More than a year ago I predicted on this blog that there was going to be a public backlash against the political climate change narrative.
The year 2009 confirmed this prediction with several surveys indicating serious decreases in public understanding and awareness of the urgency to tackle global warming. More recently two different events have started questioning the political and social consensus on this issue.
There is first and foremost a communication war being fought which the climate deniers are clearly winning. Although what they have overdramatically labelled “Climategate” does in no way dispel the validity and credibility of the IPCC report of global warming, it has given very effective ammunition to those who want to undermine any past and future policies on carbon mitigation. The latest Himalayan glaciers blunder (“Glaciergate” according to some, for a less ideological assessment, see RealClimate’s “The IPCC is not infallible”) will only add to people’s skepticism about the science and the politics of climate change and it will further undermine the political story of climate change.
Secondly, the failure of the Copenhagen climate top has clearly demonstrated that the complex and costly UNFCCC process does not deliver (and will most likely not deliver at the end of 2010 in Mexico either). For a good overview of the critiques, see Christian Science Monitor (“Kyoto to Copenhagen: Why UN’s glacial global warming talks need overhaul”)
So with the political hegemonic narrative and the transnational negotiating process under fire, what does that mean for policymakers and businesses? Should they just go back to ”business as usual” and forget about the dreams and aspirations for a low-carbon society or a green New Deal? Translated to EU level, is there no danger that the new EU commissioner for climate change will have to fight a five-year struggle to keep climate on the agenda, a non-winnable battle equal in hopelessness like her Scandinavian colleague Margot Wallström in the last five years on EU communication policy?
I have always claimed that for policymakers it is dangerous to look at only one of the sustainability challenges. The exclusive focus of the EU commission (and most governments) on global warming has left them open to the current communication backlash.
The crisis of sustainability is like the Greek mythological Hydra: if you chop off one head, two other ones will grow. As long as you do not target the right spot, the battle with the hydra cannot be won. And this right spot (the heart of the “unsustainability” beast) is not the warming climate, it is our capitalist-industrial economy and the way we are producing and consuming. Our current economic model (which is unfortunately being copied big time by the emerging economic superpowers) is not sustainable in the long run because it has to overexploit the ecological capital which has made this model possible in the first place. What we should be looking for is not the victory in the climate communication battle or to put more efforts in the transnational climate circus. No, what we need is to produce the blueprint and the real life examples for a new resource-constrained, global and equitable prosperity. We do not need 20% or 30% emission targets (which will always be seen as costs to competitiveness no matter how many Stern reports we produce). We do need new much more positive stories of how to work, produce and consume within the one-planet limits and how to transform our ways of life to one of more respect for the limits that this planet sets us.
It is time for the European Union to start focusing on this “prosperity within limits” debate. Unfortunately, in its current new strategy for 2020, there is no indication that the new Barroso commission has understood this REAL challenge to Europe’s future prosperity and competitiveness. Maybe the new climate commissioner can redefine her priorities?