Dispatch from Doha

Dispatch from Doha

As the dust from the UN climate talks in Doha, Qatar settles, detailed analysis on this year’s negotiations is coming out*, and civil society is continuing to plan and press for the difficult (but very important) next steps towards setting up for a fair, ambitious and binding deal in 2015.

Officially known as the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) 18th session, COP 18 –like previous COPs—provided a tricky landscape for civil society participation, including communications work. Though the challenges of communicating to the public during these annual, huge, intense, and often anticlimactic meetings can seem endless, they are not insurmountable by any means. I won’t try to lay them all out, but here are a few challenges and lessons learned from my experience in Doha this year.

The mishmash of media makes it hard to target your audience

Overall, media coverage spans from seasoned reporters who have attended these COPs for years to first-timers who may or may not follow climate on a regular basis. This creates an interesting dynamic as communicators strategize around target audience, message, and narratives throughout the meeting.

It seems as though coverage from the national outlets decreases more every year. Communications strategies are driven by the need for US outlets to pick up accurate stories about the overall negotiations, and to continue to report on how the US is negotiating in real time.  With a lack of in-person media participation at the negotiations, it is challenging to communicate with both media on site and back in the US with any kind of synchrony.  Furthermore, the seemingly isolated climate talks are often drowned out by current events in the media cycle in the US.

It’s like reporting a bad version of Groundhog Day.
Okay, not exactly, but here is what I mean:

It’s easy for the media to imply that this is the same-story-different-year, though that isn’t wholly accurate. The negotiations outcome is usually branded by NGOs as “not good enough,” but it could almost always be worse. From a communications perspective, it’s important to underline that the process of the UNFCCC provides a pathway of success in coming year(s) even if the politics have not changed sufficiently just yet.

With each year that passes, climate change impacts continue to grow in intensity and urgency. However, media coverage does not necessarily reflect these developments. Immediately before the climate negotiations began, several reports vigorously pointed to the dangerous implications of a 4-degree world.  Coverage of climate change in the US increased with a focus on Hurricane Sandy. Although the public is beginning to understand that the climate crisis affects them and is an increasingly urgent problem, this was not sufficiently conveyed by the US negotiators’ stance in Doha.

Just like the climate crisis, there is still hope (when communicating about the UN climate talks).
Here are a few things that can help.

Do your homework for the media.

Create materials that lay out specific narratives (especially ones that tie in events back home), asks, and basic clarification for use by all. Each year, USCAN with the help of several member organizations publishes the Climate Negotiations Briefing Book. It is designed to help climate advocates, members of the US Congressional delegation, reporters, and editors gain a clear understanding of the international treaty negotiating process before that year’s talks begin.

This year, USCAN members in Doha also created a well-received memo that laid out three key issues at stake in the international climate negotiations. The memo, which was available for press and other interested parties, also included specific recommendations for actions, big and small, that the U.S. negotiating team could take to create a more productive atmosphere at the talks.

Be creative, timely, and bring in diverse voices.

The disconnect in time, distance, and current events happening in the US requires innovative solutions. For example, Oxfam connected the COP in Doha by borrowing the “fiscal cliff” language from the US budget debate and relating it to climate finance issues. USCAN held a press conference during a time that allowed both reporters back home and those on the ground in Doha to attend in real time. Youth groups such as SustainUS used actions on the ground and social media connected with the social media hashtag #climatelegacy to call out President Obama and pressure him and the US negotiators to take bold and decisive action to confront climate change at the talks.

I will end my blog on that note. I found the youth the most creative, innovative, and inspiring to work with while in Doha.

* See “Deciphering the Doha Outcome” from USCAN

Marie Risalvato is communications director of the US Climate Action Network.

About U.S. Climate Action Network

U.S. Climate Action Network (USCAN) is the largest network of organizations focused on climate change in the U.S. USCAN’s mission is to support and strengthen civil society organizations to influence the design and development of an effective, equitable and sustainable global strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure its implementation at international, national and local levels. Learn more at usclimatenetwork.org.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user IHA Central Office