Dull news from Doha

UN climate summit a ho-hum affair for the press

The United Nations climate-change summit that began in Doha, Qatar, on Monday has so far been a ho-hum affair for the press.

Most American news outlets didn’t even bother to send a correspondent, reflecting a general decline in attendance at the annual meeting by North American and European journalists. Coverage may pick up as the two-week confab wears on, but as The New York Times’s John Broder reported from Washington, it “promises to be a more staid affair than the three previous sessions”:

Despite the occasional chaos at Copenhagen, CancĂșn and Durban, negotiators achieved a number of significant steps, including pledges by most major countries to reduce their emissions of climate-altering gases, a promise by rich nations to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 to help more vulnerable states adapt to climate change, a system for verifying emissions cuts and programs to help slow deforestation.

The delegates in Doha hope to firm up these promises and create the concrete means to fulfill them.

As Todd Stern, who has has been the United States’s chief negotiator at the talks since 2009, explained to The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin (who was, like Broder, telereporting), Doha is “a translational climate conference.”

Much of the work there will focus on extending the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which expires this year. It is the globe’s only legally binding plan to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, but it applies only to industrialized nations and exempts developing economies like China, which is now the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Reuters’s Alister Doyle reported from Doha that:

Most countries favor extending the 1997 Kyoto pact. But Russia, Japan and Canada have pulled out, meaning that Kyoto backers are down to a core led by the European Union and Australia that account for about 14 percent of world emissions.

Drop-outs say it is meaningless to extend cuts under Kyoto when big emerging countries have no curbs on rising emissions. The United States never ratified Kyoto, for similar reasons.

At the summit in Durban, South Africa, last year, negotiators agreed to draft an entirely new climate-change treaty by 2015 that would go into force in 2020, but with three years to go until the deadline, newsworthy progress seems unlikely. Meanwhile, emissions continue to rise, and if anything is dramatic about the UN summit, it is the lack of urgency there, especially where the US is concerned.

With president Barack Obama talking about global warming again, climate activists in Doha were “cautiously optimistic” on the eve the conference that the US would be “more than a disinterested bystander,” according to a piece filed from Qatar by The Associated Press’s Karl Ritter. As the talks began the following day, however, Ritter reported that US delegate Jonathan Pershing was doing little more than defending the country’s “enormous” efforts to slow global warming. An article by Reuters’s Doyle added that Pershing also rejected a plea from poor nations that the US make steeper emissions cuts, saying that the country wills stick to the 17 percent reduction below 2005 levels by 2020 that Obama committed to three years ago.

That alone won’t be enough to stave off the impacts of climate change, however. A variety of articles mentioned a UN Environment Programme report released a few days before the start of the meeting, which reported that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has increased 20 percent since 2000. To keep warming within the 2-degree Celsius limit agreed upon in 2009, global emissions will have to start falling before 2020—a tough, but not impossible task, according to the report.

It wasn’t the only admonition that world leaders need to get moving.

On Tuesday, the UN Environment Programme released a second report, urging negotiators to consider the vast amounts of greenhouse gases that could be released from rapidly melting permafrost in the Arctic. According to the AP’s Ritter, the World Meteorological Organization’s Secretary-General hit a similar note the same day, citing record sea-ice loss in the polar North this year in a statement released at the summit that said, “Climate change is taking place before our eyes.”

Indeed, sea levels are rising 60 percent faster than projected by the world’s leading authority on the matter, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, according to yet another report released in Doha, this one by a team of European researchers.

Despite these dire warnings, and the efforts of correspondents like Doyle and Ritter to cover them, Doha has so far been a humdrum story in the Western media. No front-pagers. No cover stories. No major broadcasts. Just fiddling while the world burns.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , ,