Climate Change: Evasion Replaces Denial

28 September 2007

Climate Change: Evasion Replaces Denial

By Gwynne Dyer

When denial fails, try evasion. Almost all the climate change deniers, even President George W. Bush, now allow the forbidden phrase to pass their lips, but that doesn’t mean they have really accepted the need to do something about it. The preferred tactics now are distraction, diversion and delay.

That’s why the US government held a mini-summit on climate change last week just two days after the United Nations held a one-day summit to prepare for the December meeting in Indonesia that must set the targets for deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in the period after 2012, when the current Kyoto Protocol expires. The Bush administration, which refused to ratify the Kyoto pact, doesn’t want any hard targets at all, so the name of the game is sabotage.

“Each nation must decide for itself the right mix of tools and technology to achieve results that are measurable and environmentally effective,” Mr Bush said. In other words, there should not be negotiated targets for actual cuts in emissions, with penalties for those who do not meet them. “By setting this goal, we acknowledge there is a problem,” said the US president. “And by setting this goal, we commit ourselves to doing something about it.”

What he proposes to do about it is to host another conference next year to “finalise the goal” (but not a mandatory goal, you understand) and discuss ways of attaining it. Then there could be another conference in 2009, and another in 2010….

Evasion and delay. The aim is to prevent the Kyoto accord’s 144 signatories from setting hard targets for deep emission cuts, or at least to provide a plausible political shelter for governments that oppose mandatory cuts but need to look like they are fighting climate change in the eyes of their own peoples. That shelter, which is now called the Asia-Pacific Partnership, was set up last year, and last week it gained a new recruit: Canada.

The six existing members are the United States and Australia (huge emitters of greenhouse gases that never joined the Kyoto process, and until recently were climate change deniers); China, India and South Korea (Kyoto signatories that, as developing countries, were exempt from emission limits under the existing treaty, but fear that they would face limits in the next phase); and Japan (which accepted a Kyoto target for 2012, but has no hope of meeting it now without heroic efforts). Together, they account for half of the world’s emissions.

The new member, Canada, is a big emitter that committed itself to reduce emissions under Kyoto but made no effort to reach its target. The fault mostly lies with previous Liberal governments, but the new Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, is a former climate change denier who is seeking a way to welsh on the commitment. A large majority of Canadians support Kyoto, so he needs political cover, and the Asia-Pacific Partnership might give him some.

The Bush administration has thus succeeded in splitting the world in two on the climate change issue. An overwhelming majority of the 39 developed countries have agreed to get back below their 1990 level of greenhouse gas emissions by 2012, and will meet their targets (usually about 5 percent below) or at least come close. A few rogue industrial countries have shunned the Kyoto process entirely or missed their targets very badly, and they have now joined with the most rapidly developing countries (whose emissions are soaring) to subvert or evade the next phase of cuts.

It’s exactly what you would expect in any large undertaking that involves many different countries, and there’s no point in getting upset about it. The only question is how to get past it.

Australia will probably join the post-Kyoto process as soon as Australian voters have dumped Prime Minister John Howard, a serial climate change denier who looks certain to lose the election later this year. After six years of intense drought, Australians are losing their scepticism about climate change. So are Americans.

Seventy percent of Americans now identify climate change as a major problem, and in the face of the federal government’s obstructionism many states are pressing ahead with their own greenhouse gas reduction programmes. As California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (who has committed his state to deep cuts) said at the UN summit: “California is moving the United States beyond debate and doubt to action..What we are doing is changing the dynamic.”

An even bigger problem is the Asian giants, China and India, whose hopes of achieving full developed-country status depend on historically unprecedented economic growth rates. They will not abandon those hopes while other countries still live in lavish consumer societies. So how can they be persuaded to accept emission controls?

With great difficulty, but it is their climate too. The deal will require the old industrialised countries to take even deeper cuts in their emissions in order to leave the emerging ones some room to grow. It must also involve technology transfer and direct subsidies from the old rich countries to help them switch from CO2-intensive technologies for power generation (like two new coal-fired generating stations in China each week) to cleaner ones.

That will be one of the most difficult political bargains that has ever been negotiated, but the prospect of global disaster may help to concentrate people’s minds.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. ( “The new…some”; and “Australia…Americans”)