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.

On climate, US gives China a free pass (or not) – updated

The Guardian headline was unequivocal: “The US will exempt China from binding greenhouse gas targets.”

Guardian environment correspondent, David Adam, had had a chat with Jonathan Pershing, who leads the American climate delegation, and Pershing had told him that only developed countries need take on binding targets to reduce emissions. “We’re saying that the actions of developing countries should be binding, not the outcomes of those actions.”

Now, that’s a big deal. After all, back in 1997, the US Senate made it crystal clear that it had no intention of ratifying Kyoto unless the agreement included “new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions” for all developing countries, and China, Mexico, India, Brazil, and South Korea in particular.

Now, you can argue the toss about the merits of the US position (my personal view is that China should bind itself at Copenhagen to an agreed date by which its emissions will peak), but for Obama’s team to say at this stage – do a bit more on energy efficiency and renewables, and we’ll give you a free pass on targets – would be astounding.

Turns out Der Spiegel has a more detailed and much clearer interview with Pershing.

SPIEGEL: But the Chinese don’t want to accept legally binding reduction targets for CO2. Does the US still insist on such a commitment?

Pershing: Yes, definitely. We are still asking them to commit to legally binding CO2 reductions as part of a Copenhagen agreement.

SPIEGEL: With only five months left until the Copenhagen summit, do you think such a compromise will be possible?

Pershing: We are working very hard to achieve a good solution. The US remains focused on a legally binding agreement and on concluding that agreement in Copenhagen. We expect all developed nations to commit to comparable reduction targets and we want more countries to belong to the group of industrialized countries than today, for example Korea. Major economies with large total emissions like China should take additional steps, including a quantitative and quantifiable set of actions with a legal requirement to implement those actions.

So what gives? A fine line between ‘reductions’ and ‘targets’? Pershing going off script? Or sloppy reporting from the Guardian’s journalist?

(Via @tancopsey on Twitter – follow me @davidsteven.)

Update – And we have our answer – sloppy Guardian reporting. Its original story went up online at 14.53 BST, but was extensively revised and corrected at 18:31 (the old version simply disappeared, but there’s a copy below).

The new headline: “US says it will not demand binding carbon cuts from China.” So targets are still on the table; immediate absolute reductions are not (and they never were – the idea is utterly implausible).