for the day, which looked at the next “hot” ozone and climate related stories. We were asked to give our views on: what are the great stories on the road to COP16 in Mexico at the end of the year?

Forget Cancun, I said. We already know how little it’s going to change the status quo. Why bother with that promises to be a non-event? Must we be this concerned with non-stories in our media coverage? In fact, I suggested: we should give the entire UNFCCC processes a couple of years of benign neglect. The real climate stories are not in the unmanageable chaos that the annual Climate Circuses have become. They are out there in the real world.

In the real world where frontline states and communities are already bearing the brunt of extreme weather…where green energy is making rapid advances…where communities and economies are trying to figure out how to live with climate change impacts even as they reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

There are plenty of climate stories out there, covering the full range of journalistic interests: human interest, human enterprise, innovation, scientific research, community resilience and others. The challenge to journalists and other climate communicators is to go out there, unearth the untold stories, and bring them out in whatever media, forum or other platform.

I have nothing against climate COPs per se, and hope they can be restored to their original purpose of climate negotiations and working out acceptable, practical ways forward. (And this is certainly not a case of sour grapes: I’ve turned down all-expenses-paid invitations to COPs more than once.)

But we need to be concerned about the Climate Circus Effect on media, activist and educator groups, who seem to dissipate a good deal of their limited energies and resources in turning up at these mega-events. Copenhagen is said to have attracted over 17,000 persons (over 3,000 among them accredited journalists). How much of fruitful interaction and sharing can happen in such a setting? And when all the major news networks and wire services are covering the key negotiations and activities in considerable detail, what more can individual journalists capture and report to their home audiences?

Living as we do on a warming planet, we are challenged on many fronts to question old habits, and change our business-as-usual. The media pack has been running after the Climate Circus for over a dozen years. We need to pause, take stock and ask ourselves: is this the best way to cover the climate story?

And while at it, here’s something else for the UN, conveners of the annual Climate Circus. On World Environment Day 2008, whose theme was ‘CO2: Kick the Habit’, I asked the UN to kick its own CO2 habit. I suggested: “Adopt and strictly observe for a year or two a moratorium on all large UN gatherings (no matter what they are called – Summits, conferences, symposia, meetings, etc.) that involve more than 500 persons. In this day and age of advanced telecommunications, it is possible to consult widely without always bringing people physically together….Practising what you preach has a strong moral persuasive power — even if it goes against addictive habits formed for over 60 years of the UN’s history.”

PS: A global, comprehensive and legally-binding agreement on climate change is unlikely to be delivered at this year’s (Cancun) conference as well, the outgoing head of the UNFCCC, Yvo de Boer, was reported as saying on 27 May, just a few days after our Beijing seminar. See what I mean?

Have they dropped the ball (Earth) in Copenhagen?

The news from Copenhagen, on the last day of the UN climate conference, has been a bit confusing. Have they got a climate deal, or have they simply agreed to meet again and talk more while the planet warms up?

As one news item put it: “Representatives of 192 countries quibbled over every word through the night as a weak political declaration started to emerge out of the climate summit once scheduled to finalise a treaty that would tackle global warming.”

The declaration remains “weak” and “wishy washy” in the absence of agreement over the main sticking points dogging this December 7-18 UN Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference – the refusal by industrialised countries to commit more emission reductions and their unwillingness to put on the table money to help poor countries cope with climate change effects.

So, less than one week to go for Christmas, have the men (and few women) in suits dropped the ball (read: Earth) in Copenhagen? Clarity and interpretations will soon flow. I still hope it won’t come to what cartoonist Marc Roberts envisaged in this cartoon, originally drawn a year ago:

THROBGOBLINS INTERNATIONAL brings dark green humour to brighten your day

Dance for the Climate: dance your anger and joys to a U2 tune!

As the UN climate conference culminates today in Copenhagen, there seem to be lots of angry people in the Danish capital. Many civil society and environmental activists, and some journalists, have been frustrated by the inter-governmental bickering process and the occasionally tough crowd control measures by the Danish police.

As author and activist Naomi Klein wrote at the end of the first week: “By the end, around 1,100 people had been arrested. That’s just nuts. Saturday’s march of roughly 100,000 people came at a crucial juncture in the climate negotiations, a time when all signs point either to break down or a dangerously weak deal. The march was festive and peaceful but also tough. ‘The Climate Doesn’t Negotiate’ was the message, and Western negotiators need to head it.”

