Lost on the Road to Paris? The Framing of a 2 degree warming limit 2009-2014

Markus Rhomberg
Blog by Prof. Markus Rhomberg

As the climate negotiations in Paris near their final rounds, some might be surprised by rather contradictory developments, which relate to the much discussed 2 degree threshold.

This limit aims to keep warming within 2°C of the pre-industrial average.While the emissions reduction pledges put forward by the countries ahead of COP 21 in Paris were not sufficiently ambitious to keep within this limit, in the final phase of the negotiations many countries wish for an even lower limit: below 1.5 degrees.

This comes at a time when two separate new studies in Nature Geoscience and Nature Climate Change challenge the 2 degree threshold. Reto Knutti (ETH Zurich, Switzerland) and his colleagues argue, that “no scientific assessment has clearly justified or defended the 2 degree target as a safe level of warming, and indeed, this is not a problem that science alone can address.” The authors have in fact said, that 2 degrees was a “value judgement”.

Credit: Mark Dixon CC

The term value judgement indicates that the scientific evidence is not the only factor at play when deciding a warming limit. With this in mind, it might be interesting to look at some findings of a recent study conducted by our Centre for Political Communication at Zeppelin University on the Framing of 2 degree in German Media during and after the Copenhagen Summit in 2009 until 2014 .

Expectations to reach a global 2 degree agreement were very high in the run-up to Copenhagen. That made perceived failure of this summit even higher.

With a content analysis of the coverage of 10 German news outlets from 2009 until 2014, we detected almost a third of all 1189 articles were published during the 2009 Copenhagen summit. After this peak, coverage steadily declines, except for some small peaks during the following summits. After Copenhagen these conferences are no longer seen as effective instruments to deal with 2 degree limit. We also could detect that the original positive assessment of 2 degrees in the media vanishes. Negative ratings are stable, but indifference and climate fatigué spread.  Politicians backed away from the 2 degree debate after the failure of Copenhagen. German political factions in the Bundestag rarely speak about the issue. A real German debate is missing, except for some advances by the Federal Ministry of Environment and the German Chancellor.

Many nations have pushed for 1.5 degree warming limit. Credit: Mark Dixon CC

By looking at the framing of the debate we could spot that 2 degree is primarily interpreted as an issue of achievability. Other prominent frames deal with the definition of the 2 degree limit and climate diplomacy. Achievability is defined by measures to achieve, by the possibility to achieve and by the necessity to achieve. It is also being used most frequently over the time and is combined with the demand that in order to stay within the limit emission reductions are needed. The achievability frame is being used most frequently over the time and rises when the coverage on 2 degree increases. There’s also no hierarchical change within the frame usage over the time; both politicians and scientists address the achievability. While politicians refer to the issue, its necessity and the measures that must been taken, scientists assess the possibility and evaluate it is as hardly achievable given the current policies we have in place.

Keeping these results in mind, it is quite remarkable, that some politicians came up with a goal that is even more ambitious. We are very interested to see not only the results from Paris but also from the findings of our Framing study on the coverage of the Paris summit.

Note: I’d like to thank my colleague Jonas Kaiser with whom I conducted this study.