Climate Change Communication in Middle East and Arab Countries
Climate Change Communication in Middle East and Arab Countries
- Mikkel Fugl EskjærMikkel Fugl EskjærAalborg University
In terms of climate change, Middle East and Arab countries cover a vast and diverse region with stark variations in natural resources, ecological footprints, and political priorities. It includes large oil and gas producing nations (the Gulf States) as well as resource-depleted countries (Jordan, Syria). Most countries rely on carbon energy, while a few have developed an alternative vision based on renewables (Morocco). It is home to both highly affluent countries (e.g., UAE) as well as poor and conflict-ridden societies (Iraq, the Levant, Yemen).
Although the region as a whole is particularly vulnerable to climate change due to low levels of socio-ecological resilience, potential conflicts over natural resources (e.g., water), and almost chronic refugee and immigration crises, there are considerable differences in the region’s adaptive resources and mitigation strategies. This regional heterogeneity, however, is rarely reflected in the region’s climate change communication, which (with a few exceptions) tends to follow similar communicative patterns.
Long-running social and religious conflicts in the Middle East have pushed climate change down the agenda of public opinion and news reporting in most Arab countries. Moreover, many Arab countries share a semi-authoritarian media system, which seems to exacerbate this tendency. In order to avoid crossing editorial redlines, climate change reporting is mostly copyedited from international news agencies. Local reporting is sparse as it may easily touch on sensitive issues concerning inadequate governance. Consequently, climate change has traditionally been covered as foreign news with a focus on international climate change negotiations—and hence limited relevance for a regional readership.
However, new information technology and an increasing focus on raising awareness on climate change points toward alternative channels of climate change communication in Middle Eastern and Arab countries.
Climate change is expected to have a noticeable effect on the Middle Eastern region. Several reports predict an increase in droughts, extreme heat, saltwater intrusion, and loss of coastal areas as a consequence of rising sea levels, as well as desertification due to a combination of reduced precipitation and increased evaporation (UNEP, 2010; World Bank, 2010, 2014, pp. 13–15). The consequences of climate change on water scarcity and migration have been particularly emphasized (El-Ashry, Saab, & Zeitoon, 2010; Wodon, Liverani, Joseph, & Bougnoux, 2014). Some studies even predict a “climate-exodus” from the region as “part of the Middle East and North Africa may become uninhabitable due to climate change” (Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, 2016). Other studies have warned of rising tensions in the Middle East due to the effects of climate change (Brown & Crawford, 2009). It is therefore hardly surprising that the Middle East is considered among the most climate vulnerable regions (UNEP, 2015).
Despite these dire warnings and scenarios climate change is a relatively neglected concern in the Middle East. A 2009 report found that “virtually no work is being carried out to make the Arab countries prepared for climate change challenges” (Tolba & Saab, 2009, p. ix). While the situation has changed in some parts of the region, climate change information and communication is still low on the public agenda.
This limited attention reflects a region marked by more immediate problems stemming from political, religious, and ethnic conflicts. In the face of almost chronic crises, an abstract risk such as climate change may appear less urgent. However, several observers have linked climate change to the recent political unrest surrounding the Arab Awakening, arguing that climate change has functioned as a so-called threat multiplier in the complex causality behind, for instance, the Syrian civil war (Johnstone & Mazo, 2011; Kelley, Mohtadi, Cane, Seager, & Kushnir, 2015; Werrel & Femia, 2013). This suggests that climate change is far from a mere future risk, but that the region: “is today starting to live the reality that is climate change” (UNEP, 2015, p. 2).
In terms of challenges, responsibilities, and reactions to climate change, the Middle East is a vastly diverse region. It comprises countries that are among the biggest CO2 emitters (on a per capita basis), as well as countries with a minimal contribution to global greenhouse gases. The region also includes some of the wealthiest nations, while mainly consisting of middle income or so-called lower middle income countries. Finally, it is a region with a turbulent history and with limited media freedom, which tend to restrict official discourses and public debates about climate change. Thus, to describe climate change communication in the Middle East and Arab countries, a number of contextual factors have to be considered.
The article starts with a few observations regarding the diversities and similarities in the Middle East. The diversity is manifest in the highly different conditions the region is facing in terms of climate change mitigation and adaptation. The similarities will be considered in relation to a shared media system and a comparable media environment across the region. These contextual features are followed by a description of the existing, albeit limited, research literature on climate change communication in the Middle East. As a consequence, the subsequent sections draw on a wider body of literature from adjacent research fields in order to outline some of the implications of climate change communication in the Arab world.
A minor note of terminology: In this article “Middle East and Arab Countries” is identical with the widely used notion of the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa). This definition follows the practice of, for example, UNDP and consists of all states in the Arab League (except Comoros and Mauritania) but excludes Turkey, Israel, and Iran. Other organizations (e.g., the World Bank) follow a different practice by including Iran and Israel in the MENA region. Historically, the Middle East also encompassed Turkey and Cyprus but excluded the North African states (Middle East, 2014).
Climate Change in a Heterogenous Region
At first glance the Middle East may appear to be a relatively homogenous region. It shares a common linguistic, cultural, and religious background, although intra-religious conflicts are currently ripping the region apart. However, beneath the shared cultural inheritance major differences and fault lines exist, not least in relation to climate change. When considering climate change communication in the Arab world, these differences and shared conditions need to be balanced against one another.
