for the Journalists of Southern Africa
The politics of climate change are a heady mix of power-play, diplomacy and weighing the needs of the world’s environment versus the economy – especially now with widespread worry over slowing global economic growth. This week – at the COP17 climate-change conference in Durban – all the players were in town, giving many South African journalists their first taste of this fascinating jamboree.
The trick, of course, it to make it fascinating to the readers.
“The negotiations are quite complex and it is a big challenge to report it factually but yet make it interesting and ‘sexy’ to South Africans,” says Yolandi Groenewald, an experienced environmental reporter who is covering COP17 for City Press.
“While the story of climate change can be told through personal stories, the negotiations itself are jargon-ridden and full of green-speak that can easily alienate readers. Yet, it is so important to motivate to readers why they should care about COP17 because behind all the difficult negotiations lies a new world order that will influence every person on this earth.” (Click here for City Press’s special COP17 page.)
For Groenewald, it the negotiations that is the most interesting thing about covering such an event. This is, in fact, her sixth COP conference since Montreal in 2005.
“I always love the politics and the manoeuvring behind the scenes,” she says. “The power plays between countries, when so much is at stake, is a lesson in how to play politics.”
COP17 is an enormous event, running for two weeks until December 9 with just under 15 000 delegates from 195 countries that includes government emissaries, NGOs, diplomats and United Nations people never mind the phalanx of activists such as from Greenpeace doing interesting things around the conference. According to the UN, more than 1 400 journalists countries are accredited to cover COP17.
But while the environmental specialists such as Groenewald are in their element at a conference such as COP17, many general news reporters based in Durban have been tasked with getting up to speed fast on climate change to cover the event for their respective news organisations.
Sunday Times journalist Suthentira Govender told journalism.co.za from Durban this week: “The scale of the event and understanding what is unfolding in terms of the Kyoto Protocol and the antics of developed countries like the US and Saudi Arabia has posed a challenge.
“Apart from the research I have done, I have gone into COP17 pretty ‘green’. It’s has been a case of doing a great deal of reading, talking to experts in the field and seasoned reporters who have been able to unpack in layman’s terms what COP17 means for climate change. I think in this instance I am having to learn on the job as environmental reporting is not really my field. Also identifying the most important issues and breaking down complex climate and political issues has posed another challenge. I think the politics of it all has been mind-boggling rather the actual climate change (issue) itself.” (Click here Govender’s preview of COP17.)
Fortunately, the organisers – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – has been organised when it comes to dealing with the media, says Govender. There are, for instance, daily briefing to update the media on the progress of the negotiations and getting access to top people such as the UNFCCC executive secretary, Christiana Figueres, and her people has been quite simple.
Reading between the lines when it comes to the politics has also been a challenge, Govender says. “It is very hard to decipher the good guys from the bad guys because I’m quite inexperienced in this sector of reporting. It’s a case of trying to get as many voices as possible and the information is taken in good faith with a pinch of salt.”
On this, Groenewald says: “There are lots of good guys – people who want to make a difference and save the earth even though they take it to the extreme. Do you have an agenda if you want to protect the environment or save the earth? Many of the small community people working hard to protect the environment in their communities are an inspiration.”
Ironically, this conference has proved more challenging for Groenewald compared with the previous ones she’s covered because it is being held in South Africa.
“I love the energy of a COP and all the events around it,” she says. “COP17 has quite a different feel to it because it is so South African-focused. There are a million stories here to be told but the challenges for reporters are also more because there are so many South Africans around and it is more difficult to find a unique angle for stories.”
The Guardian’s guide to Cop17
‘It’s not (always) about the Lorax’, The Last Word on Nothing, November 2011
‘To frack or not to frack: that (objectively) is the question’, Journalism.co.za, June 2011
‘Times journo shows environmental stories don’t always need to be yawn-worthy’, Journalism.co.za, April 2011
‘The 10 ways to win environmental journalism awards’, Poynter Institute, March 2011
‘Going green’ isn't an exciting story any more?’, Editors’ Weblog, February 2011