COP21: A new chance for common sense and common action?

Brigitte Nerlich photo
Blog by Brigitte Nerlich

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference opens in Paris today. This is the 21st ‘Conference of the Parties’ or COP since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

Since then each year, without fail,  governments have discussed when, where and how much to cut greenhouse gas emissions and to engage in the mitigation of and, increasingly, adaptation to the impacts of climate change.

Gradually, but indeed rather slowly, discussions have moved forward. But there has also been a set-back: in COP15 the 2009 Copenhagen summit – things “turned sour”. Between 2006 and 2009 climate science had become increasingly confident in diagnosing that there is a problem called climate change (or rather a complex bundle of such problems) and this diagnosis had increasingly begun to influence political and public thinking. It had almost become a matter of common sense to think that climate change poses problems to the global and local governance of the planet we live on.


However, at the end of November 2009, six years ago, private emails between climate scientists were made public without their authors’ consent, and they were mined for quotes that could cast doubt on the credibility of climate scientists and climate science. The emerging climate change common sense was shaken and indeed fractured for a while after what became known as the ‘climategate’ affair.

Although most politicians in the world now agree man-made climate change is real – many Republicans in the United States such as leading R presidential contender Donald Trump. Credit: Will C Fry

Since then there “has been a significant shift in understanding of the scale of the climate challenge by scientists, politicians and the public”, and while efforts are still being made to cast doubt on the credibility and integrity of climate scientists, most recently by US Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), such efforts seem no longer able to undermine an emerging global sense of urgency any more, at least in the United States. A recent survey by the Center for Climate Change Communication at Mason University in the United States has found that the majority of Americans think it is important to reach an agreement in Paris this year to limit global warming.

This means that despite world carbon emissions falling for a variety for reasons, a low-carbon world is not yet around the corner. Although it seems that politicians worldwide have begun to accept that scientists have done their job and that it’s now their turn to do theirs, their thinking and planning is still governed by political rather than scientific pressures, by short-term rather than long-term visions. Why else would the UK government, for example, axe a £1bn grant for developing new carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology and why would the Department for Energy and Climate Change downgrade “its expectations for each of the main low-carbon sources of electricity”. Such political decisions are just what they are: political.

However, there are other factors, which contribute to public support declining for a tough climate deal. In some countries around the world, worries about the economy and terrorism are stronger than worries about climate change.  There is nothing scientists, whether natural or social, can ‘do’ in this context, unless they are invited into the process of decision making on realistic terms. Once invited in, scientists should no longer be expected to (endlessly) demonstrate that climate change is a problem; rather they should be allowed to use their energy and expertise to explore ranges of context-sensitive solutions. There are signs that such collaborations are happening or at least being called for.

In the 2015 context of a world faced with multiple crises, political actions intent on undermining the credibility and integrity of climate scientists, based on allegations that their work is politically or financially motivated, might almost seem frivolous. However, there is a larger problem, namely that thinking, yet again, about climate change might also seem almost frivolous. To talk about climate change in this new world of political and economic tensions is fraught with difficulties. As Hugo Rifkind expressed so well: “the overall vibe is one of weary angels dancing on a pinhead.” It would probably not take much to topple those angles.

While there are still advocates for non-action and while politicians might still decide that for whatever reasons of political exigency non-action is the best way forward in the short-term, such thinking and acting is being increasingly challenged. There is some chance then that common sense might return to these political negotiations in Paris and the weary angels might be able to continue dancing on a pinhead.

One can only hope that freed up from having to prove that climate change is a problem, climate scientists, together with social, cultural and communication scientists, can be involved with politicians and citizens in talking about and, in particular, sketching out possible solutions or solution scenarios. How wide or narrow the scope for such solutions is, depends entirely on politics and publics, not on science.