In terms of the wider question of climate change, the Middle East covers a vast and diverse region. It is home to both highly affluent countries (the Gulf States) but also poor and conflict-ridden societies (Iraq, the Levant, Yemen). It includes large oil- and gas-producing nations as well as resource-depleted countries (Jordan, Syria). Most countries rely on carbon energy, while a few have developed an alternative vision based on renewables (Morocco). Thus, although climate change is predicted to have significant negative impact on the socio-ecological resilience across the region, there are considerable differences in terms of both mitigation policies and adaptive resources. In many ways, the risks of climate change, therefore, underline the extremities of the Arab region.
While rising sea level is predicted to inundate important parts of Egypt’s Nile Delta, displacing several million people (UNEP, 2015), artificial islands are being constructed in the Persian Gulf. And although the prolonged drought in Syria may have contributed to the current political instability in the Levant, countries in the Gulf Corporation Council are using energy-heavy desalination plants to supply water for an increasingly lavish lifestyle. It underscores how the region includes the world’s most CO2 polluting countries such as Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, as well as some of the least polluting countries such as Palestine, Yemen, and Morocco (UNDP, 2015, Table 12).
This in turn reflects how the MENA region frequently shows a high range between top and bottom across different development indicators. According to the Human Development Index, the region spans countries of low, high, and very high human development. As a whole Arab states rank above the average of the least developed countries but lower than the world average (UNDP, 2015, Table 1). Likewise, Arab states display one of the highest ranges in the ICT Development Index (IDI); while some oil-exporting Gulf countries having risen to the high quartile, Algeria and Syria, for instance, are still well below the world average (ITU, 2015, pp. 63–65).
Given this heterogeneity, one would expect a rather diverse climate change perception and communication in the region. However, with a few exceptions, that is rarely the case, which points to a number of regionally shared conditions. For several decades, religious and armed conflicts have plagued the region, contributing to the aggravation of existing development problems. These social and religious conflicts have pushed climate change down the agenda in both public opinion and news reporting. Saleh, for instance, speaks of a “collapse in media coverage in Egypt” in 2011, as climate change was almost totally ignored by the media due to the democratic struggles following the Arab Spring (2012, p. 53). It demonstrates how future climate change is generally considered less worrisome than present political conflicts, resulting in limited media attention.
Another common feature is how most Arab countries share comparable semi-authoritarian media systems, which to a large extent condition public climate change communication in the Middle East.
Arab Media System(s)
Over the years, Arab media have been subject to increasing attention. This is especially true since 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror, which turned the Middle East into a geopolitical hotspot. This in turn generated unprecedented focus on the region’s media and the so-called Arab street, a widely used term but also contested notion due to its negative connotations of an unruly and irrational public sphere (Regier & Khailidi, 2009). More recently, the use of social media during the Arab Spring has sparked a new round of interest in the region’s media landscape (Khamis & Vaughn, 2011), just as the media’s role in the subsequent failure of consolidating democratic institutions has been noticed (Lynch, 2015a). It illustrates Said’s point that studies of Arab culture, including Arab media, typically take place in a highly politicized context (Said, 1997, p. 19). Yet, several important concepts and discussions of Arab media predate recent political events in the Middle East.
In the 1970s Arab media were still discussed within a developmental framework (Mowlana, 1977), reflecting the lasting influence of the developmentalist paradigm in relation to non-Western media. The notion of nation building, however, has survived, and Arab media are generally expected to contribute to this process by refraining from criticism of government policies.
With the rise of satcasting and transnational media, the study of Arab media gained new momentum (Alterman, 2002; Gher & Amin, 2000; Sakr, 2001, 2005). This pan-Arabic media revolution had a profound and transformative influence on Middle Eastern media. Although it left some national newspapers and broadcast systems almost obsolete (Alterman, 2005) it forced other media to develop and adapt to a new media environment (Sakr, 2007). Thus, important consequences of the pan-Arabic media development include the consolidation of an émigré press (Mellor, 2007); the development of Arab television as one of the world’s biggest TV markets (Kraidy, 2012); the emergence of “relatively high quality and independent newspapers in several Arab countries” (Jarrah, 2008, p. 6); and the rise of Al-Jazeera and other pan-Arabic news stations (el-Nawawy & Iskandar, 2002; Zayani, 2005). The latter has been particularly important as it contributed to galvanizing a new Arab public sphere (Lynch, 2006), although recent developments seem to have damaged Al-Jazeera’s reputation in particular as an independent news provider, given the channel’s tendency to follow Qatar’s foreign policy with regard to rebels in Syria or the civil war in Yemen (Lynch, 2015b).
