Thursday, December 15, 2011

Durban: COP season 17, new episode

The editor of the Irish Times, Frank McDonald, writes "a personal take" in Nature on the Conferences of Parties (COP) in the past two decades, from Rio in 1992 to Durban in 2011. There is nothing spectacular about his view; instead, what I learned from this comment is the role that narratives play when we talk about climate. After reading this story, I asked myself: are we writing the story, or do we only follow a prefabricated script? I'll give it a try and turn reality into a TV series, based on Frank McDonald's script "Watching the players at the climate poker table".

The COPs resemble more and more "Madmen" or "Lost" or other successful TV series on HBO or elsewhere. Frank McDonald is the main actor, who travels restlessly from one COP to the next around the world. The storyline is based on scientific evidence - climate change is happening now. Diverse players such as powerful nations and small islands, heroes and villains, negotiators and advocates enter and leave the stage in ever new episodes, it is a developing story. They are "the players at the climate poker table", at stake is saving the world. And here a warning: in case you do not share McDonald's point of view,  be aware that your skeptical view is just another element in this entertaining series called "COP", now already season 17.

Here some of the ingredients that make up this developing story: main actors and ingredients are

a) the journalist - passing through different countries and climate zones, from Berlin to Bali, from Montreal to Durban;
b) the issue: climate change, as a distant threat in Berlin 1995 that has already turned into a reality. A reality confirmed by science, and which the journalist knows from personal experience: "anyone who has traveled in sub-Saharan Africa (as I have)..." knows that climate change is already in full swing;
c) expectations: back in Rio 1992, participants thought they would already have saved climate and species and everything else; instead, the issue became "his ticket to travel the world", and salvation or doom are at the end of the story, in a distant future...
d) negotiations and coalitions among often times unlikely partners; with India's environmental minister as a new big player in COP 17 and the EU seeking new partners among the small islands and Africa as the most recent development.
e) heroes and villains along the way. Angela Merkel was a hero when she just ignored the objections of Saudi-Arabia and the rules of the UN and "gavelled through the mandate that led us to the Kyoto Protocoll two years later".  And the late Don Pearlman was the villain in his role as the advocate of the oil lobby - even the Saudis asked him for advice.
f) hope and disappointment: Durban was another success along the way; the journey will go on even though "except in Europe, bigger countries still seem unwilling to take the steps required to respond to the science". But maybe Europe can...just watch the next episode!

As we all know, those series on HBO or elsewhere on TV depend very much on the interest of the audience. Each series has its ups and downs. This one already lasts so long that we have accepted it as a valid construction of reality.
Maybe we are all trapped in this story like Truman in the Truman show. Remember when he manages to flee from the studio, and when he rows away in his small boat on the open sea? Suddenly thunder, lightning and storm comes up - another gimmick staged by the studio. Truman shouts desperately: Is there nothing real in this world? From the off, the producer says: "Sure, there is: you are real."


richardtol said...

I was struck by the tone of the piece. McDonald is a journalist. He is supposed to be impartial.

Hans von Storch said...

Richard, why is he supposed to be impartial?

richardtol said...

Hans: journalists, like academics, are supposed to be objective, neutral, impartial, dispassionate (whatever word you prefer).

McDonald, who is the environment editor for the most influential newspaper in Ireland, is supposed to report the facts, or when facts are disputed, all sides of the story.

Werner Krauss said...

Richard, this one is announced as "a personal take", so it's decidedly a subjective piece. Nothing wrong about that, especially if announced as such.

And, by the way, in order to "report the facts", you have to (re-)invent them with literary techniques. There is no neutral ground from where you can "mirror" the going-ons. You have to make a choice which facts you want to present and how you are going to do that.

And in this case, it is obvious that we deal here with a real familiar script and a kind of "old-fashioned" view on COP; one that fits the "environmental bias" of much of "Nature" and science writing. (old-fashioned means untouched by any kind of "postnormal" or other critic which was uttered in the past five to ten years).

Hans von Storch said...


