The NY Times gets it wrong, again!

Its detractors should note: the L’Aquila conference did move vital climate change legislation forward.

If you believe recent media reports, the two international climate change meetings held last week in L’Aquila, Italy, at best failed to do anything and at worst signal that no serious progress will be made on a global climate agreement this year.

If true, this is bad news. According to the byzantine rules of the Kyoto Protocol, set to expire in 2012, a successor to that treaty must be decided this December at the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen.

The good news is that many of the assessments of these meetings are incomplete, if not inaccurate.  A New York Times editorial on Friday, for instance, based its argument in language from a draft of a declaration — not from the document itself. The Times described the recognition by the world’s major carbon emitters that temperatures should not increase more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as an “aspirational” goal. They concluded that “with global climate talks in Copenhagen only five months away, aspirational goals won’t carry things very far.” But this weakened, “aspirational” language was struck in the final version of the document, rendering this claim obsolete.

All in all, the twin declarations emerging from the G-8 and the Major Economies Forum (MEF) indicate that progress has been made on the road to Copenhagen. So why the rush to publish such dour reports from Italy, whether accurate or not? It’s simple: Invested parties had unrealistic expectations of meetings, which have no binding impact on the upcoming U.N. summit.

There were, of course, disappointments. Developed countries in the G-8 failed to agree on the medium-term goal of reducing reductions targets by 2020. Developing nations, especially China and India, refused to embrace the long-term goal of halving global emissions by 2050, a cap most of the world’s leading scientists believe is essential to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

But if we only focus on what did not happen, we miss seeing the achievements made in a very short amount of time. When the United States rejoined the global discussion on a new climate treaty in January, it triggered an 11-month countdown to solve the most complicated problem humanity has ever faced. For the 16 countries responsible for 80 percent of carbon emissions to recognize even one marker of failure — a rise in temperature over 2 degrees Celcius — is fantastically impressive. A week before the Italy meetings, negotiators doubted that this language would make the final cut.

Some will argue that it’s easy to agree on an abstract target like limiting planetary warming. But the G-8 struck an appropriate balance in creating objectives that are both ambitious and achievable. Industrialized countries finally determined their fair share of long-term emissions cuts: 80 percent by 2050. Plus, U.S. President Barack Obama prudently hedged on setting a 2020 emissions target. The Markey-Waxman climate change bill, which includes emissions cuts, is working its way through Congress. While it does, the president should not signal that he will preempt or undercut the legislature.

What about China and India’s apparent intransigence to halving emissions by 2050? The fact is that the United States cannot criticize their behavior. If a Chinese leader had promised to join the world eight years ago in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and then reversed course — as former President George W. Bush did in 2001 — the United States would hardly agree to his demands now. So it is with China and India. It will take incentives, diplomacy, and, most of all, time to bring about world-saving targets from them.

Ultimately, the most promising parts of last week’s agreements received only marginal coverage. The MEF announced that developed countries will double clean-energy funding for developing nations — putting pressure on those countries to commit to emissions reductions in exchange, as agreed upon at the Bali summit in 2007. Additionally, the participating countries agreed to determine how they will finance their plans by the G-20 meeting in September.

The countries assembled last week didn’t get everything settled on the first go around. But in light of their accomplishments, we should hold off on our rush to proclaim failure.

This post by Andrew Light, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and director of the Center for Global Ethics at George Mason University, was first published here.

7 Responses to The NY Times gets it wrong, again!

  1. “President Barack Obama prudently hedged on setting a 2020 emissions target.”

    So, the good news is that Obama isn’t going to put pressure on Congress to pass meaningful legislation with strong short term targets? What’s the bad news?

    Why is there such a strong effort to convince us that our elected officials are doing great? Until they are doing enough to actually avoid catastrophic tipping points, our job is to keep pressuring them and letting them know that we’re not happy. Even if they really do have our best interests in mind, they need us to keep showing our dissatisfaction with their half-measures. Our job is to be tough on them, and it’s a shame that the New York Times is doing that job better than CAP.

  2. Matt Leonard says:

    While I agree, the statement regarding a 2 degree commitment is a good step forward – you state that industrial nations agreed in principle to emissions reductions agreements of “80% by 2050”. But you failed to mention the fact that no baseline year was agreed to. In fact, the language used by the G8 communique was “We also support a goal of developed countries reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in aggregate by 80 per cent or more by 2050 compared to 1990 or more recent years”

    We all know the IPCC targets are based off of 1990 emissions levels, whereas the US has conveniently pushed to use more relaxed 2005 levels – 23% higher than the 1990 baseline domestically. What happened to Obama’s promise of restoring science to the White House, rather than using slick rhetoric? Technically speaking – the G8 “agreement” allows them to use whatever baselines they want. 1990, 2005, 2010? We’ve seen countries exploit every loophole they can on this issue – and this is a major one.

    We simply cannot continue accepting one small step after another. We all know the clock is ticking scientifically and politically. Joe, you seem to be regularly dismissing efforts that you see as being outside of the current “political reality” – but the fact is that the current political reality is failing us, and will continue to do so unless we change it. Any overview of the history of social change will show that if our movements are always willing to accept the current political reality, very little will ever change.


  3. I can’t say that I agree either. I was pleased by even the modest declaration, even though it came with no mid-term goals.

    But less than 24 hours after the declaration, both Canada and Russia broke ranks and said they have no need to make deeper emission cuts, and that the goal is aspirational. (Canada is promising to cut emissions by 60% by 2050, with a 2006 baseline (the baseline meaning that Canada will miss its modest Kyoto target by 30+%).

    (I wrote about it here)

    I’m embarrassed to be Canadian with Stephen Harper in power. The NGO’s are calling Canada a climate bully… I sure as hell wish a few world leaders would, too.

  4. Gary Thompson says:

    The temperature has not hit 85 degrees this year in all of June. The New York times can proudly write that our goals in lower temps have been attained. It sure wasn’t carbon tax that caused the cool season.

    [JR: Wow a very tiny part of the Earth was slightly cool for 30 days — you make an impressive argument for screwing the next 50 generations!]

  5. John Hollenberg says:


    I hope this is a joke, since Joe has just published the report that June is the second hottest on record GLOBALLY:

    Otherwise, you really don’t understand the meaning of GLOBAL warming.

  6. Hey Gary:

    I’ll see your cool summer in the US, and raise you a heat wave across India and Europe.

    It’s called global warming (and I was going to call you dumb a$$ but I figured it was against Joe’s rules).

    See the story he just posted here.

  7. grasslandgal says:

    The final statement I read DID have the 2 degree aspirational goal in it…..” We recognize the scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2 degrees C.”

    This from: dated July 9, 2009.