In theoretical terms, one of the important contribution to understanding media in the Middle East has been Rugh’s work on the Arab media systems (Rugh, 2004). First published in 1979 and reworked in 2004, Rugh distinguishes between four types of national media systems in the MENA region (“Mobilizing,” “Diverse,” “Loyalist,” and “Transitional”). This typology captures the commercial, conservative, and nationalistic tendencies, which traditionally govern Middle Eastern media. Although Rugh explicitly criticises Four Theories of the Press (Siebert, Peterson, & Schramm, 1963) as inadequate within an Arab context, his model nevertheless shares a similar assumption about “the relationship of the mass media to the government” (Rugh, 2004, p. xvi). Thus, according to Rugh: “The most important variable influencing the political role of media channels in the Arab world is the national political system” (Rugh, 2012). This nation-state perspective has subsequently been criticized for being institutional rather than content-based (Berenger, 2006), just as it has been criticized for failing to account for the existence of a pan-Arabic press (Mellor, 2007). Rough’s model has nevertheless remained an important theoretical reference point as there have been few convincing alternatives (Iskandar, 2007).
Recently, however, Kraidy (2012) has proposed a regional approach to Arab media. It breaks with the nation-state perspective inherent in most previous media system theories, including Hallin and Mancini’s (2004) model of comparative media systems, which otherwise forms the basis of Kraidy’s discussion. According to Kraidy, national media in the Middle East should be considered part of a wider pan-Arabic media system. Arab media are the product of national and regional tensions, which make the nation-state an inadequate unit of analysis. Kraidy illustrates his argument by the intricate links between Saudi Arabian and Lebanese media, where the former exercises financial control, while the latter provides content and professional expertise. This transnationalization goes hand in hand with a certain instrumentalization in which Saudi Arabia uses transnational media as a channel for both domestic and foreign political messages. Occasionally it also works the other way around, when Lebanese talk shows and entertainment media more or less inadvertently manage to set the regional agenda by upsetting conservative forces in the Gulf.
Kraidy’s analysis offers a compelling argument for employing a regional and pan-Arabic perspective when looking into climate change communication in the Middle East.
Freedom of the Press and Discursive Strategies
In discussions of Arab media, it has become common to refer to different indexes of press freedom for instance by Reporters without Borders or the democracy advocacy foundation Freedom House. The latter shows that there are no free countries in the region and only four so-called partly free countries (Lebanon, Kuwait, Tunisia, and Israel). It means that 93% of the Middle Eastern population live in not-free countries, and only 7% in partly free countries according to the index (Freedom House, 2016, p. 16). Freedom House also finds that after media improvements in the wake of the Arab Spring, there has been a “pattern of backsliding” in the region’s press freedom (Freedom House, 2015, p. 18). According to Reporters without Borders, the Middle East remains: “one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous regions for journalists” (RSF, 2016).
Another challenge to independent media in the Middle East is the complex political economy of the Arab media industry. In many cases, news media are owned or controlled by governments resulting in rather complacent news reporting. In other cases, media ownership seems to be “vanity projects” (McCargo, 2012, p. 216), or means to obtain political influence in a complex political system. As a consequence, the media industry is frequently guided by other goals than commercial or publicity-oriented principles. Sabbagh (2015) for instance, argues that “the single largest threat to media today is corruption in the struggling industry itself, as most private outlets are owned by members of leading political parties and want-to-be businessmen.”
According to Rugh, these conditions prove that most Arab media are variations of an authoritarian media system (Rugh, 2004, p. xvi). Consequently, Arab news media have developed certain recognizable discursive strategies, some of which have been observed for decades (Mowlana, 1977). This includes a widespread tradition of protocol news, particularly in authoritarian regimes or in countries with a government controlled national news agency. It also includes several editorial redlines such as criticism of government officials and heads of neighbouring states. Foreign policy is another official domain, which the press is expected not to question. Failing to observe these formal and informal restrictions can be sanctioned by legal means (as Arab states have rather draconian media laws) or by more indirect means such as revoking publishing or broadcasting licenses.
In a rather gloomy analysis the executive director of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), claims that “free and independent journalism is pretty low down—or non-existent … and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. That is the sad reality in today’s Arab World” (Sabbagh, 2015). The main reasons given are repressive political systems, lack of public support, and journalistic self-censorship.
Most of these predicaments are pertinent to environmental and climate change journalism, although there exist some moderating factors. First of all, there is little if any critical journalism about official climate change policies, including national strategies in climate change negotiations. Investigative environmental journalism in the Middle East may even be dangerous as documented by Reporters Without Borders (RSF, 2015).
In general, climate change and environmental journalism are considered rather inferior topics compared to hard news and political analyses. As noticed by an Egyptian magazine, “Traditional media outlets grant little to no coverage of environmental issues and often treat them as secondary to mainstream political dialogue” (Viney & Sarant, 2013). Consequently, environmental journalism offers few career opportunities. Climate change news is moreover a rather predictable affair, characterized by protocol news and lengthy resumes of official statements (Freeman, 2016). It is frequently dominated by international news agencies and rarely presents local perspectives or analyses of the wider socioeconomic consequences of climate change.
To sum up, there are two major implications of the research on Arab media systems in relation to climate change communication. First, news coverage of climate change shares most of the same constraints as political news in general, even though it is generally considered inferior to hard politics. At the same time, there are internal differentiations within the Arab media system, particular between politically stable and unstable nations, which in the latter case leaves little room for climate change preoccupations. Differences between commercially inclined and state-governed media also need to be taken into consideration. Since climate change and environmental matters represent a less politicized news topic, it provides commercial and independent media an opportunity to diversify current affairs and address a different set of socio-ecological problems without clashing with traditional editorial redlines. However, it would be misleading to consider this a token of free media. According to some assessments, the emerging commercial press still operate within some of “the most repressive media environments in the region, belying [the] image [of] a cosmopolitan oasis among conservative authoritarian regimes” (Freedom House, 2015, p. 19).
