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MEDIA: Time for a Global Glasnost, Says Gorbachev

Sabina Zaccaro

VENICE, Oct 14 2008 (IPS) - Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev has warned against the danger of letting the global financial crisis and other emergencies overshadow media attention on climate change.

Mikhail Gorbachev with Davide Zoggia, president of the province of Venice, and (centre) journalist Giulietto Chiesa.  Credit: Italo Greci

Mikhail Gorbachev with Davide Zoggia, president of the province of Venice, and (centre) journalist Giulietto Chiesa. Credit: Italo Greci

"This financial turmoil, which will heavily affect the real economy, was absolutely predictable, and it is only one aspect of the wider crisis of all the current development systems," Gorbachev, former president of the former Soviet Union and the 1990 Nobel Peace laureate told IPS in an interview. "In fact, there are connected simultaneous crises that are rapidly emerging. These relate to energy, water, food, demography, climate change and the ecosystem devastation."

The idea of unlimited growth has proven to be illusory because the resources of the earth are restricted, and they are running out, he says. "There are two ways of addressing the issue: making no mention of the truth and postpone unpopular decisions, or start telling people the truth and work together for change, while we are still in time.

"It is hard to even talk about ecology in the current, worrying scenario, but we must talk to people, because this earthquake is not going to pass over, and society must be involved in the resolution process," Gorbachev said. "To do so, we need a higher level of independence and democracy within the media while they explain to people what is happening.

"Some business industries are ready to pay to silence the truth, that is why it's time for a global Glasnost," he said. Glasnost (openness), a mantra of Gorbachev's perestroika (restructuring), was intended to educate people about social and political responsibility.

According to Gorbachev, without good information there is "no social awareness, and it is too hard to find solutions to the threatening global crisis." The issue was on the table at a two-day international meeting organised by the World Political Forum – the global intellectual group founded by Gorbachev to monitor the key processes of globalisation – in cooperation with the Italian province of Venice. Leading experts and media professionals from around the world discussed the role of the media in informing public opinion on these issues.

The meeting held in Venice Oct. 10-11 called on international media to improve public understanding of the impact of climate change.

"Time is running out," Gorbachev said. "The most efficient way to tackle the urgent environmental problems our planet is facing is transparency, and the media have a vital role to play."

The function of journalism in the debate over climate change is to "distil the essential facts of climate change, and explain them to their audiences," experts agreed in a final statement from the meeting.

The debate pointed to the central responsibility of the media in reclaiming the truth about climate change. "Through investigative reporting, news organisations should be active participants in the debate over global warming, rather than simple spectators, and push politicians and scientists to inform the public of the facts as they are known," the final statement says.

The experts asked journalists to push themselves beyond the breaking news reporting system, to report on climate change as a process with "a past, a present and a future projection."

They also stressed that environmental change is often under-reported compared to economic and policy matters. "But economy and environment are not conflicting issues, and they could lead to a win-win solution; this is something that the world is starting to understand," said Martin Lees, secretary-general of the Club of Rome, a global think-tank on international political issues.

"Also, industries are starting to see that they do not get fewer profits if they respect the environment; the Geneva-based Business Council for Sustainable Development already has a list of industries that are performing well," he said.

"We know that mankind is using 125 percent of the planet's biological resources. Now the question to deepen would be what is the impact of climate change on resources; and we know that if temperatures rise 0.1 degree in a decade, 15 percent of the species will be affected, so the news reports should point out that the speed of (climate) change is as important as its impact."

According to experts, in-depth information can draw a strong and rapid public response. "Starting from (the international conference on climate in) Bali, this has been the year of big promises," Rebecca Harms, German MP and vice-president of the Temporary Committee on Climate Change at the European Parliament told IPS. "But within the European institutions, the problem is a tremendous gap between announcements and political will to realise them."

In 2007 the EU governments made a commitment to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and to 30 percent in case of an international agreement among other large economies.

"These proposals were developed under high pressure by governments of member states and by industries," Harms said. "So what was put on the table of the Parliament was already not the best they could propose, they compromised from the very beginning."

The battle continues within the parliament between climate skeptics and those in favour of more ambitious climate policies, she said. "We don't know how the negotiations will end, though knowing the situation, I would expect the outcome weaker than expected, with weaker regulations."

Harms said she is worried that "even if we have a weak package (on climate), the final communication will talk of a big success, and all governments will support this, maybe there will be some critical voices but they won't be heard…"

Asked about the potential supporting role of the media, Harms said "we would really need journalists and media who are able to translate these difficult processes in a language that people can understand; it's not so easy, if governments say this is a huge success, to explain why there are critical voices.

"In general, from my point of view, it would be very good if we could combine the debate on climate goals with targets of energy security and security of supply," she said. "Due to high energy prices and the problem that energy resources are available only in certain regions of the world, people have already understood that this can affect their own life and that bringing down energy consumption and organising energy efficiency in all areas is the core of the strategy for a better energy policy, but is also pro-climate."

According to Harms, even if people doubt that policies should be more ambitious, "they should accept – and I am sure they would accept – to bring down their own energy consumption, and this will help a lot, particularly in the light of financial crisis."

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