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Then and Now: Media Must Cover U.N. Climate Summit Better Than Five Years Ago

Fossil Fuel Industry’s Role in Climate Change Talks Should Be Key in Stories

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Ahead of the United Nations (U.N.) Climate Summit and planned protests later this month, the media should do better than in 2014 in highlighting the fossil fuel industry impact on climate change negotiations, Public Citizen said today.

On Sept. 23, world leaders will meet at the United Nations for a one-day climate summit. Once again, the fossil fuel industry will be present with 13 of the world’s biggest oil and gas producers convening a dialogue around the industry’s “climate strategy.” Three days prior, millions led by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg will participate in the Climate Strike, which launches a week during which activists worldwide will demand an end to the use of fossil fuels.

This year, the media already have taken a major step in the right direction. More than 250 news outlets have signed up for the Covering Climate Now initiative. Led by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation, the outlets have committed to dedicating a week’s worth of coverage to the climate crisis, leading up to the U.N. summit.

But in the past, reporting on such events has been spotty. Coverage around the U.N. Climate Summit in 2014 and the People’s Climate March that same week in New York told the story of the climate crisis without mentioning the main antagonist: the fossil fuel industry, a Public Citizen analysis shows.

Of the 252 pieces that mentioned climate change during the week of Sept. 16, 2014, 100 (40%) mentioned the U.N. Climate Summit. Forty-one (16%) mentioned the People’s Climate March protests that were held that same week. Of the 100 articles discussing the U.N. 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 more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures.

Only 31 of the 100 articles provided information on climate science, and 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. Four segments on CNN 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.”

Two recent reports by the Climate Investigations Center, an organization that monitors opponents of clean energy, highlight the outsized presence of the fossil fuel industry at global climate discussions, where the industry works  “to undermine scientific consensus and slow policy progress.”

“The role of the fossil fuel industry in climate talks is a story that has gone largely untold,” said Allison Fisher, outreach director for Public Citizen’s Energy Program. “The story of the U.N. Climate Summit and its mission as a body for coordinated global action should include 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 the industry offers.”

Public Citizen urges outlets to better cover the intentions of the fossil fuel industry as well as other much-neglected climate topics, including the human consequences of extracting and burning fossil fuel reserves, the infrastructure and investments that are slated to increase the production of fossil fuels and the ready availability of solutions that would use existing technology.

For the analysis, Public Citizen searched print newspaper articles and television transcripts on climate change from Sept. 16, 2014, to Sept. 23, 2014, for mention and discussion of the U.N. Climate Summit of 2014. Public Citizen 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).

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. The same is true of papers that cover Capitol Hill, such as The Hill, Politico and Roll Call.

Read the full analysis here.