Was COP26 the moment the media finally got serious about climate change?

Kai Tabacek Climate Change, Events, In the news

Oxfam press officer Kai Tabacek on glimmers of hope after Glasgow, not least the UK mainstream press at last paying real attention to the climate crisis

The UK hosting COP26 was always going to be a huge opportunity. Not only was it the largest international summit the UK has ever hosted, but the first true test of the Paris Agreement: would governments live up to their promise to ratchet up emissions cuts? Would it be enough to keep global warming below the 1.5C doomsday level? As the inevitable news arrived in early 2020 that COP26 was to be postponed by a year, it sometimes felt as though COP26 could never live up to the hype.

Voices from the frontline of the climate emergency

We at Oxfam wanted to ensure the voices of people most affected by the climate emergency were heard. To highlight the link between the climate crisis and global poverty and to win backing for the policies we know will make a difference: faster and deeper emissions cuts, huge increases in financial support for adaptation and compensation for the losses and damage that have already happened.

Our smaller-than-usual delegation brought together colleagues from nine countries and included Margaret Masudio, a small-scale farmer from Uganda. We began and ended the summit with stunts in Glasgow’s beautiful Royal Exchange Square – using our “Big Head” caricatures of world leaders to highlight their lack of action (pictured below). Among the many excellent reports published around COP26, Oxfam revealed the huge inequality between the emissions of the world’s wealthiest and poorest citizens, and how this is putting 2030 targets at risk.

Despite being hailed as the world’s “last best chance” to avert climate catastrophe, by the time world leaders touched down in Scotland expectations were already dismally low. It was clear that countries’ carbon reduction pledges (so-called NDCs, or nationally determined contributions) were not enough, and that the long-held goal for rich countries to provide $100 billion in climate finance per year was still out of reach. By the end of COP26, and despite the UK Government hailing the ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ a success and a flurry of announcements on coal, petrol cars and deforestation, it was clear the summit had not delivered on the most fundamental issues.

Oxfam campaigners pose as world leaders playing in a traditional Scottish pipe band at the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November 2021, demanding action by governments for real climate justice, not just ‘hot air’. (Photo: Andy Aitchison / Oxfam)

Glimmers of hope

Setting a specific target for adaptation finance was huge. For years, wealthy governments have been far more willing to fund poorer countries to reduce their meagre emissions instead of helping them take action to adapt to stronger storms, rising seas, scarcer water and less fertile land. Seeing the Scottish Government (after intensive lobbying by Oxfam Scotland) pledge money for “loss and damage” to address the irreversible impacts of climate change on some of the world’s most vulnerable communities – the first government to do so – was historic.

The commitment by governments to come back with stronger carbon reductions next year – and not in five years – was at least an admission that current targets are completely inadequate. It was also encouraging to see fossil fuels mentioned in the final text, although scarcely believable that this didn’t happen sooner.

The sea change in media reporting on the climate

Putting aside the concrete outcomes, what did COP26 mean for public perceptions of climate change? Personally, I feel there’s been a sea change in the UK. It wasn’t so long ago that climate change was part of the ‘science correspondent’ beat (often rolled in with health). Today you would struggle to find a national outlet that doesn’t have a climate or environment correspondent, and many outlets (Sky News, the Mirror, the Sun, Independent, Daily Express) have launched dedicated shows or sections of their websites.

COP26 made wall-to-wall headline news – not just at the end but for two weeks. But, as well as the usual coverage you would expect (the previews, protests, outrage at leaders flying in and the length of Biden’s motorcade, the diplomatic spats and the race for the finish), it was heartening to see broadcasters reporting what is at stake: David Shukman’s excellent report on the effects of climate change on one Bangladeshi woman over a decade, Lindsey Hilsum on how climate change is fuelling conflict and extremism in Niger and Alex Crawford on the world’s first climate-induced famine in Madagascar.

A niche subject has gone mainstream

But perhaps most encouraging of all was seeing informed mainstream coverage of subjects that have hitherto been restricted to the pages of the Guardian, Reuters Foundation and Carbon Brief. Articles over the final weekend emphasised the ongoing need to “keep 1.5 alive”. The last-minute wrangles over language on coal and fossil fuels cast unwanted attention on the blockers and the fossil fuel lobbies that have been so successful at preventing this in the past. The greater scrutiny of climate finance – and the leadership shown by Scotland on Loss and Damage – may mean that wealthy governments can no longer make vague and misleading pledges without being challenged.

All of this is encouraging, but the real test is yet to come. Have the past two years been an aberration? Will news outlets quietly drop their climate correspondents, recognising the PR opportunity is over?

There is plenty to report in year ahead: a looming climate crisis in the Horn of Africa, three landmark reports from the IPCC, updated NDCs and of course the “African COP”. All of us have our work cut out to ensure reporting on climate issues is sustained – not only to hold governments and businesses to account for the pledges they have made, but also to report on the real-world impacts. As our colleagues and delegates from across the globe head home, we also have the challenge of ensuring they are not forgotten – that journalists continue to report on their experiences and listen to them – not only as voices in case studies about the climate catastrophe but also as experts and analysts.


Kai Tabacek

Kai Tabacek is a senior press officer at Oxfam GB

Thanks to the International Broadcasting Trust who published the original version of this blog on their website.