Arab Environmental Communication Research
While Arab media and journalism have received considerable international attention over the last decades, Arab climate change communication remains a largely neglected research area. Only a limited number of studies have appeared in international publications, although there are sporadic references to the region in a handful of meta-studies and cross-national surveys (e.g., Boykoff & Roberts, 2007; Lee, Markowitz, Howe, Ko, & Leiserowitz, 2015; Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014).
Moreover, with noteworthy exemptions (e.g., Saab, 2008a, 2009; Saleh, 2010) many studies investigate non-Arabic language media (mostly English, occasionally French). While this situation is lamented by almost all studies—it fails to capture potential differences between Arabic and non-Arabic climate change coverage—it nevertheless indicates the somewhat asymmetrical understanding of climate change communication in the Arab region.
Freeman, however, argues that English-language newspapers such as Qatar Tribune, the Kuwait Times, the Gulf Daily News, and Khaleej Times nevertheless offer “a glimpse into how the country’s leaders view a topic because many of the sources are likely to be from the government” (Freeman, 2016, p. 9). Another study argues that within the emerging market of English newspapers in the UAE some publications (e.g., The National) are “realizing that the old system of uncritically reporting news in deference to political and business elites is no longer adequate if the papers want to be considered a player in the media market” (Pejman, 2009). For that reason, non-Arabic news media may offer a starting point for gauging the depth of climate change reporting in the Middle East.
Furthermore, it could be argued that the existence of non-Arabic and émigré media is a distinctive trait of the Middle Eastern media system since it serves a large expat population particularly in the Gulf, as well as a considerable immigrant population in the United Kingdom and the United States (Jarrah, 2008; Mellor, 2007). Thus, non-Arabic language media is an intrinsic part of the Arab media system, and ignoring this aspect would be a missed opportunity to understand how the elite in the Middle East communicate about climate change and environmental matters; not least because these non-Arab media, in general, enjoy a larger degree of press freedom and sometimes pursue different journalistic goals and strategies. As one of Egypt’s English magazines explains, “The difference between English and Arabic coverage of such issues is that between breaking a story and covering an issue in-depth.” This is followed by quote from a representative of an Egyptian NGO that claims, “Whereas, occasionally, the Arabic press will just touch on the news or report a specific event, it has yet to engage in investigative journalism when it comes to environmental issues” (Viney & Sarant, 2013).
The quote illustrates what has elsewhere been described as a disparity in journalistic norms between English and Arabic-language newspapers (Duffy, 2013). However, it also indicates why non-Arabic publications such as Al-Ahram Weekly, The Daily Star, and L’Orient le Jour are sometimes counted among the region’s most respected newspapers (UNDP, 2003, p. 66).
Apart from questions of language, there are other limitations to the data on climate change communication in the Middle East. Most studies are limited to a single country (e.g. Egypt) or a smaller group of countries (e.g. the Levant, the UAE). Some studies are furthermore restricted to media coverage of international climate summits (Saleh, 2010, 2012) or other international trigger events (Eskjær, 2013), which risk losing sight of more ordinary climate change reporting. Saleh, however, argues that: “global media events such as the COP15 Summit can be a fruitful context in which the voiceless can be heard” (2010, p. 174) in a region where the climate change affected (often the urban and rural poor) have few means to communicate their experiences. Finally, a number of studies are based on comparative data, which offers a larger perspective on Arab climate change communication but also, for obvious methodological reasons, has a limited analytical scope (Eskjær, 2009, 2013). In methodological terms, content analysis has been a preferred method in several studies although frequently supplemented by more qualitative approaches.
Thus, our present knowledge of climate change communication in the Middle East is primarily based on geographically and temporarily restricted snapshots of how the Arab press covers climate change. It points to a fundamental lack of interregional and longitudinal studies that trace changes and developments in Arab climate change reporting. Due to this limited research literature, the article will draw on studies of Arab environmental journalism (which is almost as limited as Arab climate change communication) but also refer to discussions of Arab media in general, in order to consider potential implications for climate change communication.
Communicating Climate Change in the Middle East
The earliest investigations focusing specifically on climate change communication in the Middle East seem to date back to the time around COP15 (Eskjær, 2009; Saab, 2009), although a few environmental reports prior to COP15 had touched upon issues of both climate change and environmental communication. In particular, the pan-Arabic environmental magazine Al-Bia Wal-Tamnia [Environment and Development] has published important findings from pan-Arabic environmental surveys. Al-Bia Wal-Tamnia became a precursor of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), which was formed in 2006 as a platform for individual and institutional subscribers to the magazine. AFED has since become a leading environmental think tank in the Middle East as well as an important source on climate change communication.
