Public opinion and climate change

One  of the many strands of discussion at a Ditchley Foundation conference on climate change last week was the vexed question of how public opinion shapes the political space open to leaders on climate. There were many furrowed brows on this, not least given that the polling numbers on climate change are all heading the wrong way, all over the world – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the combination of the recession and media coverage of ‘climategate’.

My own take on this is that when we think about public opinion in the climate context, we’re a bit too fast to look at it through the lens of NGOs and the media – both of which had, I think, a terrible summit at Copenhagen.

Take NGOs first. For the most part, they concentrated on highly technical issues, as they have throughout the past decade – acting, in other words, like negotiators despite not having any bargaining chips. When they tried to look up a bit, and set an overall agenda, it was so vague as to be meaningless (“ambitious, fair, binding” – more on that here). Finally, as the summit fell apart, they retreated to their habitual comfort zone of arguing that it was all the fault of the US and EU, who had been unforgivably horrid to poor old China. (See Mark Lynas for a blistering critique of that view.)

Then, of course, there’s the feral nature of the 24/7 news media, which cheerfully overlooks its own agenda-setting role even as it peddles its sensationalised stories of stitch-ups, scandals and show-downs.

The Guardian’s John Vidal deserves singling out for an especially dishonourable mention here. Just two days in to Copenhagen, he ran a breathless piece saying that Copenhagen was “in disarray” following the leak of a draft agreement that “would hand more power to rich nations”. Never mind that the content of his piece was highly questionable (as we pointed out on GD at the time). The effect was to poison the atmosphere just as the summit began – leading the Indian environment minister to say in April this year that the summit had been “destroyed from the start” by the Guardian leak. Nice one, John!

So given that it would appear to be unwise to expect either NGOs or the media to help shape public opinion more constructively, what’s left? One suggestion at the conference was a bigger role for faith leaders – who are indeed getting steadily more active on climate.  

But my hunch is that it’s social networking technologies that are the key opinion formers to watch.

We’ve seen how breathtakingly fast they are at aggregating information – as during the Mumbai attacks, for instance, where Twitter was consistently 60-90 minutes ahead of the news media.  We’ve seen how they aggregate opinion as well as information – which can of course be as much of a curse as a blessing.  And we’ve seen how they can organise action – not just protest, but also more proactive policy solutions.

But what we haven’t seen, yet, is how all these elements could combine in the face of stronger climate impacts  – not just an extreme weather event, but an impact that could really trigger awareness of the potential for irreversible shifts. Strikes me that social networking technologies would be a highly unpredictable and interesting wild card in such circumstances – and potentially rather more useful than either NGOs or the media.

A Guide to the BASIC Coalition – climate after Copenhagen

One of the most significant developments at Copenhagen was the emergence of the BASIC coalition – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – which negotiated the final details of the Copenhagen Accord with the United States.

My understanding is that BASIC was formed at China’s instigation. China agreed a Memorandum of Understanding with India in October 2009, committing the two countries to working closely together at Copenhagen. It then invited Brazil and South Africa to join the party, at a meeting in Beijing a week before Copenhagen started. Sudan was also invited to represent the G77.

According to Jairam Ramesh, India’s environment minister, the four countries decided that they’d walk out of Copenhagen together if necessary:

We will not exit in isolation. We will co-ordinate our exit if any of our non-negotiable terms is violated. Our entry and exit will be collective.

During Copenhagen, China worked extremely closely with India, with the two delegations meeting up to six times a day. It also engaged intensively with the other members of BASIC. In the final meeting with the Americans, China agreed to accept a limited international monitoring of its targets (India claims to have pushed China on this point).

The decision was also taken to drop language, setting a deadline for turning the Copenhagen Accord into a legally binding agreement. South Africa and Brazil both appear to have been unhappy with this decision.

Since Copenhagen, the BASIC countries have met once and have agreed to continue to get together on a regular basis. They want the Copenhagen Accord to set the stage for a ‘twin track’ agreement – with tough and binding targets for developed countries through Kyoto #2 and voluntary commitments for themselves under a new agreement.

No-one really knows how the US would fit into this picture. It is also increasingly clear that they and the US left Copenhagen with quite different impressions of what will happen next. The US believes that large emerging economies now have “very explicit activities and obligations”. I don’t think they believe they are committed to anything significant, beyond what they agreed at Bali or put on the table on a voluntary basis before Copenhagen started. Continue reading

Did Copenhagen die yesterday?

Yesterday, I speculated about prospects for the Copenhagen Accord if Democrats lost their super-majority in the Senate. Well, voters in Massachusetts handed them a thumping – so what next?

In Politico, Martin Kady II looks on the bright side. Yes, healthcare may now be dead (many Democrats seem to be abandoning it without a fight – though I suppose that could change over the next 24 hours) – but Obama can still get other key parts of his agenda through Congress, Kady believes.

