Voters Are Losing Their Interest in Climate Change

Worth A Look, Climate, Frontier Centre

It’s ironic that the United Nations should be hosting its latest climate negotiations in China. Not only is China now far and away the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide — believed by many (but not me) to cause global warming — China is also the main saboteur of negotiations for a deal to replace the Kyoto accords. For instance, the collapse of talks at the U.N.’s mammoth climate gathering in Copenhagen last December was almost entirely China’s doing, despite claims by environmentalists and reports by Western media that pinned the blame on Canada, the United States and other developed countries.

China has no interest in helping craft the next Kyoto, particularly if a new deal would mean accepting limits on its CO2 growth. China plans to open a new coal-fired power plant roughly every month for the next decade. It’s continued rapid industrialization is fuelling the creation of something akin to a middle-class, but that industrialization is also fuelling increases in carbon emissions that can only be described as staggering.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) last year recommended that China cap its annual emissions at 8.4 billion tonnes, a total it estimated that country would reach by 2020. But a study released in June by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency now projects that China will hit the 8.4-billion tonnes mark in 2011 —  next year — with no signs of slowing down by 2020. Already the source of one-quarter of worldwide emissions, China will likely be the source of one-third a decade from now.

(Canada, by contrast, emits about 560 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in a year, or about 2% of the worldwide total for man-made emissions. And Alberta’s oilsands are responsible for about 5% of Canada’s total or 28 million tonnes; that’s one-third of 1% of China’s annual total.)

Because of its desire to keep its booming economy booming, China is an active participant in efforts to scupper climate talks. It wants no deal to replace Kyoto — which expires in 2012 — but if there must be a deal, China is adamant any carbon limits in a new pact apply only to Western industrialized nations. Indeed, China would likely consider that the ideal result, a deal that beggars its main competitors but leaves it free to emit as it wishes so even more of the world’s industrial base will be shifted from the emission-capped West to uncapped China.

So holding climate talks in Tianjin this week is the equivalent of holding an international crime symposium on halting the drug trade at a resort owned by a Colombian cocaine lord.

A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said there is almost no chance the Tianjin gathering of representatives from 177 countries will reach agreement on emission targets that could be forwarded to the UN’s main annual climate meeting in December, which this year will be held in Cancun, Mexico.

What a shame.

Even if you are a big believer in the theory of man-made global warming, the UN’s failure to find a successor for Kyoto should be of little concern. The 1997 climate deal placed binding emission limits on only about 40 countries — roughly a list of the world’s developed economies — which most of them will not meet. Even if they had, the reductions imposed would only have postponed by four years a century from now the onset of what the UN predicts will be dangerous warming.

But I suspect there are two other key factors in last year’s Copenhagen disaster and the failure since to get talks back on track: Public interest in climate change has waned because of the global recession, while growing doubt in the scientific community about the causes of climate change have lessened the fear of impending doom.

Environmental concern is a luxury good. When times are good, the environment rises as a political concern for voters. But when voters are concerned about whether they will have a job next month or whether the bank might foreclose on their home or their retirement savings might disappear, the environment takes a back seat. Voters stop worrying about it and politicians pander less to environmental concerns. We are, of course, in just such times. This cycle happened during the boom of the late 1980s and the recession of 1991-93, and it is happening again.

But there is something more this time. There has never been a universal consensus among scientists that man-made climate change was real, despite all the media and environmentalist hype to the contrary. And since the revelations last November in the Climategate emails and computer files — which showed that many of the world’s leading alarmist scientists had been playing fast and loose with the climate change numbers — there has been a greater willingness among doubters and skeptics to stick their heads above ground.

Just last week, the Royal Society in England, which has been a very active player in the debate on the side of the science-is-settled alarmists, was forced by several of its members to revise its climate-change policy to admit there is a great deal more doubt about the future of warming than it had previously allowed.

The Royal Society has not said warming is not happening. But it has introduced a much greater fudge factor into its work than was previously there — any doubt is a climb-down from its previous position of unchallengeable certainty.

I don’t expect climate-change hysteria to disappear, but I think we have passed the peak of climate scare-mongering and will see the issue slowly dissipate, although not before billions more are wasted on solving a non-existent problem.