Paris Climate Summit – Media Summary – 29.11.2015 – The Guardian, New York Times, Sydney Morning Herald

Guardian Pic
Screenshot of The Guardian’s top story about climate protestors 29.11.2015

Here is a short overview of articles that were posted on 29 November in three major Western media outlets from the United Kingdom, The United States and Australia. This summary comes from The Guardian, New York Times and Sydney Morning Herald (online editions).

The Guardian:

The Guardian was heavy on climate coverage on the eve of the summit. The leading story which occupied the top portion of their website related to climate protests happening around the world.  The Guardian ran a total of 14 articles for the 29th of November, four of which contained video. Their coverage included several opinion pieces and reports from climate protests around the globe.  The story “Global climate march 2015: hundreds of thousands march around the world -As it happened” contained photos from protests in more than 20 countries around the world as well as live updates throughout the day. The Guardian’s editorial was titled “There is no planet B.” The publication’s views on the climate summit were perhaps best summarised by this line: “The world’s hopes for a sustainable future depend on what happens in Paris over the next two weeks.”

New York Times

The New York Times had a total of 10 pieces relating to the summit. One piece focused on the tight security for the conference, given the recent terror attacks. Another article provided a guide for readers to understand technical terms and acronyms relating to the summit such as “CBDR” – Common But Differentiated Responsibilities.

The NYT’s Editorial was titled “What the Paris Climate Meeting Must Do.” It put forward the view that Paris is unlikely to save the planet over the next two weeks but it could help “foster collective responsibility” and a “global solution to a global problem.” It concluded that Paris would be judged a success if it produces “stronger commitments and a shared sense of urgency”.

Sydney Morning Herald

Yesterday SMH ran 12 original articles relating to the summit and sourced about five others from either Britain’s The Telegraph or Bloomberg. Several of the articles revolved around the climate marches in Sydney and they had a Question and Answer article. Several of their stories were framed in reference to actions of domestic political actors such as Australian Prime Minister – Malcolm Turnbull. There had three opinion pieces – one which promoted the advantages of switching to solar energy for Australia.

Paris rises after attacks while some pacific islands are going under

Elisabeth Eide
Blog by Elisabeth Eide

The Paris climate protests on Sunday 30 November were largely silent. After the 13 November terror attacks and the state of emergency introduced by President Hollande, demonstrations are banned.

At Place de la République, where the monument is still surrounded by messages of grief and the scent of roses, activists gathered in the morning. Several thousand pairs of shoes were placed to draw attention to the ban on demonstrations. A few hours later, some people tried to march, but were stopped by a massive contingent of police who barred all the roads exiting the place.

A few kilometers away, at Bataclan, where «Eagles of Black Metal» posters still hang promoting the “next performing artists”, representatives of indigenous and small island states gathered in the mass of candles and flowers to show their compassion. From there they joined the long human chain which snaked its way from Nation to République.

The protests in Paris. Demonstrants are represented by shoes, Credit: Elisabeth Eide


Not two degrees, 1.5!

One of the participants at Bataclan was the poet Kathy Jetnil Kijiner from the Marshall Islands. This island state with 71 000 citizens has sent forty representatives to the COP to fight for the 1,5 degree target, which might secure the survival of itself and other island states. In her blog Kijner writes about a CNN reporter who asked her to write a poem about the two degree target. She accepted, but changed the target to 1.5, since two degrees warming would mean the end for many of the island states in the Pacific and elsewhere. The Marshall islands experienced a major flood in 2008, which caused extensive damages in the capital Majuro. Unfortunately, natural disaster again struck in 2013 when they were hit by a serious drought which caused a precarious water shortage.

Poet Kathy Jetnil Kijiner, Credit: Elisabeth Eide

Among wreaths and numerous messages for the victims from November 13th at Bataclan, Kijiner expresses her hopes that more people will listen this time, when island state leaders speak. She is an official delegate at the conference. For the second time this year she has crossed continents to speak about the vulnerable situation of her home country. The first time she was invited to speak was at the UN summit in September. There, she recited a poem she had written for her 21 month old daughter. Unfortunately Obama arrived too late, but a large number of state leaders were present.