Unfortunately, on climate, what looks bright to Kady is likely to look exceptionally gloomy to those outside America’s borders.

A cap-and-trade bill has a shot in the Senate – as long as the cap-and- trade part is removed. If Democrats dump that toxic measure and pursue a more modest climate and energy bill, they’ve actually got a shot at getting something done – and getting a few Republican votes to push them past 60.

Voinovich and Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) are working on a smaller-scale proposal that would limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. And moderate Democrats are pushing Senate leadership to drop the cap-and- trade provision in favor of an energy-only bill, which could include renewable fuels standard tax incentives for alternative energy…

“It is my assessment that we likely will not do a climate change bill this year, but we will do energy,” Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said Tuesday. “I think it is more likely for us to turn to something that is bipartisan and will address the country’s energy interest and begin to address specific policies on climate change.”

The Voinovich-Lugar bill will do little to cap, let alone reduce, emissions. Voinovich is certainly no fan of action on climate change. He has been holding out for a new analysis of cap and trade from EPA – believing the agency is holding back information on the true costs.

His main priority is reduce America’s dependency on the Middle East, wanting the US to become the least dependent on imported oil of any country in the world. He’s thinks the US should go after “every drop” of its oil shale and should also invest heavily in using coal as a substitute for oil.

On climate itself, he thinks the 17% emissions reduction by 2020 on 2005 levels, which President Obama promised at Copenhagen, is much too ambitious. He sees little point in the US reducing its emissions if China and India don’t do the same.

If Voinovich is now the best hope for getting bipartisan support for US domestic legislation, then I think Copenhagen’s prospects are grim indeed. Expect it be starring in its own Monty Python sketch sometime around the time of the US mid-terms.

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Does Copenhagen die today?

Most people left Copenhagen thinking the next big crunch date would be the last day in January, when 49 or so countries are due to lodge their commitments for reducing emissions with the UNFCCC (they fill in one of two appendices to the Copenhagen Accord – “quantified economy-wide emissions targets for 2020” for developed countries; “nationally appropriate mitigation actions” for developing ones – China included).

As Barack Obama explained, these commitments “will not be legally binding, but what [they] will do is allow for each country to show to the world what they’re doing… and we”ll know who is meeting and who’s not meeting the mutual obligations that have been set forth.”

In other words, this is ‘pledge and review’ – the non-binding, bottom up approach that the United States favoured in the run up to Kyoto, before it surprised everyone by announcing that it was prepared to accept a legally binding protocol at the Geneva climate conference in 1996.

The US then agreed at Kyoto to a 7% cut in its emissions by 2012 on a 1990 benchmark, but failed to ratify the treaty. It is now offering a 17% cut on 2005 levels by 2020, on a non-binding basis – which would take its emissions more or less back to where they were in 1990. (The EU is promising a 20-30% cut on 1990 levels by 2020.)

But the US has a credibility problem. Not only did it use the Kyoto years to pump out as much CO2 as it could, the Senate is yet to pass domestic legislation and, with healthcare stalled, and financial regulation next in the queue of ‘big bills’ – there’s long been a big question mark on whether it will ever will.

The Copenhagen Accord, and especially China’s willingness to accept some kind of international monitoring of its emissions reductions, was supposed to make it easier for the President to push the bill over the line, but that depends heavily on (a) his political credibility; (b) whether he can keep together a very shaky Democrat alliance on the bill, perhaps bolstered by the odd Republican prepared to commit political suicide.

Which brings us to today – when the Democrats face, according to Nate Silver, a 75% chance of losing Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in a special election. If the hapless Martha Coakley does lose (I actually think she may scrape it, but she’s clearly now the outsider), it’s going to make a climate bill seem a very long way away indeed.

One thing is sure. Scott Brown won’t be voting for emissions reductions any time soon. He’s solidly in the mainstream of Republican thinking on the issue. Asked recently if global warming was a fraud, he answered:

It’s interesting. I think the globe is always heating and cooling. It’s a natural way of ebb and flow. The thing that concerns me lately is some of the information I’ve heard about potential tampering with some of the information.

I just want to make sure if in fact . . . the earth is heating up, that we have accurate information, and it’s unbiased by scientists with no agenda. Once that’s done, then I think we can really move forward with a good plan.

And if the Democrats lose the seat and their super-majority in the Senate, will the US still feel able to pledge a 17% emissions cut in their submission on Copenhagen on Jan 31st? And, if they do, will anyone believe they have the political will to meet the commitment? The answers to those questions are – probably yes; almost certainly not.

Alex and I have wondered for some time whether the climate risks becoming a zombie process (shuffling and groaning, but never quite dying) – but perhaps we’re wrong. Maybe Copenhagen is going to be dead sooner than we thought. It certainly doesn’t look good if the Democrats lose a Senate seat that Kennedy held for them from 1962, just a year after Obama was born.

