Covering Climate Then/Now:

A Review of the 2014 U.N. Climate Summit Provides Insights for Better Climate Coverage in 2019

“Does this make the U.N. Climate Summit a waste of time? Not if you believe, as I do, that public awareness and pressure are the best hope for effective climate action.” 

—Eugene Robinson. The Washington Post, Sept. 21, 2014 

Who attends the UN Climate Summit matters, as well as what is accomplished there. Much of the coverage of the 2014 UN Climate Summit addressed the who and what. 

But Eugene Robinson’s commentary on the 2014 summit suggests that the opportunity the gathering presents for raising awareness about climate change and building momentum among activists is equally important. 

He is right.

Like the climate summit five years ago as well as major climate reports or extreme weather events, the upcoming UN Climate Summit on Sept. 23 presents a significant opportunity for the media to educate the public on the crisis. 

The summit also serves as a focal point for activism. In 2014, as part of the People’s Climate March, a record number of people took to the streets in New York City, other U.S. cities and communities around the globe to support immediate climate action.

On September 23, 2019, world leaders will meet at the United Nations for a one-day climate summit. Three days prior, millions led by Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg will participate in a Climate Strike, which kicks off a week of global climate action demanding an end to the age of fossil fuels.

This analysis examines coverage of the 2014 UN Climate Summit and People’s Climate March to identify best practices and missed opportunities related to the reporting on these significant moments of climate diplomacy and action. 

The upcoming climate events will boost the quantity of climate coverage, but they also provide an opportunity to improve the quality. Reporting around the 2014 events told the story of the climate crisis without mentioning the lead antagonist: the fossil fuel industry. Little attention was paid to the role of the industry in climate talks or the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground  to achieve global climate goals. This review encourages coverage that exposes the fossil fuel industry and articulates the need to move away from a fossil-fuel based economy to secure a livable planet.

Methodology

For this analysis, we searched print newspaper articles and television transcripts articles for “climate change” or “global warming” from Sept. 16, 2014, to Sept. 23, 2014. We then reviewed each article or transcript mentioning climate for discussion of the UN Climate Summit 2014 and the demonstrations that preceded it, most notable the People’s Climate March that took place in New York City on Sept. 20.

Additionally, for print newspaper articles, we looked for mentions of the goals of the summit, information on climate science, climate solutions and the role of the fossil fuel industry in the summit. For both print newspaper articles and television transcripts, we also looked for mention of climate protests such as the People’s Climate March.

We used Nexis to search the top 50 U.S. newspapers by circulation and television transcripts from six national television news networks (ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC and NBC). We used the “Group Duplicates” feature, set on “High Similarity.”

The list of the top 50 U.S. papers by circulation was compiled using data from Cision in May 2018 and is limited to English‐language, subscription newspapers. Many significant local dailies are not included, such as The Palm Beach Post and The Charlotte Observer. Also omitted are papers that cover Capitol Hill, like The Hill, Politico and Roll Call. This analysis also does not include radio or local television.

