Copenhagen Coverage Watch: “Hopenhagen?”

After weeks of pessimism, coverage of summit opening shows optimism

As delegates from 192 countries descended on Copenhagen for the start of the United Nations climate treaty talks today, the general mood seems to have turned decidedly upbeat. After downplaying the chances for a binding agreement at the international confab in recent weeks, today’s media coverage swung in the other direction, with references to “Hopenhagen” alongside headlines like “Obama’s timing boosts hope for major deal on emissions” and “Hopes increase for a credible climate deal.”

The cautious optimism reflected the announcements by the U.S., China, and other nations of preliminary plans for cutting back carbon emissions, and President Obama deciding to join more than 100 other heads of state at the conclusion of the two-week conference, “a signal that the agreement was getting closer,” wrote the Associated Press’s Arthur Max. The original goal of the conference was to produce a binding international agreement to drastically reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions. Most delegates now acknowledge that the meeting will produce only a framework and that a formal agreement will have to wait until next year. U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer pushed hard for governments to dig deeper in their pockets and deliver bigger financial pledges to help poorer countries adapt: “Time is up,” he said.

Meanwhile, the media issued a mind-boggling array of opening stories—and strong commentary—on what’s at stake in Copenhagen. A front-page story in the influential Financial Times trumpeted a new analysis by U.K. economist Nicholas Stern that government pledges on greenhouse gases “would be almost enough to reduce emissions to levels that would hold global temperature rises to no more than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.” The Wall Street Journal today published a twelve-page special report with its own take on a range of issues, from “who’s going to pay” to “who wants what in Copenhagen.”

Nonetheless, the lengthening shadow of “Climategate” hangs over the summit. Over the weekend, New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt responded to charges that the paper was “mishandling” the story and that its environment reporter, Andrew Revkin, “has a conflict of interest because he wrote or is mentioned in some of the e-mail messages that the University of East Anglia says were stolen.” Hoyt dismissed both arguments, concluding that the hacked e-mails are not a “three-alarm story” and the Times has covered them “appropriately.” On Monday, the paper published its second front-page article about the controversy, under the headline “In Face of Skeptics, Experts Affirm Climate Peril.” The piece reported that there is widespread agreement that “the premise [manmade global warming] underlying the Copenhagen talks is solid.”

Newspapers worldwide are pushing for strong action. In what the BBC called an “unprecedented display of uniformity,” fifty-six newspapers in forty-five countries carried the same editorial in twenty languages, urging world leaders to forge an agreement. “The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history’s judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it,” the editorial stated. “We implore them to make the right choice.” The Guardian, which made climate coverage one of its priorities, took the lead in coordinating the editorial; the paper’s deputy editor, Ian Katz, published a fascinating and detailed account of the process on Sunday:

“Given that newspapers are inherently rivalrous, proud and disputatious, viewing the world through very different national and political prisms, the prospect of getting a sizeable cross-section of them to sign up to a single text on such a momentous and divisive issue seemed like a long shot,” Katz wrote. Over the course of numerous drafts, however, the Guardian was able to resolve various concerns: “[O]ur Polish colleagues wanted an acknowledgment that poorer new EU countries should not have to bear as much of the coming burden as ‘Old Europe’; our Indian partner suggested that the argument reflected a “lopsided” developed world perspective and needed to say more about what the rich world must do; a Chinese editor wanted to flag the importance of addressing “exported” emissions – those created by the rich world increasingly consuming goods manufactured in developing countries.”

Not all countries jumped on board, however. “Anyone studying the list of newspapers behind the editorial will quickly spot one glaring gap: the absence of any first-rank US paper,” Katz pointed out. “A number of major US titles evinced support for the project, even conceding that they agreed with everything in the editorial, but stopped short of signing up, leaving the admirably independent-minded Miami Herald as the sole representative of the world’s second biggest polluter.”