A question that remains for people like Kijiner is “Will activists from island states find support for the 1,5 degree target?”

“Well, the alliance between islanders and indigenous people of the world is strengthened. And after the last elections in Canada, we have received support from prime minister Trudeau. President Obama has also given some positive signals, but the congress is not very supportive,” Kijiner said.

The Marshall islands have recently encountered much more extreme weather than they had in previous years. According to Kijiner they even lost one island, Ellakan. This island used to be a place where people would go to gather fruit and other products but had “died” during the last ten years. More islands could die in a country where large areas, including the capital, are less than four feet above sea level.

“Just before I left I met with women organizing a chicken barbecue, to raise funds for their sea wall, which had been destroyed. Such ruining of protective walls happen more frequently than before,” she said.

What does climate justice mean for you? Some G77-states, such as India, have argued that historical justice implies that the ones who have contributed the most to global warming should have to contribute more than the rest.

“We have friends in India who think differently. The historical responsibility is important, but not decisive. In our alliance now, we think that all states have to act to save the climate.”

Protests in Paris, Credit: Elisabeth Eide


The manifestation at Bataclan is silent and respectful. Kijiner says that the French grief is also theirs to share.

“Lives were lost here, lives are lost at our islands, in a sense, all of our struggles are connected. And when we stand together, we emphasize this connection.”

”At home people do their share to save the climate. Many of our islands are solar powered. We try to promote cycling instead of driving, and we work for a cleaner sea transportation.”

The Marshall islands have a special relation to the U.S, going back to the nuclear testing at the Bikini atoll in the 1940s and 1950s. The country is independent, but has a friendly association with the U.S.

With the current threats to their livelihoods, do many Marshall Islanders think of leaving?

“Some do, but our mentality is rather that we should not need to evacuate. We still think it is possible to avoid this”, says Kathy Kininer.

The poem read by Kathy Kijiner at the UN conference in September.

[1] Opplesningen på denne lenken.

Time to Move on: The Paris Summit as Opportunity to Develop New Narratives on Climate Change

Blog by Michael Brüggemann

The debate about climate change is almost thirty years old. Endless time and energy has already been spent in unproductive ways: discussing whether climate change actually exists, whether humans contribute to global warming, whether the risks that come with global warming are real and then whether we need to cut down on emissions.

These questions are settled, but many important questions remain to be open for discussion in climate science and climate politics. The upcoming summit in Paris draws our attention towards tackling the challenges associated with climate change in the present, rather than repeating discussions from the past. Part of this is to reclaim the attribute of being “skeptical” as an essential feature of good science. Yet, wise scientists will attempt to direct their skepticism to hypotheses which are not properly grounded in empirical evidence. Continuing the old debate is only in the interest of those actors who feel they need to protect their vested interests in oil, coal and gas and the attached industries with the aim of blocking effective limits to our carbon emissions.

Credit: CIFOR

There is no use to trying to persuade professional lobbyists. As Upton Sinclair put it: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Journalists have been prone to report climate change within the frame of “skeptics” vs. “warners”. Journalism research has identified two reasons why journalists do so: The first reason is a misguided application of the norm of journalistic balance. The second reason is that the story line provides for conflict and news value and serves as a simple and entertaining way to talk about climate change. It is true that the excesses of climate denial provide for excellent entertainment: A great example of an entertaining way to tell this story, is the recent National Geographic production starring Bill Nye and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yet, while it is important to keep one’s good humor even in the face of severe problems, journalism also needs to seek out new ways to talk about climate change.

Journalists are among those people who are at the forefront to raise the relevant questions about climate policy and come up with new narratives to be told about climate change. The keep-it-in-the-ground-campaign of the Guardian about raising awareness for the issue of divestment is a good example of such an attempt. The summit in Paris is another prime opportunity to develop a new stories about climate change.

