How the Media Takes Us All On a Climate Treaty Roller Coaster Ride


Hopes Fade for Global Climate Deal. Then Brighten. Then Fade. Then ...
As the global climate debate continues, we're all subjected to a lot of headlines that declare things like this: "Hopes Fade for Comprehensive Treaty in Copenhagen" and "No Climate Treaty Expected". But then, there are stories like these: "Climate Treaty More Doable" or "Officials Hint at Progress Negotiating Climate Deal". Very different messages, indeed. But what do all these stories have in common? Each was published on the same day--and some even in the very same newspaper. Take for example two stories running in the NY Times online today--both are about the prospects of reaching a climate deal at COP15 in Copenhagen. While not technically contradictory, they trumpet very conflicting messages. And one key difference is, the story about 'hopes dimming' is on the Times' front page. The one about making progress is relegated to the science section.

Two Climate Treaty Stories, Two Conflicting Messages--One Newspaper
Just look at the contrast:

Here's the the front page story that reports 'Hopes Fade for Comprehensive Climate Treaty":

Also unresolved is the financial structure of any international climate accord. The wealthy nations have agreed in principle to support low-carbon growth in the developing world and to help those countries hardest hit by climate change to adapt. But the amounts of money, the programs and the countries that would qualify for that support and for cost-sharing among donor nations are highly contentious issues unlikely to be settled at Copenhagen.
And yet ...

Meanwhile, the Science page story notes that progress is being made:

At a news conference after the meeting, officials from the United States and Britain rejected the idea that a deadline set by the world's countries to negotiate a new climate agreement by December would slip ... Mr. Miliband said there was growing accord among nations at the meeting on the level of aid required to help poor countries withstand threats resulting from climate change and adopt less-polluting energy technology.
If you were to read just the first, you'd think the prospects were doomed, or at least nearly doomed. If you read the second, they seem to be working it out.

Anatomy of a Climate Treaty Story
I think people tend to forget that all these negotiations are just that--talks between real live people. When a day's discussion goes poorly, it can temporarily cast doubt on how someone views the prospects for the whole thing. After such an obstacle, one is more likely to say something like "a comprehensive treaty seems unlikely by December."

Hence, a bad day can yield headlines like "Hopes Dim for Climate Treaty," and a good one "Progress is Made on Climate Treaty." Or feasibly, even a discouraging conversation in the morning, and a constructive one in the afternoon. Stories that appear in the Times or the BBC or the Washington Post or wherever are based on quotes and conversations from the top players in the negotiations, and these damning-or-encouraging stories are spun largely out of how these men perceive the talks to be proceeding at any given moment.

Which is why, depending on who you talk to, you can spin four or five factually accurate but thematically contradictory stories out of the same events, and report them on the same day. So it's discouraging--and even counterproductive--to see sweeping statements forecasting the failure of a global climate treaty so prematurely.

You Can't Predict the Climate Treaty Outcome
And that's why it's important not to get too caught up in the roller coaster ride of such declarative headlines. Things change, and they change fast. In Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book the Black Swan, he notes that you could read every single newspaper and magazine at a newsstand, and still be unable to predict what's going to happen tomorrow.

And this applies to the climate debate--we simply can't predict what's going to happen. There was no evidence a week before that Lindsey Graham was going to announce he would work with John Kerry to breathe new life into a bipartisan climate bill--but that happened, and it changed the game.

And as IPCC Chairman Dr. Rejendra Pachauri himself told TreeHugger, there are still plenty of developments yet to occur: "People will reveal their positions at the time of Copenhagen ... nobody wants to reveal their national card, so to speak ... You'll probably get some fairly encouraging actions."

So let's not get too concerned with whether hopes are rising or falling every day--let's look at the concrete details of agreements forged (whenever there are any), note the debate's developments but keep the big picture in mind, and refrain from declaring whether a treaty is impossible just yet. There's still plenty of time for any number of surprising developments to surface.

More on the Copenhagen Climate Treaty
Countdown to Copenhagen
What Will Happen After COP15 ? Three Possible Scenarios
COP15 : What It Means If We Fail to Prevent Climate Change

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