The UN Climate Change Conference COP26 starts in Glasgow, UK this weekend. While it will offer many story leads for journalists increasingly finding themselves writing about the environment, the climate coverage will continue long past the fortnight of events.
COP26 is quite a big deal. It is a five-year follow-up to the landmark Paris Summit in 2015, which gave rise to the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty signed by almost every state, committing them to limit global warming to below 2 - preferably to 1.5 - degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.
For that reason, all eyes will be on negotiations between countries as they ramp up their contributions, particularly the strained relationship between the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases: the US and China. That is according to James Fahn, a lecturer at UC-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, and an experienced journalist and author on climate topics.
He said that key developments to keep an eye on will be the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC's) for each country to reduce their emissions. For the UK, that means reducing economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68 per cent by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. We will get a sense of progress made so far at COP26 and what further actions are needed to meet that goal. Fahn recommended going one step further by asking: if met, what does that mean for the future of global warming?
There is also Climate Finance, a mechanism created by developed countries that agreed to commit US$100bn per year to minimise the impact of climate change. The UK government pledged £5.8bn on tackling climate change by 2021 and is expected to at least double that to £11.6bn by 2026. There is a wealth of stories here for journalists to sink their teeth into when you consider how technical this will get. Those who will translate the data into plain language and tell stories their audiences can relate to can expect higher audience engagement.
Fahn is also the executive director of Internews' Earth Journalism Network (EJN), a project which aims to upskill journalists from developing countries to better report on the environment. If you really want to get into the weeds of the topic, the EJN has a number of useful webinars and tipsheets related to climate change and the conference, including a full explainer and guide to covering the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).
"Climate change has always felt like a topic. As journalists, we didn't understand that it's systemic and it needs to be part of every section", says @wblau in this episode of the BBC Media Show on journalism and the #climatecrisis https://t.co/dWLPkf6q5W— Reuters Institute (@risj_oxford) October 21, 2021
Coverage throughout and after the event
Media organisations are gearing up to cover all the juicy developments throughout the event as they break. Here we take a quick look at who does what.
BBC special programmes
Public broadcaster BBC has planned lots of special programming, news and digital coverage. One stand-out item is the special Global Climate Debate on 1 November broadcast from BBC Scotland’s headquarters, featuring global political figures and a young audience.
Throughout the conference, BBC News and the BBC World Service will be delivering content across digital, television, radio and online, including programmes such as Today, Newshour and The Andrew Marr Show broadcasting live from Glasgow.
Our Planet Now is a special collection of programmes highlighting facts about the environment and the challenges facing our planet, also featuring a five-part documentary series, The Earthshot Prize: Repairing Our Planet, led by Prince William, founder of the Earthshot Prize, and Sir David Attenborough.
The BBC also revealed a leak of documents that showed how some countries are lobbying to change a crucial scientific report on how to tackle climate change. The public broadcaster told Journalism.co.uk: "We will continue to cover all aspects of climate change, examining the policies and actions of governments and organisations across the world, including the role of lobbying."
The Guardian's multi-format approach
The Guardian, well-known for changing its language on the topic in 2019, is launching a revamped weekly newsletter, Down to Earth (formerly Green Light), as part of extensive COP26 coverage.
It goes live on 28 October and also includes an exclusive piece from one of its environment correspondents, as well as highlighting 'Climate Heroes', in a section dedicated to the Guardian readers' efforts.
Other plans include a daily liveblog on the UK homepage showing crucial data and climate indicators, such as atmospheric carbon dioxide, Arctic Sea ice and percentage of low carbon electricity in the UK.
Audio will play a strong part. The Guardian's popular Today in Focus podcast will include special COP26 episodes from Glasgow, and the Science Weekly podcast will go daily for the two weeks of COP26, beginning 1 November. Guardian Australia is releasing a special investigative podcast series - Australia v the climate - scrutinising Australia's role in the climate crisis for over two decades, as well as the three-part Pacific podcast An Impossible Choice.
The Guardian is also inviting other news organisations around the world to republish its stories for free through Covering Climate Now, a global partnership of more than 460 newsrooms committed to better coverage of the climate crisis.
The Times is testing its shiny toys
The Times looks like it will make use of many of its newer, innovative features throughout the event. For instance, Times Earth, a climate change and sustainability feature introduced this year, will host all COP26 coverage.
It is also hosting a Times Earth hub at COP26 which will be a space for its journalists to work from, where British journalist Mariella Frostrup will also be broadcasting live from on Times Radio, its new station it launched last year.
