Tackling the Communications Challenge of the UN Climate Conference

A recent comment by Maldives President Mohammad Nasheed exemplifies the communications challenges that will arise when representatives of 194 countries meet in Durban, South Africa, as parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The current negotiation process is stupid, useless and endless. It is based on this principle: two parties reach an agreement, a third one comes along and says it doesn't agree and it reduces the ambition of the others. In essence, even if we reach an agreement, it will be an agreement about nothing. It will be so diluted that it will be of no use.

News-hungry media feast on comments like these. With prospects remote for a game-changing breakthrough in Durban, we can probably look forward to more headlines like this one from Time magazine: "The Kyoto Accords -- and Hope -- Are Expiring." The unfortunate conclusion many readers will draw: The negotiations are a waste of time, and worse, a failure in Durban spells failure for climate action more generally. Both conclusions are incorrect.

For better or worse, the December 2009 Copenhagen meeting is probably the benchmark against which many journalists will measure results in Durban.

On the one hand, we are living with the legacy of high expectations from 2009. We were supposed to get a fair, ambitious, and binding international agreement on climate change that year -- after all, 120 heads of state came to Copenhagen to do the deal! A binding agreement has thus become the yardstick for measuring success, and anything less is seen by some as abject failure. Given two decades of unfulfilled promises by developed countries, that view is not entirely unreasonable, but it's not very helpful either.

Conversely, if expectations reached their peak in the run-up to Copenhagen, the frenetic negotiations of the final 48 hours (and the disappointing outcome that resulted) may forever be viewed as the nadir of the multilateral negotiating process. Many analysts will therefore judge Durban, as they did last year's Cancun meeting, against a backdrop of expected failure. This explains why incremental progress made last year in Cancun was joyfully celebrated when an 11th-hour collapse was narrowly averted. Any forward momentum in Durban could thus be put in a positive light.

This year's outcome will not be judged solely against high or low expectations, however. There is an added level of urgency this time around. The International Energy Agency made headlines with its 2011 World Energy Outlook and a dramatic statement that the door to 2 degree C is closing. This adds a new dimension to the communications challenge. As Grist described the IEA statement in its own inimitable way, "The point of no return on climate change is fast approaching. Either we halt it in five years, or ... well, imagine I'm drawing my finger across my throat while making a 'kkkkkhhhhhh' sound."

The IPCC has been making those "kkkkkhhhhhh" noises for years, but coming from an organization like the IEA, the warning that we are headed for a 6 degree C world is all the more frightening. Remember that the IEA has always been a fossil fuel cheerleader, created as it was in the aftermath of the 1973 oil shock.

Read more: Yale Climate Media Forum