As the heads of state from 110 countries began to arrive at the United Nations summit in Copenhagen for the final high-level climate talks, news reports turned decidedly gloomy. Disorder and continuing uncertainty about the outcome of the negotiations reigned both inside and outside of the conference’s crowded Bella Center, according to media accounts. Police arrested hundreds of demonstrators, as journalists scrambled to cover the official and unofficial proceedings, struggling for some sense of the prospects for resolving the deadlock over key issues by the meeting’s close on Friday.

“Many leaders are already here; and the deals, reportedly, are already being done,” BBC environment correspondent Richard Black wrote on his blog. “I say ‘reportedly’ because we journalists are working in even more of an information deficit than previously. When two or three prime ministers have a conversation, the dribbles of detail emerge much more slowly and with far more spin than when the ordinary negotiators are involved.”

Perhaps it is inevitable that when hordes of media descend on an international gathering of historic importance, covering every twist and turn, the coverage tends to follow a somewhat predictable arc. In the weeks preceding the Copenhagen summit, officials downplayed the prospects for a legally binding agreement and news outlets’ coverage of that rhetoric took an accordingly pessimistic tone. When the conference opened on December 7, there was an optimistic upswing amidst all the talk of “Hopenhagen”. But with so much at stake for competing interests in different parts of the world, the negotiations bogged down.

Today, as high-level talks begin among heads of state as well as assorted ministers and delegates from nearly 200 countries, the press has returned to the old “gloom and doom” scenario.

“Gloom has started turning to doom here at a climate change summit where failure is becoming the expectation and breakthrough would be the surprise outcome,” began a Toronto Star online story, based on Associated Press reports from Copenhagen. “Such is the state of play here in Copenhagen. Hope rises, then it comes crashing down again,” the piece from Canada’s largest newspaper and Web site noted.

“Chaos at climate conference,” headlined a story on Politico.com. “The Copenhagen climate change conference appeared to be imploding from within and exploding from without on Wednesday,” the lede by Glenn Thrush began.

A headline in an Indian paper, the Hindustan Times, was similiar: “Chaos and Deadlock Mar Climate Summit,” with “procedural chaos and a deep rift over substance.”

The fluctuating mood swings showed up in coverage of UN chief Ban Ki-moon. “UN signals delay for long-term climate aid,” declared a giant four-deck, front-page headline in today’s U.S. print edition of the Financial Times. In an exclusive interview yesterday, the Secretary-General suggested that Copenhagen might not come up with the aid from rich countries that the poorer countries have long insisted was crucial here—“an admission” that, the paper’s Fiona Harvey said, could “potentially scupper a broad-based agreement.”

But scarcely a day later came a switch: “Hopes of deal to help Third World nations cope with global warming” trumpeted The Times of London’s online story. The paper reported that after a closed-door meeting with U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, “the U.N. Secretary-General raised hopes tonight of a long-term financing deal to help Third World nations cope with the effects of global warming - a move that could help rescue a UN summit trying to reach a wider climate change agreement.”

So we seem to be at the “can this marriage be saved?” stage of the summit, with only two days left to come up with a happy ending, a divorce, or—as seems likely—an agreement to hammer out the differences in 2010 with the help of intensive marriage counseling.
Here’s where things stood earlier today. Across the world, the message carried by the media was essentially the same: developing countries are putting the heat on world leaders to come up with more money for an emergency adaptation fund to help poor countries cope with climate change, while developed countries are insisting that major developing countries agree to binding agreements to cut down their own emissions. A good round-up piece by The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin sums up the chicken-and-egg aspect of the impasse thus far, and what’s at stake in the summit’s final days:

Delegates from poorer countries and from major emerging economies such as China have charged that wealthy nations have not put enough money on the table to persuade developing nations to sign on to any deal that would force them to curb their greenhouse gas emissions; industrialized nations counter that they cannot embrace any agreement that does not bind major emerging economies to emissions-monitoring procedures that can be verified from outside the country.

Curtis Brainard and Cristine Russell are CJR contributors. Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, our online critique of science and environment reporting. Russell, a CJR contributing editor, 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.