In 2000 and 2006, and with the support from inter alia UNEP, Al-Bia Wal-Tamnia conducted surveys on public perceptions of the environment in the Middle East. The resulting Arab Public Opinion & Environment Reports showed a mixed picture of public attitudes to the state of the environment (Saab, 2000; Tolba & Saab, 2006). Based on self-administered questionnaires distributed to all member states of the Arab League (resulting in a somewhat skewed sample, especially with regard to gender and education), the surveys demonstrated that a majority of respondents experienced a deterioration of the environment, while the rest of respondents (between one third and one fifth) found the environment to be good or improving.
Although the surveys contained no questions relating to climate change, the 2000 survey referred to environmental degradation due to man-made changes. In addition, the 2006 survey inquired about favorite sources of environmental information. It showed that newspapers were the main source of information followed by TV, magazines, and the Internet. Given the elitist nature of Arab newspaper consumption (Pintak, 2010) and the then extremely low Internet penetration in the Middle East, these findings clearly reveal the bias of the survey. At the same time, the figures may reflect the available sources of environmental communication at that given moment, illustrating the limited amount of environmental information in the Middle East. Nevertheless, given the difficult conditions of polling public opinion in the Middle East, managing to conduct a survey on environmental matters, and thereby offer the Arab public an opportunity to have “its environmental voice heard” (Saab, 2000), must be considered a quality in and of itself.
The Inconsistency of Climate Change News
Commencing in 2008 AFED has produced annual environmental reports on a diverse range of topics, including water, food security, green economy, and sustainable consumption. Apart from providing scientific data and analyses, the reports offer recommendations to Arab governments. Unsurprisingly, these reports frequently touch on questions of climate change and environmental communication. The first report titled “Future Challenges” (Saab & Tolba, 2008) devoted a chapter to each topic noticing that the Middle Eastern media’s preoccupation with climate change appears to have increased by 2007 due to the coincidence of the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report (2007) but also due to an increase in extreme weather phenomena across the Arab region. In general, however, the report found that environmental news was primarily concerned with topics of waste, pollution, nature, and wildlife rather than climate change (Saab, 2008a).
More importantly, the report pointed out some of the structural constraints of Arab environmental journalism, which also affect climate change communication. While television is by far the most popular medium throughout the region, environmental news constitutes less than 1% of Arab news programmes. Environmental sections in newspapers are frequently scraped in favor of political news, and less than 10% of newspapers have a full-time environmental editor. There are hardly any pan-Arabic magazines specializing in climate change and the environment, and reliable local information is almost nonexistent. There is, moreover, a clear tendency to quote and transmit news from foreign news agencies, mainly in relation to world events and catastrophes. The consequence has been that “the Arab media treatment of environmental issues lacks follow-ups, and is characterized by immediate descriptive content rather than analysis and even accurate information” (Saab, 2008a, p. 188). Commenting on these conditions, the author of the report blamed Arab environmental journalism of amateurism and lamented the absence of a “special identity of Arab environmental media” (Saab, 2008b).
In 2009 the annual environmental report by AFED was dedicated to the impact of climate change in the Middle East and included a survey about Arab public opinion toward climate change. In general, data indicated a high degree of public concern but also some interesting variations and nuances. For instance, while people in the Gulf were more preoccupied with climate change than their neighbours in the Levant, they were considerably more satisfied with how their governments were addressing climate change. Another interesting finding was a mild disconnect between perception and understanding of climate change: “among the 98% who agreed that the climate is changing, between 5-10% did not understand why” (Saab, 2009, p. 6).
The most concerning aspect, however, was a relatively high degree of respondents (14% on average but as much as 27% in Syria) who found that although climate change was a serious problem it did not affect their own country. According to the report: “This reflects the general trend of approaching climate change in Arab media and by politicians as a global issue, with little being discussed about local implications” (Saab, 2009, p. 2). It also points to editorial practices in Arab news media with important consequences on public apprehension of climate change: “Arab public perception of climate change is largely derived from international media in the absence of real work in the countries of the region to identify local and regional ramifications of the climate threat and make them available to the public” (Saab, 2009, p. 9).
The predominance of international news at the expense of local (and arguably more relevant) news on climate change becomes even more striking when compared with climate change reporting in other regions (Eskjær, 2013). In general, countries with extensive reporting on climate change also feature a high degree of domestic climate change news. It reflects a situation where climate change increasingly has become inseparable from other policy issues but also editorial decisions of rendering climate change relevant to media users by covering local, national, and business news relevant to questions of climate change.
The limited domestic news on climate is a token of how climate change has yet to be integrated into the political agenda in many Arab countries. It reflects a situation where climate change has only been half-heartedly adopted by the authorities and in need of being “mainstreamed” (OECD, 2005; World Bank, 2010, 2013) into national and local policies and across multiple development sectors.
Intra-regional Variations and Tendencies
The different surveys clearly indicate that the Arab public is not at all unaware of climate change and other environmental problems. However, most observers also agree that the major challenge in the Arab region is to transform public opinion into political action. According to Saab (2000) it primarily relies on human agency and action: “It begins with each individual until it finally reaches decision makers and becomes government policies.” According to Waterbury, however, it is rather a question of political economy: “Awareness, in the absence of positive or negative economic incentives, will not lead to public pressure for policy change” (Waterbury, 2013, p. 21).