I’m not in Copenhagen for uptodate news, but the 5,000+ journalists and over 10,000 activists are keeping us well informed on what’s happening (or not happening). Perhaps part of their anger can be dissipated by heeding a creative call to Dance for the Climate.

It’s an alternative way of demonstration, made into an inspiring and hopeful video clip by award winning Belgian film director Nic Balthazar. It shows 12 000 people on a Belgium beach in a truly spectacular simultaneous choreography dancing to the U2 hit single ‘Magnificent’. Bono and his band graciously gave the rights to their music. The message of the clip to politicians in Copenhagen is to ‘start moving, together, before it’s too late. The time is now to change climate change’.

In a recent email, Seppe Verbist, handling international distribution of “Dance for the Climate” clip, wrote: “We believe that the chances of success of the UN Conference are influenced by the clear signals from ordinary people to their politicians. The ‘Dance for the Climate-clip’ wants to contribute to this, and we sincerely hope we can count on your support!”

According to her, the clip has been released three weeks ago and they are now trying to spread it worldwide. In Europe the distribution goes pretty well as the European Broadcasters Network (EBU) offered the clip to all her members. They are picking up the offer and integrating the clip into their Copenhagen content. In Canada weather forecasters from different broadcast networks are organizing an imitation of Dance For The Climate, and the clip will be shown 24/7 at the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai in the Meteo World Pavilion. They’re expecting 100 000 visitors every day for six months. The Al Gore Climate Project also supported the clip and shared it with their network. It’s been on TV in Brazil and Mexico as well.

Dancing can be a powerful way to express not just joy, but a range of emotions. One of my favourite calls to action came from Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian poet, author, environmentalist and minority rights activist (for his Ogoni people) who was executed by Nigeria’s military on 10 November 1995. While in jail facing an uncertain future, he wrote these momentous words:
“Dance your anger and your joys,
Dance the military guns to silence,
Dance oppression and injustice to death,
Dance my people,
For we have seen tomorrow
And there is an Ogoni star in the sky.”

And today, we must also dance for saving our climate.

Climate cartoons: When less is definitely more!

While politicians, scientists and activists were jostling in Copenhagen at the crucial climate conference, I spent a few hours this week laughing my head off about climate change.

That’s when I judged the Sri Lanka entries for the cartoon contest on climate change, organised by the British Council and the Ken Sprague Fund of UK.

Joining me on this enjoyable challenge were professional cartoonist Wasantha Siriwardena and environmentalist Nimal Perera. We started off with close to 150 entries – many of them good, and some excellent – and ended up with a shortlist or 30 or so of the best.

That’s all I can say about it for now, since the final selection of winners will only be made in January 2010. In the meantime, I’ve been looking at many climate related cartoons inspired by the Copenhagen conference. Here are some that particularly appealed to me…

Last chance, by Erl
copenhagen 09 logo - by samir abdl-fatah ramahi
by David Horsey
by uber

Linking ‘weather’ to ‘climate’: Journalists’ big challenge then…and now!

L to R - Nalaka Gunawardene, Jesper Zolk and Bahar Dutt
At IFEJ 2009 Congress on 28 Oct 2009: From L to R: Nalaka Gunawardene, Jesper Zolk and Bahar Dutt

I used to describe my job as one where I try to make sense of our topsy-turvy world. But I’d happily settle for the simpler description ‘connecting the dots’. This is what we as journalists covering development issues must do everyday in our work:
• link the macro with the micro; and
• find inter-relationships and inter-dependencies that aren’t always very self-evident.

This reminds of me a piece of advice given by the late Tarzie Vittachi (1921-1993), the Sri Lankan-born journalist and editor who was a pioneer in development journalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Long before climate change became an issue, he was speaking metaphorically to fellow journalists when he said: “Ordinary people live and work in the day-to -day weather. Most can’t relate to long-term climate. It’s our job, as journalists, to make those links clear.”

When Tarzie made this remark, some three decades ago, he was speaking metaphorically. Times have changed and now we are literally dealing with weather and climate issues.

Making those links is not always easy, especially if we want to avoid sensationalism, scare-mongering and other excesses that often characterize media coverage on climate change.

