“Weather we like it or not”

Sol Iglesias is the Acting Director for Intellectual Exchange of Asia-Europe Foundation. This piece reflects her personal views and not those of the Asia-Europe Foundation. It was publish in the November 23, 2009 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/2 and S1/3.

These days, talking about the weather is more than just a pleasantry. A lot of work remains ahead of us: to provide humanitarian relief to Tropical Storm Ondoy and Typhoon Pepeng victims, to re-build from what was lost and to better prepare for future disasters.

{mosimage} The recent catastrophes in the Philippines and elsewhere in the region may lead the public to realize the immediacy of climate change and extreme weather events (like a month’s worth of rain falling in six hours, like what happened with Ondoy in Manila). With the negotiations on a post-Kyoto Protocol just a few weeks away in Copenhagen, wider public discourse on climate change is more important than ever.

The Kyoto Protocol document outlines specific responsibilities for the countries party to the agreement, and the mechanisms for investments in reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere, polluter payments through a market for carbon trading and cleaner development. The aim is to bring down harmful emissions to1990 levels —by the year 2012. As this protocol nears the end of its effectivity, governments are winding down what should be a conclusive process for what happens next.

Any healthy public policy debate needs to be fortified by addressing any skeptics and views that question “authoritative|” narratives. At the risk of mixing the climate change skeptics (who have precise questions about methodology or criticize the Kyoto provisions and other policy responses) with the deniers (who reject outright the evidence that human-led climate change exists), here are a couple of arguments for denial:

1. Changes in climate can be explained by natural phenomena e.g. solar activity. Some argue that it’s not global warming but global cooling!

2. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecasts and models are wrong, at best, or are fudged, at worst. Some assert that opposition to the dominant views is being muzzled within the scientific community. The IPCC was set up by the United Nations as a scientific body to review relevant technical information produced worldwide in view of providing “rigorous and balanced” reports to decision makers. Most notably, the IPCC finally concluded that climate change is caused by human activity in 2007 (big revelation!) and received the Nobel Peace Prize for their work (although these things seem to be given away like Oscars nowadays).

On the first contention, I  say that whether “change” means rapid global warming or cooling, the impact on human activity must be addressed (for instance how changes in rainfall patterns have an impact on agriculture).

On the second contention, I find assertions of conspiracy within the scientific community rather implausible except perhaps in the fecund imagination of Michael Crichton’s fiction.

On this, let’s look at another popular book. Bjorn Lømborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist was published in English by Cambridge University Press in 2001 and became an international bestseller. Lømborg sought to question “the Litany” of environmental degradation in the world—including global warming. On one hand, the Danish committee on scientific dishonesty has discredited Lømborg and his book; yet, his work was vindicated by the Danish ministry for science, technology and innovation. One verdict is rejected by some in the scientific community, one verdict is rejected by others. In any case, Lømborg isn’t exactly the poster boy for the silenced opposition; he was even appointed by the Danish government to head the national Environmental Assessment Institute for a couple of years.

I think the real problem lies not so much in the scientific community, but in the domestic politics of a global hegemony in decline.

Republicans in the US Congress block constructive American action in the international community’s efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. What “pro-climate change” conspiracy can exist when powerful politicians have the means to wage a counter-campaign that decries a significant portion of the world’s scientific community as frauds? These politicians are arguably in the pockets of the oil companies, the automakers and big industry–and blatantly so: they monger fear of the negative impact on the American economy (a tune they played in the boom years that they play louder in the middle of an economic crisis).

What is the impact of this persistent spin on denial? In America, according to the 2009 Pew Research Center national survey released on 22 October, there is a deeper partisan divide over perceptions of global warming in the US. Between 2008 and 2009, there was a decline from 71% to 57% of total American respondents who agree there is solid evidence of global warming. If we pull earlier comparisons from 2006, Republicans that accept global warming dropped from 59% four years ago to 35% compared to a smaller but important drop among Democrats from 91% to 75%. Independents exhibit a noteworthy decrease from 79% in 2006 to 53% today.

Even global consensus on climate change is a myth. Two of the biggest polluters, the US and China, have not agreed to binding commitments on mitigation. We can point a finger at the George “Dubya” Bush administration for stalling international action on climate change. But we can also point a pinky at Al Gore who pushed UN consensus to the lowest common denominator for having brought the Kyoto Protocol to the table in the first place as a flooded-down version of what the protocol could have been. The Kyoto agreement that the US government refused to sign for 12 years was actually their idea. Who says Americans don’t have a sense of irony?

As the only superpower left standing after the USSR’s collapse, US action in multilateral negotiations is still a powerful signal for other countries. But the post-Cold War world is not the same as the post-Wall Street crisis one. From unipolarity we see multipolarity, whether this be of a China-US Group of 2 or ménage à trois including the European Union or the G 20 major economies. Global power has certainly diffused among various emerging poles of influence. This means American persuasion is necessary but not enough for decisive band-wagoning at the climate change talks this December.

The climate change debate is led by alarmists? There isn’t enough alarm. Who’s pulling the wool over whose eyes?

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