High Stakes at Climate Talks, And KSJ Fellows Are On It

PARIS — Most global climate conferences have the feel and flavor of a carnival, with delegates from nearly 200 nations bickering over emissions cuts and technology transfers against a steady din of advocacy, protest and colorful demonstration.

The meeting now unfolding in Paris — the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, or COP21 for short — is different. Sure, there are acres of well-decorated information booths representing every potential interest in the ongoing climate debate, from the Global Forest Coalition and the Natural Resources Defense Council to the World Bioenergy Association, the European Patent Office, and the International Potato Center.

But the talks this year carry added weight — and not only because they unfold just two weeks after the brutal terrorist attacks that claimed 130 lives, left ordinary Parisians reeling, and both the city and the conference under a sometimes paralyzing security crackdown.

With numerous scientific models suggesting that the odds of keeping temperatures in reasonable check are quickly dwindling, the pressure to produce something — anything — that looks like a global agreement is higher than ever. Indeed, 2009-’10 Knight Science Journalism Fellow Chris Mooney suggested in recent coverage of the climate talks that without a highly ambitious climate pact — and a host of other necessary moves — “[w]e could be on the verge … of causing changes that will be irreversible at the scale of thousands of years.”

Not surprisingly, the high stakes have drawn some of the best science and environmental journalists in the world to the potentially historic summit, including several former KSJ fellows. Among the program’s alumni who are now, or soon-to-be, on the ground at COP21, which officially began on Monday and will grind on for at least another 13 days: Justin Gillis (KSJ 2004-’05), reporting for The New York Times; Nick Clark (KSJ 2013-’14), reporting for Al Jazeera; Giovana Girardi and Olga Dobrovidova, both KSJ 2014-’15 alums, reporting respectively for Brazil’s Estadão newspaper and London-based Climate Home; Martin Uhlir (KSJ 2004-’05), reporting for the Czech Republic’s Respekt Weekly magazine; Zimbabwean journalist and frequent contributor to Reuters, Andrew Mambondiyani (KSJ 2010-’11); and 2013-’14 alum Caty Arévalo, writing for Spain’s largest news agency, EFE.

They join a phalanx of some 40,000 delegates, observers and activists expected to descend on Paris over the course of the next two weeks.

“Covering the annual U.N. climate summit is probably the most tricky assignment of the year,” said Arévalo, whose year in Cambridge helped to augment her skills in covering what can often be an exceedingly complex and technical affair. “It is really complicated to glean what exactly is happening inside the negotiation rooms, and you really need to have good sources who answer the phone right on time, which for me, working for a news wire, is really important.”

“Communicating the importance of what it is being negotiated to an audience who suffers ‘climate fatigue,'” she added, “is also challenging.”

In that sense, a great deal is riding not just on the delegates negotiating the future of the planet, but on the journalists who must dissect both the science and a seemingly endless tangle of competing political interests — all in the public interest.

“Never before has a responsibility so great been in the hands of so few,” said Christina Figueres, the U.N.’s climate chief, in her opening remarks to negotiators on Monday. “The world is looking to you. The world is counting on you.”

The same might be said of the 3,000 credentialed journalists expected to be on hand for the talks, including those from the KSJ family. We wish them all luck, and we’ll look forward to sharing some highlights from their coverage in a future post.

Photo by IISD/ENB