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Copenhagen Climate Summit: Spin Over Substance
Mal Fletcher

Posted: 19 December 2009

I love the city of Copenhagen. I know it well; our family lived there for almost 10 years.

I was hoping during the Copenhagen "Cop 15" climate change summit to see some TV pictures of the city's picturesque townscape and wintry sparkle. Instead, all we got were shots of protestors being herded into corals by riot police and stand-up interviews with terribly earnest politicians declaring that they would save the world.

In the end, of course, the Copenhagen summit has ended in confusion. The conference went beyond its intended finishing time as politicos went head-to-head in last-minute wrangling sessions. They were trying to salvage some dignity for the event and to present at least a semblance of some tangible agreement on capping CO2 emissions.

To paraphrase Churchill, this event was a very good intention clothed in political spin, hyped by media, wrapped in uncertain scientific conclusions.

A debate as important as this, at this level, should have taken place over a period of time, with a series of meetings planned and a range of views given an airing. This should have led up to a summit, but one based on a much more solid understanding of the facts - as opposed to knee-jerk hype - and a greater sense of ownership from the public.

A court of law is expected to take time to hear from and grill all sides of a case before reaching its verdict. The same should be true of something as important as global agreements on climate change - agreements that could seriously impact economies, particularly in the developing world.

Apparently, or so we are told, only a small minority of the world's climate scientists question the fact that the Earth's climate is warming and will continue to do so. There are more scientists, though, who question how much of that warming is due to human influence.

Now, if the globe is indeed warming to a significant degree, common sense suggests that at least some of that will be the result of human industrialisation and population growth. The question is, though, to what degree are we culpable - and how should we proceed?

This is a hugely important question. How we answer it will impact not only ecologies and economies, but the way we see the process of governance itself.

Some politicos will take from the relative failure of the summit a sign that they need to set up some new global body, charged with bringing about the changes Cop15 failed to see. This has often been the UN response on issues that summits have difficulty resolving.

By nature, bureaucracies grow. Down the track, when initial passions have cooled, administrators focus on finding ways to justify their budget and improve their status in the grander scheme of things.

Often, they become stalking horses for whichever interest groups they work most closely with over time. Founding any new trans-national group with a long acronym and huge staff and budget may well only produce even more heat than light on the issue.

While it's always good to see international leaders gathered around the table of dialogue, the only big winner in the Copenhagen summit has been the art of spin and political posturing.

Armed with noble ideals, national politicians jumped on private planes for a talkfest the goals for which most people knew nothing about.

In Britain, we know a lot about spin. The Chilcot inquiry is already revealing the depth of doubt felt at the highest levels of government about the legitimacy of an Iraq war prior to the conflict.

This is why, when the so-called 'climate-gate', leaked emails story broke, many people were unsurprised. People suspect that, if media spin can be so effectively used to manipulate public perception in sending a nation to war, it may well be in use on other big political issues, such as climate change.

In the UK, there has been very little true debate in the media about the reality of global warming, or its human causes, or its likely outcomes.

Even science itself has become infected with the spin disease, with advocates on both sides of the climate debate becoming more and more adept at generating soundbites and suggesting headlines. This has cost science some of its lustre and moral authority - right when we need science the most.

In an age of heavy political spin, the average media consumer has become wary of any overly one-sided point of view which is repeated ad infinitum in news reports.

This is perhaps the big lessons to come out of the Copenhagen summit: if you clothe a big issue in spin, the world will eventually come to see that the king has no clothes. It's appropriate that such a lesson should be learned in the home of Hans Christian Anderson.

If we're to find the truth amidst climate claim and counter-claim, if we're to arrive at a workable solution, we have work to do on the human element in the debate.

Science will need less arrogance, politics less spin, media more objectivity and public debate more balance.

Copyright Mal Fletcher, 2009.

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