Most US media coverage of UN Climate Summit underplayed message of why the need for action is urgent

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In his September 22 speech at the UN Climate Summit in New York, President Obama said more than we’re used to hearing him say about the threat posed by global climate disruption. How much of this aspect of the speech, the President’s clearest statement on the urgency of the problem, was covered in the US news media? Not much. His speech at the UN Climate Summit should be just a first step in beginning to develop that discourse.

President Obama began his speech by outlining the threat that drives the need for a clean energy revolution, characterizing the risk we face as one of “irreversible catastrophe:”

That so many of us are here today is a recognition that the threat from climate change is serious, it is urgent and it is growing. Our generation’s response to this challenge will be judged by history, for if we fail to meet it boldly, swiftly and together, we risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe.

No nation, however large or small, wealthy or poor, can escape the impact of climate change.

Rising sea levels threaten every coastline. More powerful storms and floods threaten every continent. More frequent droughts and crop failures breed hunger and conflict in places where hunger and conflict already thrive. On shrinking islands, families are already being forced to flee their homes as climate refugees.

The security and stability of each nation and all peoples, our prosperity, our health and our safety are in jeopardy. And the time we have to reverse this tide is running out….

It is true that for too many years mankind has been slow to respond or even recognize the magnitude of the climate threat. It is true of my own country as well. We recognize that.

He said:

We understand the gravity of the climate threat. We are determined to act. And we will meet our responsibility to future generations.

And:

We must also energize our efforts to put other developing nations, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, on a path to sustained growth.

These nations do not have the same resources to combat climate change as countries like the United States or China do. But they have the most immediate stake in a solution, for these are the nations that are already living with the unfolding effects of a warming planet: famine, drought, disappearing coastal villages, and the conflicts that arise from scarce resources.

Their future is no longer a choice between a growing economy and a cleaner planet because their survival depends on both. It will do little good to alleviate poverty if you can no longer harvest your crops or find drinkable water.

And:

We know that our planet’s future depends on a global commitment to permanently reduce greenhouse gas pollution….

But the journey is long and the journey is hard and we don’t have much time left to make that journey.

How much of this, the President’s clearest statement that the problem is urgent, was covered in the US news media?  Not much.  Although the President’s speech included a broad and unequivocal warning about the far-reaching impacts of climate change, much of the US news coverage of the Summit bypassed this message, giving scant attention to the scientific reality behind the call for deep emissions cuts and aid to developing countries.

Most mainstream media coverage of the Summit (some of it fairly decent) focused primarily on the difficult politics of negotiating an international climate treaty, and on China’s higher profile in saying it will take significant steps to increase energy efficiency and develop and deploy clean energy technologies. If they covered it at all.  With the typical US-centric preoccupation of US media, CNN cut to the Summit live just long enough to cover President Obama’s speech, then quickly came back and moved on to another story, without analysis or even comment on the speech or the Summit. They didn’t cover the speeches by President Hu Jintao of China, Prime Minister Hatoyama of Japan, President Sarkozy of France, or other government leaders, nor of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Chairman Pachauri.  Nor did the other networks, nor C-Span. The Washington Post had a good article posted online by 10:30 a.m. the morning of the Summit—“At U.N., Obama Calls Global Warming Threat ‘Urgent’” – but by September 23 had replaced it with a (pretty good) political follow-up story – “Nations Appear Headed Toward Independent Climate Goals.” 

Needless to say, the plaintive rebuke of the other leaders by President Nasheed of the Maldive Islands—one of the world’s lowest-lying countries, with about 300,000 people living mainly on land less than two meters above sea level, threatened with being engulfed by rising sea level—passed mostly unremarked. President Nasheed called on world leaders to “discard the habits that have led to 20 years of complacency and broken promises on climate change.”  He said: “The assembled leaders of the world stand up one by one and rail against the injustice of it all…But then, once the rhetoric has settled and the delegates have drifted away, the sympathy fades, and the indignation cools, and the world carries on as before.”

Thus, the President’s words on why the problem is urgent, on the potentially disastrous consequences of failure to take strong action, were swallowed up by discussion of political realities and limited media attention and probably went largely unattended-to by the US public.  So, when the President and his party in Congress are finally ready to define a specific US climate change policy and to set about building public support for it, he should drive that effort in part by communicating directly and compellingly with a national audience about the dangers of inaction. His speech at the UN Climate Summit should be just a first step in beginning to develop that discourse.

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