To what extent the findings of the early surveys by Al-Bia Wal-Tamnia and AFED still reflect the present opinion is difficult to assess, as there have been few follow-up studies or subsequent pan-Arabic investigations. A survey on sustainable consumption in 2015 showed that public concern over climate change has increased 5% among respondents (now at 88%) since the 2009 survey (Gelil & Saab, 2015, p. 72). The survey also revealed a similar increase in respondents finding that the environment has worsened, which appears to corroborate similar recent findings (Wodon et al., 2014, p. 94).
Other recent studies of climate change communication have been more detailed and geographically limited. These studies indicate that in some parts of the region media attention to climate change seems to have decreased or even “collapsed” due to political unrest and civil wars following the Arab Awakening (Saleh, 2012). In other regions, most notably the Gulf, the picture has been almost the opposite. Whereas most part of the world experienced a peak in climate change reporting in 2009 in relation to COP15 (Schäfer, Ivanova, & Schmidt, 2011), the picture in the Gulf region is somewhat different. In an investigation of newspapers from the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), Freeman finds that “coverage has not been consistent” in any of the sampled newspapers (2016, p. 10). In the case from Kuwait, climate change coverage peaked in 2010, while in the UAE it happened in 2011 and 2012, and in Qatar in 2012.
The reasons for this inconsistency may be attributed to the political mechanisms of the Gulf region. Reinisch claims that “the monarchies of the UAE are constantly developing new ‘sources of legitimacy’, which include both press freedom and environmental concern” (2010, p. 10). In a similar manner Pejman (2009) argued that environmental issues is an area where newspapers in the UAE are carving out a space for more investigative journalism. From a more political perspective, Waterbury finds that climate change and environmental affairs constitute a political area with a certain degree of freedom and political influence:
The epistemic communities assembled around environmental issues is increasingly large and influential … Because, so far, they have not been regarded as politically threatening, they are having increasing influence over policy-making in the environmental area. (2013, p. 19)
However, to what extent increasing influence of interest groups on environmental issues will be linked to any increase in public communication on climate change is by no means evident, given the general “opaqueness” of decision-making in Arab states (Waterbury, 2013, p. 14). Thus, despite certain “openness” toward environmental matters in some parts of the Middle Eastern press, the overall impression is still that climate change reporting is a rather marginalized news topic.
Discursive Variation and Composition of Sources
A recurrent finding in studies of climate change news in the Middle East is a limited discursive variety in terms of journalistic genres, thematic orientation, and quoted sources. Generally, there is an orientation toward international news in Arab climate change reporting. Consequently, climate change tends to belong to hard news, with a focus on international politics and international climate change negotiations. One study found newspapers in the Levant (Jordan Times, The Daily Star, L’Orient le Jour) to rely on a political angle in a ratio of approximately 2:3, while the corresponding ratio in Western newspapers is around 1:2 (Eskjær, 2013).
The same study found that a considerable amount of climate change coverage in Middle Eastern papers consists of short paragraphs rather than full-length articles and that a clear majority of articles are provided or copyedited from international news agencies. The numbers indicate a relatively limited editorial priority, but probably also reflect a lack of resources. It underlines the findings by AFED (Saab, 2008a), which showed that less than 10% of newspapers had an environmental editor.
One of the major regional differences in climate change reporting is the lack of soft news in Middle Eastern climate change coverage. There are hardly any cultural reviews or ad-hoc references to climate change. This could, of course, be considered an example of “focused” news reporting, which cut through superficial news on climate change. However, another interpretation suggests that it is a token of how climate change still has not become integrated into the cultural vocabulary the same way as in Western media (Eskjær, 2013). Here climate change is a widely used symbol denoting all sorts of malice, from human hubris to end-of-the-world visions (Hulme, 2010), illustrating how the climate change discourse has become a handy mediation of different risk perceptions.
Editorials and op-eds on climate change feature regularly in the Arab press, which on the face of it indicates a certain level of public engagement. However, contrary to what could be expected these opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect local voices or concerns. One study found that non-Arabic language papers mostly published views and opinions by world leaders (e.g., Kofi Annan, Ban Ki Moon), international scholars (e.g., Joseph Nye) and global opinion-makers (e.g., Bjorn Lomborg). Thus, op-ed sections seem to follow the general pattern of climate change reporting in the Middle East by mostly presenting international news about international relations and quoting international sources and international news agencies (Eskjær, 2013).
Looking more specifically at sources in Middle Eastern climate change news, it appears to vary according to publishing houses, targeted readership, and the political situation. When climate change reporting is sparse, for instance during the Arab spring, the use of sources also becomes extremely limited (Saleh, 2012). Another variation is that English newspapers in the Gulf region differ from the rest of the region by mostly quoting scientific sources followed by government officials and business representatives (Freeman, 2016).
In the Arab-language press the picture is somewhat different and less unequivocal. Here political sources dominate in line with the general orientations toward a political framing of climate change (see, e.g., Saab, 2008a). However, the distribution of national and international sources varies slightly. Studies of Egyptian media such as Al-Ahram, Al-Masry Al-Youm, and Nile-News suggest that international political sources dominate domestic politic actors, especially in TV coverage (Saleh, 2010). Another study from Egypt suggests that representatives from the national political system are actually the most widely used source, although the combined numbers of foreign and transnational sources still constitutes the greater part (Saleh, 2012). However, it is noteworthy that a slight majority of these foreign sources were from the Global South. It may reflect Egypt’s traditional political affiliations and identifications with the Arab League and the G77, which represents Egypt in international climate change negotiations. The latter also implies the somewhat odd alliance between G77 and OPEC, which automatically affords the OPEC countries a considerable voice within the international climate change regime (Barnett, 2008).