The best news on climate change for months. Maybe.

And now for the good news on climate change. 

First, an excerpt from the New York Times yesterday.  We join Bono, a contributing columnist at the Times, as he’s setting out a list of 10 ideas that might make the next 10 years “more interesting, healthy or civil” – ideas which “have little in common with one another except that I am seized by each, and moved by its potential to change our world.” Here’s number 3:

In the recent climate talks in Copenhagen, it was no surprise that developing countries objected to taking their feet off the pedal of their own carbon-paced growth; after all, they played little part in building the congested eight-lane highway of a problem that the world faces now.

One smart suggestion I’ve heard, sort of a riff on cap-and-trade, is that each person has an equal right to pollute and that there might somehow be a way to monetize this. By this accounting, your average Ethiopian can sell her underpolluting ways (people in Ethiopia emit about 0.1 ton of carbon a year) to the average American (about 20 tons a year) and use the proceeds to deal with the effects of climate change (like drought), educate her kids and send them to university. (Trust in capitalism — we’ll find a way.) As a mild green, I like the idea, though it’s controversial in militant, khaki-green quarters. And yes, real economists would prefer to tax carbon at the source, but so far the political will is not there. If it were me, I’d close the deal before the rising nations want it backdated.

Bono just endorsed contraction and convergence – a big deal, for three reasons. Continue reading

Blame China

Mark Lynas in today’s Guardian:

The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful “deal” so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen.

China’s strategy was simple: block the open negotiations for two weeks, and then ensure that the closed-door deal made it look as if the west had failed the world’s poor once again. And sure enough, the aid agencies, civil society movements and environmental groups all took the bait. The failure was “the inevitable result of rich countries refusing adequately and fairly to shoulder their overwhelming responsibility”, said Christian Aid. “Rich countries have bullied developing nations,” fumed Friends of the Earth International.

All very predictable, but the complete opposite of the truth. Even George Monbiot, writing in yesterday’s Guardian, made the mistake of singly blaming Obama. But I saw Obama fighting desperately to salvage a deal, and the Chinese delegate saying “no”, over and over again. Monbiot even approvingly quoted the Sudanese delegate Lumumba Di-Aping, who denounced the Copenhagen accord as “a suicide pact, an incineration pact, in order to maintain the economic dominance of a few countries”.

Sudan behaves at the talks as a puppet of China; one of a number of countries that relieves the Chinese delegation of having to fight its battles in open sessions. It was a perfect stitch-up. China gutted the deal behind the scenes, and then left its proxies to savage it in public.

Meanwhile, the FT observes, cracks are starting to appear among the emerging economies:

Cracks emerged on Tuesday in the alliance on climate change formed at the Copenhagen conference last week, with leading developing countries criticising the resulting accord.The so-called Basic countries – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – backed the accord in a meeting with the US on Friday night, and it was also supported by almost all other nations at the talks, including all of the biggest emitters.

But on Tuesday the Brazilian government labelled the accord “disappointing” and complained that the financial assistance it contained from rich to poor countries was insufficient. South Africa also raised objections: Buyelwa Sonjica, the environment minister, called the failure to produce a legally binding agreement “unacceptable”. She said her government had considered leaving the meeting. “We are not defending this, as I have indicated, for us it is not acceptable, it is definitely not acceptable,” she said.

Hitting Reboot – where next for climate after Copenhagen?

Today, the Brookings Institution publishes Hitting Reboot – a new paper from Alex and I reviewing climate policy in the aftermath of Copenhagen.

The picture is a bleak one – there’s no point pretending otherwise. Copenhagen took us only a little further than Bali, despite two years of negotiations. In some crucial aspects, we actually seem further away from a robust and comprehensive climate deal than we were in 2007.

Rather than hitting the brakes, however, we argue that deal-makers need to steer into the skid – upping the level of ambition. Climate isn’t a problem that can simply be put on pause.

Believe the science (and most still do), and you have little choice but to find new ways of bringing countries into some kind of binding agreement to control emissions.

That means finally getting countries to lay all their cards out on the table. Copenhagen failed, in part, because governments were far too slow to level with each other about what they really wanted. They spent two years pussy-footing around – and were then surprised when it proved difficult to engage in Copenhagen’s frenetic last few days.

How can we ever get to a deal when it’s considered perfectly acceptable to talk about rigorous (and often unachievable) targets for 2050 – but a faux pas to talk about the tough decisions and painful trade offs that need to be taken over the next few years if the climate is to be pushed onto any stabilisation trajectory?

That’s why much of our report is about getting back to the basics – taking 2ºC as a starting point, and then building up the blocks that are needed to seize the increasingly slim chance of making that aspiration a reality. Continue reading