Key Findings

  • From Sept. 16 through Sept.  23 2014 — during the week leading up to the UN Climate Summit in New York City — climate change (or global warming) was mentioned 252 times. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Omaha World-Herald and The Columbus Dispatch were the only outlets that did not cover climate change during the period observed. 
  • Of the 252 pieces that mentioned climate change, 100 (40%) also mentioned the UN Climate Summit. Forty-one (16%) mentioned the People’s Climate March protests. Seventeen of the top 50 papers did not cover the UN Climate Summit in their print editions. 
  • The New York Times had the most pieces mentioning climate change (44), as well as the most mentioning the UN Climate Summit (16).
  • Of the 100 articles discussing the UN Climate Summit, 45 mentioned the attendees’ goals, such as creating momentum for the Paris climate negotiations and averting widespread catastrophe by preventing global average temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, and.
  • Of the 100 articles mentioning the summit, 31 provided information on climate science.
  • Only three articles, written by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and USA Today mentioned the role of the fossil fuel industry in the summit proceedings.
  • Twelve editorials on climate change were published in the week leading up to the UN Climate Summit. Nine of them (83%) centered around the summit or People’s Climate March. 
  • Twenty op-eds or columns covering climate change were published. The New York Times printed the majority (8). Of the 20, 13 (65%) pieces were explicitly about the summit. 
  • Fifty-seven climate-related letters were published, and 21 of the letters (37%) were explicitly about the People’s Climate March or UN Climate Summit. Seven (12%) expressed doubt about climate change or were critical of climate activism or policy. Fourteen, or nearly a quarter, appeared in one publication, the Sacramento Bee, including three of the seven negative letters.
  • The six television news networks, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News Network, MSNBC and NBC, mentioned climate in 45 segments during the period reviewed. Thirty-nine (87%) of the segments were either about the UN Climate Summit or climate demonstrations.
  • Thirty-one of these segments (69%) mentioned the UN Climate Summit. The demonstrations in New York and around the world protesting inaction on climate change were mentioned in 27 (58%) pieces. 
  • Fox News had eight segments that were explicitly about the demonstrations in New York City or the UN Climate Summit. Only one covered the protest without mocking activists or giving misinformation about the climate crisis.
  • CNN had the most mentions (13) of the summit or demonstrations. MSNBC had fewer mentions (7) but provided more substantive coverage than any other network.
  • Five of the seven MSNBC segments included extensive discussion that included multiply guests speaking about the climate crisis. One program, “The Ed Show” with Ed Shultz accounts for 3 of the 7 substantive segments. 
  • A review of the coverage, excluding Fox News, shows that 10 of the 31 segments mentioning the summit or demonstrations were brief — merely noting that the summit was taking place or only reporting march turn-out numbers without any further commentary.
  • Of the 31 segments, only 7 (23%) mentioned goals of the summit. Seven segments also referenced the most recent climate science, and 9 (29%) discussed the various stakeholders involved in UN climate talks. Notably, four of the 13 segments appearing on CNN mentioned the participation of the oil industry — and all four segments characterized their role in a positive light.

Coverage of the UN Climate Summit in 2014, Covering Climate Now

The summit prompted more climate coverage in the week leading up to the gathering than likely would have occurred in its absence. Much of the coverage focused on who would attend or wrestled with whether the UN is the right body for tackling the climate crisis. 

Additionally, coverage discussed the goals of the summit, such as hammering out plans to prevent global average temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. In many cases, coverage also cited climate science. 

Much of coverage listed some of the tools available to reduce carbon pollution. The most cited options were putting a price on carbon and divestment. Far fewer discussed renewable energy.  Only one piece, a column by Mark Bittman appearing in The New York Times, cited the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground to avoid catastrophic warming:

And just as we knew how to repair the ozone layer, we know how to combat climate change: Slow the burning of fossil fuels, speed up the development of alternative energy sources, and mandate that at least two-thirds of fossil fuel reserves be left in the ground. 

While some coverage articulated the role of fossil fuels in warming the planet, few mentioned the role of the fossil fuel industry in international climate summits and negotiations. 

This year, outlets should do better on covering these much-neglected climate topics: the human consequences of extracting and burning fossil fuels; the infrastructure and investments that are currently and near-term slated to increase the production of fossil fuels; the ready availability of solutions that would use existing technology, particularly renewable energy and storage, to end most of our fossil fuel use; and the role the fossil fuel industry continues to play in undermining international processes to set and achieve global carbon reduction commitments. 

Major TV News Networks Provide Mostly Shallow Coverage 

Today, world leaders attend a U.N. climate summit. 

—CBS Morning News, Sept. 23, 2014

Major TV news networks, with few exceptions, provided little context or substance in their coverage of the 2014 U.N. Climate Summit or the demonstrations that preceded it. Ten of the 31 segments by the news networks, excluding Fox News, merely mentioned that the event was taking place or, when reporting on the People’s Climate March, reported only the expected or estimated number of people participating. 

The remaining 21 segments provided only slightly more information — seven (23%) mentioned goals of the summit, seven segments also referenced the most recent climate science and nine (29%) discussed the various stakeholders involved in UN climate talks. 

Only seven of the 31 segments provided ample coverage that included guests from the climate community to discuss the urgency of the climate crisis, solutions and barriers to action. Five of those segments appeared on MSNBC. 

All the segments by Ed Shultz on his eponymous show, three over the course of five days, were substantive and represent a model for coverage of the 2019 Summit and actions.

 

An Anatomy of UN Climate Summit Coverage

One not-so-minor problem: The world’s largest emitters are declining to show up, even for appearances.

