How Press Conferences are Becoming Increasingly Important at Climate Summits

Alison Anderson's picture

At the Paris Climate Summit the media presence is more important than ever. Carola Betzold (University of Gothenburg, Sweden), author of 'Press Briefings in International Climate Negotiations', reflects on which parties to UNFCCC use press briefings, and why

As every year, the world’s governments are meeting for the annual climate summit, or Conference of the Parties (COP). Over the course of two weeks – from 30 November to 10 December – governments are negotiating a hard to reach global agreement on climate action that would limit global warming to below 2°C. After the failure of the Copenhagen Summit in 2009 (COP15), all eyes are now on Paris.

Given the high expectations for a Paris agreement, it is not surprising to note the record number of participants at the Summit, including participants at the highest level: the Paris Summit started with a ‘Leaders Event’, gathering over 150 heads of states and government. Actual negotiations, in contrast, happen at lower levels, in countless working groups, informal meetings and changing coalitions. And one should not forget everything that happens on the sides: governments, but also non-governmental organisations as well as the private sector, showcase their work on diverse aspects of climate change, meet and network during side events, at exhibition booths and pavilions or during special theme days.

According to the preliminary list of participants, the Paris Summit gathers over 23,000 government representatives from 198 states (196 Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, and two observer states). Additionally, 9,400 representatives from intergovernmental institutions and bodies as well as non-governmental organisations are coming to Paris.

With so many participants, from non-governmental organisations to high-level leaders, media representatives are of course, also present in large numbers. Over 3,700 media representatives, from 1,366 different organisations, are registered in the preliminary list of participants. Much of what we, the general public, know about the climate summits comes from these many journalists and reporters. Research on media coverage on climate change has documented that media attention to climate change worldwide regularly peaks in December, when the COP takes place.

One important source of information for the media is press conferences, or press briefings. Press conferences take place throughout the two weeks of negotiations. The UNFCCC Secretariat encourages media coverage of the COPs and promotes press conferences by providing infrastructure. Due to high demand, at Paris, there are three press conference rooms, with briefings scheduled every thirty minutes from morning to evening on every day of the negotiations. The parties themselves as well as other actors, in particular non-governmental organisations, make use of this opportunity to reach out to the media and inform the public about on-going negotiations and their own point of view on the negotiation process or on specific topics and issues.

But not every state uses press conferences; in fact, it is only a small subset of the Parties to the UNFCCC that organises press briefings. Who, then, does organise press conferences during the climate summits, and why? Our recent article in Environmental Communication http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17524032.2015.1094100  ‘Press Briefings in International Climate Change Negotiations’ examines government-organised press conferences throughout the history of the UNFCCC negotiations. We collected data on press briefings for every COP from COP1, in 1995, through COP17, in 2011, to find out which Parties engage with the media through press briefings, and why.

Our research shows that press conferences are an essential element of the yearly climate summits that are becoming more and more important. While COP1 saw less than fifty press briefings, COP16 and COP17 had both well over 200 briefings – and COP15, in Copenhagen, broke the record with over 350 briefings (across all actors). When we look at government-organised press conferences, we have a total of 700 press conferences since COP1. Among all Parties, the European Union and the United States are by far the most active; these two Parties alone organised 231 briefings between 1995 and 2011. More recently, the BASIC countries – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – have also started to engage in press conferences. Together, they organised 89 press conferences in this period, mostly in the most recent COPs we analysed (COP15, COP16 and COP17).

It is difficult to assess the motivations of individual governments to organise a press conference in a large scale study. We postulate that at the most basic level, press conferences serve two purposes: on the one hand, press conferences are a negotiating tool, an alternative negotiation forum. There is anecdotal evidence to support this instrumental understanding of press conferences. In his in-depth study of selected countries, Adolphsen thus cites a non-governmental communicator: “Many of them [i.e. UNFCCC parties] engage in something that I refer to as “PR diplomacy”. I think what’s happening in the press conference rooms here is often—not always, but often— as important as what’s happening in the negotiation rooms” (M. Adolphsen, 2014, Communication strategies of governments and NGOs: Engineering global discourse at high-level international summits. Wiesbaden: Springer, p.173).

On the other hand, press conferences inform the public about the negotiations, and such public communication is a routine element of summit business, a standard procedure. There is again anecdotal evidence to confirm this more normative understanding of press conferences. The above-mentioned study by Adolphsen here cites a member of the Indian delegation, who explains that the delegation frequently interacts with the media, “just to give an update on how things are going,  […] because our approach to the media was that more is better and that transparency is important” (Adolphsen, 2014, p. 132).

To what extent can we find evidence for these two understandings of press conferences in our dataset? We find only limited support for these two explanations for why governments organise press briefings. Neither democratic countries (for whom normative considerations should be more important) nor Parties with extreme positions (for whom instrumental considerations should be more important) systematically organise more press conferences. Other factors such as delegation size – a proxy for organising capacity – can better explain whether a government is likely to organise a press conference.

Despite our mixed results, the analysis is an important first step toward a better understanding of the public relations of governments at the global level. The media clearly are a central element of the climate change negotiations – recall the massive media presence in Paris – and interaction with these numerous media representatives an important part of what governments (and others) do at the summits. Nonetheless, we know surprisingly little about how and why governments interact with the media.