Cop Out in Doha

Local and international activists march inside a conference center to demand urgent action to address climate change at the UN climate talks in Doha, on 7 December 2012. (Photo: AFP - KarimJaafar)

By: Marc J. Sirois

Published Saturday, December 8, 2012

Doha - The latest “last chance” to save the world from climate change has wrapped up in Doha, and it was truly amazing to see how many governments and mainstream journalists devoted so much attention to looking the other way.

With few exceptions, apart from the host nation and some of its closest allies, the only countries represented by heads of state or government at COP18 – the 18th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – were the “have-nots” that some in the developed world seem more determined than ever to ruin.

By and large, the developing nations have a single core request: that the wealthier countries – those enriched not just by more than a century of rampant pollution, but by an even longer period of rape and plunder in the so-called “Third World” – help foot the bill, while the have-nots try to modernize their economies in an era of strict emission controls. The sum being tossed around for the past few years has been $100 billion per annum, a drop in the bucket for the top two or three dozen countries ranked by GDP, particularly when one considers that Superstorm Sandy – widely postulated as a harbinger of things to come – inflicted almost precisely that amount on the US states of New York and New Jersey alone.

But no. “Led” by the United States, most of the biggest polluters have adopted a mixed bag of tricks to stymie full implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, to block or ignore its extension, and/or to castrate any attempt at replacing it with a binding universal agreement. This kind of wriggling is not uncommon when it comes to multilateral treaties: countries sign but don’t ratify, ratify but don’t adopt the necessary enabling legislation, make such changes but then ignore their own laws, sign but then renege, etc. It makes for a surfeit of “buts,” none of them bigger than this one: every year they delay means nothing but more costs for all of us in the long run.

Surely the media, though – surely, that bastion of left-wing cats so often belled by the modern right and its own press organs – would call out the obstructionists and save the planet, right?

Wrong. Midway through Thursday, the penultimate day of COP18's official schedule, the headline stories on the websites of CNN, Reuters and the BBC carried not so much as a mention of the proceedings.

It was the New York Times that rode to the rescue, not by giving the story the coverage it deserved, but by offering comic relief. At nytimes.com, the Doha talks were the no. 2 story in the lowly science section, buried multiple strokes of a mouse wheel down the page. Even more laughably, the article to which it played second fiddle was titled “Deciphering the Tools of Nature’s Zombies”; appropriately enough, said article concerned parasitic organisms that dupe other creatures into doing their bidding, usually killing them in the process.

There were exceptions, of course. Not surprisingly, Qatar’s al-Jazeera television provided plenty of coverage (although its analysis was something less than sterling), and the Huffington Post seemed to be paying attention, running an excellent piece by Amy Goodman. But these examples were the exception, not the rule. Even the oil companies – some of which simply have to be faking it when it comes to “battling climate change” – put on a far better show of concern than the Western media.

Some editors decide from time to time that their audiences are suffering from “fatigue” with regard to overworked subjects, but this phenomenon is highly unlikely to have affected so many outlets at the very same time. This being the Middle East, the possibility of conspiracy has to be considered – but only briefly: no self-respecting journalist could keep such a secret, and it would take only one to blow the whistle. Jealousy? That might explain why some Arab media have reflexively dismissed the sincerity of Qatar and its fellow oil and gas producers, but it says nothing about everyone else around the world.

There is the possibility, too, that absent a binding global deal, the conference was not sufficiently newsworthy. I put that notion to Roudi Baroudi, an energy and environment consultant who works out of Doha. As he sees it, there was plenty of news at the talks, especially given the foreknowledge of all concerned that the ultimate breakthrough would not be forthcoming this time around; therefore, the laying of yet more groundwork was itself crucial progress.

The most important accomplishment of the conference, he argued, was that it “raised expectations and secured the endorsement of most of the industrial world, the developing world and the least developed countries, got them to realize what is at stake here.”

“Several countries have signed agreements among themselves to cooperate on the environment, numerous initiatives were discussed with and by countries that are still flaring gas, etc., and climate coalitions are forming to heighten pressure on the main polluters,” he explained. “Another point of progress was that the GCC countries have adopted more robust policies when it comes to climate change.”

At the other end of the spectrum, he said the biggest failure of the talks was that “the big polluters are not ready to commit to large-scale spending. The US, China, India and Russia are unwilling to invest the $2-3 trillion they say would be necessary to start coping and following what the Europeans have started to do since the Kyoto Protocol.”

All of which raises the same question: why was the media looking the other way?

Replied the man who can spontaneously rattle off “War and Peace”-like treatises when discussing the intersection between energy, climate and media issues: “Frankly I don’t know.”

Try as one might, there seems to be no compelling explanation as to why COP18 was so studiously downplayed. The conventional wisdom is that despite what appears to be overwhelming evidence of accelerating climate change and direct human responsibility, now is a terrible time to be the environment. Much of the world has been in the grip of financial and economic crisis since late 2008, and now the United States threatens to make matters even worse by driving itself over a “fiscal cliff” of its own self-destructive making. There is certainly some truth to this, but even that doesn’t suffice to explain the thoroughness with which Doha was snubbed.

No, something more was at work, and it should be greater cause for worry than any conceivable conspiracy.

By way of explanation, consider the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. In it, a book reviewer posits the notion that the United States began and maintained its disastrous involvement in Vietnam because “in Vietnam, the path of least immediate resistance, especially in domestic political terms, was to stand firm in the hope that somehow things would turn out fine – or at least ... be handed off to the next in line.”
Well, sure, but that kind of thinking is hardly restricted to the United States, to the Vietnam era, to wartime, or to any other narrow category.

In fact, avoiding change because it promises to be difficult is the source of most human folly: it explains why so many people still smoke, why we almost never quit the jobs we hate, and why your correspondent remains so thick around the middle.

And now it threatens to lead us over the climate cliff, and for no other reason than the fact that the easiest thing to do right now is kick the can down the road and hope someone else picks it up.

Marc J. Sirois is a Beirut-based journalist and political analyst.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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