Mar 1 2001

Rare, Not Well-Done

U.S. coverage of climate change talks

In November 2000, delegates from over 160 countries met at the Hague to decide how best to achieve the pollution reductions mandated by the Kyoto climate treaty, the 1997 protocol to combat global climate change. The talks failed spectacularly, in large part because of the U.S.’s obstructionist stance.

Within the U.S., news coverage of the talks was extremely sparse, and at times misleading. Despite the high stakes involved in global warming, and the U.S.’s central role in it–both as the most powerful country at the negotiating table and as the world’s biggest polluter–there’s a good chance that Americans relying on mainstream U.S. media remain unaware of the anti-environmental demands made in their name.

None of the three major television networks followed the progress of the Kyoto negotiations on their nightly newscasts, though NBC did air a story after the talks failed (11/25/00), and briefly noted the talks’ failure again on their Sunday Today morning show (11/26/00). CBS Evening News (11/25/00) summed up the global climate talks in a two-sentence report on their collapse, concluding simply that “the U.S. and the European Union each blame the other” for the impasse at the Hague. CBS‘s only other coverage of the talks had been a lighthearted mention on the Early Show (11/23/00) of protesters throwing a pie at U.S. negotiator Frank Loy.

ABC‘s lone mention of the issue (11/24/00) seemed almost accidental, when the negotiations came up in World News This Morning‘s weekly chat with the managing editor of the Financial Times. CNN addressed the story several times on Ahead of the Curve (11/20/00, 11/22/00, 11/23/00, 11/24/00, 11/27/00), and PBS‘s NewsHour addressed it once (11/29/00). These few reports represent the extent of mainstream American television coverage of the Kyoto talks.

Compromise or con game?

U.S. print media did a better job, but still not a good one. Overall, print coverage downplayed the intensity of international and environmentalist criticism of the U.S., and gave few specifics about which U.S. negotiating positions were causing controversy.

Of major U.S. newspapers, the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and USA Today devoted the most attention to the story. Excluding short “news briefs” and including opinion pieces, the New York Times ran 14 stories on the talks in November, the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post eleven each (with the majority of the Post‘s news pieces in the Finance section), and USA Today seven.

The foreign press paid more consistent attention to the talks, and covered them with significantly greater attention to detail. The London Times, Independent and Guardian each ran more than 20 articles in November dealing with the climate talks and their implications. In marked contrast to the U.S. press, most of the European articles presented what were described as obstructionist U.S. tactics as central to the story. Here’s a sampling of headlines from overseas, all from November 20:

  • “Gas-Guzzling U.S. Under Fire at Global Warming Talks” (Agence France Presse)
  • “U.S. Blamed for Climate Treaty Talks Deadlock” (London Daily Telegraph)
  • “Climate Talks Fail to Close Rift with U.S.” (London Guardian)
  • “U.S. Blocks Attempts to Cut Global Warming” (London Independent)
  • “Pollution Pact Under Threat as America Is Accused of Con Trick” (London Times)

On the same day, the New York Times presented a quite different take on how the talks were going: “U.S. Move Improves Chance for Global Warming Treaty.”

What pro-environment move was the New York Times referring to? The Kyoto agreement requires the reduction of fossil-fuel emissions like carbon dioxide that contribute to global warming, of which the U.S. is by far the world’s largest producer. The “new stance” that the Times celebrated was the U.S.’s new willingness to compromise on its highly controversial demand that it be allowed to count forests as major credits in meeting the emission-reduction targets mandated by the protocol.

Since vegetation absorbs carbon dioxide, the reasoning goes, the U.S. should get points simply for not cutting down its existing forests. Counting such “carbon sinks” as emission reductions would allow the U.S. to skip many of the more expensive and inconvenient environmental measures the Kyoto agreement proposes, like redesigning industry to reduce pollution at its source. Essentially, the U.S. went from insisting on a measure that would allow it to sidestep emissions reduction requirements, to agreeing to negotiate on it.

While papers like the London Times (11/20/00) described this U.S. proposal as one that “threatens to derail” the entire Kyoto conference, putting the U.S. “at loggerheads with Britain and the rest of the European Union,” the New York Times (11/20/00) went to some length to portray the U.S. as a constructive partner in the talks, saying that the U.S.’s “new stance” will “brighten prospects” for the Kyoto treaty’s finalization, and that “despite outward discord,” delegates “seemed poised for compromise.”

As the talks progressed–or failed to progress–the U.S. stance became even more controversial in Europe: The London Guardian headline, “U.S. Berated for Wriggling Out of Treaty Pledges; EU Fury Grows as Americans Try to Exploit Loopholes” (11/22/00), captures the tone of much of the European press.

