The sand has settled following COP 27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt – a country whose prisons are heaving with political prisoners including Egyptian-British pro-democracy activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah. Now it’s time to evaluate just how the press covered this most important international climate conference as we face increasing extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones, desertification and rising sea levels.
Kate Russell on BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show (16 November) reported that as Cop27 ended you might have seen more about the activists who threw oil on a Gustav Klimt painting in Vienna or the protesters who brought the M25 to a standstill last week.
Writing in the e magazine In Publishing on 10 November Liz Gerard in her Notebook column https://inpublishing.co.uk/articles/liz-gerards-notebook-21360 developed this theme: “….There is absolutely nothing that matters more today than global warming…. in Pakistan, drowning under metres of flood water, in remote island states battered by hurricanes, or in South American forests blazing with wildfires, but here in Europe, where the weather maps now show great swaths of red, and Britain, where we saw record high temperatures in July and record [high] minimum temperatures for November last night (14C when the norm is 3C). Yet the climate sceptics are still given sway in their columns, while editors and their leader-writing teams demand draconian punishments for ‘ecowarriors’ who disrupt life for an hour or so….”
Prime Minister’s Sunak’s last minute attendance at the COP on 7 November was covered by The Daily Star which featured a photograph of him with Emmanuel Macron on page 2 above the headline ‘Mac ‘n’ cheese’ followed by a short story about talks on stopping small boats crossing the Channel. The only mention of global warming in the entire paper was the fact that the leaders’ hug took place “at the UN climate change conference in Egypt”.
They were not alone. The Express, Telegraph, Times and Metro all used the ‘hug picture’ on their front pages, three out of four of them to illustrate a story about migrants/asylum-seekers /refugees, and how he was ‘getting to grips’ with the situation.
Other right wing newspapers did little better, while the Labour supporting Daily Mirror reported Sunak’s speech on page 18, alongside Just Stop Oil activists disrupting the M25 in early November. The disgraceful arrest by Hertfordshire police of four journalists while reporting these protests was later found to be ‘unjustified’ by a police review undertaken by another force. The four were arrested despite being on a public footpath and all showing the police valid UK press cards (recognised by the UK Police Chiefs’ Council).
Wider conference coverage was provided by The Guardian who reported the PM’s flying visit pointing out that in his three minute speech he made no mention of paying reparations. Maybe this was because he spoke hours after Boris Johnson, who made it clear to a fringe meeting that the UK could not afford to pay reparations. Arguments over exactly who picks up the bill led to the talks’ two day extension. A new fund to help countries worst-hit by the effects of climate change finally emerged. Called the ‘loss and damage fund’ we don’t yet know the details of how much money it will involve, and where the cash will come from, but it’s a small step in the right direction.
Why did the COP fail to address the biggest source of emissions, fossil fuels? There were more fossil fuel lobbyists attending than representatives of the 10 nations most affected by the crisis. This did receive serious attention in the UK quality press as data analysis of the United Nations’ provisional attendance list for the conference showed that 636 fossil fuel lobbyists had been registered, up 25% from last year’s Glasgow conference. Thus attempts to phase out gas and oil failed after a number of nations, including China and Saudi Arabia, blocked a key proposal to phase out all fossil fuels, not just coal. This vital aspect has been kicked into the long grass and will doubtless emerge at COP28 to be held in the United Arab Emirates along with an army of fossil fuel lobbyists. As a delegate from Africa said, “If you want to address malaria, you don’t invite the mosquitoes.”
As far as climate journalism goes the vast majority of tabloid press coverage was not about the climate breakdown, more about belittling the crisis and those who want to do something about it.
The role of the press is to inform the public on important issues that affect them. At least the broadcasting media generally made a better effort.