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Covering Copenhagen: A Day in the Life

By Andrew Freedman

I arrived at the United Nations climate summit last Friday, near the end of the first week of negotiations, just as the logistical nightmare of cramming 45,000 registrants into a space for 15,000 people was becoming clear. I was aiming to write at least one story per day for Climate Central and other media outlets, but I planned on letting the events of the day dictate most of my storylines.

I figured I was well prepared to cover the talks, since I have reported on climate change for several years, and am completing a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where I have written lengthy term papers on United Nations-sponsored climate negotiations.

Unfortunately, I was wrong about being prepared. Terribly, horribly, woefully wrong. Nothing can really prepare a reporter for this experience except actually doing it. Picture the most confusing, bizarre, frustrating, yet exciting experience you’ve ever had, and then triple it. Also, add in a good dose of jet lag and seasonal affective disorder for good measure.

A huge challenge for most reporters here, including myself, is the ridiculous use of jargon. This is a United Nations conference, which means an absurd amount of acronyms are used. For example, discussions take place in “COPs,” (Conferences of the Parties) and “COP MOPs,” (Conferences of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties), as well as “contact groups” (this one is more self-explanatory). It took me hours to remember that “MRV,” which is a central divide between the United States and China that could scuttle an ambitious agreement, is not a type of car, but rather stands for “measurable, reportable and verifiable” emissions-reduction commitments/actions, and that “LCA” means “Long-term Cooperative Actions.”

Thankfully, as the conference has ramped up, I have grounded myself in the following daily routine:

  1. Wake up early enough to get into the building and get a seat in the media center, even if it means getting only 3 hours of sleep.
  2. Navigate through the maze of lines, guards, protesters and biting winds.
  3. Have a cup of tea while going through the daily program, which lists the schedule for press conferences, events, and the negotiations themselves. Of course, almost none of the events occur when and where they are supposed to, but maybe that’s asking for too much.
  4. Decide on what stories to pursue for the day, and start tracking down sources.
  5. Remember to look up at least once at the grey light meekly working its way through the skylights of the Bella Center; since that is the only semblance of sunlight I will get all day.
  6. Research and write, all the while trying not to pay attention to the fact that it is nearly impossible to determine what is going on inside the negotiation sessions, many of which are closed to the press. Fortunately for me, my assignments focus more on how science and policy are interacting, rather than what is in certain draft texts, but the confusion factor is still there. Big time.
  7. File a story along with the 4,000 or so other journalists working out of a cavernous room that is filled with the constant low din of hurried conversations.
  8. Eat dinner at the conference center, which features the worst food in all of Europe, and then head home in the darkness to repeat the cycle the next day.

Overall, reporting on the summit has been an invaluable learning experience. Once I figure out what I’ve learned, I’ll let you know.

A reporter sitting next to me just remarked that it will probably be years before we unpack exactly what has gone on here, and why. Right now, most accounts – including mine – are just scratching the surface.

Reprinted with permission from the Columbia Journalism Review.


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