Opinion

The last stand of the climate change deniers

The world seems to finally be getting a clue on global warming

China can't afford wide-spread warming.

Is the world finally getting a clue on climate change?

That's the question overhanging the latest round of climate talks in Paris. The summit has already sparked a good deal more optimism than the one in Copenhagen in 2009, which achieved little of substance. In particular, this one starts with a burst of momentum, with the U.S. actually posting significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, plus some decent policy to lock in more, and China producing a reasonably credible plan to peak and start cutting back their emissions within 10 to 15 years.

World elites, it turns out, are beginning to correctly grasp the implications of climate change — that it is not some niggling environmental issue, but a serious threat to human society.

This is reflected in the structure of the talks. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 attempted a top-down approach with binding agreements and targets, and largely failed. Now, as Brad Plumer explains, the thinking is to treat the meeting as a venue to discuss and compare internal goals and progress, together with some subsidies to poorer countries. The bulk of the policymaking will happen within individual countries, but meetings will keep everyone on track, hopefully.

An important development taking place in the background of all this, however, is the changing political assumptions about climate change. For various historical reasons, climate change was initially processed politically as an environmental issue, something akin to preserving old-growth redwood groves for their own sake — which it still often is. But over the past few years, it has gradually dawned on people that climate change is above all a threat to human society in general. With the general interest established, a binding, specific agreement is less necessary than a simple forum for coordination.

Most everyone was coming naturally to this understanding, but not in America. There are two large obstacles to the U.S. getting on board with the rest of humanity, but both are slowly cracking. The first is the awesome wealth and power of the carbon industry. This is still extremely formidable, but far less than it once was, and fading fast. Big Oil is still huge and strong, but Big Coal is slowly perishing. Meanwhile, renewable technology is advancing at a blistering pace — solar power, for instance, is now price-competitive with carbon power for 30 million Americans, and millions more every year.

The second is the denialism of the Republican Party: Basically alone among major parties in the industrialized world, the GOP does not accept that climate change is happening. This was probably the biggest single factor behind the failure of the Copenhagen talks. Just slightly before the talks began, hackers broke into the email archives of the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit and pasted the stolen data all over the internet. Deniers and conservative hacks combed through the archives for anything that could be construed as bad, then loudly accused several climate scientists (especially Professor Michael Mann) of scientific fraud and public deception. Nine different investigations concluded that the accusations were without merit, but as a distracting smear campaign, they worked spectacularly well.

That was six years ago, however. In the meantime, the earth has continued to warm. Last year was measured as the warmest on record — a milestone that didn't even stand a single year, as 2015 has been so warm it is virtually impossible that December will drag the average down enough to come in second. The general conservative conspiracy machine is still going strong, but such continuing news has made climate denial ever more ridiculous.

Perhaps more importantly, the GOP is now at odds with a high-tech and rapidly-growing industry. Last year solar photovoltaic alone already accounted for more jobs than coal mining. As Greg Sargent documents, conservative politicians' latest (and lamest) excuse for denial, claiming "I'm not a scientist," makes them sound both scientifically and economically illiterate.

That brings me to the final redoubt of excuse-making. Wrongfooted on the science, conservatives are now reverting to their traditional understanding that climate change is just some dumb hippie idea. For example, "China could care less" about climate change, as GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina recently claimed.

It's not true, but the error here is that climate change is a national security emergency for China (and India, Bangladesh, etc). They have a huge interest in averting large-scale warming — not just in avoiding damage to the country, but also in tackling their unimaginable pollution problem, and keeping a hand in the growth industries of the future. Hence, the climate talks are a lot more like coordinating a response to a military threat than they are about agreeing to protect coral reefs or endangered species. The environment is in danger, of course, and protecting it must involve climate policy, but the point is that if we cannot even avoid impaling ourselves, then there is little chance for anything else.

But let's not be too sanguine. World elites are beginning to understand that climate change is a very serious threat, but they aren't yet acting like it. As Plumer says, the current batch of measures being discussed in Paris is "laughably inadequate" to keeping warming under 2 degrees Celsius. The key test for the talks will be whether the current moderate policy momentum can be consolidated and strengthened (particularly with independent verification of emission numbers). With a bit of luck, 2016 will look reasonably good for climate policy, but there is still very far to go before the progress is anywhere close to good enough.

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