Scepticism chic

Journalists must introspect about their own shortcomings when it comes to climate change.
29 September 2009
In the media
The Indian media’s approach to climate change the result of a tendency to follow the leader.

Journalists are cynical by nature, and it is perhaps understandable that some in India continue to retain a certain degree of scepticism about climate change – over whether it is truly taking place, being exaggerated or, worse still, whether it is little more than a conspiracy concocted by a handful of vested interests for unclear purposes. In August, the Business Standard carried a commentary to this effect by the conservative economist Deepak Lal, who highlighted several recent scientific studies suggesting that the Earth is, in fact, cooling rather than warming. He endorsed these views and argued that the so-called ‘consensus argument’, put forward by scientists and dutifully reported by most of the media, is erroneous.

As a former newspaper editor, I am well acquainted with such scepticism on the part of the media. This could have to do with an ingrained suspicion of anything that smacks of a motivated campaign – NGO-promoted causes based on preconceived ideas, and so on. I can still remember, as a young assistant editor in the late 1970s, timidly suggesting to my formidable boss, Girilal Jain, that I could write an editorial on the environmental issues surrounding a hydroelectric project in Kerala’s Silent Valley, which was later to become a cause célèbre for greens when Indira Gandhi terminated the proposed dam. “Make sure you’re being scientific,” he sternly warned me. I took this advice to heart. And as I dug more deeply, I found far more scientific data to support my view. It was clear from every viewpoint, including that of economics, that the area to be affected by this dam, a pristine forest in the Western Ghats, possessed tremendous biodiversity and was indeed worthy of preservation. This opportunity to ground the argument in hard fact proved critical.

In this sense, scepticism is a positive thing. But the Indian media’s approach to climate change has not been one based on science. In fact, the journalistic disdain of climate change changed only with the UN intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 fourth assessment report showing that the impact of global warming is far greater than even experts estimated. Most of the media is now convinced that the phenomenon is a reality. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth has also helped convert a sceptical media. Unfortunately, this is not based on the journalists’ probing of facts, but rather a result of the tendency to follow the leader. What is needed today is for journalists and climate-change sceptics to work honestly to sift through the full evidence and analysis on the subject. After all, it does not require particularly complex tools to come to the conclusion that the climate is indeed changing, and invariably for the worse.

The most authoritative scientific source on global warming is the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, headed by R K Pachauri of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in Delhi. If anything, it has been accused of being too conservative and short on prescription – no doubt sensitive to the political stands taken by its influential industrial-country representatives, who stand to lose the most in the current debates prior to the UN Copenhagen climate negotiations in December. But beyond the accusations of partisanship, it is important for media practitioners to be aware that it would be largely impossible for the IPCC, with some 2500 scientists drawn from a spectrum of countries, to be massively swayed with regards to their eventual findings. And all of these have thus far revealed that climate change is occurring at a much more rapid pace than anyone has imagined.

Clouded conclusions
There is good reason to believe that coverage of climate change in Southasia by the region’s media has been niggardly. In general, these have taken the form of ‘who said what’-type accounts; in addition, there has been little investigative work at the grassroots. In general, only few Southasian journalists, such as Nitin Sethi of The Times of India and Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment, have broken new ground on the issue. In contrast, take the example of a New York Times reporter who recently visited some impoverished villages in Uttar Pradesh to ‘discover’ how poor women are cooking on chulhas that emit toxic substances. These in turn endanger not only the women and their families, but the cumulative emissions of tons of millions of chulhas cause a pall of dust or soot over much of the region. This is an issue that has generally been known in the rarefied air of science and politics for years, but not brought before the public. This is, admittedly, a highly controversial subject.

When publicity of this phenomenon, known as the Asian Brown Cloud, first surfaced in a report by the UN Environment Programme in 2002, the Indian government took strong exception to the hypothesis. The Environment Ministry stated that the report’s conclusions were “unfounded and there is no scientific evidence to suggest any linkage between the haze and its impact on weather patterns, floods and droughts, precipitation, crop yields, acid rains, and pollution related mortality.” The ministry said that the alarming picture of the brown haze painted by the UNEP report was based on preliminary, limited modelling based on assumptions and studies from which no definite conclusion could be drawn. The haze was not specific to this region, the ministry stressed, but was also seen over Europe, North America and East Asia.

At the time, media commentators, including this writer, could not but be wary regarding the timing of the report’s release. Many suspected that it had been done with an eye specifically on the then-upcoming 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, so as to distract attention from the push to place strong blame for climate change on the rich countries. This pushback eventually proved successful. Faced with criticism from India and several Asian countries (buttressed by the suspicion in the media), UNEP head Klaus Toepfer eventually announced that additional research was needed, even while pointing to the alarming “pollution parcel” over Asia. Toepfer finally turned full circle and shelved the report, saying it was “only a scientific study”.

Yet today it appears that much of this scepticism was mistaken, that there is indeed a pall of black carbon hanging over huge parts of Asia. Furthermore, as recently publicised by the New York Times, a massive reason for this is largely being overlooked by politicians, the international community and the media alike. Today, poor households throughout Southasia and China continue to cook on woodstoves, and both India and China rely mainly on coal to generate their electricity. Yet while there could be a genuine debate on the extent of the contribution of such ‘survival’ emissions as compared to those of the ‘luxury’ variety, there is no question that pollutants can travel far and wide in the atmosphere and also add to climate change.

