Climate Change Conversion

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Adil Najam teaches international negotiation and diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

President Bush claims that his sudden and dramatic about-face on climate change is motivated by the emergence of new scientific findings. I would like to believe that it is so. However, I suspect that things are not as simple as that.

As one of the lead authors of the most recent scientific assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, I would like to believe that science can, indeed, take credit for this most unlikely of conversions, and that the weight of evidence has brought an end to the era of US denial of and resistance to global climate action.

There is little evidence, however, that President Bush ever got to see — let alone read — the scientific assessments we have been writing so painstakingly. Much more likely, he and his advisers have been reading the political writing on the wall.

Three trends, in particular, have contributed to President Bush’s new gambit.

First, there has been a dramatic shift in US public opinion. The tactics of denial and presenting climate change as if it were a “debate” have begun to backfire.

This might have something to do with the accumulating scientific evidence, but it has far more to do with fossil fuels finally being seen as “dirty,” not so much because of their carbon content but more because they keep getting more expensive and force us into unnecessary, unpopular, and unending conflicts.

The shift in opinion also has to do with the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Although neither was directly caused by climate change, each brought home very real sensations of exactly what catastrophic natural change might look and feel like.

Most people were already convinced that something was happening to the global climate, but they assumed that any change was in the very distant future. Now we talk about climate change as something that could happen within our own lifetimes. That, ultimately, is the biggest change of all. The phenomenal success of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” as well as the growing impatience for action within Congress are both manifestations of this shift in public perception.

Second, a concurrent shift has taken place in US business opinion.

There is money, big money, to be made in climate change. For example, last year there was $30 billion worth of global carbon trade. Renewable energy, efficient building technologies, hybrid automobiles are all being touted as a hot investment opportunities. Many now recognize that the market for climate transition is going to be huge. They want a piece of it.

Even more important than the potential profits that can be made in the transition to a climate friendly world are the potential costs of uncertainty and non participation. US companies realize that policy will have to change and would like to influence the direction of change. With the United States out of Kyoto, they worry that their competitors in Europe and Asia are getting a leg up by helping define new policy regimes that US companies will have to ultimately opt into.

Finally, the international relations of climate change have also changed.

What has not changed is the fact that the world simply cannot address climate change without US participation. However, contrary to what the Bush White House had expected and others had feared, US non participation in the Kyoto Protocol did not, in fact, stall climate action. Not even in the United States itself. Today we know that US non participation weakened the regime, but did not kill it. Thanks to their dogged determination, the Europeans can now negotiate a post-Kyoto regime from a position of strength. It is now the United States that worries about the costs of being left out.

Moreover, China, India, and the developing world are seen as the new linchpin of a future global climate regime. Although the United States remains the most important polluting nation, it is now clear that the real levers of large-scale change in the world’s emission profile lies with the developing countries. This certainly places them under greater pressure for action, but in the realpolitik of climate negotiations it also gives them greater say.

All in all, maybe it is not a surprise that after having heckled from the sidelines for so long, Bush is trying to reinsert the United States at the center of global climate politics. The surprise is that he did not try to do so earlier.

From The Boston Globe.

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