Throughout the 1990s, the media in the developing world was at the forefront of reporting on the devastation brought by the ‘El Niño’ rains, and bringing the issue of global climate change - and its impact on the local economy - into sharp focus. The extensive coverage provided farmers and rural communities with a scientific explanation for the dramatic weather changes that they had been witnessing in recent years.
But while such high-profile occurrences captured the public imagination and generated intense debates on the impacts of environmental degradation on people’s day-to-day lives, the momentum generated was not sustained. The media has continued to focus on the ‘big’ stories such as deaths from drought, or the destruction caused by floods, with little information being provided on how to cope with the effects of climate-related changes.
Climate change is a relatively new concept within African media. Few journalists - or even editors, who are the gatekeepers of stories that go on air or into print - have a clear grasp of the science behind this phenomenon. On many occasions, science-oriented stories, as well as those covering forestry, agriculture, and climate change, get ‘spiked’. Publishers prefer stories about crime, violence and political scandal because this is what sells.
Yet above all, what farmers and rural communities require for mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change, is access to information.
Farmers need to know whether the changing circumstances in which they grow their plants or raise their animals is merely a question of variability or a permanent change to weather patterns. Communities across the ACP also need channels through which they can share information on strategies that have worked well for them, and to adapt such techniques to their own circumstances, whenever possible.
Beyond sharing practical experiences, civil society organizations in the South need to discuss how best to exploit international support available through such instruments as the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), while continuing to debate amongst ourselves whether these approaches to emissions reductions are in their best interest.
NGOs in the South are becoming increasingly critical of how the CDM allows Northern countries to fund carbon sequestration projects in the developing world, giving rich countries a licence to continue to pollute. CDMwatch and South Africa’s Centre for Civil Society, among others, argue that CDM projects often fail to take into account domestic needs, lock up the land used as carbon sinks indefinitely, and deliver financial rewards to Northern investment groups rather than local communities. We need to debate our responses to such North-developed solutions, while exploring ways in which we can reduce our own emissions.
The media – television, radio, print and online – naturally have a vital role to play in such debates, and yet there is a dearth of coverage of this issue in the developing world. A recent survey by the London-based NGO, Panos, of 47 journalists and from Jamaica, Zambia, Honduras and Sri Lanka found considerable frustration amongst media professionals, with what they felt was a severe lack of interest by editors.
Media owners are often concerned about short-term profits and may be unwilling to criticize industry, or offend advertisers. As many of the media houses operate on shoestring budgets, they often do not have adequate resources to undertake thorough investigation of climate-related stories.
Literacy too can be an obstacle to awareness, although the creation of online image banks of photographs and diagrams could help to convey the impacts of climate change.
There is also a need to build bridges between scientists and journalists. Scientists are often unwilling to simplify their research findings for a lay audience, so journalists have to sharpen their skills to simplify jargonheavy scientific content and make the subject more relevant and easier to understand.
We journalists too can do much to help ourselves. We can set up networks in order to share information. The Caribbean Environmental Reporters Network (CERN), the Sri Lanka Environmental Journalists’ Forum, and the Southern African Development Community Network of Climate Journalists are good examples.
We also need to build bridges between Southern and Northern environmental and science journalists so that we can exchange ideas and information.
Ultimately, everyone with a stake in this problem - journalists, editors and publishers, NGOs, policy makers and funders, and of course the people of the developing world – must pull together to fill this grievous information gap.
Ochieng’ Ogodo is a journalist with the East African Standard and is currently chair of the Kenya Science Writers Association.