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Two Steps Forward

The climate summit vs. the iPhone: A mainstream media mismatch

This article is drawn from the GreenBuzz newsletter from GreenBiz, running Mondays.

Was last week’s Global Climate Action Summit a PR stunt or pivotal moment?

Granted, it was a little of each. To be sure, it was a megaphone used by anyone and everyone who had a climate announcement to make, a report to release or a cause to trumpet. The GreenBiz editorial team’s collective in-boxes were flooded with a daily deluge of press releases and advisories, from the momentous to the mundane.

But it was also a turning point for the climate movement, a moment in time in which companies and cities around the world made their case to step up action — and backed those words with a lengthy list of commitments and achievements.

Among them:

  • Nearly 400 global companies, healthcare providers, cities, states and regions set 100 percent renewable energy targets, including companies with collective annual revenues of more than $2.75 trillion.
  • 488 companies from 38 countries adopted emissions-reduction pathways in line with the science of the Paris Agreement, representing $10 trillion of the global economy, equivalent to the value of the entire NASDAQ stock exchange.
  • 23 multinationals, with revenue of more than $470 billion, committed to taking their fleets to zero emissions.
  • 42 financial institutions representing more than $13 trillion in assets committed to helping cities, states and regions finance climate action, including the European Investment Bank and The World Bank.
  • 21 companies announced the launch of the Step Up Declaration, dedicated to harnessing the power of emerging technologies and the "fourth industrial revolution" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to "ensure a climate turning point by 2020."
  • More than 30 energy-intensive industry and property players set smart-energy and net-zero-carbon targets for buildings.
  • 26 cities with 140 million in population committed to buy only zero-emissions buses starting in 2025 and create zero-emissions zones in their cities starting in 2030.
  • More than 3.5 million additional electric-vehicle charging points will be installed by 2025, and a goal was set for transport hydrogen to be zero-emissions by 2030.
  • More than 100 global supply-chain actors and investors, managing more than $2.8 trillion, pledged to work to halt deforestation and native vegetation loss in Brazil.

As I said, that’s merely a sampling. There's lots more to be found in Elsa Wenzel’s terrific rundown of commitments and in Heather Clancy’s summation of research reports released during the summit. And even more on the summit site itself, and on the GCAS Twitter stream.

What surprised me most about the summit was the virtual news blackout it received from the mainstream media. Sure, there were stories, although they often focused on the protests and celebrities (Alec Baldwin! Jane Goodall!) than on the summit’s substance.

Consider: More than 4,000 mayors, governors, investors, entrepreneurs, civil society organizations and CEOs of some dozens of the world’s biggest companies gathered to emphatically and enthusiastically double down on their commitments to fixing the climate crisis. And, along the way, lambast America’s president for dereliction of duty on the topic. Newsworthy, perhaps?

For perspective, I conducted a Google News search Sunday night. GCAS garnered 94,300 results. Compare that with the launch of the iPhone XS — the bigger-screen version of the iconic smartphone, announced Wednesday (but not actually available until later this week). It got 35,100,000 results, or roughly 372 times more coverage.

With all due respect to Apple and its terrific products, is the introduction of new phones and watches truly that much more newsworthy than the world-changing commitments made last week?

Um, no.

But even those numbers belie the paucity of coverage. The New York Times published just three stories during the summit — including a peculiar piece about how few people actually rode the electric shuttles provided to delegates.

The Times outdid the Wall Street Journal, which managed only a single GCAS article last week, on California’s plan to launch its own pollution-tracking satellite. Ditto with the Financial Times: It included the summit in a "week in energy" roundup.

Forbes published two stories, one about the summit's focus on oceans in climate change and a guest post by Ceres’ Mindy Lubber on the role of investors. Fortune one-upped its rival with a whopping three stories, on California’s bold commitment to become carbon-free by 2045, on Salesforce and the launch of the aforementioned Step Up Declaration and on Lyft’s commitment to carbon neutrality. The Guardian eked out two pieces, a pre-summit preview and a story about the protests that took place during the summit, but nothing about the summit itself.

Nor was this revolution televised. CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox and MSNBC each managed a few stories about the summit, some linking the event to Hurricane Florence. ABC News didn't bother at all. NPR offered up a dozen or so references to GCAS across its various shows and podcasts.

Only Bloomberg — whose founder and CEO (who moonlights as the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Climate Action) was, after all, a co-host of the summit — led the way, with more than a dozen substantive articles, an outlier among media organizations. Then again, you’ve got to mollify the boss. (His star turn on the summit stage turned out to be one of the more inadvertently entertaining moments, thanks in part to Mr. Bloomberg’s delightfully dry humor.)

All of which is part of a phenomenon I’ve been watching for more than two decades: The mainstream media doesn’t know how to cover positive corporate sustainability or climate change stories. It sees them as anything from quirky to irrelevant, a sideshow somehow unrelated to the global economy. That companies might deign to pick up the slack where political leaders fear or fail to tread is, it seems, a sideline to the business of business. That markets might trump policy in addressing climate change seems of no particular interest to editors and producers.

That's actually a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the paucity of coverage leaves leadership companies alone to innovate, advance — and sometimes fail — outside the glare of the media's kleig lights.

On the other hand, there's a revolution taking place in business. It would be nice for the world to know.

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