Globescan, an international public opinion research company best known for their Greendex project aimed at measuring sustainable consumption , just released the results of a global poll documenting interesting trends in concern about climate change. The following excerpts place those findings in a larger context.
The 26-country poll asked more than 13,000 people to rate the seriousness of a range of environmental problems including climate change. Results revealed that the proportion of those who rated climate change as a "very serious" problem fell from 61 per cent last year to 53 per cent this year, after many years of increasing concern.
Other findings from the poll show that the proportion of people across tracking countries who believe that "the dangers of climate change are exaggerated," has increased from 42 per cent in 2008 to 48 per cent this year.
Chris Coulter, the senior vice-president of GlobeScan, says the world is witnessing a North-South divide over climate change, with levels of concern remaining stable or growing in emerging economies and declining in Europe and North America.
"The combined effects of economic recession, the confusing results from last year's Copenhagen climate conference, and the controversy surrounding climate science seem to have shaken the belief of people in industrialised countries that climate change is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed," he says.
A more worrying shift, according to Hohnen, has been the recent assumption of the mainstream financial press that climate change is now unstoppable.
"Last week's Economist magazine led with the cover 'How to live with climate change'. After years of saying climate change was nothing to worry about, even conservative analysts now see that major changes have been put in train."
As this viewpoint becomes more widespread, it could have a dramatic impact on climate policy, Hohnen says.
"Rather than trying to stop or slow climate change, more efforts may now be put into adaptation. This means more sea dykes, weather-proofed buildings and intensive agriculture. To finance this, capital will be pulled back to reinforce local infrastructure and self defence measures. If this happens we will see profound implications for international trade and finance."
If governments do not come to an agreement in Cancun there is a danger that individual countries will go into what Paul Hohnen calls 'bunker mode', where rich countries increasingly invest in their own protection and reduce prospects for a global agreement.
"If a global deal isn't reached soon, where all countries do their share, voters in rich countries in the North are not going to agree to their tax money being used for climate change prevention in the South. While that may not be scientifically or ethically sound policy, it's not hard to imagine it becoming a popular political line. The irony will be that this will probably be first heard from former climate sceptics."
The two other big pieces of context? China is outpacing the US in climate mitigation efforts. In the past year, while US efforts to manage carbon were dying in Congress, China’s incentives for clean-energy development have been so abundant that the Obama administration threatened to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization branding the aid a violation of global trade rules.
Second, the US has set the negotiating bar at the current Cancun talks very high. This can be taken two ways, as recognition of the severity of the problem or as a crass political move designed to insure the current talks are labeled a failure. According to Todd Stern, the chief American climate change negotiator,
the United States was seeking a “balanced set of decisions” that makes measurable progress on the six issues now before the conference: emissions reductions, technology transfers, adaptation, verification, financing and forest preservation. The issues formed the core of the Copenhagen Accord negotiated last year, and an agreement that does not make comparable progress on all of them is not acceptable.
Given the fragile state of the negotiations, the declining public support in the western democracies and the tortured backstory associated with the development of current negotiating texts in each of the six areas, getting agreement on all six seems unlikely (to put it mildly). Whatever the reasoning, the practical outcome of such a position will probably lead to a perceived negotiating failure and reinforce the bunker mentality in which rich, relatively unaffected nations, invest large sums in mitigation efforts and the poor, more directly and immediately affected nations of the global south, are left on their own.
Whatever you think of the WTO, it is tangible proof that a binding global regime is possible. At some point in time, given the global nature of emerging environmental problems, countries will recognize the need for a similar global regime to deal with environmental matters. But, for the medium term, it seems like every country is going to be left on its own.