This very problem – the Asian Brown Cloud and all the climate phenomena that it encompasses – could offer a potent opportunity by which to address the North-South divide during the current climate negotiations. There are today 700 million people in India without access to commercial energy (and whose energy consumption does not figure in official statistics – surely an issue for business journalists). Of these, 550 million are without electricity. One cannot expect these millions to ‘reduce’ their energy consumption in order to save the planet, when the global climate crisis is clearly not of their making. Meanwhile, the US in particular is keen to fund technology transfers to increase other countries’ efficiency, rather than to hand out funds to the South for mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. Could the provision of technologies that could provide a sustainable means of cooking and lighting for the poorest of the poor help to bridge this gap? And if so, would journalists in Southasia choose to apply their minds and their pens to trumpeting such a situation?

One positive trend could be noted in recent months, played out in the national dailies of India, regarding perhaps the most critical issue facing humanity today. Climate change is the first crisis to challenge the status quo of the entire world, much more so than the current financial crisis or even the recent food crisis. The earth is perilously close to the widely agreed-upon ‘tipping point’, that of exceeding a two-degree centigrade rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels. Recently, during the 8-10 July G8 summit in Italy, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to abide by this cap –upsetting some Indian negotiators who believed that doing so amounted to a strategic capitulation to longstanding international demands. Yet during the subsequent weeks, an uncharacteristically lively debate broke out in editorial columns across India.

One side was enunciated by the veteran commentator Praful Bidwai. “Such is the hypersensitivity of India’s elite opinion on climate change that the mere mention of a desirable upper limit for global warming can trigger accusations of a dishonourable compromise and sellout,” he wrote. “The [Italy] declaration was quickly condemned as a retreat from India’s long-standing position that it will accept no binding caps on its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” In fact, Bidwai noted:

The argument that the declaration allows the rich nations to occupy more than their equitable share of the global atmospheric or carbon space while leaving India ‘stranded at much lower levels of emissions’ is a non sequitur. For one, this is not a legally binding commitment to a GHG target on India’s part … The legitimate question to ask is how India can fulfill the worthy objectives of eradicating widespread poverty and providing access to adequate energy resources for all of its people without wildly raising its emissions by following the unsustainable northern growth model plus trickle-down.

This cogent analysis was added to elsewhere by Sunita Narain. The two-degree cap is only possible, she wrote, if the world limits its greenhouse-gas concentrations at a particular level – 450 parts per million, she suggested – which has to be

apportioned, based on equity, between nations. The problem with the [Italy] declaration is not that it caps the increase in temperature, but that it does not make explicit this limit will require sharing the budget equally between nations which have already used up their common atmospheric space and new entrants to economic growth … not much space remains to be distributed and shared in our intensely unequal world.

Narain also raised the issue of “historical emissions”, which remain the ‘debt’ of industrial nations to the rest of the world – an issue that has been quickly shelved. “It is no surprise, then, that Western academics are now calling upon the developing world to take on emission reduction targets: there is no space left for them to grow,” Narain concluded. “The logic is simple … ‘You cannot ask for the right to pollute’, they tell the developing world.” It is only in the tradition of the seminal influence of the late Anil Agarwal, the founder of the CSE, that such environmental justice issues were raised, with Agarwal and Narain at the forefront since the early 1990s. At the time, both were dismissed by the mainstream Indian media as being part of the extreme green fringe –  even R K Pachauri, and this writer, disagreed in print with their emphasis on the ‘climate debt’ of industrial nations. However, in recent years, the Indian political and bureaucratic class have used these very arguments to bolster India’s and the developing countries’ stand in international climate negotiations. The media has gradually veered around to their view. The lesson the journalist needs to draw is that they must inform themselves to a much greater extent, instead of merely reflecting and reporting the polemics of various vested interests. 

The public debate in India has continued in this well-studied vein, offering a notable change from the past. This time around, the cut and thrust of the discussion in the media has clarified the issues, thereby contributing to a far greater general understanding of just what is at stake. The fact remains, as UN chief Ban Ki-moon says: “Climate change is the defining challenge of our time. It is a grave global threat that puts humanity at one of its most critical moments in history. With this grave threat come incredible opportunities that we must seize.” The opportunity is, quite simply, the potential to convert the climate challenge issue into a global ‘New Deal’ by which to tackle world poverty.

The media’s coverage of the climate change debate has been limited to the opinion pages, however. Overall, climate change is not over-reported, and interest levels in the editorial chambers and reporting cubicles are low. For instance, those vetting Southasian applicants wishing to attend the International Federation of  Environmental Journalists (IFEJ) Congress in Delhi in October 2009 – on the theme “Bridging North-South Differences in Reporting Climate Change” – found that most of the articles submitted were on the environment in general, rather than specifically on global warming. The recent public debate over India’s future role in the international effort to mitigate climate change has shown that a more nuanced discussion of these issues is indeed possible, but vastly increased qualitative investigative reporting and in-depth analysis are required if public sentiment is to push and assist the governments of Southasia to engage fully on the issue of climate change. If this does not happen, the worldview of the public of Southasia will be fashioned by thinkers and writers from elsewhere.

Darryl D’Monte is chairperson of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India.