Scant coverage of fossil fuel interest at UN climate talks
Credit: Ceci Freed / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Scant US media coverage fails to expose the conflict of interest at the core of UN climate talks

Fossil fuel interests have been on display at climate negotiations for decades

  • Representatives from around the world have gathered for the annual U.N. Climate Change Conference to hammer out a plan to keep the planet from catastrophically warming. The event, known as COP 25, is being held in Madrid, Spain, from December 2 to 13 and brings together world leaders, diplomats, social activists, and climate community leaders -- along with representatives of the coal, gas, and oil industries.

    This year’s conference is not unique -- the fossil fuel industry has been present at every single negotiation going back 25 years. Developing nations and nongovernmental organizations have been trying to drag this conflict of interest into the daylight for years, but they’ve had little assistance from U.S. media.

    An analysis of major U.S. network news and newspaper coverage of last year’s climate talks -- held in Katowice, Poland, from December 2-14, 2018 -- found that the presence of fossil fuel interests at global climate negotiations was referenced in only five (11.6%) of 43 articles. No reference to the fossil fuel industry was made by network news.

    A review of the first week of COP 25 coverage suggests that this year will be no different.

    Major U.S. television channels and newspapers have yet to cover the presence of fossil fuel interests at the climate talks despite the presence of conspicuous corporate branding touting false industry solutions and Big Polluter events.

    As of Monday, just four major U.S. newspapers have covered the event in their print edition for a total of 10 articles: The Washington Post (four articles), The Boston Globe (three), Chicago Tribune (two), and The New York Times (one). CNN is the only major cable news network to mention the event in prime time. News programs of the three major broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- have yet to cover the conference.

    This year’s coverage is already falling behind last year’s lackluster reporting, which produced 20 articles -- twice as many -- during the same period. Four of the five fossil fuel industry mentions during the 2018 coverage appeared in the first week.

  • There were only five mentions of the fossil fuel industry across the 15 top U.S. papers and six major TV networks in the 2018 climate talks

  • Coverage of last year’s climate negotiations by major U.S. media outlets included a mere five references (11.6%) to the presence of the fossil fuel industry -- two by the Houston Chronicle and one apiece by The Seattle Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

    Three of the mentions introduced the concepts of sponsorship and industry participation, but they failed to give necessary context or to identify the conflict of interest inherent in the industry’s outsized presence at these events. Two of the mentions gave more scrutiny to the industry’s role, covering a climate initiative announced by the oil company Shell timed with the start of COP 24 and challenging the credibility of the oil producer’s commitment to climate action.

    On December 2, 2018, the Houston Chronicle and the Seattle Times both reprinted an Associated Press article which reported that the Poland delegation “promote[d] a declaration calling for a ‘just transition’ for fossil fuel industries.” The author noted concerns expressed by activists about the purpose of the declaration before adding, “Some also have questioned why coal companies are among the meeting's sponsors.”

    The article included no further commentary on corporate sponsorship, which is a typical entry point into U.N. negotiations for fossil fuel corporations. Mother Jones reported in 2015 that along with prime logo placement, sponsorship can also give corporate participants “direct access to top-tier diplomats.” And with big-dollar sponsorship comes exhibition space in the conference’s stakeholder area and another platform for companies to promote false solutions like so-called “clean coal” that allow the continued burning of fossil fuels.

    In a Washington Post article from December 7, 2018, detailing Poland’s heavy reliance on coal and reverence for miners, the author noted: “Poland's coal industry is on full display at the climate conference, with exhibitors showing off lumps of coal and miners greeting attendees, alongside promises of ‘clean coal’ technologies.”

    And this year is no different: According to a December 2 piece by Earther, Spain’s biggest polluter paid $2.2 million to be a “diamond sponsor” of the conference. Patrick Galey, a science and environment correspondent for the French news agency AFP, told Earther, “Having a fossil fuel company sponsor climate talks … is a pretty obvious conflict of interest. In 2019, when the world is already dealing with climate-related disasters, when millions are displaced by floods, storms, and drought, the optics of it are poor.”

    Jean Su, energy director with the Center for Biological Diversity, explained the problem with fossil fuel industry sponsorships to Media Matters: “Bankrolling the global climate negotiations is a classic trick from the polluter’s playbook. Government leaders will never commit to real climate action until they stop taking money from the fossil fuel companies destroying our planet.”

