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Much ado about a napkin

Friday night in Copenhagen for everyone who had come for the climate talks – whether you had come to participate in the talks, to host an ancillary event to have your voice heard, or to publicly demonstrate against the process perceived by many as unfair and corrupt – was surreal.

At the vast Bella centre where the talks were held, sleep-deprived, jargon-fatigued, confused, and frequently demoralized politicians and reporters slogged late into the morning hours to forge a piece of paper that from the start had been labelled both as humanity’s last chance to save itself and a political sham. Working so hard on something potentially so meaningless must have been a strange experience.

For me the most surreal, unforgettable moment came not when the accord was signed, but when it wasn’t. I didn’t learn something eye-opening about climate change or about global politics, but about the most powerful news organization in the world and their endorsement of the political equivalent of a napkin to the entire world.

Sitting at the internet-equipped press table at the alternate Klimaforum09, I was thrashing out a piece on the tar sands while a gypsy folk band played in the main hall and people danced and drank the last night of the fortnight away.

Grumpy, tired, and focusing on an issue that can easily leave you feeling overwhelmed and depressed, I tried to shut out the sounds of the party. Its very existence utterly baffled me: what is there to celebrate? The deal hasn’t been signed, and even if it had, it is highly unlikely to satisfy anyone serious about tackling climate change in a socially just way. The juxtaposition between the gloomy news threads reporting continual deadlock at the Bella, the devastating images of the tar sands on my computer screen, and the uproarious music and cheers from downstairs was truly surreal.

My gloom was broken suddenly by shouting and cheers from a group of American members of NGOs sitting next to me: 'There it is, there it is!'

'There’s what?'

'The deal – they signed the deal. This is fantastic, just fantastic Check out the New York Times.'

There it was, a New York Times piece: 'President Obama announced here on Friday night that five major nations, including the United States, had together forged a climate deal.'

It seemed utterly improbable. How could something have been signed this early? Sceptical, I checked the news sites of several other main news organizations. Nothing. No pieces criticizing the 'deal', examining it – or even reporting its existence.

'It’s not perfect, but he did it, Obama broke the deadlock,' said one of the Americans, smiling broadly, and cheerfully scrolling through the piece. 'We did it! This is so much better than I had hoped for. Just shows what perseverance can come to.' Two others high-fived.

As the deal was not the concern of the article I needed to finish, I decided to focus on my own work; I skimmed the piece, but kept several other mainstream news sites open and waited for their coverage. Curiously, nothing appeared on any of the websites I trust – most notably the Guardian’s - by the time I shut off my computer several hours later.

Published the next day, The Guardian’s first piece on the accord makes for an interesting comparison: 'Low targets, goals dropped: Copenhagen ends in failure' reads the headline.

Describing the 'deal' that prompted such elation in my American neighbours the previous evening, The Guardian notes that the 'weak outline of a global agreement' was only signed by five countries, would continue to be scrutinized and debated through the night, and 'it was unclear whether it would be adopted by all 192 countries in the full plenary session.'

The final piece describing the accord in The Guardian – published a day later after more details (meagre as they were) had been worked out and more countries (few as there were) had signed – is headlined: 'Copenhagen closes with weak deal that poor threaten to reject.'

The first sentence – the most important sentence in any piece, and the only one that very many readers will bother to read – from the main article in the Times of London, is markedly unoptimistic in comparison to the New York Times: 'The United Nations climate change summit ended last night without setting any emission reduction targets.'

So what had happened? Why the publication in the New York Times so many hours before any other major news outlet – and why the optimism?

In short: negotiations were deadlocked. Obama came to the conference on the last day and selected four key countries – China, India, Brazil, and South Africa – for a conference. They agreed to a preliminary accord that featured no emission reduction targets, no specific details on finance, but merely a simple recognition of the fact that global temperature rise needs to be kept to 2C.

This 'deal' was the political equivalent of a napkin. The napkin would then need to be debated, negotiated and signed by 190 other nations, and could change throughout.

Obama’s media team then held a press conference about this napkin, which the New York Times quickly noted would still be subject to scrutiny by the rest of the UN, but 'might not need ratification by the entire conference.'

Analyses of the final 'Copenhagen Accord' in The Guardian, the New York Times, and elsewhere all note that the treaty is non-legally binding, sets no specific emission reduction targets or timelines, is shady at best on financial details of transfer of technology and funds to developing countries, and dropped many of the most important clauses necessary to avoid 'runaway' climate change, such as an 80 per cent overall drop in emissions by 2050. There is little reason to describe the conference and its conclusions as a success, and a thorough diary and analysis of COP15 in this publication as 'appalling - not worth the paper it was hastily photocopied on.'

What I found fascinating from my last night in Copenhagen was not the length of the talks, nor the 'weak' and 'unfair' nature of the 'accord.' It was that the most powerful and influential news organization in the world, in the race to be the first past the gate to publish (an unfortunate by-product of the transition to online publishing), reported on a napkin deemed by others to be too premature to be worth reporting.

And that they did so based first and foremost on a press conference held by the White House, rather than waiting to see how the rest of the world would respond.

And that this article – by the most powerful news organization in the world – conveyed an overriding sense of achievement, optimism, and American leadership. A typical reader, without the time or desire to read through an entire piece, could easily come away with the general impression that the deal was signed, that America had brokered it, and that it had been a success.

Granted, those sitting near me – and around the world, reading the most powerful news organization in the world – who were most excited by the initial accord may have waned in their enthusiasm over the coming days as the analyses showed the weakness of this document. But only those interested in taking the time to read through the sticky, mathematical and legal details.

But the fast and Whitehouse-friendly publication is interesting indeed. And it reminds me of other fast and Whitehouse-friendly publications: the premature assertion of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

I’m definitely not an a fan or advocate of conspiracy theories – I’m definitely not implying deliberate collusion or an attempt at confusion.

But I do find this interesting.

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