Taking the Media's Temperature

06/12/2012 12:37 GMT | Updated 02/02/2013 10:12 GMT

As delegates trickle into Doha for the annual UN climate change negotiations, journalists too have followed in droves. With 1,500 registered press on the books, there have been concerns that the media centre is, at best, only at twenty percent capacity.

How the media report on climate change is a high-blood-pressure-inducing subject, often prompting people to scream at their televisions and whittle away countless computer hours fighting trolls in comment sections until passing out in anger and dismay.

Those who recognise the necessity of a comprehensive, legally-binding and multilateral treaty to curb pollution can often feel dejected at the lack of media attention paid to climate change. Long term trends public sphere can easily be overlooked.

Below is The Verb's analysis of select U.S.-based outlets after the first week of COP18, the United Nations climate change negotiations, taking place in Qatar.

To simplify: thus far, the debate has been about science, now it's about politics.

In general, commentators are focussing on the debate between whether to continue polluting and adapt to global climate changes, or to mitigate emissions to a level necessary to avoid 'catastrophe.'

Very few media outlets have a dedicated 'environment' section, let alone one for 'climate change.'

Until now, environmentalists have criticised media outlets for framing discussions of climate change as an equal debate between 'climate believers' and 'climate skeptics.' Ostensibly aiming for balance, media outlets were simply trying to protect advertising dollars from the fossil fuel industry.

Aaron Sorkin sums up this bygone and misaligned fetish for 'balance' in a recent Newsroom episode:

"There aren't two sides to every story. Some stories have five sides, some only have one. 'Biased toward fairness' means that if the entire congressional Republican caucus were to walk into the house and propose a resolution stating that the earth was flat, the 'Times' would lead with 'Democrats and Republicans can't agree on shape of earth.'"

Today, the focus has shifted from the old scientific debate ('are we really causing global warming?') to a new debate, which is about power, justice, and distribution - a debate over politics.

Andrew Revkin, writing in his Dot Earth blog for The New York Times, highlights how the United States federal budget is skewed in favour of traditional military security at the expense of energy security. Revkin calls for the funding ratio (currently about 75:1 in favour of military spending) to be redirected in favour of energy security and efficiency.

It's important to note that United States military interventions abroad, especially in the oil-rich Middle East, can't exactly be distinguished from its energy policy.

Fear of loss, especially of material possessions, is a favoured method of persuasion. The New York Times has interactive maps showing what would happen to major cities in the event of rising sea levels which, in the context of Hurricane Sandy, may just jolt people into thinking more about how climate change will affect them.

CNN's Fareed Zakaria recently hosted a discussion with Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University's Earth Institute and Bryan Walsh of Time Magazine on mitigation and adaption in response to climate change.

Zakaria acknowledged the need to "stop or reverse climate change" whilst promoting adaption measures in the meantime to adjust to "what is the new normal." Mentioning the fact that "four million Americans live within just a few feet of high tide," making them extra vulnerable to a rising and ferocious ocean, Walsh understands that adapting to climate change can bring up just as many political conundrums as can reducing pollution.

For example, if you built a sea wall around lower Manhattan, the risk of flood to the surrounding areas would increase. Walsh notes that "the great cities around the world are on coasts." He concludes that "there's no way we're going to beat this just by adapting to changes. We are on a path of raising the impacts so powerfully that if we don't get climate change itself under control, I don't think we'll ever catch up." Sachs agrees that stopping human induced climate change is "absolutely the first resort."

Despite such action-oriented rhetoric, however, CNN's Tim Lister is pessimistic. "There is already widespread doubt that at the global level, aspirations will be matched by deeds," he writes. CNN's environmental reporting has focussed on practical policies such as the exciting prospect of 'greening the desert' by using clean energy to maintain water and plants in arid areas of the Sahara Forest Project, as well as coverage of James Balog, whose Extreme Ice Survey reveals how ice is retreating as a consequence of climate change - footage shown in the film 'Chasing Ice.'

The Wall Street Journal, a Rupert Murdoch newspaper, has very little on climate change and COP18. Instead the WSJ focusses on defectors from global negotiations - Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam, who are "sidestepping slow-moving multilateral efforts to address climate change" - implying that the presence of these free riders negates any need to be more ambitious.

Karl Ritter and Michael Casey, writing on The Huffington Postsummarise the key conflicts in climate negotiations, such as the rich/poor nation divide, the 'U.S. vs. the rest' perception, and include some useful quotes from negotiators such as United States delegate Jonathan Pershing.

Fear of loss figures heavily here, too. At the bottom of Ritter and Casey's article there is a slide show entitled 'Climate Change Just Might Ruin,' which aims to shock readers into thinking about a world without pancake breakfasts, coffee, wineries, baby polar bear videos, strawberries, coral reefs, salmon, water front real estate, honey, snow, fresh water, and fast WiFi. Look out for the hashtag #climatechangeruins

Fox News has been using some syndicated content from Associated Press, but editorial decisions clearly favour a more action-oriented approach rather than its previous approaches. Interestingly, Fox News published the exact same story that was unassumingly titled 'UN Climate Change Conference Opens in Doha' in Huffington Post, as 'US Fights Back at Climate Critics Defending Enormous Efforts at UN Talks'. Fox certainly hasn't lost its trademark parochialism.

There have been reports that scientists are losing the battle to convince the public that climate change is real and caused by humans. Warren Meyer of Forbes argues that there has been foul play from both sides of the climate debate. But these are all notes in the margin.

As far as media coverage is concerned, the public debate has shifted towards politics, and that, as they say, is a whole new ball game.