The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 22, 2014

Players

Just over half of the articles that discussed the UN Climate Summit, 51 out of 100, discussed the role of different stakeholders and attendees, including governments, businesses, civil society and even celebrities. Much attention was paid to the significance of those who attended, including the U.S. delegation led by President Barack Obama, and to those who were absent, most notably, representatives from Russia, India and China. 

Reportedly, President Donald Trump will skip the upcoming summit. Former coal lobbyist and current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Andrew Wheeler will lead this year’s U.S. delegation. Trump’s absence and Wheeler’s attendance provides an opportunity for media to highlight the current administration’s rollback of federal rules designed to curb carbon emissions and to shine a light on the outsized role of fossil fuel interests in shaping decisions that U.S. policy on climate and the environment. 

Major companies, including Big Oil, will pledge to help fight global warming by cutting their heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions, protecting forests and reducing methane leakage from fossil fuel production.

USA Today, Sept. 22, 2014

The Big Polluter in the Room

Only three articles, appearing in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and USA Today, mentioned the presence of the fossil fuel industry at the summit. All three characterized the participation of the industry as positive. Four CNN segments also noted the participation of the fossil fuel industry, reporting that Big Oil would be, along with world leaders, announcing “new initiatives to fight global warming.” 

The role of the fossil fuel industry in climate talks is a story that has largely gone untold. The pledges or commitments that industry players stage at these events are pageantry — and green washing when the media reports them without challenge or caveat.

For decades, fossil fuel corporations and their trade associations have been undermining climate policy at every level of governance. The very same entities that have knowingly fueled this crisis are legitimized at the climate negotiating table and use their access to obstruct progress and displace meaningful, people-centered solutions. 

Two recent reports by the Climate Investigations Center highlight the outsized presence of the fossil fuel industry at global climate discussions, where it works “to undermine scientific consensus and slow policy progress.” Bloomberg covered these reports, but otherwise they have received little media attention.

Challenges in limiting industry voices arise from the need for some kind of industry presence, since implementation of large-scale policies would not be possible without that  cooperation, as pointed out by Bloomberg.

However, over recent years, more than 400 civil society groups, nearly 650,000 people and governments collectively representing 70% of the world’s population have called for addressing this fundamental roadblock by the development of a conflict of interest policy at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

Despite the industry’s presence at international climate proceedings, investment and production in fossil fuels is still taking place at an alarming rate. 

The 2019 Fossil Fuel Finance Report Card found that since the Paris climate agreement in 2016, global banks have financed fossil fuels with $1.9 trillion, surpassing the amount of U.S. currency in circulation. Of the funding, $600 billion went to companies “aggressively expanding fossil fuels.”

In the same period, the five largest oil and gas corporations (ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP and Total) have invested over $1 billion of shareholder funds in misleading climate-related branding and lobbying.

U.S. energy consumption hit a record high in 2018, with use increasing by 4% from 2017, with most of the increase coming from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels comprised 80% of total energy usage, with a 4%  increase in consumption of natural gas and petroleum. 

The story of the UN Climate Summit and its mission as a body for coordinated global action should include addressing the conflict of interest inherent in the fossil fuel industry’s participation and should challenge rather than merely pass along to audiences the purported pledges they offer.

The one day summit is part of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s push to help world leaders to reach a goal they set in 2009: prevent Earth’s temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees Celsius) from where it is now. 

The Denver Post, Sept. 23, 2014 

Goals

Forty-five articles mentioned the goals of the UN Climate Summit, including preventing global average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius and creating momentum for the Paris climate negotiations.

Instead of laying out the purpose of the summit or the role of the UN in combating the global climate crisis, many commentators characterized the 2014 Summit as a “pep rally,” “planet-saving pomp — or, as Mark Bittman of The New York Times described it, “The summit is a little like a professional wrestling match: There appears to be action but it’s fake, and the winner is predetermined.”

Critiquing the UN’s track record on setting and achieving climate goals is fair game for reporters and commentators, but not without discussing the summit’s stated objectives and the very real science informing those objectives. 

This year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres is calling on world leaders to come to New York on Sept. 23 with concrete, realistic plans to address the climate crisis and achieve net zero emissions by 2050. This is a critical moment intended to steer the world away from climate chaos. 