Dueling targets

Carbon sinks weren’t the only contentious issue at the Hague, but they were perhaps the most central and inflammatory one. The original U.S. proposal asked that all 310 million tons of carbon dioxide absorbed annually by U.S. forests be counted toward the U.S.’s Kyoto reduction commitment. In the new proposal greeted so optimistically by the New York Times, the U.S. announced that it would settle for 125 million tons of carbon sink credits (Independent, 11/27/00).

The London Daily Telegraph (11/22/00) reported that after examining this new American proposal, the European Union found that, far from being a genuine compromise, the plan (of which carbon sinks were only one aspect) would actually have allowed the U.S. “to increase its emissions of greenhouse gases by 8 percent, instead of cutting them by 7 percent by 2010 as it is required to under the Kyoto treaty.” The London Observer (11/26/00) reported the same statistic, adding that “if this formula were accepted, it would have meant that Sweden and Finland would be allowed to increase their fossil fuel emissions by up to 40 per cent.”

Rejecting the 125 million ton plan, the EU suggested a credit of 7.5 million tons—an offer overlooked by much of the U.S. press—which the U.S. in turn rejected. Eventually, under the auspices of conference president Jan Pronk, an 11th-hour deal granting the U.S. 50 million tons of credit was proposed. Friends of the Earth International, an environmental group critical both of the U.S. stance and the Pronk plan, estimated in a press release that even “on a strict reading” of the Pronk plan, global emissions could “rise by more than 5 percent” by 2012, thus accomplishing “the exact opposite” of the Kyoto treaty’s original target for world emissions reduction of 5.2 percent (11/24/00).

All of the EU member countries except for Britain rejected Pronk’s plan as a regressive capitulation to American interests. The talks collapsed.

This rather crucial piece of information–that according to many estimates, the U.S. was seeking to raise, not lower, its carbon dioxide emissions–was omitted from most U.S. newspaper accounts. Based on a search of November articles in the Nexis database, neither the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune or USA Today reported the EU’s finding that the U.S. “compromise” plan would have allowed America to increase carbon dioxide emissions.

Early on in the talks, however, the Washington Post did run one opinion piece (11/12/00), written by staffers from the World Wildlife Fund and the National Resources Defense Council, that condemned the U.S.’s “creative accounting” as “Orwellian” and estimated that the original U.S. carbon sink proposal could allow the U.S. to introduce “up to an 18 percent increase in emissions–and claim it had met its ‘reduction’ target!” The Post did little to examine this claim in any of its news articles, though the paper did once (11/25/00) quote French Environment Minister Dominique Voynet as saying that the Pronk plan “would actually end up increasing emissions, not reducing them.”

The Chicago Tribune also came close to evaluating what impact the U.S. proposals might have on emissions. The paper paraphrased Voynet’s criticisms of the Pronk plan in one article (11/25/00), but did not include further specifics on the possible emissions increase elsewhere in its coverage.

“Odd culprits”

The New York Times excluded from its coverage evidence that might have discredited official American assertions of the “practicality” of the U.S. position. Nowhere in the Times‘ coverage of the conference–all written by reporter Andrew C. Revkin–was there any mention of the charge that the U.S. was trying to increase its emissions.

The Times uncritically reported chief American negotiator Frank Loy’s claim that a plan incorporating carbon sinks was not only “both effective and cost-effective,” but also eminently practical, since it was the only plan likely to be approved by “a highly skeptical” U.S. Senate. In every article about the conference that he wrote last November, Revkin omitted the obvious critique of such assertions–that much of the world believes the U.S. carbon sinks proposals were neither effective nor practical, but were in fact a recipe for accelerating climate change.

So what did the New York Times attribute the failure of the talks to? “Part of the problem was a cultural rift” between Europe and America, explained Revkin (11/26/00). Because of the strength of industry-hostile Green parties in Europe, the EU “never found a way to compromise with the United States, where the environmental movement increasingly works with industries to bring change.”

Revkin elaborated this theme in the article “Odd Culprits in Collapse of Climate Talks” (11/28/00), in which he suggested that “a rift between branches of the environmental movement” was a decisive factor in the collapse of the talks. On one side were parties with a “pragmatic, if imperfect, approach” to combating climate change. On the other, “unyielding” environmental ideologues who subjected the U.S. to “vitriol.”

Revkin reported that the EU objected to the carbon sinks proposal as “a back-door way” to reduce U.S. emissions targets. True enough, but the EU also objected to the fact the U.S. proposals could reduce those targets so far that they became negative numbers. The effect of excluding this information from the article, and from the Times‘ overall coverage, was to make opposition to the U.S. appear ridiculous, leaving readers to wonder why European environmentalists were so unreasonable.

Europeans, for their part, may have wondered why Americans allowed their government to scuttle the Kyoto talks. Perhaps the explanation is that, thanks to the U.S. media, most Americans hardly even knew the talks were happening, much less what was at stake. The next round of the talks is scheduled to begin in May 2001.