Copenhagen Watch: Haggling at Halftime

With scoops hard to come by, journalists converge on the latest rifts

“The battle of the drafts has begun,” The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin announced at the top of her Friday article about the international climate treaty negotiations taking place in Copenhagen, Denmark. A proposal by an official U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ad-hoc working group and another by a group of small island states were the big news on Friday. “[T]here was a mad rush by reporters to get their hands on the texts,” Eilperin added in a post at the paper’s Post Carbon blog:

The document center wouldn’t give them out to anyone with a press pass, so journalists had to plead for hard copies from their sources. One reporter complained about the situation at a news conference today held by the UNFCC executive secretary Yvo de Boer, who runs the talks.

“Well, people seem to be getting really good at leaking in this place,” de Boer quipped, referring, among other things, to the unauthorized distribution earlier in the week of a Danish draft plan.

Thankfully, the Post was able to acquire the draft UNFCCC (pdf) and group of small island nations (pdf) proposals, and posted them online. The former calls for limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, suggests a range of emission reduction targets for developed and developing countries alike (from 25 to 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2020), and calls on developed countries to provide “fast-start” funding over the next three years to help developing countries deal with climate change. The draft proposal from forty-three small island nations calls for limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and sets a goal for developing nations to reduce their emissions by “at least 45 percent” by 2020 while they make “significant deviations from baselines.” [Update: The Guardian reports that the UN draft has failed to “win over” developing nations and that delegates have made “little progress on key issues such as finance for a deal, despite [its] publication.”]

With leaks of the first official draft proposals and delegates settling into serious negotiations about key points, it is a shame that there haven’t been more explanations in the media about how the treaty process actually works. One of the only examples was a wonderful primer that BBC environment correspondent Richard Black posted at his Earth Watch blog on Wednesday, which explained the four groups handling key “tracks” at the summit: a new agreement for “long term cooperative action,” the existing Kyoto Protocol, implementation of any new agreement, and science and technological advice.

Black followed up with another excellent post on Thursday that discussed other channels for news gathering, and commented at length on the reporting challenges inherent in such a large conference. It is the best assessment of the journalist’s dilemma in Copenhagen that we’ve seen yet and worth quoting at length:

Most of the real deals are done behind closed doors guarded by security guys with stern faces and impressive pectorals.

That’s where the important countries and blocs reveal more of their real demands, where trades are bartered between national delegations.

Reporting it is a nightmare.

Who do you know who might have an insight? If the answer is “no-one”, then who do you know who might know someone who might have an insight, and have their mobile number to hand?

Once you connect with that person, can you trust what they’re telling you? Are they spinning you a line, and if so, what might the reason be?

Over time, you build up relationships with certain delegations and with people close to certain delegations, and you work out a kind of modus operandi that gets you some of the information you’ll need.

In smaller gatherings that I’ve reported on - such as some of the fisheries meetings, where far fewer than 192 countries are represented and many of them are bit-part players - you feel reasonably confident of having a line on everything important that’s going on.

Not here; it’s impossible. Some journalist somewhere knows something you don’t, you can guarantee that; and you just hope it’s not more important than the thing you know that they don’t.

What most journalists want to know right now, of course, is how much money rich countries are willing to spend to help developing countries deal with the dangers of global warming. On that front, there have been no major scoops. Scores of outlets covered George Soros’s suggestion that $100 billion from the International Monetary Fund be used to support developing countries. An even greater number of outlets homed in on U.S. lead negotiator Todd Stern’s comment that China’s is too flush for it to merit financial assistance from the West (a position China called “irresponsible”).

The other big, money-matters story was the European Union’s announcement that it would pledge $10.6 billion over the next three years to help developing countries’ adaptation efforts. The BBC reported that all twenty-seven EU member countries would contribute to a “fast-track” fund, which would help poorer countries cope with rising sea levels, drought, and deforestation between 2010 and 2012, while reducing their own carbon emissions. The European contribution represents roughly one-third of the total $10 billion per year recommended for fast-start funding, but China and many other developing nations have “scoffed” at the low figure, according to Reuters.

