Published on
The Toronto Star/Canada

Climate Change Doesn't Scare Us. That's Frightening

Peter Gorrie

We've just ended a two-decade experiment in global problem solving.

It failed: Now we must figure out how to manage the consequences.

That's the main conclusion as the dust settles on the uninspiring Copenhagen climate summit, itself the dismal culmination of 20 years of negotiations to reduce the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

The final "accord" says the international community wants to keep Earth's average temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius but includes nothing that compels any nation to do anything to achieve the target.

What's touted as the major breakthrough - an agreement rich nations will provide billions to help poor countries to cope with climate change - promises less than will be required, contains no indication where most of the money will come from, creates the possibility donations would simply be transfers from foreign-aid budgets and, most important, would do nothing to halt climate change.

The divisions that stymied the 14 previous annual UN conferences remain as wide as ever, despite the self-congratulatory puff that emanated from the Danish capital as 15,000 delegates and many more hangers-on headed home.

In the aftermath, it's being acknowledged that huge international meetings are no place for negotiations. While these costly exercises will continue - the 2010 version is slated for Mexico City - many predict the task of actually cutting emissions will fall to the 30 or so countries - including Canada - responsible for 90 per cent of the human-sourced carbon entering the atmosphere.


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The United States is expected to dominate this process if Congress passes legislation to cap greenhouse emissions and establish an emissions trading system.

A major stumbling block at Copenhagen was the unwillingness of China, India and other rapidly expanding economies to agree to caps of their own or allow independent verification if they claim emissions cuts. As the world's biggest importer of manufactured products, the U.S. could insist that if these trading partners want continued access to its huge market they must match its policies.

But this intriguing idea is marred by questionable assumptions about how tough the U.S. would be and how desperately others would want to sell to it. With alternative markets developing, the debt-ridden U.S. might become less significant. Besides, the proposed American law is weak; imposing it on other nations wouldn't accomplish what's required.

Another drawback: This process would exclude the poor nations being hit first and hardest by climate change. Also missing would be the sense of global crisis and shared mission that's been the subtext of the annual conferences. It hasn't provided enough impetus, but what motivation might replace it?

In the obvious absence of political leadership, activists say it's now up to the people, en masse, to take charge. They're correct: Large numbers of individuals must alter their lifestyles and demand governments enact ambitious wider-scale solutions.

But most humans dislike change and act only on threats that are close and imminent. Climate change, so far, is neither: Melting polar ice caps, drought in Africa and the inundation of Pacific islands are too remote to move the majority. "Our perceptions are based on feelings, values, a lot of emotional assumptions toward climate change that conflict with what makes sense," says David Ropeik, a risk-management analyst based in Boston. "Our inability to act is based on our inability to be purely rational."

Nothing that happened in Copenhagen, or that's likely to occur at the conventional political level, will prevent the worst of climate change. Unless people accept that the threat is real, and act as if it is, the coming decade will usher in another experiment - this time, in global crisis response.

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