It’s been surprising and frustrating to read some of the sharply different home and away perspectives on the US announcement of a set target on greenhouse gas emissions leading up to the COP15 global climate talks in Copenhagen.
In the lead-up to the conference, the European press was putting pressure on the United States and China to set realistic greenhouse gas emissions targets. When the NYTimes reported Obama’s announcement at the end of November that the US would be going to the conference with a new target to reduced emissions by 2020, the proposal was described in text and quotes as "serious" and "a game-changer" that involved "sharper cuts" that would "lay the groundwork" for a new international treaty. This appeared to be excellent news, even if complicated by the fact that there was and is as yet no Congressional legislation to back up his proposal. However, while the article mentions in passing other countries’ recent criticism of Obama’s "seeming passivity" on the issue, we are missing any real context to what his announcement might mean for the upcoming global negotiations, or how the numbers might be perceived from outside the US.
At the same time, the BBC reported crucial information that the Times left out:
"In the UN climate process, targets are conventionally given in comparison with 1990 levels of emissions.
On that basis, the likely US figure amounts to a cut of just a few percent, as emissions have risen by about 15% since 1990.
This is much less than the EU’s pledge of a 20% cut over the same period, or a 30% cut if there is a global deal; and much less than the 25-40% figure that developing countries are demanding."
Yesterday in Le Monde, a front page graphic compared industrialized countries proposed greenhouse gas emissions targets: Norway has proposed a 40% cut in emissions compared to 1990 levels. The European Union: 25-30%. Average target of the industrialized countries:12-16%. The United States’ proposal: 4%
So it was a real jaw-dropper to read how today’s NYTimes explained the US negotiating position in the talks to readers. Next to an ad for Royal Dutch Shell explaining how the oil company is "tackling the energy challenge," was this unchallenged whopper of a quote from Jonathan Pershing, the State Department’s special climate envoy: "It’s a vision that moves the United States down the curve of greenhouse gas emissions at a level that no other country has even begun to seriously contemplate." Either there’s a level of irony in this statement that is incredibly irresponsible, or the fact checkers missed this one, or the author and editors simply decided not to include any criticism.
The uncritical stenography of the official governement line continues to be a problem here. The same lack of criticism of government officials that helped lead us into the Iraq War continues to distort "educated" public opinion that the US position on climate change is viable. The stakes this time are arguably much higher.