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Positive Paris talks not like cynical Copenhagen – but how will media cope?

Stephane Mahe / Reuters

Positive Paris talks not like cynical Copenhagen – but how will media cope?

It has become a mantra here that Paris 2015 is not Copenhagen 2009. This time, the US and China are on board; the price of renewables has dropped by more than half; the vast majority of countries here have already pledged emission cuts and Paris is seen as a “staging post” not a final destination.

But how different is Paris 2015 for the 3,700 media representatives accredited here?

Like Copenhagen, where there were 4,000 from nearly 120 countries, the sheer volume of journalists makes the summits two of the most media-covered political events ever.

So it’s a daunting task for anyone analysing the bewildering array of content the journalists are producing.

A preliminary look at some of the hundreds of articles already published by the mainstream media suggests that, as in Copenhagen, the main angles are the process of the negotiations, and the political wrangling behind the sticking points.

So in Paris, much has already been published about the position of India, whereas in Copenhagen there was more about China.

More interesting are the other aspects of the climate change “mega-story” that journalists choose to cover beyond the negotiations. One strong impression is that since Copenhagen, as one veteran agency reporter put it to me recently, “climate change has moved from being just an environment story to a business and energy story”.

The Financial Times, for instance, has long been interested in climate change for its business readers (often presenting it a risk issue). It covered the Copenhagen summit extensively. But this time round, like many legacy media organisations, the FT has added a live blog, videos, a beginners’ guide, and a special index on the Paris talks.

Regular announcements have given the press something new to talk about – every day. Reuters

Another difference is that journalists here receive an endless stream of announcements of new initiatives on renewables, technology and business risk. And many of them have received extensive coverage – the new initiative by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to boost clean energy research in the new “Breakthrough Energy Coalition” predictably hit the headlines beyond the business press.

But so did the pledge by the US and 18 other countries to double funding for similar research, India’s International Solar Alliance aiming to boost the use of solar power, and the announcement of an international Financial Stability Board, chaired by Michael Bloomberg, to manage threats from climate risks.

In the same vein, the Washington Post headlined a recent piece as possibly “the biggest news yet to come out of the Paris climate meeting”. It was not about some breakthrough in the negotiations, but about a new initiative to deliver at least 300 gigawatts of electricity-generating capacity to Africa by 2030, all from clean or renewable energy.

Such stories are one indication of how media narratives about climate change are becoming more about hope and opportunity and less about the more traditional doom and gloom.

In part, this may be due to a realisation that the transition to a low-carbon economy is inevitable, even though the pace of it is uncertain. But for some media organisations, such as the Guardian, more messages of hope form part of a deliberate editorial policy driven in part by readers’ wishes.

Another major change since Copenhagen is the boom in niche sites about climate change and the rise of successful “digital natives” such as Huffington Post, Vice and BuzzFeed giving priority to environment coverage.

At first sight, BuzzFeed is offering its traditional diet of listicles, photo galleries, quizzes and humorous content. But a closer look shows that much of its coverage is positive and hopeful.

Buzzfeed tends to look for the positives. Buzzfeed

They and other new players seem to offer no space to sceptical voices. The “Climategate affair” received considerable coverage at the time of the Copenhagen summit, offering plenty of traction to deniers particularly in the UK and US. But this time round there seems to be a consensus that deniers have become much more marginal. Unilever boss Paul Polman recently described them as “the only endangered species”.

Matt Ridley, the Conservative hereditary peer who describes himself as a “lukewarm” sceptic, is an exception. He has appeared in several right-leaning newspapers in the US, UK and Australia. But several climate scientists have come out fighting, laboriously picking holes in a recent interview he gave to the BBC.

A crucial test remains for the media at the end of the summit. The wise money is on some sort of deal being signed here. The outcome is likely not to be enough to keep warming below 2℃, but nevertheless an important step on the path.

It is a truism that journalists like binary stories with winners and losers, and success or failure – nuance will be more of a challenge.