Copenhagen Watch: Disarray in Denmark?

With its first leaked document, the climate summit warms up

The big news out of Copenhagen yesterday was the leak of an informal agreement drafted by the Danish government. The document aims for the scientifically recommended target of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, but has drawn widespread criticism for placing stricter emissions-reduction requirements on developing nations than on developed ones.

“The Danish Text,” as the Guardian—which first published the document—dubbed it, provoked many worrisome headlines in the media. The Sydney Morning Herald, to take but one example, carried three separate headlines announcing that the text had led to “disarray,” “sparked outrage,” and “thrown the summit into confusion.” It’s hard to tell because we aren’t there, but these headlines may have been somewhat sensationalistic. Most of the criticism appears to be coming from activists rather than other delegates, and evidence of real disarray is lacking. A headline in The Australian reported, “Poor nations threaten to walkout on Copenhagen deal,” but the article itself reveals that they did no such thing [Update: Politico reports that the chief negotiator for the G77 - a bloc of 130 developing nations - “stormed out” of climate talks on Friday, announcing his opinion that the negotiations were “not going well.”]:

Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, a Sudanese diplomat who speaks for the Group of 77 developing countries, said the draft was a “serious violation that threatens the success of the Copenhagen negotiating process.”

“The G77 members will not walk out of this negotiation at this late hour because we can’t afford a failure in Copenhagen,” he said. “However, we will not sign an unequitable deal. We can’t accept a deal that condemns 80 per cent of the world population to further suffering and injustice.”

Admirably following up on its initial scoop, the Guardian ran a concise, level-headed assessment of the text’s significance and the Danish delegation’s efforts to “patch things up after the leak”:

[T]he document dates back to November 27. It is as such already old news in terms of the now ongoing negotiations… Danish officials are trying their best to play down the significance of the paper in question.

However, the document does raise problems when it comes to the Danish hosts’ ability to remain neutral during the complicated and probably difficult process of getting the developing world to agree to an economic deal with the developed world. This is not the kind of publicity Rasmussen and his team have been looking for – far from it…

Now, before the real negotiations have actually begun, it would appear that the Danish government has been trying to establish some kind of underlying consensus among the big western players. This will not warm the delegates from the developing world to the already cold and wet experience of being in Copenhagen, and certainly not make Rasmussen’s already difficult task any easier.

The Danish hosts now need to come clean about their intentions.

More news outlets should be striving for reports like this, which provide important context and analysis while avoiding blanket statements about outrage and disarray. An interesting story from Bloomberg reported that the plan was never officially “on the table,” but that summit participants were concerned about negotiators working about outside the formal United Nations process. They may not have to wait long, however.

As Los Angeles Times reporter Jim Tankersley pointed out Tuesday, the leak signifies that “it’s time for the bargaining-table leaks to begin, as veterans of past climate summits will tell you.”

The other big story, which broke Tuesday before the leak of The Danish Text, was the U.N. World Meteorological Organization’s release of an analysis which found that the current decade is likely to be the warmest since instrumental record-keeping began in the 1850s. That auspicious announcement followed another one: the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) official declaration Monday that carbon dioxide endangers public health. The so-called endangerment finding clears the way for the agency to regulate around 13,600 major emitters across the United States, although its director, Lisa Jackson, and the Obama administration have made it clear they prefer that Congress pass legislation to address emissions.

The connections to the U.N. climate summit are, of course, clear. Reuters reported that the EPA’s ruling “sent a message to the world” that the United States is committed to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The Wall Street Journal’s Ian Talley argued that it give the U.S. “leverage in its negotiations” at Copenhagen. But few if any articles have come out of Copenhagen analyzing the endangerment finding’s impact there. That may or may not change after Jackson’s speech at the summit today. [Update: Greenwire reports that Jackson told journalists Wednesday that the summit wasn’t the EPA’s “impetus” for the endangerment finding.]

Writing about the World Meteorological Organization’s temperature analysis, however, The New York Times’s Andrew Revkin and James Kanter observed that “it was the gulf between rich and poor nations, not the science of global warming, that dominated talks here on Tuesday as delegates fretted about different pieces of draft language for a new climate treaty [The Danish Text mentioned above] circulating in the halls.”

Indeed, political battles over details of possible agreements will become more prominent with each passing day. Revkin and Kanter filed another piece Wednesday about delegates “racing among the booths and offices of countries large and small, comparing competing ‘nonpapers’ — sections of the proposed text with no official existence — in the quest to hash out a realistic draft of a new climate agreement by the weekend.”

While climate science may not have been a big topic of conversation inside the conferences halls, it was certainly conspicuous in the media. A “skeptics conference” taking place nearby the U.N. climate summit got limited attention, but many articles coming out of Copenhagen are still making some mention of the controversial e-mails hacked from a British climate research center two weeks ago, as well as the arguments they engendered about climate science.

