Friday, March 5, 2010

Climate Change Leaders On the Defensive: How Did We Get Here?

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

It was an interesting week for the climate movement. Al Gore published on Op Ed piece in the New York Times entitled "We Can't Wish Away Climate Change", and The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a statement that they intend to establish an independent committee to review IPCC procedures. Clearly, some of the most visible players in the climate movement are on the defensive. With only 35% of Americans now convinced that climate change is caused by human activity, it's no wonder.

But how did we get here? Gore points to three causes:

1. Mistakes were made.
The Op Ed piece acknowledges that "scientific enterprise will never be completely free of mistakes", and alludes to both the climategate emails and errors in reporting on the threat to the Himalayas that I blogged about a few weeks ago. Worse than the mistakes, however has been the IPCC's refusal to take responsibility. The statement by the IPCC acknowledges criticism without admitting error, maintaining the aura of immaturity surrounding the organization. As Gore points out, "What is important is that the overwhelming consensus on global warming remains unchanged" (which my organization agrees with.) The IPCC should more openly admit to, learn from, and respond to errors.

2. Opposition is getting organized.
The last few years of discussion on the solutions to the climate problem have made it clear that the heaviest emitting industries are going to feel some negative impact through regulation or caps. As Gore says, "some industries and companies whose business plans are dependent on unrestrained pollution of the atmospheric commons have become ever more entrenched. They are ferociously fighting against the mildest regulation — just as tobacco companies blocked constraints on the marketing of cigarettes for four decades after science confirmed the link of cigarettes to diseases of the lung and the heart." This is a common tactic, and many of these firms have sizable war chests to fund both explicit public opinion campaigns, as well as dubiously ethical stealth efforts.

3. Right wing media is gaining influence.
I'm not sure I agree with this point, but Gore points out that "changes in America’s political system — including the replacement of newspapers and magazines by television as the dominant medium of communication — conferred powerful advantages on wealthy advocates of unrestrained markets and weakened advocates of legal and regulatory reforms. Some news media organizations now present showmen masquerading as political thinkers who package hatred and divisiveness as entertainment. And as in times past, that has proved to be a potent drug in the veins of the body politic. Their most consistent theme is to label as “socialist” any proposal to reform exploitive behavior in the marketplace." He is giving FOX News far too much credit.

Looking at the issue from a consumer and populist perspective, I suspect that there is simply a massive underestimation of what it will take to undo decades of messaging and behavior reinforcing that cheap energy is an unlimited resource, international cooperation should automatically take a back seat to corporate profits, and that unrestrained consumerism is both a right and a virtue. It is more than just an inconvenient truth to discover that the old way is the wrong way. Change to deeply ingrained social institutions is seldom easy, and often generational.

Senator Lindsey Graham seems to understand this. As he told Thomas Friedman, “I have been to enough college campuses to know if you are 30 or younger this climate issue is not a debate. It’s a value. These young people grew up with recycling and a sensitivity to the environment — and the world will be better off for it."

Gore and Bono, photo copyright: / CC BY-SA 2.0

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