    Another Houston Chronicle article from 2018 reported on an announcement -- timed to go with the kick-off of the talks in Poland -- by Shell that it would link its carbon emission reduction goals to the pay of its executives starting in 2020. It is not uncommon for fossil fuel corporations to announce big climate initiatives or pledges at U.N. climate events, and the last two sentences of the article provided an example of how these pledges are often undermined by the company’s other activities:

  • But Shell, in a sustainability report released this year, conceded that its greenhouse-gas emissions rose last year as the energy sector rebounded with rising oil prices and Shell added refineries. In a separate report, the company explained how it would reduce — but not eliminate — its oil production.

  • The Wall Street Journal also covered Shell’s announcement “to set short-term carbon-emissions targets and link them to executive pay.” The Journal did not wait until the end of the article to introduce skepticism of the commitment’s validity. The second sentence reads: “The decision marks a step toward delivering on ambitious long-term climate goals by one of the world's biggest oil companies, though details of Shell's exact plans remain vague.”

  • It’s long past time to expose fossil fuel players’ role in weakening the global response to the climate crisis.

  • This year, leaders will continue to hammer out plans set forth in the 2015 Paris climate accord to drastically limit global carbon emissions. The conference should be an unlikely -- if not unwelcome -- venue for an industry whose profits depend on climate inaction.

    However, since the U.N. climate talks began in 1995, lobbying groups representing some of the world's biggest polluters -- including BP, ExxonMobil, and Shell -- have sent thousands of delegates to the negotiations.

    Their presence and the influence they’ve had over the collective global response to the climate crisis are well known by those who participate in the annual negotiations.

    “You see them in the halls and you hear them speak through the global North and others.” Mithika Mwenda, from the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance, told AFP in a June expose. “In the 1990s they had to do their own bidding, now they have trade associations and global North governments do it for them.”

    And their fingerprints are easy to spot. The words “fossil fuel” don’t appear once in the Paris climate agreement even though the burning of fossil fuels is the primary factor driving the climate crisis.

    But fossil fuel interests are rarely exposed by the U.S. media that cover these events. Outlets outside of the U.S., including AFP, whose reporting is cited throughout this study, are less reluctant to expose the role of the industry in international efforts to address the climate crisis. The Guardian, a British daily paper, published a piece on the U.N. Climate Summit in New York this past September that exposed the invitation-only forum hosted by major oil and gas executives, who described the meeting as “closed high-level discussion” with key stakeholders. The New York Times was the only U.S. outlet to reference this problematic fossil fuel industry-sponsored event.

    Jesse Bragg, media director for Corporate Accountability told Media Matters, “Unfortunately, U.S. media coverage of the entire process has been far behind the coverage coming out of other countries. And more specific issues, like conflicts of interest, get even less attention in U.S. media. Coverage has improved lately, but the result until the last year or so has been very general coverage that often doesn't reflect the true reality on the ground or the perspectives of those most impacted by the lack of progress. But there's an opportunity to change the status quo and media plays a vital role in starting that process. People in the U.S. would be appalled to know that the U.N. climate talks are not only often bankrolled by Big Polluters, but that the fossil fuel industry's trade associations are actually in the room influencing the negotiations.”

    Rather, U.S. coverage of the fossil fuel industry -- when there is any -- often uncritically reports on pledges or commitment made by big polluter corporations to reduce carbon emissions. With a few days of negotiations still ahead, U.S. media have an opportunity to expose the role of fossil fuel interests in decisions shaping the global response to the climate crisis.

  • The fossil fuel industry’s conflict of interest is glaring, and its commitment to climate action is unproven

  • Big Polluters argue that they must have a seat at the table since they will be tasked with implementing change in the global economy.

    In the same June expose by AFP, a Shell spokeswoman told the outlet: “Shell is already a willing and able player in providing more and cleaner energy solutions. Business must be part of the climate negotiations – because it is part of the solution."

    From investments to production to lobbying, the fossil fuel industry is not a partner in the fight against global warming.

    In September, Reuters reported that oil companies will lose $50 billion in investments if governments implement the emissions goals of the Paris agreement. The piece quoted Andrew Grant, who co-authored the report for think tank Carbon Tracker that provided the figure: “Every oil major is betting heavily against a 1.5 degree Celsius world and investing in projects that are contrary to the Paris goals,” he said.

