What a difference a year makes. This time last year the environmental movement was gearing up for a major breakthrough at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit. With a combination of “doom and gloom” soothsayers – Ban ki Moon, Al Gore, Prince Charles, James Hansen, David Suzuki – and optimistic negotiators, it was clear that Copenhagen was being positioned as “the last chance” we had to save the planet but there was optimism that we might just do it. We know what happened. Polluters couldn’t agree with the small islands and the developing world and the negotiations fell apart, with a compromise “lets look as if we might save the planet” deal being signed off by a few countries at the end of a tough ten days of negotiation.
Since then the environmental movement appears to have gone through a period of loss – grieving the loss of an ideal, finding a new reality in the prospect of additional talks in 2010 culminating in a new global climate change negotiation in Brazil in December, and then realizing that the game is up. There will not be a meaningful commitment to climate change mitigation which involves all of the leading polluters, especially the US, China, India and Canada. What is more, the general public in Canada, the US and Britain are all signalling that climate change is less of a priority for them now as it was five years ago.
Just as the language has gone through significant change – from “global warming” through “climate change” and “climate catastrophe” to the “climate challenge” – so now the environmental movement is going through a change. According to The Guardian (UK), “the economic case for global action to stop the destruction of the natural world is even more powerful than the argument for tackling climate change, a major report for the United Nations will declare this summer” – a fact reinforced by the psychological, social and economic impacts of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
One reason for this shift is money. Groups such as Conservation International (CI) and the Nature Conservancy (TNC) are among the most trusted environmental "brands" in the world, pledged to protect and defend nature. Yet many of the green organisations meant to be leading the fight are busy securing funds from those who are also destroying the environmental through mining and exploration. Sierra Club – the biggest green group in the US – was approached in 2008 by the makers of Clorox bleach, who said that if the club endorsed their new range of "green" household cleaners, they would give it a percentage of the sales. The club's Corporate Accountability Committee said the deal created a blatant conflict of interest – but took it anyway. Money talks. Right now the money is saying that biodiversity and environmental impacts of pollution, deforestation, land use changes and other matters are more important than climate change.
A second reason is public opinion. The public are disaffected by all the talk about the need for a response to climate change and both the lack of action and the costs of the actions that need to be taken. In the UK, where energy rationing over the next decade is a real possibility due to the now defeated governments dithering on environmental policy, many are now balking at the rising costs of energy and the ugliness of the countryside blighted by wind turbines. In the US, public support for action on climate change is down from 46% of the population to 36% in just one year. Environmental groups no longer enjoy the wide support of the people when they focus on climate change.
A third reason is political reality. Climate change as a policy strategy in the US and Canada is stuck and likely to be so for some time. The US Senate has the Kerry-Lieberman bill to debate, but it is unlikely to pass. Canada has indicated it will follow the US lead to create a single north American strategy, so Canada is also unlikely to do anything until the US passes appropriate legislation. However, major changes are taking place with respect to conservation, water, land use and air quality on both side of the US-Canada divide and serious attention to conservation and clean-up can be expected on both sides of the border following the BP spill. Environmental groups are already gearing up to lobby on these issues, dusting off old policies and approaches from the early 1990’s. Both the US and Canada are more likely to enact legislation on these issues than on transformative changes required to “stop” climate change.
The final reason that the environmental groups are shifting ground is that the science of climate change remains problematic. While some would argue that the core science demonstrating that the climate is changing and that this is due largely to the actions of people remains unchanged, the sceptics have gained sufficient ground over the last year to plant large trees of doubt. Worse, data from real world observations (as opposed to data from climate change models) provide opportunities for varying interpretations of the current state of the planet. The science is becoming a tough sell.
For all these reasons, the environmentalist will now focus more and more on environmental degradation and clean-up than on climate change – deforestation, water and land use will be the new focus for their work. Not a bad thing either.