Saturday, March 7, 2009

Those Most Affected by Climate Change Seen as Unaware of Dangers

By Stephen Kaufman, Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, 7 march 2009

Washington - The issue of climate change has gained prominence in the Western press, but in many developing countries the topic rarely appears in headlines, and citizens remain relatively uninformed about the risks they face from environmental degradation.

"Climate change is one of the most pressing problems for reporters to cover in the developing world and is something that is being largely neglected," said Oren Murphy, regional manager for Southeast Asia at the nonprofit Internews Network.

"There is a huge ... information gap we found between people who are most likely to suffer from the impact of climate change and their access to information."

Murphy and journalists spoke in Washington on March 4 at an event hosted by the Center for International Media Assistance, an initiative by the nonprofit National Endowment for Democracy.

For many developing countries, improving their economic well-being through fast development is an overriding imperative, but Murphy said climate change and environmental damage can cause a country's years of economic growth to be undone - by rising waters, decreasing drinking water supplies, crippled fishing industries and other environmental disasters.

Environmental journalists are needed to challenge governments on their development plans, particularly when short-term financial interests are allowed to outweigh the longer-term costs, he said.

But the environmental problems and the looming threats from climate change are relatively untouched topics for many journalists due to factors such as the challenge of acquiring a background in scientific matters and the widespread view that the environment is not considered a prestigious beat for reporters as compared to politics or business.

"We've found that environment reporting is still sort of considered a purview of the 'tree huggers' and is not really viewed as something that is going to have a major impact across the country, both on economics, on politics and then also on social development," he said.

There is also a widespread misconception that environmental protection and economic development "are mutually exclusive."

Rob Taylor, a director at the International Center for Journalists, said when he speaks with Indian political and business leaders about their country's increasing carbon dioxide emissions, he always is reminded that Indians do not care to discuss the issue because the per capita carbon dioxide emissions from the United States are 20 to 25 times greater than those from India.

But "India and China are growing so fast that what they are doing alone, if their growth path continues, will be enough to cause climate change in a serious way without any contribution from the U.S. and Europe," Taylor said.

He added that many reporters and editors are being pressured by their governments not to report on environmentally hazardous business practices in order to protect economic development.

Steve Paterno, a freelance journalist from Sudan who was in the audience, said in some countries the issue of climate change is interconnected to business and corruption. "I don't understand how you can separate it, especially in countries that are very undemocratic," he said.


Among its ongoing projects, Internews is reaching out to journalists in China and central and south Asia to show how shrinking glacial ice in the Himalayas will significantly decrease the water supply to important rivers such as the Mekong, Yangtze and Ganges with "catastrophic effects for the whole region."

Murphy said that until very recently in China "there has been almost no discussion of this in the national media around the region and the affected areas."

But he added the Chinese are "beginning to see the actual true economic cost of ignoring the environment for the past decade as they have gone through growth," and Chinese officials have become much more interested in environmental sustainability "so that they don't have runaway costs in the form of health care and pollution and cleaning up all those messes."

Jon Sawyer, executive director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, said one of the challenges for journalists covering climate change and other crisis issues is walking the fine line between objectively reporting the situation and directing those who are inspired to take action.

"How do you incorporate into that platform opportunities or information of where you can go if you want to take action or just have discussion about what are the forms of action you can take without our passing judgment on it?" he asked.

Sawyer recommended journalists try to frame their stories to engage and educate their audiences and to encourage "more opportunity for back and forth in the discussion."