Climate conferences: liability or opportunity?

Climate change can only be stopped if activists utilize new forms of media


COP26 was a flop”, “COP26: most ambitious climate summit yet”, “What the outcome of COP26 means”, “COP26 is a PR event,” – the headlines from this year’s climate conference were all over the place, both during the event and in the aftermath. Hailed as ‘the most important climate conference’ since the Paris Agreement of 2015, people across the board, from activists to journalists, small business owners and union members, had high hopes that finally, this year, our elected representatives would do something about the pace at which we are careening towards a world unliveable for billions of people.

The delegates did make some real progress, COP-timists will say. ‘What about that methane pledge?’, and all those countries that promised to ‘end deforestation’? Or the fact that Modi said India would ‘phase down coal?’ Doesn’t that count for anything? It does, of course, count for something.

Any progress in a movement that has existed for decades and has thus-far largely been ignored is, of course, cause for celebration. This year’s climate conference drew more delegates than ever before, and many who have historically been left out of negotiations: young people, representatives from indigenous communities, and support from workers’ movements within Glasgow. And if these were pledges that had been agreed to 15, 10 or even five years ago it would likely have been deemed a true success.

However, the problem is that we, globally, are far past promises to “phase down coal”. We are facing a global emergency the scale of which we cannot even begin to imagine. Millions of people will be without water by 2030, triggering mass migrations that will dwarf the so-called “refugee crisis” of 2015. The Amazon rain forest is dangerously close to a tipping point that will see it begin to emit more CO2 than it sucks up, which will likely end up with it turning into a savannah.

Meanwhile, the global agricultural industry sucks up 70% of the freshwater on the planet and we dump a garbage truck full of fast-fashion textiles into landfills every single second. What is a pledge to end deforestation without any mention of global agricultural subsidies, or the role that fashion plays in cutting down precious trees? What do words about phasing down fossil fuels mean when leaders immediately turn around and approve new oil fields and coal mines?

To community activists and followers of social movements, the fact that leaders completely fail over and over to tackle any challenge that cannot be fought with guns and bombs is far from surprising. But there was something interesting and new about this COP that departed from previous years, other than the fact that a significant portion of the delegates could not attend due to Covid travel and vaccine restrictions.

This year, for the first time, media around the world turned their attention towards the conference in a way that they had not before.

During the two weeks of the conference, press agency footage was plentiful, and it seemed like every announcement and protest was getting coverage. From diplomats to young activists taking the official stage, as well as Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion members staging protests outside, COP was in the spotlight.

This is no accident, and not because people within large media organizations have deemed climate change important enough to cover – it’s because the climate emergency is, well, an emergency now. Fires, floods, famine, drought, migration: these all make for attention-grabbing headlines, so extreme weather and the warming of the Earth are finally seen as ‘newsy’ enough to cover. The news cycle isn’t working any differently now than it has ever before. The old adage, ‘If it bleeds, it leads’, is still as true as ever. Except now, it is the whole planet that is bleeding.

So what’s wrong with more media attention on climate change, and especially on a conference bringing together heads of governments from across the globe? Like Greta Thunberg pointed out, this COP and future climate conferences are in danger of becoming important PR campaigns for nations; another tool with which professional diplomats and negotiators navigate the international stage.

The more media attention, the more their empty promises can be echoed and amplified around the world. It could become especially important for countries that are in the spotlight for human rights’ abuses: the United States, India, and China to name a few. These types of conferences hold the potential to become one giant greenwash, especially now that politicians know that they will have more and more of a spotlight as the state of the planet deteriorates.

But there is another option, albeit one that will require a change in the way that the global media reports on these types of events. Traditionally, sources of information in the press that are deemed ‘credible’ are often those that are affiliated with governments or businesses, although this varies between and sometimes within countries.

When it comes to reporting about the climate, however, governments and businesses usually have similar agendas, so in the never-ending search for objectivity, many media outlets also give their platforms to NGOs, or activists, as long as they don’t say anything too controversial.

And considering as COP, and other conferences like it, are hugely important in the opportunity they provide to these individuals and organizations to meet with each other, the media lens might serve to pass the microphone to alternative viewpoints in a way that they haven’t been offered before.

In the face of a global crisis that threatens the life and livelihoods of most people on the planet, there is no more time to accept statements from politicians at face value when it comes to climate action.

For better or for worse, the entire landscape of journalism has, and continues to, evolve at a rapid pace. Large media houses are losing captive audiences and being forced to change how they report, which often means prioritizing what their viewers want to see. Smaller organizations are getting a chance at a reach that would not have been possible before widespread internet access and social media.

We’re in an interesting moment, where journalism is more of a two-way street than it has ever been before. And social platforms, which of course come with a huge number of their own issues, have a chance to influence what ends up on the homepage of major news outlets.

Maybe in the face of these changes, climate conferences could be a tool that community organizers and activists could use to have their voices heard.