openDemocracyUK

How has the climate march been covered?

Thousands of people across the world joined a day of marches for climate action. How did the UK media react?

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
30 November 2015
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image: 350.org, CC2.0

In the past few days, Britain's newspapers have suddenly splurged on climate change coverage. Going through all ten major* nationals every day since November 11, there's been very little mention of the impending summit or the crisis it's about. Other events in Paris didn't just overshadow the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. They largely blotted it out.

This started to change towards the end of last week, and Sunday's climate marches all over the world have added to the growing chorus of journalism building up to COP21, as the summit is called.

There was some variation in the scale of coverage. The protests were, for example, the top story on the BBC website, while the Sun seems not to have mentioned them at all. Climate change is now such a polarising issue, it seems, that the nation's biggest broadcaster can see this demo as one of the most important stories of the day, while the nation's best read paper doesn't think it's worth mentioning at all.

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Screenshot of the BBC homepage

On the whole, though, the protest was pretty widely covered, with newspaper websites from the Guardian to the Daily Mail and broadcasters publishing lists of the great and good who showed up in London, discussing Thom Yorke's DJ set and Charlotte Church's song for the climate, and writing moving pieces about the substitute 'protest' in Paris, where those who had planned to march, including the Pope, gave pairs of shoes to be laid out at the start of the route.

As the events drew on, though, scuffles between police and French protesters dominated the coverage. With demonstrations banned in Paris, a few hundred people had gathered in an attempt to show they wouldn't be shut up. After some argy-bargy with police, more than a hundred were arrested, and most papers seem to have led their coverage of thousands of protests across the world with this incident.

While lots of sites run a short video which shows French police and some protesters throwing things at each other, the only first hand accounts I've found so far of the events are from Danny Chivers in the New Internationalist and Karl Mathiesen at the Guardian. Chivers' story is a little different from what you'd believe if you had just watched the brief videos and seen the headlines.

The Telegraph had its own take. As well as leading with the use of tear gas in Paris, they published a piece from Charles Moore, “The end is nigh for climate change activists” that was pretty down on the whole thing, essentially saying that the conference would fail and, implicitly at least, that it didn't really matter. Perhaps more interestingly, their most shared article the evening after the protest was a piece from February by serial anti-science activist Christopher Booker, repeating claims that have been doing the climate denial rounds for a while.

It turns out, presumably in response to the march, and to the summit in general, that the article had been tweeted out by an account called @drudgeheadlines (which appears not to be the real Drudge Report, but has 103,000 followers) and then by a number of other American “libertarian” types.

#FLASHBACK: #Temp data #fiddling 'biggest science scandal ever'... https://t.co/4nHJ6DFIyA

— Drudge Report (@drudgeheadlines) November 29, 2015

In a sense this tells us something interesting – the climate denial movement hasn't yet come up with anything new to say for this conference... or, if they have, they're sitting on it.

Finally, how much did the coverage give a clear sense of what it was that protesters were calling for? It's easy to be in favour of real action on climate change, but what on earth does that mean?

This is an important question, because the usual pattern with climate summits is that everyone says that this one must succeed. Afterwards, lots of people say that it has succeeded. And then a bit later, they accept that it didn't really. For the protest to be effective, you would imagine that it wouldn't just mobilise lots of people to say that they care about climate change in general, but also that they have a specific metric for success.

Go to the websites of some of the key organisers, and you get a pretty good sense of what that success is. 350.org, for example, say that their key message of the march is: “Keep fossil fuels in the ground and finance a just transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050”. Elsewhere on their website, they specify that they want 80% of fossil fuels kept in the ground.

Greenpeace say that what they want is, “An internationally legally binding treaty. Not a declaration or other empty promises, but something that legally binds nations and holds them to their commitment”.

Avaaz, who were also key to the march, have a petition alongside it which includes, “We call on you to keep global temperature rise under the unacceptably dangerous level of 2 degrees C, by phasing out carbon pollution to zero. To achieve this, you must urgently forge realistic global, national and local agreements, to rapidly shift our societies and economies to 100% clean energy by 2050. Do this fairly, with support to the most vulnerable among us.”

Do a Google News search for “100% renewable by 2050” or “legally binding treaty” and you get pretty sparse pickings, beyond the Guardian. We're looking into more comprehensive analysis of the coverage of the demands. But it seems to me that unless these can be communicated clearly – as they are, for example, on the Avaaz and the 350.org websites, then governments will get away with declaring that whatever they come up with is a 'success'.

*sorry Morning Star.

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