I made these observations when chairing a session on the North-South differences in the electronic media (television) coverage of climate change in New Delhi, India, this week. It was part of the latest international congress of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), held at India Habitat Centre from 28 to 30 October 2009. Its theme was “Bridging North-South Differences in Reporting Climate Change: Journalists’ role in Reaching an Ambitious Agreement at COP15 in Copenhagen”.

Participants – over 100 journalists covering science and environmental issues, from all over the world – recognised how climate concerns have extended beyond strict environmental (or ‘green’) issues to mainstream political, business and even security coverage in the media.

Joining me on the TV panel were two experienced journalists from news and current affairs channels — Jesper Zolk, Climate Editor of TV2 News, Denmark, and Bahar Dutt, Environment Editor of CNN/IBN, India.

As it turned out, they were a great panel – they knew a lot, and being TV journalists, also knew how to say it well and concisely. This was the second time that Bahar – one of the best known faces on Indian television today – and I have been on a panel together: almost four years ago, at IFEJ Congress 2005, also in New Delhi, she joined me to discuss ‘Does TV do a better job on environmental reporting?’

I opened my panel by showing this cartoon, one of my favourite when it comes to climate coverage in the media:

Can we blame him for the confusion?
Can we blame him for the confusion?

We cannot assume much more knowledge and understanding in our average TV viewer than the confused guy in this cartoon, I said. So just how do we reach out and engage millions like him (and also the better informed viewers like his fellow viewer)? How do we tell this complex, still unfolding story within the time limits of 24/7 news television, I asked.

We didn’t find all the answers in 75 minutes of our session, but at least we clarified and agreed on a few points. Bahar Dutt’s observations were particularly relevant, especially since India now has over 500 news and current affairs TV channels broadcasting to a billion plus audience in over a dozen languages.

At a time when mainstream media elsewhere in the world are struggling to stay on in business, the Indian broadcast media remain ‘chaotic but robust’, she said. “But editorial filtering is not always very strong in some of our channels, which sees climate coverage ranging from no coverage at all to hysteria,” she added.

According to Bahar, much of the climate coverage in the Indian media overlooks the links with broader development issues. “Focus is often on climate treaty negotiations, or what individual experts or politicians say. These elements are only part of the bigger picture, and we need to look further and dig deeper.”

Bahar Dutt
Bahar Dutt at IFEJ 2009
“Environmental journalists are not green activists, and our role is to be watchdogs – keeping a sharp eye on government, industry and even civil society,” Bahar said. “But sometimes I find this watchdog role lacking in our media.”

Her advice to fellow journalists: stop seeing environment as simply a green and ‘cuddly’ sector, and move it into the political arena.

Jesper Zolk, Climate Editor of Denmark’s TV2 News, said his biggest challenge was how to get the pampered western viewers to change their lifestyles to be more climate friendly.

He urged journalists to focus not just on problems, but also on viable solutions. He expressed a concern that some journalists covering environmental issues sound more like green activists — a point that Bahar Dutt also agreed on.

She made another perceptive observation: people who have the least carbon footprint are the most keen to take action to mitigate climate change. That’s because they realise they are often the first to be impacted.

Our genial and erudite host Darryl D’Monte, chair of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI), had earlier asked participants to reflect on whether the media is part of the problem or the solution in the current crisis.

On the road to Copenhagen and beyond, we have our work cut out for us. As the Danish Ambassador to India, Ole Lønsmann Poulsen, quoted John F Kennedy in his opening remarks as saying: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”

Raise your voice on climate change: CNN/YouTube Debate coming up…

Speak up to be heard....
Speak up to be heard....

In the environment and development circles, all the roads these days seem to lead to Copenhagen.

That’s because the Danish capital will be hosting the 15th conference of parties (COP15) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UN-FCCC from 7 to 18 December 2009.

All sorts of campaigns are underway to raise awareness and build up consensus — a tough call when nations of the world are bickering endlessly as the planet warms up.

Now, CNN and YouTube have created Raise Your Voice campaign: it allows your voice to be amplified to the world leaders at COP15 – the most important climate change conference in a decade.

Here’s the blurb:
As nations seek an agreement to protect the world we want your views from across the spectrum.
What needs to be done?
How do the issues affect you?
Do you agree there needs to be action?