This is why we will not only continue to study the ongoing debates on climate change in our research projects, but we also want to provide day-to-day commentary and analysis of the climate debates during the next three weeks. For this purpose we have invited researchers (ranging from established professors to some of our MA students) from different countries to join our team of bloggers. The blog entries should not be read as communications of scientific research, we will also blog in our role as citizens, who may be able to add to the debate as professional watchers of journalists who are themselves watching climate politics and directing your attention not only to failures of climate journalism but also to interesting stories and perspectives on climate policy.

Expectations for Paris Summit 2015 – What’s at stake?

Blog by Feilidh O’Dwyer

Author’s note: Hello and a very warm welcome to the first entry of the Climate Matters blog. For the two weeks of the Paris Summit (30.11-14.12), this University of Hamburg blog will provide regular, global media summaries using our Online Media Monitor.

We’ll also post daily entries from one or more of our exceptional team of bloggers. We have leading climate researchers, communicators and journalists who each bring unique, critical and analytical perspectives on happenings in Paris. We hope you enjoy!

On July 12, 2011, crew from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy retrieved a canister dropped by parachute from a C-130, which brought supplies for some mid-mission fixes. The ICESCAPE mission, or "Impacts of Climate on Ecosystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment," is a NASA shipborne investigation to study how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the ocean's chemistry and ecosystems. The bulk of the research took place in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in summer 2010 and 2011. Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen NASA image use policy. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center enables NASA’s mission through four scientific endeavors: Earth Science, Heliophysics, Solar System Exploration, and Astrophysics. Goddard plays a leading role in NASA’s accomplishments by contributing compelling scientific knowledge to advance the Agency’s mission. Follow us on Twitter Like us on Facebook Find us on InstagramCredit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

The 21st United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris (COP21) is almost upon us. As you read this, leaders and government representatives from almost 200 nations are converging on France’s capital amid unprecedented security. With the current iteration of the Kyoto protocol set to expire in 2020 – leaders will negotiate and potentially sign a new climate change agreement.

Any such agreement will commit nations to targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to cap global temperature rises to 2°C from pre-industrial times. Anything above that is considered the “danger zone”, where temperature rises will become uncontrollable. Unfortunately, recent scientific estimates show earth is already half way towards this limit.

Is this summit any different from all the others?

Many people might be skeptical as to whether world leaders will make meaningful progress in Paris, given a long history of inaction or half-measures on climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 and has since met 20 times. Each time a climate summit rolls around, media outlets and public figures loudly proclaim that this year is earth’s last opportunity to change. Prior to the Bonn summit in 2001, that year’s Time article was titled “A Global Warming Treaty’s Last Chance.” And yet, 14 years on – global temperatures in October were at their highest average ever in 136 years of record keeping.

Apocalypse Wow
Climate change predictions can sometimes seem a bit apocalyptic. Credit: WIS News 10, Columbia

Evidently – much more needs to be done. In September, French President Francois Hollande, in keeping with a tradition of doomsday platitudes said that if there was no decision in Paris it would be “too late for the world.” Is he right?

The good news and the bad

There are a few positive indicators we are making progress towards combating climate change.  2014 was the first time in 40 years the global economy grew but carbon emissions stayed flat. Two of the biggest carbon emitters: The US and China, are maybe, just maybe starting to get their acts together. This year, Obama passed the Clean Energy Act – which commits to reducing national electricity sector emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.  Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping, faced with his country’s enormous air pollution problem, led the world in investing in clean energy spending US $89.5 billion. Another positive omen is the mass mobilisation of climate protestors. In the last days, hundreds of thousands of people around the globe hit the streets to urge governments to urgently take meaningful action on climate change. Even the Pope has spoken up: during his recent visit to America, he said climate change “can no longer be left to a future generation.”

