Climate Change: Letdown in Copenhagen

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The meeting of 193 nations in Copenhagen in December 2009 may have been significant in terms of raising awareness about global warming a notch or two. The fact that there were no legally binding agreements, however, is an indication of the difficulties that may prevent meaningful progress in the future.

The most challenging and yet unapparent problems appear to be, 1) public ignorance about the complexity of the issue, particularly within the developed nations; 2) incredulity on the part of large, influential segments of their respective populations; and 3) inadequate public education about the problem across the globe. Should these conditions persist, we may reasonably expect that no substantial world agreements will be attained until highly visible and disturbing, global warming-related catastrophes take place, until  there is heightened sensitivity and awareness about the problem, and/or until a nation or group of nations assume a leading role.

History has shown us two very distinct human dispositions when facing impending disasters. Some people become easily swayed that they are physically or emotionally unable to avert peril and passively accept its outcome. Others, whether out of fear, a desire for survival, or a sheer impulse to confront adversity, seek to control their fate and thus react in the opposite manner.

Addressing potential solutions to global warming will require hardship. The financial burden will be significant; social and economic priorities will need to be rearranged worldwide. Hence, hypothetically, we may suspect that, at the Copenhagen conference,  key nations elected to bypass binding options either because they do not care enough, or more likely because their people ignore the severity of the problem and they choose to disbelieve in the absence of more solid “scientific proof.”

Whether all or most nations in the world are being selfishly or fearfully passive or simply incredulous, it is doubtful that if the ominous calamities attributed to global warming were valid and humanly created, the majority of its people would not actively push their governments into action.

Despite the vast amounts of information put across by the media in the last few years, Copenhagen 09 showed that populations and governments were not sufficiently moved by the quality of scientific predictions of doom to overcome existing hurdles. Indications of popular support in key nations were less than reassuring, thereby providing some validity to the view that people across the globe have scant concrete information that would motivate them to force their governments into binding agreements.

A December 2009 Pew Research Center survey on global warming reveals astonishing inconsistencies that help to explain why Copenhagen 09 failed.  (
http://pewglobal.org/commentary/display.php?AnalysisID=1066)

Twenty-one of the twenty-five nations that were surveyed have democratically elected governments, including the United States, the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases, which according to the dominant scientific view is responsible for most global warming taking place on the planet. Among the four authoritarian regimes surveyed is China, the world’s most populous nation. China is predicted soon to become the highest emitter of these gases.

In only twelve of the twenty-one democracies do we find that its peoples have a resounding majority (over sixty percent) that believes that global warming is a serious world problem. Moreover, while eighteen of the twenty-one democracies surveyed indicated that they are willing to endure some economic hardship such as job losses and slower growth, only four are highly willing to pay higher prices to address the problem, the U.S. not being one of them. If we may safely assume that it is more difficult for democratically elected governments than for authoritarian regimes to elude their people’s sentiments when entering into international agreements, addressing global warming will not be easy.

Contradicting behaviors become even more apparent in the survey when we focus on key nations. For example, the Chinese indicate that they are highly willing to assume economic hardship as well as pay higher prices to deal with global warming. Nonetheless, it is difficult to accept that the Chinese would be willing to bear sacrifices if, as a nation, they have the lowest regard for the problem of all people surveyed. Granted, in this case it might help that China has an authoritarian regime.

The German people, a major economic power, consider global warming a very serious issue and are highly willing to assume some economic hardship but they are not too willing to pay higher prices to tackle the problem.

Brazilians, who possess the world’s most vast ecosystem, highly believe that global warming is a serious issue and have indicated a high willingness to assume some economic hardship. Perhaps, because they are not among the richest people in the world, however, they are not too willing to assume a high financial burden to confront the problem.

At least one key nation exhibits positively consistent attitudes. Indians, for example, regard global warming as a highly serious problem. They indicate that they are extremely willing to assume social and economic burdens, and quite willing, too, to bear high costs to address the problem.

Two other key nations, meanwhile, show remarkably negative consistency. Russians tell us that they are mildly willing to assume economic hardships and even less willing to pay higher prices to confront global warming. But then, Russians have indicated that they do not regard global warming as a serious problem.

We then come to the U.S. According to the Pew survey, we are willing to assume only some economic hardship but we are reluctant to pay higher prices to confront the problem. Not bad for a nation whose people do not regard global warming as very serious.

One may ask, with partners like these how can the nations of the world ever attain legally binding agreements?

Going Forward: Information, Public Education, and Leadership
If we accept the assumption that in this case ignorance, although temporarily a bliss, may lead to dreadful inaction, part of the problem in successfully addressing global warming lies with the quality of the information that is being, or not being, imparted to the public.

Although all 193 governments that met in Copenhagen support the prevailing scientific view that global warming is the outcome of human activity and portends terrible consequences for human beings, there are studies put out by scientists and others who strongly disagree with both the dominant view and its outcome. In line with their views, these individuals oppose government policies that would control that which they think is natural, not manmade.