There is a breathtaking short video now on YouTube supporting this call:

Click here to send a video with your views, opinions and questions. The best contributions will be aired during the COP15 CNN/YouTube TV debate on December 15.

Ozone: Once and Future Story? A tale of two images…

A tale of two iconic images...
A tale of two iconic images...

I am in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, conducting the Ozone Media Roundtable, a high level event to engage Asian media professionals on the nexus between ozone depletion and climate change. The meeting, held on 8 – 9 October 2009, is organised jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and TVE Asia Pacific for invited senior journalists and broadcasters from the Asia Pacific region.

The past 22 years of implementing the Montreal Protocol, adopted in 1987, hold many relevant lessons and experiences for countries currently trying to negotiate a new multilateral environmental arrangement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UN-FCCC. These insights could be particularly helpful for the inter-governmental negotiations leading to, and during, the 15th conference of parties (COP15) of UN-FCCC in Copenhagen in December 2009.

TVE Asia Pacific and UNEP convened the roundtable meeting in Chiang Mai to explore the ozone/climate nexus from a communications perspective. We brought together a small group of senior journalists and broadcasters who have been covering ozone and/or climate issues. We also invited a few ozone and climate technical experts to discuss the close links between ozone layer protection and climate change mitigation.

I work with moving images, but I also know the power of still images — especially when they are highly symbolic. Looking for a good visual link between ozone depletion and climate change, I came up with two images of our planet, seen in different ways that represent the two global environmental challenges.

Largest ever Ozone hole, Sept 2000
Largest ever Ozone hole, Sept 2000
The first image is better known, and is a colour enhanced satellite image of the Ozone Hole that was discovered in 1985 by British scientists Joesph Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin of the British Antarctic Survey. The ozone “hole” is really a reduction in concentrations of ozone high above the earth in the stratosphere. It is defined geographically as the area wherein the total ozone amount is less than 220 Dobson Units.

This discover was largely responsible for galvanising international attention and response to the threat of ozone depletion. After a series of inter-governmental meetings and negotiations, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was finally agreed upon on 16 September 1987 at the headquarters of the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal.

Temperature projection for Year 2100
Temperature projection for Year 2100
The second image is not as widely known, but represents an even greater environmental calamity that is currently unfolding: global warming and rapid changes in climate it has triggered. The image is a colour enhanced image of the Earth’s temperatures in 2100 AD (less than a century from now), as projected by the Earth Simulator — one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers — which Japanese scientists use to project the climatic disasters in next 100 years.

The system was developed in 1997 for running global climate models to evaluate the effects of global warming and problems in solid earth geophysics. It has been able to run holistic simulations of global climate in both the atmosphere and the oceans — down to a resolution of 10 km.

Between these two images, we are looking at two of the biggest environmental challenges of our times. How the climate crisis can learn valuable lessons from the ozone crisis is what we discussed at the Ozone Media Roundtable.

More about the meeting’s outcome soon.

Calling All Climate Films: Engage the world with EngageMedia!

May a million Al Gores rise to this challenge!
May a million Al Gores rise to this challenge!

Exactly this time last year, in early October 2008, I spoke to a group of Asian broadcasters and film-makers gathered in Tokyo on what it takes to stand on Al Gore’s shoulders.

Whatever we might think about the artistic and technical merits of his climate film An Inconvenient Truth, it has settled with a resounding ‘yes’ one question: can a single film make a difference in tipping public opinion about a matter of global importance?

But the climate crisis that confronts us is so formidable that we need many more Al Gores to come up with as many moving images creations as they can.

EngageMedia, a video sharing site about social justice and environmental issues in the Asia Pacific, has put out a call for video/TV films on climate crisis, climate action, climate justice and climate solutions. They plan to ‘put the best stories on a DVD and in an online package to be screened and distributed before, during and after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Summit meeting in Copenhagen in December 2009.

Their call out for all climate films says: “This December thousands of delegates, decision makers, stakeholders and activists will converge on Copenhagen. To be part of this EngageMedia is putting together a compilation of Asia-Pacific climate films to be screened and distributed at the event and around the world. Submit your film to EngageMedia and be part of the action. Global action is urgent and essential – the time for debate is over.”

TVE Asia Pacific
, already a partner on EngageMedia platform, is submitting all its recently produced climate change films.

Read the full text of Climate Crisis Video Call-Out: Time for Reel Action!