The wrong revolution

Populist politicians have railroaded America’s climate-change efforts, creating global deadlock that shows no signs of breaking soon, writes Jan McGirk.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” the singer Bob Dylan once rasped. But a little guidance wouldn’t hurt the growing portion of US voters who confuse the weather with the climate.

Government measures aimed at curbing global warming are a sure-fire way to steam up America’s libertarian Tea Party populists, who tend to scoff at scientific warnings about the perils of greenhouse-gas emissions and the human component in climate change. Most of the Tea Party crowd rejects carbon regulation and trading schemes as unwanted interference from a “nanny state”. Sarah Palin, the shrill contrarian who was defeated as the Republican vice presidential candidate two years ago and later quit halfway through her term as governor of Alaska, panders to these climate-change “sceptics” by dismissing relevant research as “a bunch of snake oil science”.

Republican John Boehner, the new speaker of the House of Representatives, Congress’s lower chamber, has said: “The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical.” No one is laughing.

Championing cheaper energy and oil independence over environmental concerns is a reliable crowd-pleaser in pockets of Middle America where the theory of evolution is also held in doubt. Overheated rhetoric is worrisome when the world’s average temperature continues to climb. Although the first half of 2010 was the warmest ever recorded, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 39 of the country’s federal lawmakers have ridiculed global warming as a hoax or a conspiracy. One group of scientists is assembling a “rapid-response team” to counteract climate misinformation, but facts seem irrelevant to steadfast politicians who are reluctant to “flip flop” or change their minds.

As the world economic slump drags on, US lawmakers are turning a cold shoulder to progressive climate-change legislation because of the political costs, coupled with the price tag of subsidies and incentives to counteract polluters.

With the latest United Nations-led climate treaty summit under way in Cancún now, the United States has found itself in a jam. The prospects for achieving anything meaningful or legally binding at this big forum are fading fast. The sense of urgency about halting climate change seems to get lost in endless protocols and squabbles among the 190 participating countries.

In fact, Todd Stern, the US State Department envoy to the Cancún meeting, told reporters bluntly: “No one is anticipating or expecting in any way a legal treaty to be done in Cancún this year. The focus at this point is on a set of decisions on the core issues.”

It’s a far cry from Barack Obama’s green campaign rhetoric. He had pledged to cut greenhouse-gas emissions dramatically – with a goal of 80% by mid-century – and lead a new international global-warming partnership. He aimed to invest US$150 billion (998 billion yuan) over the next decade to develop and implement “climate-friendly energy supplies, protect our existing manufacturing base and create millions of new jobs.” His goal was to double federal clean-energy research spending, while reducing dependence on foreign oil and trimming oil consumption by 35% before 2030. By 2025, he promised that 25% of America’s electricity would come from renewable sources.

Because the Obama administration failed to pass its cap-and-trade programme to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions this year, even while Obama’s Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress, world confidence in US leadership for carbon diplomacy has diminished. Political commitment without the legislation to back it up is not very convincing.

Todd Stern conceded that, “It is important for the United States to put in place its own full-scale plan for low carbon energy and reducing greenhouse gases. The more we can do that, we will have an even stronger voice in these discussions.”

The European Union climate commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, observed tartly: "Until action is taken in the US, others have an excuse – valid or not – for not coming along. Many countries are asking themselves why they should take action as long as the biggest emitter in the developed world is unwilling to live up to its global responsibilities.”

Following the US mid-term elections, in which the Democrats lost control of the lower legislative house, Congress is expected to promote offshore drilling and nuclear-power plants, but law specifically related to climate change will be hampered. Analysts predict more narrowly framed bills that look at improving energy efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear power, clean-coal technology and fuel-efficient vehicles running on electricity or hydrogen. Research funding for geo-engineering solutions, such as releasing sulphur into the atmosphere to counteract the impact of greenhouse gases or locking carbon up in underground vaults, will be greatly reduced.

“It’s time for those of us who work on climate change to help the public and policymakers understand the evidence: climate change is real, well under way and poses severe risks to the United States and the world,” said Peter Gleick, a California-based scientist who won a 2003 MacArthur fellowship for his environmental work. “Lawsuits, junk science and energy-industry propaganda won’t change the evidence about climate change, but the good news is there are practical, economically sound solutions that can slow the onset of climate change while giving us more time to do needed research and education on these issues.”

Internationally, there has been a political backlash against the endless foot-dragging on climate change. In mid-November, Mexico City’s mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, called an emergency summit of 135 world mayors to his polluted megalopolis where greenhouse-gas emissions have been slashed by 4% over the past two years.

Unwilling to wait for a top-down mandate, Ebrard appealed to grassroots activism to produce local action plans that are “measurable, reportable and verifiable”.

“We’re leading the way,” said Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “The national governments have tried to run away from their responsibility.” But because cities own utilities and provide key services, municipal ordinances “can help change citizen behaviour toward energy consumption,” he said. Half of the world’s population lives in urban areas now but, by 2050, that proportion will increase to two-thirds. Big cities already use up to 60% of global energy production and emit 70% of greenhouse gases. Mayors complain that the international deadlock on climate policy has prevented them from launching global warming mitigation projects typically financed by development banks.

“We want the chiefs of state and government to know in Cancún that the mayors of the world are committed to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions but, for that, they must commit to increase the financial support in order to reach those goals in the short term,” said Bertrand Delanoe, the mayor of Paris.

Julian Cribb, a notable Australian science writer and author of The Coming Famine, suggests pitting the world’s energy behemoths against one another. He told chinadialogue: “If China vowed to achieve their [green energy] target before America, it would engender competitive nationalism and set both economies on a clean energy fast-track. Invoking US national pride is one way to hush the kind of red-necked denialism we see today – they won’t want their own country to come second in a technological race. A challenge from China would make being clean and green a kind of international sport, as well as an economic and environmental goal.”

The Coming Famine, which warns about future food security in a changed climate, also urges eco-activists to stress the links between global warming and food supply in order to “energise the climate debate”.

“Climate change is most likely to be felt by the majority of people worldwide in the form of food shortages and big price hikes in the shops. This is something they can all understand, whereas atmospheric physics is a still bit arcane to the typical consumer,” Cribb pointed out. “A degree or two of warming doesn’t sound like much (to the average person who may not appreciate its implications) but a doubling in the price of bread or rice hits right where politicians least like it. I think the Chinese government knows that hunger spells civil strife and, potentially, revolution.”

That’s hardly the type of Green Revolution envisioned by the policymakers at Cancún.

Jan McGirk is a former correspondent for The Independent (London) who has reported on environmental issues and disasters in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. 

Homepage image shows John Boehner, the new speaker of the US House of Representatives, making a point. Photo courtesy of the House Republican Conference