It’s not looking so green: Is climate change media coverage missing a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi’?

With Earth Day upon us, world leaders are gathering today to sign the Paris Climate Agreement, an international accord that came as an output of negotiations between 200 countries, and sets the target of capping global temperatures changes by 1.5°C versus 2°C, which scientists argue is beyond humanity’s adaptive capabilities, by 2020. While this declaration undoubtedly acts as a step in the right direction, it is fuelling controversy over questions of its impact. As we’ve seen with the UN Millennium Development Goals – which have now fed into the UN Sustainable Development Goals – global agreement on targets doesn’t always filter down to the national level, and most definitely to the community level, especially in developing countries with varying agendas. And to rectify our inability to translate a statement into practice, goals are extended into new timeframes and amended targets, masking our struggle to paint a happy picture of progress. So is the Paris Agreement any different or more promising? Or will it prove, like so many other international initiatives do, to be a media grab with its fifteen minutes of fame, and barely be even referred to when natural disasters strike in the future?

First of all, before this turns into a pessimistic rant on our all-encompassing shortcomings as humanity, let me highlight that there is a positive message here. When the mainstream media is provoking a discussion around climate change, it is undoubtedly a plus for NGOs and the international community that fight for this cause every day. It also has a chain effect and feeds down the media line, getting picked up by local content producers in global communities, relaying that message in a way that speaks to people’s everyday lives. And this is strictly speaking from a media perspective; of course in the political realm, it is a strong statement of global bureaucracy to unite over 150 countries as signatories over such a pertinent issue. And as noted by a NPR commentary, the mainstream media is focused on showing this success, with the New York Times and the Washington Post praising the action. The Guardian headline reads: “The world’s greatest diplomatic success” (I for one would say that may be slightly melodramatic).

The kicker here is in the fine print: the agreement doesn’t actually commit signatories to take action until 2020, which sceptics argue is too late to change our inevitable fate of a warmer planet. This means that if public interest doesn’t sustain, political agendas could be at risk of de-prioritising climate action, and before you know it, the hype of the Paris Agreement is but a mirage of the past.

The key in this case could be, as I previously hinted, in local media. Starting at the top, looking at the BBC coverage, they list the top ten countries with the highest greenhouse gas emissions. Unsurprisingly, China is double its next perpetrator at 24% (with the US sitting in second at 12%). But to an American sitting in the Midwest countryside, the severity of emissions in China is a bit of a mystery, and frankly, completely irrelevant to their life. But how are emissions – whether it be in China, the US, or anywhere else for argument’s sake – affecting that countryside? Is it reducing crops and therefore affecting the community’s wealth? Is it creating wildly weather patterns affecting the community’s ability to support their infrastructure and build resilience? Regardless of what that impact is, it’s up to local media to find it and expose it. It’s a sad truth: too often the bigger picture is not translated into the digestible picture that people need.

vancouver-smog-smoke-forest-fire-984x500

Photo by Alisha Weng; Instagram (published 5 July 2015 by VancityBuzz)

I’ll give a personal example that may seem minor, but was quite thought-inducing for myself as a Canadian, a nature-lover, and an average middle-class consumer. A few years back, British Columbia, Canada had record-breaking numbers of forest fires – an obvious impact of drier than usual summer temperatures. Local news coverage mapped the fires, showed impact on residents of the areas, and investigated how the fires were initiated. And yes, they did cover temperature records over several years., at a minimum hinting at the bigger issue of climate change. There was a point in the summer where the downtown core of Vancouver was engulfed in a cloud of smoke that had wafted in from a relatively nearby fire (though it posed no direct threat to the urban areas). Walking downtown was like being in an apocalyptic parallel universe – the streets were fairly empty and the definitive smell weighed on your lungs. It also happened to be the same weekend as the women’s FIFA tournament final, bringing American and Japanese fans into the city centre. I was working at a restaurant at the time and tourist customers continually asked what was going on, or commented on how despite the smoke, they were still enjoying their visit. What occurred to me though was the complete disregard for the connection between our excessive food consumption (and waste) and drier climates that created the smoke to begin with. Okay, I admit this seems like a bit of a stretch and perhaps an extremely indirect connection, but the point is there is a responsibility for these connections to be made. And even if you’re not reporting the absolute full picture of climate change – which undoubtedly wouldn’t fit into editorial word counts – the blatant connection must be made and must matter to a local audience.

Although it may seem cliché, what is abundantly clear is that paying attention to our planet one out of 365 days of the year is inadequate, and media plays an essential role in repainting the global picture with a bit more green.

Advertisements

An OpEd: The Millenium Development Goals on Water

mdg_water_cover

When the Millennium Development Goals were released in September 2000, the United Nations gave the world just fifteen years to eradicate some of the worst problems facing humanity. Eradicate extreme poverty. Achieve universal primary education. Ensure environmental sustainability. Within the latter goal is Target 7.C: to cut in half, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. While this optimistic statement provided hope for immediate global change, the likelihood of actually achieving it seemed somewhat meek. On World Water Day held on March 22, 2012, this goal, against all odds, was achieved. The question moving forth, however, is if this goal is sustainable.

