1 May 2016

Changing the journalism of climate change

From Mediawatch, 9:09 am on 1 May 2016

Claims that the government "cheated" on carbon emissions made headlines recently, but those in the know said this was actually old news. It's a sign reporting on the issue needs to change, an international expert in climate change journalism tells Mediawatch.​

Paula Bennett in New York questioned on New Zealand's used of "junk carbon credits" by TVNZ's Q+A show last weekend

Paula Bennett in New York questioned on New Zealand's used of "junk carbon credits" by TVNZ's Q+A show last weekend Photo: screenshot

When Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett signed a global climate change agreement at the UN in New York on Earth Day, she said it was "a huge achievement" for New Zealand.

But lately the headlines here have highlighted how little New Zealand has achieved in cutting emissions.

Paula Bennett had told the UN New Zealand was aiming for 90 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2025, but on Tuesday RNZ reported industry insiders saying that was highly unlikely.

And even before she left for New  York, the government's emissions policy was under fire

"The government can no longer bluff its way with the help of unreliable carbon credits,” the Dominion Post said in a strongly-worded editorial.

The paper wasn’t alone in castigating the government over the trade in so-called junk carbon credits overseas.

How did this come to light?

"We Cheated!" screamed the cover of last week’s New Zealand Listener magazine, advertising a dramatic lead story about "dodgy credits" which had "done nothing to reduce emissions".

Back in October last year, prior to the Paris climate change summit, Listener writer Rebecca Macfie wrote another detailed cover story for the magazine - and an even longer one for the magazine’s website - which said companies here were importing so-called joint initiative credits from countries including Ukraine and Russia.

Overseas research, she wrote, had concluded "in 80 percent of cases ... these credits have little or no environmental integrity".

That finding was at the heart of the recent Listener cover story too, but some said the "carbon cheat" claims were not news.

No surprise?

"I waded through the Listener article on how New Zealand has rorted  - and been rorted by - the Emissions Trading Scheme over the past eight years. And by the end of it, I thought: 'No kidding I saw that coming,' said Andrew Dickens, in a comment piece for Newstalk ZB’s website.

“The 'shock horror' reaction to the report dubbing New Zealand a 'carbon cheat' this week is hardly news," BusinessDesk.co.nz editor Pattrick Smellie said in an opinion piece for Fairfax Media. He said there was an outcry about the so-called junk carbon credits earlier, and their purchase had already been banned in New Zealand.

So why no headlines back then then? Pattrick Smellie wrote:

"The issue was complex and barely covered in mainstream media. Hence the belated outrage today, thanks to racy packaging by the Morgan Foundation."

Publishing in partnership

It was indeed economist Gareth Morgan's foundation which 'broke' the story about the scale of the purchases, in partnership with the Listener. The story made wider news the following Monday when the magazine appeared in print, and the full Morgan Foundation report appeared online along with an article in The Spinoff .

Some jourmalists had pointed out the problem of junk carbon credits long ago. A year ago, the New Zealand Herald’s economics editor Brian Fallow wrote

It seems the Government plans to rely heavily on a hoard of cheap, low-quality carbon credits to meet its current climate change target. Or at least pretend to meet it. But if that is the plan - its achieved by completely subverting the Emissions Trading Scheme.

And way back in 2003, Brian Fallow wrote this in The Herald:

A carbon credit is a creature of the Kyoto Protocol and will have no value unless it comes into force. That will happen if and only if Russia ratifies it. If Russia does ratify the question then will be how much of its "hot air" credits get released into the market.

Quite a lot were, and New Zealand companies were in the market for them

But if a dodgy practice undermining New Zealand's carbon emissions policy went mostly unreported until the Morgan Foundation got involved this month - why? 

Professor Robert A Hackett is an international expert on journalism and climate change, and was in Wellington this week speaking about the topic.

He told Mediawatch he was alarmed the media did little to bring the apparent rorting of New Zealand's emissions trading scheme to public attention while it was still going on.

"Carbon trading is rife with scams. Journalists should be surveying the scene for developments we need to know about. It should have been the responsibility of journalists to tell that story and make it interesting," said Prof Hackett, from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

The public interest - and what interests the public

Professor Robert A. Hackett from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada

Professor Robert A Hackett Photo: supplied

Online tools now allow editors to know precisely how popular their stories prove to be with online audiences. Naturally, they want more of the content people click on and less of the rest.

Articles about environmental threats on the horizon, it appears, rarely harvest a lot of online traffic.

Last week, New Zealand Herald science reporter Jamie Morton pointed out the Morgan Foundation Report wasn’t the only alarming climate research released in recent days. Another recent release was a Royal Society report, warning even modest rises in sea levels climate change could swamp significant areas of coastal New Zealand - but this was not widely reported in the media here.

"This hinders reporting of climate change," said Prof Hackett. "Research in Canada shows that people concerned about climate change - but who are not yet politically active on the issue - want climate treated as a a matter of politics, not just of science, environment or technology."

Journalists reporting on all these areas should be tasked by editors with covering climate stories together.

Better and stronger together

"We shouldn't just leave this up to journalists battling against economic retrenchment," Prof Hackett added. "You need to find ways to sustain and finance public interest journalism. In Canada, for example, we are exploring tax-exemptions for non-profit journalism organisations."

In the 1990s, a public journalism movement brought some US news organisations together to report major issues. Prof Hackett said the recent co-operative effort that went into the Panama Papers could also be a model to follow.

There have been some shifts. Before 2000, the reporting of climate change in the US was hamstrung by concerns about balance, with contrary views from climate skeptics often given equal weight.

"This confused the American public about the consensus among the majority of climate scientists. The US press has [now] moved away from fake balance," Prof Hackett said.

"If genuine climate scientists start questioning their own theories, that should be reported ... But there's a difference between skepticism based on science and opposition based on ideology or vested interests."

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