Many of their followers even believe that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by environmental activists seeking to slow down industrial progress. Hence, they strongly oppose the severe social and economic policies that are being offered to mitigate the consequences of global warming. While these views do not enjoy as much prominence as the dominant scientific position, they make the rounds throughout the internet, through industry spokespersons, and through conservative media, religious, and political leaders. Somehow, these individuals have been able to persuade a great many people in key developed nations.

For better or for worse, there are serious discrepancies between the dominant scientific view and the opposition, such as, 1)  whether humanly-caused emissions of greenhouse gases are mostly responsible for global warming; 2) whether global warming itself is largely natural and inevitable; 3) whether restrictions on CO2 levels are the best and most viable solutions to the problem; 4) whether we should simply adapt to variations in climate patterns the best we can; 5) whether economic and technological development is a more significant alternative to the continuation of human life than limiting global warming.

As conditions stand today, both groups behave as rivals who are unwilling to confront each other publicly, not in a debate fashion but in a dialogue among open-minded colleagues. Scientists holding the prevailing scientific view appear to be in the majority and are so certain of their studies that they do not consider it worthwhile to chat with the opposition. Setting aside the question of whether the leakage of British e-mails suggests that some of the studies may have been skewed to reflect desired results, the incident indicates a less than respectful attitude toward the opposition.

Perhaps, consensus between the two sides will be unattainable. Perhaps, even if scientific evidence were to be quite persuasive, the opposition would still allow itself to be guided by a social Darwinist attitude suggesting that human progress should continue to take its course no matter the consequences. At the very least, however, those who support the dominant scientific position ought to systematically address the opposition’s views, if only to politely refute them through scientific communication so that the public may acquire a better understanding of the problem. It may seem incongruous that in many countries, including the U.S., the dominant scientific view of global warming is only capable of persuading a minority of all who are being asked to assume greater sacrifices.

Nonetheless, as neophytes on the issue of global warming, the public is experiencing an informational abyss that keeps us wondering, “who is right?” We know that in science there cannot be two right but diametrically opposed answers to the same question. We need to know who is wrong. It is apparent that simply being told that global warming presents a dangerous threat to future life on earth has not been enough.

If we are to overcome people’s incredulity, credible scientific information needs to be systematically disseminated in layman’s terminology with much greater intensity than that governmental and non-governmental institutions generated to educate the public about the AIDS virus. Nonetheless, scientists must realize the difficulties they face. AIDS education has been rather successful largely because the disease forces us to sense the specter of death almost routinely by way of friends, the victims’ families, public education, and media.

Nonetheless, although environmental catastrophes directly related to global warming have taken place, they are too far removed from the sensorial radar of the average citizen. Pictures of icebergs breaking or of little frogs dying in the Amazon are too remote from people’s daily lives. The problem, of course, is that if global warming is truly lethal to life on this planet, we cannot wait until major life-threatening disasters begin to take place.

The Need for Increased U.S. Leadership
It would be truly unfair to blame President Obama and other world leaders for their failure to attain legally binding agreements in Copenhagen. The president and others were in no position to provide leadership because they did not have sufficiently strong backing of their citizens.

A simple operational definition of leadership tells us that a leader is someone who yells Charge! then looks over the shoulder and sees others following. The greatest challenge to a leader lies in persuading people to act against their own dispositions, inciting within them the will to make personal sacrifices. However, it is far more difficult to lead when the sacrifices elected officials asks of their citizens are quite burdensome. For this reason, followers likely will acquiesce more readily to leaders who pave the way through the example they themselves set than to those who do not.

Leadership is about messaging; what is said, how clearly it is said, to whom, by whom, and under what circumstances (timing and existing conditions).  Assuming that the circumstances are ripe, credibility then is the most significant element. Today, the credibility of the message and that of the messengers are on the line. Scientists, politicians, and citizens need to be on the same page on global warming, and as of today, they are not.

Perhaps, the only possible way to attain legally binding agreements in the future is for a nation, or nations, and its leaders to set the example. Communications has successfully shrunk the world. Our actions are instantaneously broadcast throughout the entire world.  We learn about events that take place on the other side of the globe in minutes. As a result, empathy, awareness, and sensitivity are acquired easier than before. In such an open world, the good and positive actions of a nation can, subtly and ingeniously,  shame and embarrass those who obstruct the aspirations of the rest. Not even authoritarian regimes seeking their place in the community of nations will be exempted from such pressures. It is only after a nation becomes virtuous, however, that it gains the necessary credibility to lead and to call up others who continue to resist international cooperation.

The U.S. cannot yet lead on the issue of global warming because we are not convinced of the necessity to assume a greater financial burden, despite that we are the greatest emitters of greenhouse gases and the richest nation in the world. We will not be able to coax other nations into a negotiated agreement until these circumstances change. If we wish to exercise strong leadership, it will be necessary for us to lead through example. We might need to take a major unilateral step first. Only then, others may follow.
 

To contact the author copy and paste my e-mail address and send via your e-mail provider. RicardoPlanas@reasonandpolitics.com