    In fact, companies like Exxon that acknowledge climate change and insist they are part of the solution are still making huge investments fueling the problem.

    report produced by the U.N. Environment Programme and released just ahead of this year’s conference confirms that, according to The Guardian, the current course of fossil fuel production will “produce more than twice as much coal, oil and gas as can be burned in 2030 while restricting rise in the global temperature to 1.5C,” which is the goal of the Paris agreement.

    Investments in new fossil fuel projects and the unfettered extraction of existing resources, along with efforts to stop climate policy, belie any statements by Big Polluters that they are committed partners in setting effective climate action. An analysis by Drexel University professor Robert Brulle, known for his work exposing climate denial networks, found that between 2000-2016, the fossil fuel industry spent $2 billion to stop the passage of climate bills in the U.S.

    In addition to federal lobbying, fossil fuel interests aggressively campaign against state-level climate initiatives. In one recent example last November, fossil fuel companies and lobbyists spent more than $30 million to defeat a carbon tax initiative in Washington state. It would have been the nation’s first carbon tax and represents an approach to emissions reduction that “Big Oil” executives purportedly support.

  • Allowing fossil fuel groups to be involved in climate talks is like trying to put the fire out with the arsonists in the room

  • Fossil fuel conflicts of interest have been problematic since the United Nations’ climate change conference first convened in 1995. However, in recent years, more than 400 civil society groups, nearly 650,000 people, and governments collectively representing 70% of the world’s population have called for the development of a conflict-of-interest policy to address the role of fossil fuel interests in shaping decisions around global climate action by the U.N.

    In the past three years, developing countries have made attempts to get parties on the record acknowledging the conflict -- a step toward initiating mitigation strategies. But developed countries with powerful fossil fuel sectors, led by the United States, have perennially blocked and silenced those efforts.

    Jesse Bragg of Corporate Accountability told Media Matters, “The U.S. has long represented the interests of the fossil fuel industry and other Big Polluters over those of people and the planet. The biggest departure from that trend under Trump is just how unabashed they have become. This U.S. government intends to leave the Paris Agreement, and yet it is literally trying to dismantle the agreement on its way out the door.”

    In June, AFP reported that during climate negotiations in 2018, the African Group of Nations negotiating bloc submitted an application to have conflict-of-interest risk recognised within the U.N. climate process. But it was “shot down by developed nations, and the discussion scrubbed from official records.”

    COP 25 offers an opportunity for mainstream media to educate the public on this issue and hold the fossil fuel industry and those protecting their stake in the process accountable.

  • Conclusion

  • U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres opened this year’s conference by noting that the world has the scientific knowledge and the technical means to limit global warming but is lacking political will: “Political will to put a price on carbon. Political will to stop subsidies on fossil fuels. Political will to stop building coal power plants from 2020 onwards. Political will to shift taxation from income to carbon. Taxing pollution instead of people.”

    But the fossil fuel industry’s actions -- from lobbying and election spending to sponsoring global climate negotiations-- are intended to weaken that political will. And U.S. media aren’t helping by ignoring their presence and influence at U.N. climate talks.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched Nexis for print newspaper articles and television transcripts for any of the terms “COP 24,” “climate talks,” “climate negotiations,” or “Paris climate” from December 1 through December 17, 2018. We reviewed each article or transcript for discussion of the COP 24 meeting in Katowice, Poland. To capture articles and transcripts covering the first week of the COP 25 meeting in Madrid, Spain, we searched for any of the terms “COP 25,” “climate talks,” “climate negotiations,” or “Paris climate” from December 1 through December 8, 2018. We also searched for any of the terms “climate summit,” “climate talks,” or “climate negotiations” in the same articles or transcripts as any of the terms “fossil fuels” or “oil companies” from September 18 through September 25, 2019.

    Additionally, we looked for mentions of the fossil fuel industry or individual fossil fuel companies within the search results.

    We excluded letters to the editor and opinion pieces, including op-eds, columns, and editorials, from the results.

    We used Nexis to search the print editions of the top 15 U.S. newspapers by circulation (except for The Wall Street Journal) and television transcripts from six national television networks (ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and NBC). The newspapers were: The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Daily News (New York), the New York Post, the Tampa Bay Times, The Dallas Morning News, The Denver Post, The New York Times, The Seattle Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today. We used Factiva to search The Wall Street Journal. We used features to remove duplicate articles from the search results. 

    The list of the top 15 U.S. papers by circulation was compiled using data from Agility PR Solutions. Agility PR Solutions updated the list in June 2019 and limited it to English‐language subscription newspapers.