Saleh finds examples of critical and balanced used of sources as when scientists are questioning climate change scenarios that suggest Egypt will benefit from a raise in global temperatures. In general, however, the figures indicate that Arab climate change reporting “is driven by national elites and their viewpoints” (Saleh, 2012, p. 52). Both Freeman (2016) and Saleh (2010) also note the general absence of female sources in Arab climate change reporting.
The Dilemmas of Public Attention
Surveys conducted by AFED suggest a high degree of public concern with climate change, which in turn could indicate potential public pressure for policy change. Studies of newsroom priorities, however, point to editorial restraints and limited public interest in environmental matters, thereby questioning the ability of the media to pressure decision makers. Even AFED recognizes the limitations of the news media in raising public engagement as long as climate change reporting is marred by editorial redlines and failure to render climate change relevant to locale media users (Saab, 2008a, 2009).
The situation becomes even more delicate when considering regions such as the GCC countries, which often hold large expatriate populations that are, in some cases, close to 80% of the inhabitants. Many migrants live in a state of “permanent impermanence” under the so-called Kafala system (Ali, 2010), which is a “sponsor”-system based on “structural dependence between an employer and a migrant worker” (Khan & Harroff-Tavel, 2011, p. 294). The system leaves migrants wholly dependent, economically as well as legally, on the employer who regularly confiscates passports on arrival and sometimes withholds salaries (Economist, 2013, 2016). Under such vulnerable conditions, and since migrant workers are primarily seeking economic security, they have little, if any, interests in engaging in politics, environment issues, or climate change in their new contemporary home (Pejman, 2009). Consequently, “There is little demand for the improvement of freedom of speech and environmental issues, since a vast majority of residents are transient and have little incentive to ‘stick their necks out’ for civil rights or environmental protection” (Reinisch, 2010).
Another problem lies in the general social and political vulnerability of the region. In many cases climate change can be expected to increase existing socio-ecological crises such as drought, migration, and resource depletion. Consequently, the adverse effects of climate change can either become indistinguishable from other effects (e.g., overgrazing), or they may become so common, widespread, and hence “naturalized” that they are unlikely to generate significant political or public reactions: “Climate change will bring about gradual, albeit negative effects. The effects will be hard to distinguish from processes already underway and to which Arab societies have become accustomed” (Waterbury, 2013, p. 23). Given these circumstances it seems improbable that media reporting in its present shape will mobilize any significant action against climate change.
There have been a few but scattered attempts at providing theoretical interpretations of Arab climate change reporting. Saleh calls for a postcolonial approach to Arab and African climate change news arguing that Western standards of journalism are insufficient in the context of the Global South. Applying Western norms only leads to fluctuating climate change reporting, which either focuses on scientific controversies or employs a “power action frame” obsessed with power struggles among the elite and national expert systems. It brings about “coverage of crises rather than chronic social problems” and fails to link “the global scientific concern with climate change to local political realities and everyday level action” (Saleh, 2012, p. 60). Without a postcolonial sensibility climate change journalism will only obscure the underlying problems and causes, which are ultimately linked to “the unequal geography of global capitalism” (Saleh, 2012, p. 51). It thus requires that “apparently universalistic ethical standards, arising sometimes from Western ethnocentricity about the critical dialectic between truth-telling, empowerment and human dignity” needs to be re-interpreted “in the actual geopolitical context” (Saleh, 2012, p. 51).
This seems to suggest specific Middle Eastern norms of journalism, or what has elsewhere been referred to as “culture of journalism.” The concept suggests that journalism should be considered “through the lens of culture” rather than conceived according to predetermined notions of profession, institution, or craft. Such a re-orientation will provide a way to capture international variances of journalism based upon “shared reliance on meanings, rituals, conventions, symbol systems and consensual understandings” (Zelizer, 2005, p. 201). Various studies have tried to map different cultures among journalists based on surveys of journalists’ role and norm perception (Willnat, Weaver, & Choi, 2013). Some findings indicate “the existence of a distinctive journalism culture in the Arab world” (Hanitzsch et al., 2011, p. 282) consisting primarily of a combined interventionist ideology and a more traditional watchdog attitude.
This idea of an Arab “culture of journalism” sometimes manifests itself as a more or less coherent opposition to Western journalistic norms. Pintak’s (2010) investigation indicated a prevalent perception among Arab journalists and editors that Western and Middle Eastern journalism operates on different levels while striving toward the same goals of objective news reporting. Pejman quotes similar views among Arab news editors who reject Western standards when it comes to personalizing systemic failures and blaming official representatives: “You cannot make public figures, hate figures. There are ways of establishing accountability without going that route” (2009, p. 7).
