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Copenhagen climate meeting a split-screen event

Outside, tens of thousands of eco-protesters paraded through the streets of Copenhagen waving bright yellow signs with slogans such as “There is No Planet B.”

Inside, environmentalists and other observers watched the protest marches on television as negotiators shuttled between closed-door meetings in hopes of making progress on a new climate agreement.

The action at the Copenhagen climate summit Saturday was the sort of split-screen reality that has come to define the gathering as it heads toward its second week -- loud in public, mysteriously quiet in private.

In times like these, you need a tip sheet. So here are five things to know about the climate talks so far.

1. They’re one big optical illusion.

The early days of the negotiations have been dominated by a carnival atmosphere featuring parliamentary maneuvers, howls over leaked draft agreements and a dizzying chain of news-conference accusations among bargaining teams.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a few key negotiators have quietly and steadily hammered away at the obstacles to a deal.

It’s as if the 30,000-plus conference attendees are all watching a football game together where the scoreboard doesn’t work, and every few plays, the teams race to sideline microphones to tell the stadium how well they are playing. The game will end late this week, and a referee will emerge to announce that a few players wrestling in the locker room have actually determined the winner -- if there is one.

2. Many activists are going to leave disappointed.

Even if countries agree to a new climate deal -- and that’s still a big if -- it will not include deep enough cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, or large enough financial assistance for developing nations to tackle climate issues, to satisfy a large chunk of the assembled masses here. That includes many of the Saturday protesters, who warned that an overly modest agreement would not avert climate catastrophe.

Instead, negotiators and environmentalists tracking the talks closely say, it appears that nations are mostly locked in on a series of emissions cuts they proposed before the conference, including reductions from 1990 levels of 20% by Europe and around 4% by the United States.

3. Scientists are striking back.

The first week featured a sharp and concerted effort by climate researchers to defend global warming science, including the release of a huge swath of raw temperature data that the researchers said show definitively that the world has been heating since the dawn of the industrial age, and that this decade is the warmest on record.

It was a direct response to a scandal involving the apparent computer hacking and the release of 1,073 e-mails between leading climate scientists, including discussions of shielding information from public view and of trying to shut critics out of scientific journals. Skeptics say the e-mails undermine the case for global warming.

4. Language matters.

To reach agreement, fast-developing nations such as China and wealthy powers such as the United States must solve a linguistic Rubik’s Cube: how to say, in the text, that developing countries are serious about their emissions pledges and willing to be transparent about whether they’re meeting them.

There are dozens of ways to phrase that two-step of commitment and transparency; negotiators need to find the one that each side can sell at home as a victory for its position.

5. The circus is coming.

The bedlam of Week One won’t compare with the Chaos of Week Two.

More activists are on their way, along with more reporters and enough members of Congress to fill a jumbo jet. The first heads of state and government are to arrive Wednesday. President Obama is due Friday.

The big question is, will they leave smiling or empty-handed?

jtankersley@latimes.com


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