On Sunday, scientists announced that the world’s emissions had grown 2.3% last year to 39.8 billion tons — the highest level ever — largely because of China, the U.S. and India. 

Los Angeles Times, Sept. 22, 2014

Science 

Of the 100 articles mentioning the summit, 31 provided information on climate science to inform the urgency of the moment. 

The week prior to the summit, meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the months of June, July and August were the hottest on record globally and that 2014 was on track to break the record for the hottest year. Two days before the summit, the Global Carbon Project announced that the world’s emissions grew 2.3% in 2013 to 39.8 billion tons, the highest level recorded at the time. 

In 2019, outlets can give critical context to the summit by referencing the increasing regularity of once-extreme weather events and the recent authoritative and dire reports about the state of the climate, including VolumeII of the Fourth National Climate Assessment and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on the impact of warming of 1.5°C.

Coverage of the summit naturally will provide the “who, what, when and where.” Climate science, punctuated by another summer of record heat, storms and fires, help provide the “why.” 

Climate Denial 

Leo will speak at the U.N.’s climate summit, which makes sense, because both are dumber than a bag of spiders. Fact: There’s more Antarctic sea ice at any time since measurements were taken in ‘79, and the polar bears are doing fine. If only ISIS beheaded them, not humans, Leo might care about terror. 

—“The Five,” Fox News Network, Sept. 17, 2014

Climate denial or disparaging commentary aimed at climate action and activists was concentrated in three sources — Fox News Network, the Orange County Register and The Wall Street Journal. In fact, nine of the 10 segments on Fox News during the period reviewed either mocked climate advocates or presented climate denial arguments. 

The print pieces, two in the Orange County Register and two in The Wall Street Journal, appeared in the respective paper’s opinion section.

It is unlikely that Fox News will suspend its serial mockery and denial of the climate crisis when reporting on the monumental gathering or climate activism taking place in New York City this month. But other sources should be wary of publishing opinion pieces that seek to undermine climate science or disparage those working for solutions.

In the Streets: People’s Climate March > Climate Strike

In 2,500 marches from Paris to Bogota, we’ve blown past expected numbers. Climate change is not a green issue anymore, it’s an everybody issue.

—Chicago Tribune, Sept. 22, 2014

On Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014, more than 310,000 people participated in the People’s Climate March in New York City. Turnout far surpassed expectations, and it became the largest climate march in history. On Monday, another group of protestors demonstrated — Flood Wall Street — outside the New York Stock Exchange, to “highlight the role of Wall Street in fueling the climate crisis.”

Forty-one (16%) of the articles in the week leading up to the UN Climate Summit in 2014 mentioned the People’s Climate March protests or Flood Wall Street action.

In 2019, activists again are using the climate summit to demand action. 

On Sept. 20, 2019, millions will walk out of schools or work as part of the Climate Strike organized by Fridays for Future and allied groups to demand the end of fossil fuels. 

To date, climate strikes in the U.S. has garnered little national attention. In March 2019, 1.4 million students worldwide took part in a global climate strike to urge governments to act on the climate crisis. Actions took place in 219 U.S. cities. Half of the top 50 papers in the U.S. did not mention the strike, and only 11 segments mentioning it appeared across all six major TV news networks. Three (27%) of those segments (add the Fox coverage)

The Sept. 20 actions will launch a week of activity organized to spotlight the climate emergency and demonstrate support for immediate global action. They provide an opportunity to cover critical aspects of the climate crisis — for example, the urgent need for action that the science suggests, the availability and popularity of solutions, and the issue’s rise in political prominence — as well as report on the demands being made by today’s youth, the constituency who could inherit a planet heading quickly toward uninhabitability. 

During the week leading up to the 2014 summit, major papers reported, opined, editorialized or published readers letters to the editor on the summit and march. 

Editorials 

Editorials allow papers to take positions on issues. They are intended to generate discussion and, in some cases, to persuade readers to act. They also signal to readers what is important.

Nine of the top 50 newspapers editorialized on the UN Climate Summit or the activism around the summit during the time covered by this review: The Baltimore Sun, Daily News, The East Bay Times, Los Angeles Times, The Mercury News, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Star-Ledger and The Wall Street Journal.

