What a difference a dozen years makes. At the 1997 COP3 conference, which forged the Kyoto Protocol, the science behind global warming and climate change was generally accepted, but not universally believed. Today, those who still insist climate change is a myth or that human beings aren’t responsible for the rise in emissions are pretty much a minority worldwide, although in some countries, such as the U.S., they still enjoy a degree of political and media prominence not seen elsewhere.
In the intervening 12 years since Kyoto, an entire generation of environmental scientists, activists, politicians and bureaucrats who believe the science behind climate change, believe the earth to be in peril, and who deal with a host of green issues, ranging from drafting municipal recycling ordinances to securing funding for new green technologies, has come of age. In 1997, NGOs at the Kyoto International Conference Center in Takaragaike were often older activists who remembered the first Earth Day in 1970. They had a good understanding of the dangers to the environment. But it was rare to find one who also had a good knowledge of finance, economics, or international politics. Nor were they often seen as media savvy by my colleagues in the press room and I remember commiserating with them about how too many NGOs failed to understand basic journalistic realities like deadlines, the importance of being succinct on camera, and of being able to answer questions in a clear, concise manner that did not involve the use of charts, graphs, and (in one case I witnessed at the Kyoto conference) a set of differential calculus equations.
Environmental NGOs in Copenhagen, by contrast, are often ex-journalists who know very well how to feed the media beast or former bankers and other economic experts who can go head-to-head with corporate lobbyists in any debate on just how much strict emissions targets might really cost or the complex financing developing countries need to adjust to climate change. Gone, too, is much of the antagonism between NGOs and “industry’” and governments that marked the Kyoto conference.
What has replaced it is a shared sense of crisis, that everyone is gathered here in Copenhagen to everything possible to ensure the UN does what it can to save the planet. In short, NGOs, once outsiders, now have a mainstream credibility with journalists they did not enjoy back in 1997. While I’d like to believe that’s because they were often proved right by subsequent events, the reality is that they also became much better communicators.
The other difference between Kyoto and Copenhagen — and it’s a monumental one directly responsible for the rise in power of NGOs — is technology. My friends snicker, rightly, that my computer skills are still very much stuck in the 1990s. But in 1997, I recall seeing a few Luddites in the press room actually printing out and FAXing their articles to some poor copy editor, or having to wait until a certain hour of the night to phone in their story. Obviously, most people sent their stories electronically but blogs like this were in their infancy and nobody had ever heard of Twitter.
Walking through the huge Bella Center Saturday revealed hundreds of early arrivals busily typing away on their computers. Not in the media center, with its miles and miles of cable lines, but in every café and rest station, hallway, and corridor. The entire center is one big WiFi Hot Spot, and hundreds of NGOs and journalists are blogging and sending out live video-streams of press conferences and other events live, as they are happening, while others will tweet to their hearts’ content.
If nothing else, Copenhagen will probably go down in history as the world’s most reported event, in terms of sheer volume of stories, although every journalist there, including, of course, me, will always be striving to capture the essence of what’s truly important.
NOTE: Eric Johnston is covering COP15 and will blog the conference as often as possible. For the latest news and information, buy The Japan Times or visit The Japan Times Online.