by Javier Farje, Journalist, TV Presenter, Consultant, and former Editor of Latin America Bureau
In 2009, on the eve of the Conference of the Parties 15 (COP 15), in Copenhagen, the World Bank published a revealing document. Entitled Low Carbon, High Growth, Latin American Responses to Climate Change, the document stated in no uncertain terms that global warming was a danger for the region. The report contained a stark warning. ’The “unequivocal” warming of the climate system – it says – reported by the IPCC is already affecting Latin America’s climate’. This important book contains a wealth of information. From the Andean mountains to the sub-tropical forest of the Amazon; from the planes of Argentina to the beaches of the Dominican Republic, climate change is punishing the continent with the melting of glaciers which affects entire communities who depend on the water those iced summits provide; the increase of malaria due to the upsurge of temperature; the droughts and floods that have affected the agricultural output of the southern plains, the increase of rain and the Central American region, with its bursting rivers washing away entire towns.
In the same year of the publication of the World Bank’s report, The Konrad Adenauer Foundation of Germany decided to carry out an exercise. Between 15th February and 15th March of 2009, The Foundation monitored the news coverage of the most important newspapers in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. Despite the fact that 2009 was a very active year in relation to climate change, owing to to the high expectations about an agreement in Copenhagen, the coverage of global warming had an average share of 0.60% of the total bulk of news in those newspapers. And there were sources galore to give good exposure of climate change and its consequences for the region. The World Bank report was only one of the many publications related to climate change released that year. Furthermore, most Latin American governments, especially those countries ruled by left-wing presidents (Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua) had politicised the issue of climate change in terms of the North-South divide and that merited good coverage of the issue.
Perhaps the country whose media comes out worse in this situation is Brazil. This is particularly serious because Brazil is one the top ten greenhouse gas global emitters. They are responsible for almost 70% of the total emissions of those gases. The coverage of climate change issues in the two most important media organisations in the country, Folha de Sao Paulo and O Globo, between 1996 and the present time, is abysmal, to say the least (Time to Adapt, by Mike Shanahan). Those two giants of Brazilian media consider that climate change is an environmental story, with 36% of its coverage as a ‘green issue’, and only 19% of the same coverage is related to the economic consequences of global warming. And less than 2% of their coverage deals with the impact on climate change in poor people. This is a staggering statistic because there is plenty of evidence that there is a direct link between climate change and poverty in Brazil. In Low Carbon… a map with data provided by all Brazilian municipalities clearly shows that, in those regions where climate change is rampant, mainly in the north of Brazil, poverty has increased.
In Mexico, two of the most important newspapers, La Reforma and El Universal (Schmidt, Ivanova & Schaffer) have increased their coverage of climate change since 2005, but mainly due to a national debate related to the production of biofuels. Mexican media tend to give a great deal of importance to ‘uncertainty’ about the link between climate change and meteorological phenomena, despite plenty of scientific evidence that there is a direct link between the intensity and frequency of hurricanes and rains and global warming. The publication of the IPCC’s 4th and 5th assessment reports in 2007 and 2014 respectively was totally ignored by Televisa, the biggest TV conglomerate in Mexico. The IPCC’s assessment reports are the most important documents dealing with the current state of global warming and its consequences for the planet. And Mexico has been the subject of significant analysis in those reports.
Peruvian media, mainly the second biggest newspaper in the country, La República, is critical of the government’s policies in relation to the inadequacies in fighting climate change. Bolivian media, which is mainly owned by the opposition to the government of Evo Morales, ignores climate change mainly because the president blames global warming on the capitalist system and the right-wing media does not want to be seen as siding with the government on its ideological anti-capitalist crusade.
In some Central American countries like Honduras, the media tends to ignore climate change. The British think-tank Panos interviewed a group of Honduran journalists a few years ago. They concluded that climate change is not editorially important for editors and media owners. They tend to rely on CNN for their coverage of climate change-related issues without bothering to conduct their own investigations. A group of activists and scientists in the Dominican Republican told the author in a programme for the Spanish-speaking network Hispan TV, that the increase in sea levels has caused the disappearance of beaches and coastal towns. They bitterly complained that the Dominican media is not interested in the problem. The World Bank has published a report that states that the Dominican tourist industry is in danger of disappearing within the next 50 years because of high sea levels and the impossibility to keep its holiday resorts safe from such increases. And yet, once again, the Dominican media shows no interest.
All in all, the coverage that Latin American media gives to climate change leaves a lot to be desired. The Centre for Science and Technology Policy Research of the University of Colorado Boulder, in the USA, monitors the trends in the media all over the world. Since 2004 to the present day, Latin American newspapers perform poorly in relation to the rest of the world. Indeed, Latin America has the worst record of climate change coverage, worse even than the media in the Middle East, which, for obvious reasons, has other priorities.
There is another element that helps to explain this lack of interest. Climate change does not sell. This is particularly acute in the case of television. Tacky reality programmes, ill-educated so-called chat show presenters and soap operas generate advertising, the retreat of Andean glaciers or the change in agricultural patterns as a result of climate change don’t.
The IPCC has stressed the role media plays in exposing the dangers of climate change and holding governments to account. Indeed, climate change constitutes a goldmine for investigative journalism in particular in Latin America. And the IPCC’s assessments and reports are a unique source of information to investigate the human consequences of climate change; and more than ever, universities and think tanks make their material widely available to the public. Furthermore, many of the people affected by climate change have been denouncing their situation without getting much attention from the media. These changes will severely damage the economic growth of the region. The dangers faced by the region as a result of climate change will be devastating. The complete melting of the Andean glaciers, the rise in sea levels affecting the coasts in the region, droughts and rain, entre communities devastated by meteorological changes caused by climate change are some of the examples where Latin American media organisations could devote resources to a comprehensive new type of investigative journalism. But the Latin American press is so far failing to grasp the seriousness of the situation. The region cannot afford such irresponsible complacency.
PS. On a positive note, a group of Venezuelan journalists formed in 2009 a network called Journalism on Climate Change.The network is growing. Not all is lost.
(n.b. this post was originally published via Linked-in)