Here is what they said:

“Monocles are off to the New Yorker for the best headline we’ve seen yet regarding climate change, this week’s United Nations summit in New York and the large-scale demonstrations that have accompanied it: “Largest Climate-Change March in History Unlikely to Convince Idiots.” It’s harsh but fair.” (Baltimore Sun

“An international action plan is unquestionably necessary to stave off a catastrophe too large for any nation to address on its own.” (Daily News)

“An array of political leaders, scientists and diplomats gather Tuesday at the U.N. in New York to begin the ambitious and noble task of finding realistic ways of cutting the world’s carbon emissions. If past is prologue, and we expect that it is, this will be a tough — monumental is not too strong a word — slog.” (The East Bay Times)

“The summit will, of course, focus largely on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the only way to combat warming in the long term. But perhaps some attention will be paid as well to the problem of these powerful short-term heat trappers (methane, refrigerants and other short-lived climate pollutants).” (Los Angeles Times)

“Organizers of the summit expect it to take about a year to hammer out some sort of treaty that then could be signed in Paris by the end of 2015. That, of course, is likely an optimistic timetable, but we think it is worthy and reachable, if all participating nations act in good faith.” (The Mercury News)

“The world has responded successfully to international crises in the past. If leaders channel the public will and view clean energy as an opportunity instead of a challenge, mankind can triumph again. The future of life on Earth depends on it.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

“And recently released studies came to the same conclusion: Fighting greenhouse gas emissions can have a positive effect on the economy. Is the world finally reaching a political tipping point about climate change?” (The San Francisco Chronicle)

“The message that must resonate on both sides of the island was best expressed by Neil DeGrasse Tyson: “The dinosaurs never saw that asteroid coming,” the acclaimed astrophysicist said recently. “What’s our excuse?” (The Star-Ledger)

Op-eds and Columns

In addition to articles and editorials, papers can publish op-eds and columns that provide varying perspectives on climate action. Columnists in particular can synthesize information and explain the implications of events in ways that straight reporting doesn’t allow. But the opinion section is also ripe for climate contrarians to plant misinformation or promote ideas that undermine action.

Twenty op-eds or columns covering climate change were published in the week leading up to the 2014 UN Climate Summit. The New York Times printed the majority (8). Of the 20 total opinion pieces, 15 (75%) discussed the UN Climate Summit or the People’s Climate March. 

Six were “contrarian” opinions, including one piece by a Cato Institute scholar making the case for delaying action, a Wall Street Journal op-ed arguing that climate science is not settled and a claim in a New York Times op-ed that trees are partly responsible for warming in some regions.

Opinion sections should provide space for serious debate on the climate crisis. The most important debates are over how to solve it, and just how much of the problem can be solved with particular technologies. Papers should reconsider publishing opinions that challenge the scientific consensus on climate or the need for action. And if they do publish these types of pieces, they should note ties to the fossil fuel industry or other relevant conflicts of interests among authors. 

Readers’ Views 

The “Letters to the Editor” section is one of the most widely read parts of a newspaper. Letters from readers give insight into how members of the public view of an issue and the paper’s coverage. They also can give voice perspectives that otherwise might go missing.

Fifty-seven climate-related letters were published in the week leading up to the summit. Twenty-one of the letters (37%) were explicitly about the People’s Climate March or the summit. Seven (12%) expressed doubt about climate change or were derogatory toward activism or policy. Fourteen, or nearly a quarter, appeared in one publication, the Sacramento Bee, including three of the seven negative letters.

Conclusion 

This month, when world leaders and U.S. activists descended upon New York City to discuss and demand climate action, major media outlets are likely to turn their attention to the climate crisis.  

While these events will drive an uptick in climate reporting, they also provide an opportunity to deliver substantive coverage that informs and educates a public already experiencing — whether through extreme heats, historic storms, unprecedented drought or fires — the wrath of an increasingly warming climate.

Substantive reporting goes beyond the logistics of the summit and a head count of climate strikers. It tells the whole story, which can include the role of the fossil fuel industry in undermining climate action and an assessment of solutions that can achieve what the science demands.

Finally, it is good that these events will, at least briefly, shine a national spotlight on the climate crisis. But climate reporting should not just rise, but stayed elevated well after summit participants go home, to send a signal that we are in a state of crisis that requires bold and urgent action lead by world governments.