After Copenhagen: It Will Take Strong Political Will to Overcome the Sources of Resistance to Meaningful Action on Climate Change

By Prior, Michael | Soundings, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

After Copenhagen: It Will Take Strong Political Will to Overcome the Sources of Resistance to Meaningful Action on Climate Change


Prior, Michael, Soundings


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The debacle of the Copenhagen conference is only the beginning of a protracted period of international negotiations which, at least at the moment, look likely to come to grief. Another conference is promised for 2010 in Mexico, but if solutions are not found soon there will be little progress there. The announcement by the UN that it has dropped the 31 January deadline, by which time all countries were expected to officially state their emission reduction targets or list the actions they planned to take to counter climate change adds to this pessimism. There are several underlying issues over which negotiations foundered. Here I want to look at least three linked problems.

Climate change denial

One key issue is the refusal of many in the wealthy parts of the world to accept the reality of climate change and its link to human activity. This is particularly stark in the USA where, according to results released in October last year by the Pew Research Center, considerably fewer Americans now believe the Earth is warming (the decline has been from 71 per cent to 57 per cent over the space of a year and a half). As for agreement with scientists about the cause of global warming-human activities, human emissions-that too has sloped downwards, to just 36 per cent today. In Britain, almost a third of the population is reported to doubt the truth of global warming. One reason for this situation is the well-funded and well-connected campaign of 'climate-denial'. In Britain, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Daily Express and Spectator have all given prominence to climate-change denial without bothering to consider either the validity of the claims made or the expert status of those making the claims. The Daily Express was able to claim as a front-page headline that the recent cold spell was proof that climate-warming is a myth. Even the BBC commonly 'balances' the views of 99 per cent of world scientists with one of the few scientific dissenters. The few nuggets of confused and erroneous assertions that were yielded from the computer hacking of tens of thousands of emails between academic institutions, and poring over each detail of reports many thousands of pages long, have been publicised well beyond their relevance. The same is true of overstatement of a claim about Himalayan glaciers, and arguments about the validity of data in a paper published in 1990. None of these undermine the central science of climatechange, yet each is given huge and damaging publicity.

The fact is that it remains difficult to convince people of the need to acknowledge that their comparative prosperity is linked to unsustainable energy use, and that some change is needed to their lifestyle. Politicians are aware of this resistance, and many take the easy option of either sidelining the issue or, when it is thrust upon them, trying to find an easy way out. The Conservatives are already going soft on the issue, whilst Labour is making very little of it.

People living in poor countries have less choice, for they are increasingly confronted with the reality of climate change. The human misery in Darfur is, in part, a consequence of increasing aridity throughout central Africa, which is believed to derive from climate change-as are the increasing number of unusual and often devastating weather-related disturbances. The scale of the latter was illustrated in the Human Development Report 2007/08 from the UN. This estimated that, annually, in developing countries between 1980-84, about 80 million people were 'impacted' by some kind of meteorological disaster, a figure which had risen by 2000-04 to 262 million, about 1 in 19 people. (1) This has almost certainly increased still more in the last five years, as, for example, drought was followed by exceptional floods in southern Africa. That climate change will hurt the poor most of all is demonstrated by the same report's estimate that only 1 person in 1500 is similarly affected in wealthy countries. …

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