The question is, however, whether there is reason to suggest a distinctive Arab or postcolonial “culture of journalism” when it comes to climate change communication. Should we assume that environmental journalism is guided by universal norms and values? Or do we have to accept regional conditions and variations? On the one hand the idea of journalism cultures resonates with Saab’s observation that the region lacks a “special identity of Arab environmental media” (Saab, 2008b). On the other hand, it is less clear what such an identity would entail. Since climate change communication frequently involves scientific information, the idea of a special Arab environmental identity seems to imply regional standards of scientific journalism, which would be a rather extraordinary proposition given the universal norms of the scientific system. It nevertheless points to important and largely untouched questions of journalistic norms and role perception in global climate change journalism.
Saleh also suggests another and less abstract explanation. He argues that the inequalities in Arab societies undermine a common ground from which the media can mobilize action against climate change: “One essential obstacle in developing convincing and useful narratives about climate change … is the cumulating inequalities both between an within countries” (Saleh, 2010, pp. 55–56). According to Saleh inequalities result in polarization and erosion of mutual trust, which prevent engaging climate change communication. Again, it must be considered to what extent such an interpretation can be extrapolated to the rest of the region or whether it should be considered an analytical starting point rather than a full-fledged theoretical proposition.
Finally, it should be mentioned that theories of comparative media systems have informed a couple of studies on Middle Eastern climate change reporting. The assumption is that regional media systems, including Arab media, condition climate change reporting, and that a comparative approach is best suited to reveal this. Comparative studies, for instance, demonstrate a significant difference in discursive variation and public engagement in Arab media, which often depend on an elitist and clientelistic press, compared to commercial media systems outside the region (Eskjær, 2013).
New Media; New Climate Communication
Recent political developments in the Middle East do not bode well for the development of the region’s climate change communication. First of all, the region continues to be plagued by political unrest and turmoil. This tends to effect the media landscape, resulting in less freedom of expression and more partisan media, which is less conducive to independent climate change communication.
Lynch points out how traditional news media in the Middle East are falling back to a rather traditional pattern after a few years of innovation and enthusiasm following the democratic reforms of the Arab Spring. With reference to Egypt, Lynch argues that “the momentary unity of the postrevolutionary media quickly degenerated into a polarized, sensationalistic, and toxic environment that fostered the worst political trends” (Lynch, 2015a, p. 95). In such an undemocratic media environment engaging and consistent media attention to climate change is less likely to occur.
The problem, however, runs deeper. Already in 2011 Najib Saab from Al-bia Wal-Tanmia answered “survival” when asked about the magazine’s plans for the future. He continued by pointing out some of the broader challenges facing environmental and climate change communication in the region:
The present situation is not easy. We have to work very hard to keep environmental issues high on the agenda and separating these issues from PR stories. At the same time minimal scientific research is being conducted. The biggest hurdle is finding credible data because most projects are financed to collect and not generate data. Much more investment in serious research is required.(Tassebehji, 2011)
Since then the general political situation in the Middle East has only deteriorated, leaving even less room for environmental news. According to the Fragile State Index, by 2016 the region included five among the worlds’ 40 most fragile nations compared to just two a few years earlier, when the positive effects of the Arab Spring could still be felt (FFP, 2016).
There are, however, signs of a less gloomy (albeit hardly promising) picture of climate change communication in the Middle East. Although written before the recent political backlash, Saleh finds a “new flavour of press and media dynamic” due to the proliferation of new media platforms and news outlets (Saleh, 2010, p. 172). News can no longer be suppressed the way it has in the past, thanks to online technology, which also allows for new sources and voices in the climate change debate.
Digital media represent a new and important opportunity for climate change communication to take hold in the region, although there have been no studies to assess its scope and impact in the Arab world. Apart from Al-bia Wal-Tanmia’s and AFEDs online presence, other sites and blogs have emerged, which among other things run an achieve of environmental coverage (Schoenfeld, 2016). It proves that climate change is not kept entirely off the table, despite the region’s political turmoil.
Awareness-raising campaigns about climate change are also taking advantage of online and social media. IndyAct, a Lebanese NGO, is running an online climate change campaign, which has included a web-based petition in relation to the People Climate Change March during COP21. Moreover, AFED is providing online teacher-training kits and educational material to be part of curricula in Middle Eastern schools. In addition, several newspapers, particularly in the Gulf, contain an online environmental section. Finally, legacy media, and occasionally television, are taking up environmental matters. Al-bia Wal-Tanmia has, for instance, assisted LBC (Lebanese Broadcast System) and Al-Jazeera in putting the environment on the agenda of political talk shows (Tassebehji, 2011).
Yet the overall impression is still that climate change communication in Middle East and Arab countries is severely limited and facing a number of structural constraints, including a constant danger of disappearing from the public agenda due to the sometime explosive nature of Middle Eastern politics. Compared with other more pressing environmental concerns, such as the Lebanese waste crises or the region’s chronic water shortage, climate change also seems to be receiving less media attention.
Even more limited is scholarly literature on climate change communication in the Arab world. This applies as much to legacy media as to new digital communication technology. As this article has indicated, climate change is not only representing a challenge to the socio-ecological environment in the region but also to the ability of Middle Eastern media of providing contextualized and engaging climate change reporting without overstepping editorial boundaries. Following the development of climate change communication in the Middle East therefore promises to offer valuable lessons and insights about climate change communication in a conflict-ridden and politically unstable region.
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