Media games

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Tuesday 15 December 1998

THE manner in which the media reports intergovernmental environmental conferences is unbelievably biased and distorted, which means that independent and informed public opinion can never be built on contentious environmental issues. This is indeed a very serious matter.

As I had to leave Buenos Aires a few days before the end of the climate change conference for the US, I carefully scanned leading publications such as Washington Post, New York Times, Time and Newsweek to find out what finally transpired in this highly contentious meeting. Having been a journalist in India, I know how many reports are straight hand-outs of the government's Press Information Bureau. But these so called 'international papers' were absolutely no different. Their reports were nothing more than a total parroting of the US perspective. They read as if there was no dispute between the US and the European Union (EU) or between the US and the Group of 77 (G-77) and China. And even to the minor extent that these disputes were mentioned, they were painted as inane and inconsequential. As a result, the US media was making no effort to help the US public understand the issues confronting the globe.

For instance, every US newspaper praised the two renegade developing nations, Argentina and Kazakhstan, for taking on 'voluntary commitments' for reducing carbon emissions. But nobody bothered to point out that they were strongly criticised in Buenos Aires for breaking the unity of the developing world. These two countries were held up as paragons of environmental virtue in the US press - as nations which were very worried about their contribution to global environmental harm, which is nothing but a total fie. Both these countries have no interest whatsoever in the global environment. They were only trying to earn brownie points with the US government in return for political and economic gain because the US was the only industrialised country holding up the process, arguing that it will not ratify the Kyoto Protocol unless developing countries also take on commitments.

Unfortunately, the Kyoto Protocol cannot go into operation until two countries, the US and its partner Russia, sign the protocol. Everybody, thus, strongly felt that USA was holding the entire global process to ransom with its insistence on developing country participation, which is not even a condition in the Kyoto Protocol.

Argentina tried hard to get a discussion going on 'voluntary commitments' but its proposal was literally shouted out. Argentina had promised to 'deliver' a large number of Latin American countries to the US with promises for voluntary commitments but finally failed to find a single ally from the region.

The Buenos Aires meet was split between three groups. The US, the most powerful nation, constituted one group, and its biggest concern was 'economic effectiveness' of the Kyoto Protocol; in other words, the cost of meeting its emissions reduction cornmitments. It wants to reduce emissions in developing countries, where reduction costs are far cheaper, to meet its own targets through emissions trading mechanisms.

But the second group in Buenos Aires, the EU, heavily influenced by the region's green parties, felt that this would destroy the 'ecological effectiveness' of the Kyoto Protocol, in other words, the protocol would not prevent global warming. It was therefore arguing that there must be limits on how much emissions industrialised countries can buy from developing countries. This suggestion was anathema to the US which does not want any such 'caps'.

The third group, the G-77 and China, was on the other hand saying that it has already been agreed that industrialised nations would take the lead in cutting emissions; if the agreement was to go overboard then there was a need to look at the 'social effectiveness' of the Kyoto Protocol. In other words, a decision needs to taken on 'equitable entitlements' to the benefits of the atmosphere which would provide a long-term, equitable framework for dealing with the problem. But, forget it, none of these 'powerful papers' once mentioned the EU position or the G-77 position.

Public opinion in the US will be vital to solving the global warming problem because it is not the Clinton-Gore administration which is really against action on global warming within the US. It is the US Congress which has been convinced by the powerful automobile-oil industry lobby that global warming is not even a scientifically correct issue. It is pressurising the US administration to refuse ratification of the Kyoto Protocol unless developing countries sign it, too. The US administration is in turn putting the heat on developing countries.

But does the mature US public, which did not agree with the impeachment of president Clinton despite his affair with Monica Lewinsky, agree with the US Congress that industrialised countries should not take action until developing countries also join? According to a survey of US public attitudes conducted in the University of Maryland, some 53 percent of the respondents said that industrialised countries should start cutting emissions without any limits on developing countries, as against 44 per cent who were against the idea. This is why it becomes extremely important for the likes of the Washington Post and others we do better reporting in the US.

__ Anil Agaerwal

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