Just three years ago the politics of global warming was enjoying its golden moment. The release in 2006 of Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, had riveted global audiences with its predictions of New York and Miami under 20 feet of water. Within 12 months, leading politicians with real power were on board. Germany’s Angela Merkel, dubbed the “climate chancellor” by her country’s press, arranged a Greenland photo op with a melting iceberg and promised to cut Europe’s emissions by 20 percent by 2020. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who called climate change a scourge equal to fascism, offered 60 percent by 2050. In December 2007, the world got its very first green leader. Harnessing the issue of climate change, Kevin Rudd became prime minister of Australia, ready to take on what he called “the biggest political, economic, and moral challenge of our times.” Now, almost everywhere, green politics has fallen from its lofty heights.
Following two of the harshest winters on record in the Northern Hemisphere—not to mention an epic economic crisis—voters no longer consider global warming a priority. Just 42 percent of Germans now worry about climate change, down from 62 percent in 2006. In Australia, only 53 percent still consider it a pressing issue, down from 75 percent in 2007. Americans rank climate change dead last of 21 problems that concern them most, according to a January Pew poll. Last month Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, blasting climate change as a “sideshow” to global economic issues, canceled the meeting of environment ministers that has preceded the G8 or G20 summit every year but one since 1994. Merkel has slashed green-development aid in the latest round of budget cuts, while in Washington, Barack Obama seems to have cooled on his plan to cap emissions. In perhaps the most striking momentum reversal for environmental politicians, last month Rudd became the first leader to be destroyed by his green policies. Flip-flopping over planned emissions cuts as the opposition exploited Australian voters’ flagging support for climate measures, he was finally ousted by party rebels.
What has turned the fight against global warming from vote getter to political hot potato in so many places at once? Each country has its own brute politics at play. Rudd was just as much a victim of infighting between factions in Australia’s Labor Party as of shifting public attitudes on global warming. Coming off a battle to push through landmark health-care-reform legislation through Congress, Obama has likely exhausted his political capital for another controversial and far-reaching bill. In Europe, bailouts first of banks and now entire countries have sucked up decision-making bandwidth and given an opening to those who argue that climate legislation is an unaffordable economic burden.
Cynics (and some frustrated environmentalists) say this is all just the usual cycle in media and politics, with the public tiring of the issue and moving on. Yet above all, it is climate politics itself that has turned murky and double-edged. No longer does it lend itself to the easy categories of good and bad that Rudd so successfully exploited in 2007. And controlling the global climate turned out to be a lot more complicated than the advocates of fierce and fast CO2 cuts would have us believe. Back in 2007, it was easy and popular—and cost nothing—to announce ever-tougher but faraway targets. The snag was that once in place, those lofty goals would require countries to get on with the harsh and costly business of reengineering entire economies, without which the numbers could never be reached.
Rudd was the first green leader to fall because he was the first one to be hit by the tough reality of having to translate goals into practice, says Oliver Geden, a climate-policy expert at SWP, a think tank in Berlin. Not only is Australia the world’s biggest exporter of CO2-spewing coal, but its citizens and businesses also gobble up energy at one of the world’s highest per capita rates. The changes required of Australians would be immense.
Increasingly, the whole concept of radical, top-down global targets is coming under scrutiny as citizens and governments face tougher choices over costs and benefits. Green policies can be popular when they mean subsidizing renewable fuels or going after unpopular power companies, but can quickly hit a wall when they force lifestyle change, such as less driving and fewer swimming pools—fears Rudd’s opponents have exploited. Policies that push trendy green fuels also cost much more than other options, such as replacing dirty coal with cleaner gas or emissions-free nuclear power. Some schemes, such as America’s corn ethanol and Europe’s biodiesel made from rapeseed, have virtually zero net emissions savings, but any petroleum they displace is quickly bought up by China. Even in the ideal case that the United Nations’ goal of 80 percent emissions reduction by 2050 is technologically and politically feasible, economists disagree widely on whether the cost of the current set of policies, such as carbon caps and green-fuel subsidies, is justified by the avoided damage from warmer temperatures.
What’s more, hitting emissions targets remains an elusive quest. The world’s most ambitiously green region, Europe, has already clocked an 11.3 percent decrease in emissions since 1990—except much of it has little to do with climate policy. Instead, a large part of the decrease is attributable to economic forces such as the collapse of communist-era industry in Eastern Europe (much of which has shifted to China), British utilities’ switch from coal to North Sea gas, as well as the recent recession. “It’s hard to believe that we can regulate the global temperature in 2050 when politicians cannot even get a handle on health expenditures next year,” says Geden.
There are other ways green policies have lost their innocence since 2007. In many ways, green projects have become just another flavor of grubby interest politics. Biofuels have become a new label for old-style agricultural subsidies that funnel some $20 billion annually to landowners with little effect on emissions (only Brazilian sugar-cane ethanol produces any significant savings; America’s corn ethanol and Europe’s biodiesel do not). Germany’s solar subsidies, a signature project in the country’s battle against climate change, are perhaps the most wasteful green scheme on earth, producing a mere 0.25 percent of the country’s energy at a cost to consumers of as much as $125 billion. A leading member of Merkel’s Christian Democrats in the German Parliament says there is growing unease both in his party and in the Bundestag “about the scary monster we’ve created that is sucking up ever larger amounts of money for a negligible effect.”
On top of all this unease came last November’s “climategate” affair over irregularities in the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body whose findings are the basis of all climate policy. Though a review panel has since cleared the researchers of most allegations, the lingering controversy could further undermine the IPCC’s longstanding push for massive CO2 reduction targets as the only viable option to deal with global warming.
With green politics losing its moral high ground, there is a growing realization that climate change is just one policy priority among many that compete for limited resources and attention. That means, first, that climate politics will likely fall off its pedestal of being the Western world’s overarching priority. Second, the new sobriety could give more space to a third stream of climate politics between those who see warming as an unmitigated catastrophe that must be stopped at any cost, and those who reject global warming as a hoax. A new climate realism would more carefully weigh the costs and benefits of emissions controls, and look at other options beyond the current set of targets. The new debate will be more pragmatic and include a broader mix of policies. That might include a shift of subsidies into research and development, as many climate economists have argued. It would also include greater efforts to adapt society to a warmer climate, rather than focusing only on stopping the warming process in its tracks.
That idea has so far figured little in the debate, largely because mainstream environmentalists fear it will distract from their push for CO2 cutbacks. Yet adaptation may offer equally valid and much less expensive choices than cutting back on emissions. For example, one of the most-feared effects of warming is rising sea levels—yet mankind has successfully dealt with similar rises for centuries. “As soon as you start talking to Dutch engineers, you realize that sea-level rise is business as usual,” says Geden. Declining water supplies in some regions of the world, another effect of warmer temperatures, might be more effectively met with efficient water distribution and less water-hungry crops than global temperature targets. Another emerging area of innovation is climate engineering, such as the manipulation of cloud cover and other artificial means of reflecting heat back into space.
In other words, some of the money spent on current policies that often have only limited efficacy might be better spent on other measures, including protection against the worst effects of warming. What’s more, current economic worries are a reminder that every dollar spent on solar cells or biodiesel is a dollar less for education and other budget priorities. If that means climate and environmental policies in the future will be more stringently measured in terms of the tradeoffs involved given finite resources, that would be a lasting benefit that even Kevin Rudd might appreciate.
With Alan Mascarenhas in New York