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Stephane Mahe / Reuters

How the media spun the Paris climate agreement

The Paris deal generally got a very good press. Most reporting in the immediate aftermath had a similar focus on a few key headline points: this was a “landmark victory”, albeit one with a few cautionary notes. Yet a closer look reveals some telling differences.

The left-leaning Guardian called it an “ambitious agreement” and “an end to the fossil fuel era”. While criticisms were recognised, the tone was generally positive, even euphoric, emphasising the historic nature of the achievement. There was mention that NGOs “could never have envisaged a deal that was so ambitious” and, although it was still not ambitious enough, “campaign groups were broadly positive about the outcome”. Yet, negative points were made about “the weakening of the agreement when it came to dealing with the irreparable damage of climate change”.

The more centrist Independent similarly emphasised the historical and revolutionary nature of the moment, offering stronger cautionary notes, such as that of UCL’s Chris Rapley who pointed out that only “time will reveal the true nature of the Paris agreement”.

On the political right, the Telegraph was much more cautious. It referred to the success of the agreement, but chose to outline what had been agreed, rather than emphasise the historic significance of the moment. The paper was interested in what this will mean for UK policy and in what NGOs think of the agreement, balancing positive judgements from Christian Aid with negative evaluations from Friends of the Earth.

The Times and the Sunday Times however, were less positive. Writing just before the announcement, the agreement was being presented in the Times as a success for small island states in holding the UK and the rest of the world to a tougher deal. The cost of technological solutions was of more interest than marking the seminal moment. The Sunday Times (Irish edition) the following day was more appreciative of the agreement, claiming it was “historic”, but not as significant as asserted elsewhere. The article views technology and self-interest as the forces that will beat global warming.

The Times focused on the cost of ‘negative emissions’ technology. The Times

Aside from the nuts and bolts of the agreement – the financial mechanisms, pledges made, and so on – one of the strong messages of the news coverage was that investors and governments could now make choices based on a collective commitment to emissions reduction; something regarded as a very positive step. Another emphasis was the role of the US in pushing for a deal and France in brokering it.

Two types of negativity

However over in the comment pages, strongly sceptical/negative voices were also included, particularly in the Guardian. George Monbiot, the paper’s high-profile environment columnist, claimed that: “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster”. Similarly former NASA climate scientist James Hansen emphasised the failures: “It’s a fraud really, a fake. […] It’s just bullshit for them to say: We’ll have a 2°C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.”

Then we have coverage that was hostile to the entire idea of a grand environmental summit. The Daily Mail, for example, investigated the environmental impact of the conference itself and concluded it was “a prime example of what wasteful lives the green lobby lead”. Meanwhile in the Telegraph veteran journalist Christopher Booker ridiculed COP21 as the moment “political panic” over climate change began to collide with the reality of a fossil fuel-based global civilisation.

But this sort of climate denial – or policy “realism” – is increasingly rare in the mainstream media across the world. In our research we’ve looked at climate coverage in Russia, one of the world’s major carbon emitters and a country with every reason to avoid high-profile debate. Yet even there things are changing. The usually reluctant media joined the positive coverage of the Paris announcement, perhaps a logical outcome of the strong statement delivered by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, on the summit’s first day.

For example, the state-owned newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta discussed the successes of the Russian delegation, which managed to achieve all its aims. Russian reporters did criticise the legal aspects of the agreement, while activists and NGOs voiced some doubts over COP21’s achievement, pointing out, for instance, the increased likelihood of controversial low-carbon policies (such as China’s potential switch to nuclear) and Russia’s ambiguous position between the developed and developing camps. But these criticisms are a positive sign of engagement with the process, rather than simple denial or misinformation.

For climate change communication, 2015 has been crucial – the media played an instrumental role in translating environmental risks for a wider audience. The awards for specific climate communication heroes and villains haven’t yet been handed out, but the whole media deserves a pat on the back for at least giving the historic achievement in Paris the column inches it deserves.

This article was co-authored by Teresa Ashe.

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