Editorial bandwagoning is not what readers need right now, however. They needs aggressive reporting over the next two weeks that avoids wild mood swings between “new hope” and “no hope”—as the late Washington Post reporter Victor Cohn once put it—and find the middle ground. Although it is impossible to round-up the myriad articles that have already been written (Google News returned 5,420 results at press time) about the summit’s opening, here is some notable work:

The View from the U.S.

The New York Times had a diverse package on Monday. In addition to its front-page article about the “Climategate” affair, the paper ran an editorial stressing the importance of negotiations “beyond Copenhagen,” a a pair of op-eds by climatologist James Hansen and economist Paul Krugman offering a point-counterpoint on the value of cap-and-trade, and an article about security preparations for the summit. Online, the Times has a couple novel graphical presentations: a primer titled “Who’s At the Climate Talk, and What Do They Seek?” and “Climate Change Conversations,” a bulletin board focused on eight major issues at the summit (climate science is garnering most of the comments so far). Over the weekend, the Week in Review carried a primer on the hot issues likely to make tempers rise in Copenhagen.

The Wall Street Journal ran a special report on the environment, focusing largely on Copenhagen. The lead article offered a “blueprint” for resolving what will be a key point in negotiations: the developing world’s insistence that industrialized countries help them deal with the expected impacts of climate change, from increased flooding to drought and disease. There is also the requisite primer on “Who Wants What in Copenhagen” and a lengthy Q&A-style story, “What Global Warming?”, offering useful responses to some of the most common arguments made by skeptics of man-made climate change.

The view from the U.K.

• The BBC News rounded up “divergent opinions” about the conference from columnists and reporters around Europe. Also, the network’s seasoned environment correspondent, Richard Black, provided a quick rundown on what to look for in Copenhagen.

Financial Times correspondent Fiona Harvey outlined the signs for guarded optimism, while in the same paper U.K. economist Nicholas Stern made an impassioned plea for businesses and governments in rich countries to “speak up and show where the true global interest lies,” calling the summit “the most important international gathering since the second world war.” The Financial Times created a homepage dedicated to all of its Copenhagen coverage.

• Last week, the Guardian’s John Harris drafted a useful list of “who’s who” among the treaty negotiators from Europe, the U.S., and developing countries like Papua New Guinea. Here is the paper’s page dedicated to its Copenhagen coverage.

• The Telegraph’s Matthew Moore compiled a short glossary of key organizations at the summit. Here’s is the paper’s page dedicated to its Copenhagen coverage.

The view from the developing world

• A briefing paper for reporters covering COP15 (the summit’s official title) from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), a London-based non-profit that is helping journalists from developing countries cover the conference.

• The Climate Change Media Partnership rounds up coverage by forty journalists from developing countries who are part of a non-profit fellowship program to improve climate-change media coverage in Asia, Asia-Pacific, Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Latin America, including reporting on the Copenhagen summit. The site also features a useful resources page.

•, a non-profit news site dedicated to covering science and technology in the developing world, is hosting what promises to be an informative blog focused on the Copenhagen summit.

Other resources

• The official Web site of COP15, with news links, resources, and more.

• The U.S. State Department’s official Web site for the Copenhagen summit.

• The Society of Environmental Journalists has an excellent Copenhagen resources page, with information about attending and covering the conference as well as links to major news reports and primary sources of information.

• A Twitter list of some journalists covering the summit.

• The American Geophysical Union is hosting a 24/7 e-mail service to answer reporters questions about climate science during the Copenhagen summit. Around 650 Ph.D-trained climate scientists are participating in the project, with groups of three to five serving two-hour shifts around the clock.

• The Center for Public Integrity’s special report on the Global Climate Change Lobby.

• A Copenhagen Primer (pdf) from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

• Although it is not specifically focused on Copenhagen, News University recently launched a four-hour, online course on covering climate change taught by Tom Yulsman, an associate professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication, where he co-directs the Center for Environmental Journalism. The site also recently featured a course on covering the green jobs debate.

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Curtis Brainard and Cristine Russell are CJR contributors. Brainard is the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.