Climate Change Loses Traction For Greens

  • Date: 14/06/10

What a difference a year makes. This time last year the environmental movement was gearing up for a major breakthrough at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit. With a combination of “doom and gloom” soothsayers — Ban ki Moon, Al Gore, Prince Charles, James Hansen, David Suzuki — and optimistic negotiators, it was clear that Copenhagen was being positioned as “the last chance” we had to save the planet.

We know what happened during the negotiations, however. Polluters couldn’t agree with the small islands and the developing world and the negotiations fell apart, with a compromise “let’s-look-as-if-we-might-save-the-planet” deal being signed off by a few countries at the end of a tough 10 days of negotiation.

Grief therapy

Since then the environmental movement has been going through a period of loss — grieving the loss of an ideal and hoping for a new reality that will culminate in a new global climate change negotiation in Brazil in December.

But the game is up. There will not be a meaningful commitment to climate change mitigation involving all of the leading polluters, especially the U.S., China, India and Canada. What is more, the general public in Canada, the U.S. and Britain are all signalling that climate change is less of a priority for them now than it was five years ago.

Just as the language has gone through significant change — from “global warming” through “climate change,” from “climate catastrophe” to the “climate challenge” — so now the environmental movement is going through its own metamorphosis. According to The Guardian (U.K.), “the economic case for global action to stop the destruction of the natural world is even more powerful than the argument for tackling climate change, a major report for the United Nations will declare this summer — a fact reinforced by the psychological, social and economic impacts of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.”

One reason for this shift is money. Groups such as Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy are among the most trusted environmental “brands” in the world, pledged to protect and defend nature. Yet many of the green organizations meant to be leading the fight are busy securing funds from those who are also destroying the environment through mining and exploration. Sierra Club — the biggest green group in the U.S. — was approached in 2008 by the maker of Clorox bleach, which said that if the club endorsed its new range of “green” household cleaners, they would give it a percentage of the sales. The club’s corporate accountability committee said the deal created a blatant conflict of interest — but took it anyway. Money talks. Right now the money is saying that biodiversity and environmental impacts of pollution, deforestation, land use changes and other matters are more important than climate change.

A second reason is public opinion. The public are disaffected by all the talk about the need for a response to climate change and both the lack of action and the costs of the actions that need to be taken. In the U.K., where energy rationing over the next decade is a real possibility due to the now defeated government’s dithering on environmental policy, many are now balking at the rising costs of energy and the ugliness of the countryside blighted by wind turbines. In the U.S., public support for action on climate change is down from 46 per cent of the population to 36 per cent in just one year. Environmental groups no longer enjoy the wide support of the people when they focus on climate change.

A third reason is political reality. Climate change as a policy strategy in the U.S. and Canada is stuck and likely to be so for some time. The U.S. Senate has the Kerry-Lieberman bill to debate, but it is unlikely to pass. Canada has said it will follow the U.S. lead on a North American strategy, so Canada is also unlikely to do anything until the U.S. passes appropriate legislation.

However, major changes are taking place with respect to conservation, water, land use and air quality on both sides of the U.S.-Canada divide and serious attention to conservation and cleanup can be expected on both sides of the border following the BP spill. Environmental groups are already gearing up to lobby on these issues, dusting off old policies and approaches from the early 1990s. Both the U.S. and Canada are more likely to enact legislation on these issues than on transformative changes required to “stop” climate change.

Climate change problematic

The final reason that the environmental groups are shifting ground is that the science of climate change remains problematic. While some would argue that the core science demonstrating that the climate is changing and that this is due largely to the actions of people remains unchanged, the skeptics have gained sufficient ground over the last year to plant large trees of doubt. Worse, data from real world observations (as opposed to data from climate change models) provide opportunities for varying interpretations of the current state of the planet. The science is becoming a tough sell.

For all these reasons, the environmentalists will now focus more and more on environmental degradation and cleanup than on climate change — deforestation, water and land use will be the new focus for their work. Not a bad thing either.

The Nova Scotian, 6 June 2010

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