Strength in numbers and social media for Washington Post
The Washington Post which has doubled its climate team since 2018, has launched The Climate 202, a new, long-term effort to keep readers informed throughout and after COP26. On top of explainer content, '202' will include deep insights and scoops five days a week from reporter Maxine Joselow, who will be on the ground in Glasgow (202 is also a nod to Washington's area code).
Another dimension of The Post's coverage will be social; chiefly Instagram and TikTok where The Post has more than 1m followers and 44m likes thanks to Dave Jorgenson's popular "dad humour" videos.
The Post will take to Instagram Reels - its short video feature - to post "climate good news" with a focus on emerging positivity from COP26. But get this: Instagram video explainers will also be posted to its homepage. Science and environment topics were successful on the news website, now it wants to see how the format sits with its main audience.
"We will take that work off-platform and highlight it on the website to serve both audiences," explains Krissah Thompson, managing editor of The Washington Post.
"COP26 is an opportunity to experiment with the vertical video experience that you find on Instagram and bring it onto the site. We will do that throughout the conference."
A fresh perspective at The Scotsman
The Earth Journalism Network, with support from the Stanley Center for Peace and Security, will send 22 journalists trained via its virtual workshops to the event.
COP26 may look quite dry on the surface, with lots of subsidiary bodies, acronyms and percentages. This cohort has been told to focus on taking a complex topic and find the interesting human angle, be that through how the climate crisis affects biodiversity or people's livelihood. Ultimately, this is about empowering reporters who would not otherwise have access to the talks.
"When people at COP26 talk about climate change, people in Africa think that's nothing to do with them. It’s about saving a polar bear," says Meera Selva, deputy director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), and director of its fellowship programmes.
Selva's point on how the issue of climate change is framed internationally is part of the impetus for RISJ's latest initiative, the Oxford Climate Journalism Network which she co-founded together with Wolfgang Blau, a visiting research fellow at the Institute and regarded as a thought-leader on environmental journalism.
"We have lots of environmental journalism and not all of it gets read," Selva explains. "Often editors say they do the reporting but it doesn't play well on their website."
"The story of climate change is a global one. But journalism often reflects the priorities, perspectives and interests of the rich countries," writes @MeeraSelva1 on how journalists can report on climate change in ways that resonate with readershttps://t.co/p6QeI7vrJf— Reuters Institute (@risj_oxford) October 25, 2021
The network wants to look at international newsrooms and get a better understanding of how beats are allocated and decisions are made, with the aim of feeding back important research.
The latest findings from the Reuters Digital News Report 2020 showed that the majority of young people are concerned about the climate - we have come to dub this the "Greta effect". On average, only three per cent of people do not think it is a serious issue. Results vary depending on geography and political affinity - in the US, 89 per cent of left-leaning respondents said the climate is "very or extremely" serious. Compare that to 18 per cent of right-leaning respondents saying the same thing about this topic.
TV has been the legacy source of climate news (43 per cent of over-55s get updates this way). That is much less (23 per cent) for the 18-24s, who are turning to "alternative sources", which include blogs and social media. Respondents cited Leonardo DiCaprio and commondreams.org as places where they get climate news. In fact, a recent RISJ report concluded that younger audiences do not feel as strongly the need for impartiality within the news.
More research is needed on how this topic is trusted, disseminated and shared, which is what this network will strive to do. When it comes to COP26, Selva said it will be an important moment for climate action but the story lives long beyond the talks in November.
"As a journalist, I regard this summit just like any other: a useful place to network, get ideas and cover the big policy announcements, but it’s not the start or end of the story at all."
The news industry has two big issues at the moment: declining trust and young people turning away from legacy and established media. Covering climate is an opportunity to tackle both.
"Climate change is at the nexus of these trends, as well as storytelling; the balance between short, quick, mobile-friendly news that captures people’s attention versus a strong demand for long-form documentaries.
"This story works in many ways, and an ambitious journalist should realise it's very visual, it has a huge amount of data, it's a human interest story, it's both hyperlocal and completely global."
The network starts with a free course in January (the deadline to apply is 15 November), and Selva stressed they are mostly looking for non-climate journalists to join the network. There will be a follow-up leadership course in 2022.
The Oxford Climate Journalism Network is funded for the first year by a £477,170 grant from the European Climate Foundation (ECF), an independent philanthropic initiative dedicated to responding to the global climate crisis by creating a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions society.
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