Reporting on Warming, Dropping the Bali

Reporting on global warming negotiations may not be particularly sexy fodder for The Situation Room, but we cannot live on Paris Hilton alone.

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As Greenland shrinks daily and Artic sea ice disappears faster than Roger Clemens’ fan base, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change met this month in Bali to look for ways that the global community can act in concert to deal with the urgent threat that scientists overwhelmingly agree we face from man-made climate change.

The meeting’s agenda included setting specific greenhouse-gas reduction targets, as opposed to the undefined “deep cuts” preferred by the Bush administration’s delegation; discussing the management of carbon-trading; and looking for solutions to the problem of resource management in poor third-world nations. In terms of the seriousness of the issues faced, it was a conference on par in importance with the famed summits of Tehran, Yalta, and Pottsdam during World War II.

Yet what was broadcast on American television was a debate about whether Al Gore may have said something naughty. After the newly minted Nobel laureate observed in Bali that the United States was holding up progress at the conference, CNN brought the incident up on eight different shows over two days, according to a Lexis Nexus search.

Jack Cafferty called Gore a “pompous jerk” on the Situation Room after being asked the following loaded question from host Wolf Blitzer: “But there’s a sense that, you know, they used to say politics stop at the water’s edge, Jack. Was it appropriate or inappropriate for Gore to make that comment?” The rest of the segment addressed itself to the propriety of Gore’s comments while ignoring what actually took place at the conference itself. (Blitzer is apparently unaware that this kind of thing happens literally all the time, and this “sense that you know, they used to say” is a myth perpetrated only by those who disagree with what’s being said.)

Fox News chimed in with commentary from the notably impartial source, ex-U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who said Gore was wrong, and the whole point of the conference was to “blame us for all the problems.” This is the same person who, as U.N. ambassador, “recommended scrapping” over 400 passages from a 38-page U.S. draft prepared for a U.N. climate change summit, even requesting that the phrase “respect for nature” be removed. (He also suggested lopping off four floors of the U.N. building, but we’ll leave that topic for another day.)

Instead of focusing exclusively on the non-issue of Gore’s manners, the networks might have considered informing the American public about exactly what was going on in Bali. The U.S. government did, eventually, agree to a proposal that set “deep cuts in global emissions” by 2020, but not the specific targets of 25 to 45 percent. By refusing to agree to specific targets—in part owing to the obstructionism of the United States—the Bali plan ended up looking very much like a map on the road to nowhere. “The Bush administration has unscrupulously taken a monkey wrench to the level of action on climate change that the science demands,” said Gerd Leipold, executive director of Greenpeace International.

The basic strengths and weaknesses of competing plans for resource management, carbon credit trading, and reduction targets aren’t particularly sexy fodder for The Situation Room, although they’re crucial to any agreement on climate change. But a democracy—much less a planet—cannot live by Paris Hilton alone.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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