Water has quickly become the world’s most valuable resource. Three quarters of the planet is covered with water. Only three percent of that is consumable freshwater. Of that three percent, 99.9% is frozen in glaciers and ice fields, or underground. The remaining fraction of freshwater must then be divided among the world’s growing population, which has now passed seven billion people.

Water is a necessity of life. Neither humanity nor our ecosystems can survive without it.  The maintenance and sanitation of freshwater resources is also essential, and remains a significant threat to human health. Water pollution, dam construction, irrigation development, and flood control all cause the spread of preventable diseases through water consumption. Diarrheal disease (more commonly known as diarrhea), for example, is responsible for 4.1% of the global burden of disease, and kills an estimated 1.8 million people per year. 88% of this disease is related to the consumption of unsafe drinking water. As well, new concerns are now emerging associated with the consumption of contaminated water. A recent study released by the World Health Organization, for instance, expresses concerns of low levels of pharmaceuticals in drinking water that pose threats to the safety of human health.

Access to water is also a cause of armed conflict. A lack of water supply has resulted in bombings and other terrorist attacks, as well as protests in many regions, most recently in parts of India, Pakistan, China, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Further, it has resulted in hundreds of thousands of displaced persons searching for increased access to consumable water. A refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya is just one example and is currently housing 160,000 Somali refugees looking for water. Currently 1.2 billion people are living in areas of physical water scarcity, a number that is only expected to rise. By 2030, it is expected that 47% of the world’s population will be living in areas with an extreme lack of freshwater access.

Although Target 7.C has now technically been achieved, I believe it would be a grave oversight to consider access to water and sanitation no longer a huge threat to humanity. Even the World Health Organization’s 2004 report – which gives an update on the status of access to water since the MDG was initiated – acknowledges that the statistics on access can be misleading. When this report was published, 83% of the world had water coverage, meaning that we were on target to meet the goal of access to water prior to 2015 (which has now officially been achieved in 2012). The goal on sanitation, however, is a more difficult task, as there still remained in 2004 2.6 billion people without improved sanitation facilities. The rates of improvement also vary greatly per region, skewing the overall statistics. For example, between 1990 and 2002, South Asia was showing impressive growth of coverage, going from 71 to 84 percent. This jump though was mainly fueled by India with a population of over 1 billion. When this increase then gets factored into overall global improvement, it will make a huge difference in the statistics, since India holds such a large percentage of the world’s population. It is not, however, a good representation of improvement to global coverage. How then does this apply to our current situation? Even though we have halved the proportion of people without access, we must still consider that there are many concentrated areas suffering from extremely low levels of access to water.

Despite global increases in coverage, it is vital to consider the quality of water to which we are gaining access. In the developing world, water access is provided through the drilling of wells, and utilizes underground water resources. My immediate thought when I consider this strategy is about an orphanage I worked in outside of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The orphanage had a well, which served as the primary source of water for all the children. I would play with the kids regularly and would constantly wonder about white scabs and markings on their heads. When I finally asked the orphanage director, he said it was from water-born diseases. While statistically these children had access to freshwater, their consumption of it was only hindering their health and potentially putting their lives at risk. So even though achieving Target 7.C on paper may seem impressive, I approach it with great skepticism.

It is uplifting to hear that we have achieved at least one MDG on time, but the longevity of this achievement is uncertain. In the UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon’s address on this achievement, he focuses on the question of sustainability. He states that unless we can learn to use water wisely, specifically in agriculture, we will fail to end hunger and will face bigger threats such as those of illness, drought, and famine. Even though we have made unbelievable improvements to water access in many regions, 800 million people still remain without access. It is essential that we do not stop strategizing long-term solutions for providing safe water resources that are sustainable and can carry our world’s population well into the future.

Bibliography

1.    Arsenault, Chris. (2011, June 29). Water Wars: 21st Century Conflicts?. AlJazeera. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/06/2011622193147231653.html.

2.    Easterly, William (2009). How the Millennium Development Goals are Unfair to Africa. World Development 37(1), 26-35.

3.     Fugelnes, T., Mehta, M., & Virjee, K. (2005). Financing the Millennium Development Goals for Water and Sanitation: What Will It Take?. Water Resources Development 21(2), 239-252.

4.     Lenton, R., Lewis, K., & Wright, A. (2008). Water, Sanitation, and the Millennium Development Goals. Journal of International Affairs 61(2), 247-258.

5.     United Nations. (2012, March 15). Secretary General SG/SM 14163. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2012/sgsm14163.doc.htm.

6.     World Health Organization. (2012). Water Sanitation Health. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/publications/2011/pharmaceuticals/en/index.html.

7.     Winpenny, J. (2003). Financing Water for All. Report for the World Panel on Financing Water Infratsructure. <http://www.worldwatercouncil.org&gt;.