The most egregiously dimwitted of these was a Wednesday op-ed in The Washington Post by Sarah Palin. The former vice presidential candidate argues that the “scandal calls into question the proposals being pushed in Copenhagen.” Palin doesn’t evince any knowledge of the process there, however, and delivers one of the most simplistic assessments of the controversy so far:

The e-mails reveal that leading climate ‘experts’ deliberately destroyed records, manipulated data to “hide the decline” in global temperatures, and tried to silence their critics by preventing them from publishing in peer-reviewed journals. What’s more, the documents show that there was no real consensus even within the CRU crowd.

The charges are, respectively, wrong, out of context, wrong, and wrong (please refer The Observatory’s initial review of the controversy to understand why; or see Marc Ambinder’s factcheck of Palin’s op-ed at CNN anchor Campbell Brown’s special report on the e-mails did much better (parts one and two are on YouTube). At least she called guest Chris Horner on his unsubstantiated allegation that the e-mails are indicative of widespread “fraud” within climate science. And she got Steve McIntyre, an object of scorn in the e-mails, to concede that he isn’t opposed to “practical” climate and energy policies. Yet Brown’s interview, which also included climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer, was still too polarized to be informative (one wonders why CNN’s John Roberts, who was in England investigating the e-mails and participating via satellite, didn’t moderate the interview); a more helpful explanation of specific points of controversy in the e-mails was provided in a video report by Brooke Baldwin, however.

Most other articles coming out of Copenhagen have now pushed the e-mails to their bottom halves, but one hopes that the reporters there will soon move on. Reporters at home can continue delving into the hacked e-mails story, but journalists in Denmark should merely bear in mind the questions they raise about scientific and political review processes and apply them to their coverage of the summit. Although he filed from Washington, D.C. rather than Copenhagen, John Broder’s front-page article in The New York Times on Wednesday about the “price tag” of a climate deal is a good example of nuanced reporting that attempts to answer some important and timely questions.

Meanwhile the Copenhagen conference has become a “trending topic” on Twitter, a gauge of popularity on this social media site along with topics like “Tiger Woods” and “Santa” (we kid you not). Following the Twitter threads (try #Copenhagen or #COP15) provides a quick Rorschach test of how the social-media crowd feels about the conference. There is, of course, much hand-wringing about the Danish text leak: “First we had the Danish cartoons. Now we have the Danish text. What’s wrong with this country?” wrote a distressed @danish_novelist.

But others quickly dismissed the leak as much ado about nothing. A popular RT (retweet) came from @drgrist: “What to make of the “leaked draft” in #Copenhagen? Like most ‘news’ out of #COP15 for next 2 weeks it is a nothingburger.” @drgrist is, of course, David Roberts, a Seattle-based blogger for Grist. His longer post on the leak is an irreverent putdown of the “journo-hype” that results from thousands of herd media jumping on every twist and turn in Copenhagen:

The place is choked with journalists, not to mention folks from think tanks and NGOs who are supposed to be blogging. There are thousands of people crammed in a small area, all under instructions to update frequently with fresh news, all exhausted and stressed out, all hungry for something to write about… Every bit of pre-positioning gossip and bluster will be blown up to billboard size. There is, in short, immense incentive to exaggerate the significance of every piece of ‘news.’ Keep that in mind as you wade through the deluge of stories over the next two weeks. It’s a marshmallow puff with a few nuts inside; when all’s said and done, nobody will remember much of it. The only story of lasting importance is the shape of the agreement forged at the end.

Grist is part of an interesting experiment in digital collective journalism under way in Copenhagen dubbed the Copenhagen News Collaborative. Liberal-leaning media like Mother Jones, The Nation, and Treehugger have banded together to create an alternative newswire aggregating Copenhagen coverage from about forty reporters, editors, and commentators. Publish2, which pioneered this platform, explains how to go about constructing “the Web’s largest newsroom.”

A handy guide on “How to stay up to date with #COP15 #Copenhagen” using social media comes from @earthsite, a group that provides “new-media” strategies for green businesses. It links to the official Web site for the conference, hosted by the Danish organizers, which provides social-media opportunities in addition to the standard fare of program, documents, and speeches. The U.N.’s Web site, hosted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), also has opportunities for “virtual participation in COP15”. It provides a convenient menu of choices, including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter (@UN_climatetalks, @COP15), Flickr, and Google Maps.

There are also some catchy gimmicks for citizen participation, including casting an online vote urging world leaders “to seal a fair and effective climate deal,” or sending “Climate Greetings” via a virtual postcard that conference organizers are displaying on large screens throughout the conference venue. A running slideshow of the more than 9,000 messages to date is available on the conference Web site. They run the gamut, from a fierce Tongan prayer (“O Vanguard of the Climatariat, smite the denialists and lead the masses. O forward-looking shepherds of a mindless flock, go forth and cool the earth”) to a more casual American greeting: “Okay, guys, this climate thing is serious. Please do what’s right for future generations, not for ourselves.” It’s signed, ahem, “Ernest W. Cooler III.”

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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.