United Kingdom prime minister Gordon Brown and French president Nicolas Sarkozy banded together in a press conference in Brussels, announcing that their two countries would take the lead, with at least $2.4 billion between them spread over three years. “What we are seeing today is a very significant move forward in the search for a Copenhagen agreement,” the BBC reported Brown as saying. While European leaders said they hoped the new EU pledges would give a boost to final negotiations at the Copenhagen summit (and push other countries to put more money on the table as well), the BBC’s Black added a note of reality from Copenhagen:

… although EU leaders believe they have a credible finance proposal, it is by no means certain that all developing countries will see it as enough, even if the EU figures are matched by countries such as Japan and the US. Particularly among some of the poorer African countries, there are demands for a lot more money considerably sooner, our correspondent says, and whether they accept these figures will depend on what else is on the table in Copenhagen.

Later, Agence France-Presse quoted U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer’s response: “One of the things that has been holding this process back is lack of clarity on how short-term financial support is going to be provided to developing countries…. And the fact that Europe is going to put a figure on the table will, I think, be hugely encouraging to the process. We will then have to see what other rich countries are going to put on the table.”

The underlying tension at the summit is the longstanding divide between the countries most threatened in the short-run by climate change and the wealthier countries that have historically put the most man-made greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. At the UN headquarters in New York, member countries this week upped 2010 funds for emergency disaster relief in anticipation of more extreme weather events linked to climate change. The Financial Times reported that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pushed for more humanitarian aid in the UN’s emergency relief fund, to $424 million for 2010. But the FT said Moon will continue to push even harder for developed countries to make a big committment to the “fast start” adaptation fund: “When I attend the Copenhagen conference next week, I will stress that climate change is already affecting millions of people worldwide every year through more frequent, intense and non-seasonal floods, storms and droughts,” he told the UN conference in New York.

Some of the best all-around Copenhagen coverage is coming from the British press corps, which is attacking the story not only on the front lines, but also in rich behind-the-scenes blogs of what it’s really like to cover a big international zoo of a meeting. In addition to the BBC’s Black, another U.K. insider’s view comes from Guardian environment editor John Vidal, who created a media stir this week when he broke the “Danish Text” story. Vidal’s chatty daily diary from Copenhagen is worth a quick read:

The longest text floating around the COP15 meeting here on day five is the full list of people formally accredited to the summit. The figure is 30,123 but this does not include the 5,000-odd media, the business and financial conferences, or the hordes at the parallel alternative summit. The biggest government delegation? Brazil, by a mile, with over 1,000 people, followed by Denmark (800), the EC (400) and China 250. The US, surprisingly, has only 200 people, and the UK a discreet 70.

But even better, for its quirky sense of humor, is an entertaining seven-minute video of the shaky-hand, verite style, as Vidal walked around the Bella Center (where the conference is being held) earlier this week and explored the arcane acronym-filled world of BINGOS (business NGOs), RINGOS (research and independent NGOs), and TUNGOS (trade union NGOs). Don’t even ask about ENGOS. Looking at a globe, Vidal pointed to the U.S., which, he wisecracked, will be “bullying” and “twisting the arms” of delegates in Copenhagen. “What America wants America tends to get,” Vidal concluded.

Even the host country’s official COP15 Web site is plugging press tours outside the Bella Center to promote the “the best of what Denmark has to offer in sustainables and climate-friendly solutions” (the free bicycle transportation seems to be a big hit, too).

On the social media front, tweeting from and about the meeting is huge. A novel online tool for tracking the Twitter Copenhagen conversation (hashtags #COP15 or #Copenhagen) shows that daily tweets topped 8,000 on Wednesday and Thursday and today, as of 2:30 p.m. EDT, they were already at 6,400. The easy-to-navigate Need4Feed Web site from Purdue University offers the latest in Twitter analytics for Twittaholics (you know if you are one), including a live Twitter thread and a rundown of the most popular tweets and tweeters. So far, the Need4Feed “awards” for most popular go to tweets from big institutions, with the official COP15 site, @COP15, at the top (it has more than 11,000 Twitter followers), followed by the World Wildlife Fund, @WWF_Climate, the U.N., @UN, and Greenpeace, @greenpeace.

By far the number one individual tweeter on the topic of #Copenhagen is @cuddlendance. This unusual character is listed on his Twitter bio as Pradeep K. Verma, a retired physician from Vancouver (BC), Canada; on his, well, odd Web site, Verma attributes what he sees as public inertia to climate change to “ignorance and fear fatigue,” confusion, disinformation, and denial. With Verma’s more than 1,500 Copenhagen tweets, little wonder that there is such a glut of comments on this topic on Twitter.

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.