In Depth

Copenhagen Meet: A View From Afar

By Debra Kaufman

Although the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) will be a hot spot of debate about how the world deals with global warming, few U.S. journalists, local or national, will be on hand — partly because of tighter budgets and partly because the conferences have historically proven difficult to cover on-scene.

The meeting of policymakers, lobbyists and other interested parties will take place in Copenhagen, Denmark, from Dec. 7-18. It will be the 15th such conference since the 1995 Conference of Parties in Berlin.

“I wish we were going,” says KING-TV news director Mark Ginther, whose Belo-owned NBC affiliated station in Seattle is one of a handful in the United States to have a reporter dedicated to the environmental beat — Gary Chittim. “Being in Copenhagen would give us an edge. But it’s not in the budget.”

A trip to Denmark isn’t simply too big of a line item on the budget. Covering a cabal of international policymakers doesn’t jibe with a local TV station’s mission. “Copenhagen is too big of a stretch to try to localize the story,” says Jim Parsons, investigative reporter at ABC-affiliated WTAE-TV, a Hearst-owned station in Pittsburgh.

Jeff Burnside, special projects producer at NBC O&O WTVJ-TV in Miami, has closely covered environmental issues and climate change for many years, but he won’t be on a plane to Denmark in December, either. “Budgets have plummeted in local TV news beyond imagination,” he says. “We hardly have the money for an hour’s overtime, much less a trip to Copenhagen, and it’s really affected our ability to report.”

“We’re relying on the national media to bring the Copenhagen story back,” he says. “From there, we can localize it.”

Attending COP15 would be a natural for Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein, who has been covering climate change since 1998 when he joined Knight Ridder’s Washington, D.C., bureau. Although he hasn’t yet gotten the word from his AP bosses, he assumes he isn’t going. “I’m more of a science reporter than a policy reporter,” says Borenstein, who explains that AP’s Charles Hanley has covered the UN Climate Change Conferences for many years.

That underlines the fact that knowledge about climate change science isn’t enough to make sense of a United Nations Climate Change Conference.

“It’s all behind closed doors,” says Society of Environmental Journalists President Christy George. “You have to talk to people as they come out. It’s really difficult to cover, a real monster.”

“Copenhagen will be a zoo,” agrees National Public Radio science correspondent Richard Harris, who has attended UN Climate Change Conferences since 1992 and will be in Copenhagen. Harris says he “works the hallways. I find people I know, buttonhole them, and find out what they know and gradually build a story.”

New York Times science reporter Andrew C. Revkin notes the challenges in separating the spin from the truth. “Most of what you hear publicly is posturing and not substantive,” he says. “The forces at play behind closed doors can be lobbyists working for particular countries. The oil-producing countries are very influential in these talks, but they’re not really visible. Over the years I’ve tried to find people with access to particular delegations who can give me a sense of what’s happening.”

Climate Conference vets are going to Copenhagen with enough context to make sense of the proceedings. Harris isn’t optimistic about what he’ll learn there. “People who watch these things carefully think there is no way a meaningful deal will be cut there,” he says. “But [the participants] don’t want to work on a Plan B because that would admit defeat. If they don’t cut a deal and don’t have a Plan B, then it’s just a huge loss. And nobody wants this critical meeting to be a complete dud.”

That’s too much policy, politics and hype for journalists who focus on the science of climate change. ABC correspondent Bill Blakemore — who notes that his specialty is “the science of global warming and the science of the impact of that” — is still uncertain as to whether he’ll attend.

 "It’s possible, but I don’t know if I would be most helpful in Copenhagen or somewhere else, providing context and perspective,” he says. “It’s a topic to cover, for sure, but whether I’m in Copenhagen or doing stories around it is a detail.”