Despite some good signs, there is still plenty to be concerned about.  This month the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere again surpassed 400 parts per million, an emission level 43 percent higher than pre-industrial times. Dr. Erika Podest, a NASA Carbon and water cycle research scientist was quoted as saying:

“CO2 concentrations haven’t been this high in millions of years. Even more alarming is the rate of increase in the last five decades and the fact that CO2 stays in the atmosphere for hundreds or thousands of years. This milestone is a wake up call that our actions in response to climate change need to match the persistent rise in CO2. Climate change is a threat to life on Earth and we can no longer afford to be spectators.”

In short, every person is a stakeholder when it comes to decisions around climate change.

Credit: John Duffy. Climate protesters in Seattle, Washington, October 2015

Media Coverage of climate change

Only a media hermit could miss the perilous predictions scientists have made for the planet’s future should we fail to take decisive action on climate change. Sea-level rises, droughts and extensive loss of biodiversity are just some of the grim effects that could result from the earth’s climate rising by several degrees.

Despite climate change existing in the public sphere for at least two decades, it hasn’t always been publicly accepted.  Traditional Western news media’s emphasis on objectivity meant that in climate change debates, climate skeptics were given equal coverage/legitimacy to climate scientists.  To the undiscerning news consumer, this may convey the impression that both points of view were equally valid. However, as John Oliver brilliantly summarised earlier this year in Last Week Tonight, more than 97 percent of world climate scientists agree that the world is warming as a result of an excess of human-produced carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere.

Some of the major issues up for debate in Paris

  • Limits – Under the Kyoto protocol, developing countries had no cap on their emissions. Now that China is the world’s largest polluter – will developing countries accept some limit, even if it’s smaller than that of developed nations?
  • Accountability and enforcement ­– Who will hold countries to the targets they commit to in Paris?  What penalties might a nation face if they fail to reduce their emissions?
  • Ambition ­–  Current commitments made by nations will be insufficient to reduce global emissions enough to limit warming to just 2°C.  A potential mechanism may be implemented to bring nations back to the negotiating table at regular intervals to increase their contributions.

We are all looking forward to see what happens in Paris this year. In upcoming daily blogs we will summarise and comment on media coverage of the climate summit from selected major news outlets around the world.

See the latest blog here

About the Media Watch Blog

In our Media Watch Blog we present an analytical view of the media coverage and public debates concerned with the UN-Climate Change Conference in Paris* (November 30th – December 11th 2015) through the lens of academic observers from social and climate sciences. We focus on the coverage of the conference in leading media outlets in 40 countries around the globe but we will also provide some first-hand observations from students and researchers who participate in the conference. The blog is hosted by the team of Prof. Brüggemann at the University of Hamburg, but its authors are climate researchers and social scientists from a range of different backgrounds united by an interest in the interdisciplinary study of climate change.

The point of the blog is not to bash the media: Covering climate change is a demanding challenge for journalists and we do not pretend that we could provide better coverage than journalists do. Yet, as outsiders and interested followers of the media debate, we hope to add new perspectives and voices to a debate that deserves humanities’ fullest attention.

The language of the blog entries is English in order to allow an international audience and international contributors to participate. All blog entries represent the personal opinions and observations of the respective blog author and are neither official statements issued by the University of Hamburg, nor from the hosts of the blog.

The blog will start at November 29th.

*the entire name is United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 21st Conference of the Parties, kurz COP 21

Bildschirmfoto 2015-11-09 um 12.28.37

In unserem Media Watch Blog wollen wir die öffentliche Debatte zur UN-Klimakonferenz in Paris* (30. November bis 11. Dezember 2015) analytisch begleiten und aus der Sicht interdisziplinärer Klimaforschung kommentieren. Das Blog ist auf Englisch um einem internationalen Publikum zugänglich zu sein und wird am 29. November starten.

*ihr vollständiger Name ist United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 21st Conference of the Parties, kurz COP 21