I would not share this view: journalists, like academics, are supposed to be objective, neutral, impartial, dispassionate. I expect journalists to tell their view of something, where they bring their different sources together and interpret them, certainly also in the context of certain world views. There are media with a clear political/worldview biases (would you expect the L'Osservatore Romano to be impartial vis-avis other religions?), and as long as this takes place in the open, I have no problem with that. What I find much more difficult to accept is stealth behavior, i,e, a claim of being impartial, objective etc, while pursuing goals using partiality, subjective assertions so that certain worldviews are gaining importance and power.

John M said...

Even if this is his "take", isn't this a strange way for a journalist to talk about the events and people he's "reporting" on?

"Brazil’s 1992 Earth Summit was in full swing, and when it closed it even seemed that we would manage to save the world from global warming, and species extinction too."


Werner Krauss said...

@ John M
great point, thanks for that. "We", that's what the politicians say, the scientists, the journalists, "Nature", the audience - "we", that's us who want "to save the world from global warming and species extinction".

As I said above, this script has turned into an accepted construction of reality. That's what I meant by comparing the COPs to a reality show. The journalist provides a script which creates a common "we" - humanity - on a common endangered planet. (The skeptics are part of this story, which needs its villains, too.)

The problem is not that this reality (and the "we") is constructed; the problem is that it is a bad and a totalizing construction, which neglects the conflicts, the uncertainties, the inequities and so on - and no one left to address them properly, because all are part of the show. And the main problem is, that this script does not provide real solutions for real problems.

Fortunately, "reality show" is only my metaphor for a certain attitude, exemplified by this journalist. In reality, there are indeed different voices, opinions and approaches among politicians, scientists, and so on. But one should not underestimate the manipulative power of this common narrative; there is indeed a bias even in official scientific journals like Nature, I guess. (They wouldn't have published a similar personal comment by a skeptic, I guess).

And one should not underestimate the effort it takes to find a place to speak outside of this shared "we"; it is not easy "to be objective, neutral, impartial, dispassionate", as Richard Tol suggests above - the problem is to find out what that means, and how it is to be achieved. What kind of (literary, representational) techniques do you need to depict the reality of COP (and the one of global warming) in a more adequate way? What does this mean in epistemological terms? To be objective, is only possible in specific cultural and political settings; objectivity is not something that is simply "there"; instead, it has to be achieved.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

very good pointing out the construction of "we" and what an effort has to be made to achieve a convincing account. Well, at least superficially -- it does not withstand the scrutiny of the likes of you ... and Richard.

the question about balanced reporting is a vexed one. There are no standards that apply across countries. When Max Boykoff said he had found the journalistic norm of 'balanced reporting' operating in US coverage of global warming, I did not find the same for Germany. Max later discovered that the norm was not operating in the US after 2003.
Ownership may explain to some degree: private media can say what they want, public media has to reflect a balance of opinion in society.
But in the UK all TV news is behold by the same norm, even where it is private.

oneillpt said...

To see the content and tone of Frank McDonald's writing it might be better to examine it in the Irish Times itself. Here are the first two paragraphs of his piece from Durban on November 28th (Irish Times 2011/11/28 McDonald):

"DURBAN 2011: AFTER ANOTHER year of extreme weather events, including October’s flooding in the Dublin area, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned global warming will cause even stronger storms, more heatwaves, droughts and wildfires unless steps are taken to curb the current trends.

Its latest report, Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters, released on November 18th, says scientists are “virtually certain” the world will have more extreme spells of heat, and fewer cold spells. Heatwaves could be as much as 5 degrees hotter by 2050 and even 9 degrees hotter by 2100."

I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to locate those references in the second paragraph to 5 and/or 9 degrees hotter in the SREX-SPM text (just avoid wasting too much time searching). Even the other item in that second paragraph, the "virtual certainty", is a reference to daily temperature extremes, not to hot or cold spells as reported by McDonald.

Unfortunately, as a regular reader of the Irish Times for more than 50 years, this is the standard of journalism which I have now come to expect in this area. Another example of what columnists have written (not by Frank McDonald in this case) is the scientific "insight" which I also tried to correct by letter to the editor, and also without success, at the time it appeared: "How would we measure success in Copenhagen? First, the science bit. Global average temperatures have increased by 0.8 degrees since industrialisation began. This translates to a world that has become 6.5 per cent warmer."