Marching Off the Cliff

The world wants UN climate talks in Durban to succeed, but U.S. intransigence blocks the way forward.

Noam Chomsky

Greenpeace activists protest in Durban on December 5, 2011. Talks there are taking place under the flag of the 194-nation UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. (ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)

A task of the Unit­ed Nations Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change, now under way in Dur­ban, South Africa, is to extend ear­li­er pol­i­cy deci­sions that were lim­it­ed in scope and only par­tial­ly implemented.

To gain perspective on what's happening in the world, it's sometimes useful to adopt the stance of intelligent extraterrestrial observers viewing the strange doings on Earth.

These deci­sions trace back to the U.N. Con­ven­tion of 1992 and the Kyoto Pro­to­col of 1997, which the U.S. refused to join. The Kyoto Protocol’s first com­mit­ment peri­od ends in 2012. A fair­ly gen­er­al pre-con­fer­ence mood was cap­tured by a New York Times head­line: Urgent Issues but Low Expectations.”

As the del­e­gates meet in Dur­ban, a report on new­ly updat­ed digests of polls by the Coun­cil on For­eign Rela­tions and the Pro­gram on Inter­na­tion­al Pol­i­cy Atti­tudes reveals that publics around the world and in the Unit­ed States say their gov­ern­ment should give glob­al warm­ing a high­er pri­or­i­ty and strong­ly sup­port mul­ti­lat­er­al action to address it.”

Most U.S. cit­i­zens agree, though PIPA clar­i­fies that the per­cent­age has been declin­ing over the last few years, so that Amer­i­can con­cern is sig­nif­i­cant­ly low­er than the glob­al aver­age – 70 per­cent as com­pared to 84 percent.”

Amer­i­cans do not per­ceive that there is a sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus on the need for urgent action on cli­mate change – a large major­i­ty think that they will be per­son­al­ly affect­ed by cli­mate change even­tu­al­ly, but only a minor­i­ty thinks that they are being affect­ed now, con­trary to views in most oth­er coun­tries. Amer­i­cans tend to under­es­ti­mate the lev­el of con­cern among oth­er Americans.”

These atti­tudes aren’t acci­den­tal. In 2009 the ener­gy indus­tries, backed by busi­ness lob­bies, launched major cam­paigns that cast doubt on the near-unan­i­mous con­sen­sus of sci­en­tists on the sever­i­ty of the threat of human-induced glob­al warming.

The con­sen­sus is only near-unan­i­mous” because it doesn’t include the many experts who feel that cli­mate-change warn­ings don’t go far enough, and the mar­gin­al group that deny the threat’s valid­i­ty altogether.

The stan­dard he says/​she says” cov­er­age of the issue keeps to what is called bal­ance”: the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of sci­en­tists on one side, the denial­ists on the oth­er. The sci­en­tists who issue the more dire warn­ings are large­ly ignored.

One effect is that scarce­ly one-third of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion believes that there is a sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus on the threat of glob­al warm­ing –far less than the glob­al aver­age, and rad­i­cal­ly incon­sis­tent with the facts.

It’s no secret that the U.S. gov­ern­ment is lag­ging on cli­mate issues. Publics around the world in recent years have large­ly dis­ap­proved of how the Unit­ed States is han­dling the prob­lem of cli­mate change,” accord­ing to PIPA. In gen­er­al, the Unit­ed States has been most wide­ly seen as the coun­try hav­ing the most neg­a­tive effect on the world’s envi­ron­ment, fol­lowed by Chi­na. Ger­many has received the best ratings.”

To gain per­spec­tive on what’s hap­pen­ing in the world, it’s some­times use­ful to adopt the stance of intel­li­gent extrater­res­tri­al observers view­ing the strange doings on Earth. They would be watch­ing in won­der as the rich­est and most pow­er­ful coun­try in world his­to­ry now leads the lem­mings cheer­ful­ly off the cliff.

Last month, the Inter­na­tion­al Ener­gy Agency, which was formed on the ini­tia­tive of U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Hen­ry Kissinger in 1974, issued its lat­est report on rapid­ly increas­ing car­bon emis­sions from fos­sil fuel use.

The IEA esti­mat­ed that if the world con­tin­ues on its present course, the car­bon bud­get” will be exhaust­ed by 2017. The bud­get is the quan­ti­ty of emis­sions that can keep glob­al warm­ing at the 2 degrees Cel­sius lev­el con­sid­ered the lim­it of safety.

IEA chief econ­o­mist Fatih Birol said, The door is clos­ing – if we don’t change direc­tion now on how we use ener­gy, we will end up beyond what sci­en­tists tell us is the min­i­mum (for safe­ty). The door will be closed forever.”

Also last month, the U.S. Depart­ment of Ener­gy report­ed the emis­sions fig­ures for 2010. Emis­sions jumped by the biggest amount on record,” The Asso­ci­at­ed Press report­ed, mean­ing that lev­els of green­house gas­es are high­er than the worst-case sce­nario” antic­i­pat­ed by the Inter­na­tion­al Pan­el on Cli­mate Change in 2007.

John Reil­ly, co-direc­tor of the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Technology’s pro­gram on cli­mate change, told the AP that sci­en­tists have gen­er­al­ly found the IPCC pre­dic­tions to be too con­ser­v­a­tive – unlike the fringe of denial­ists who gain pub­lic atten­tion. Reil­ly report­ed that the IPCC’s worst-case sce­nario was about in the mid­dle of the MIT sci­en­tists’ esti­mates of like­ly outcomes.

As these omi­nous reports were released, the Finan­cial Times devot­ed a full page to the opti­mistic expec­ta­tions that the Unit­ed States might become ener­gy-inde­pen­dent for a cen­tu­ry with new tech­nol­o­gy for extract­ing North Amer­i­can fos­sil fuels.

Though pro­jec­tions are uncer­tain, the Finan­cial Times reports, the U.S. might leapfrog Sau­di Ara­bia and Rus­sia to become the world’s largest pro­duc­er of liq­uid hydro­car­bons, count­ing both crude oil and lighter nat­ur­al gas liquids.”

In this hap­py event, the Unit­ed States could expect to retain its glob­al hege­mo­ny. Beyond some remarks about local eco­log­i­cal impact, the Finan­cial Times said noth­ing about what kind of a world would emerge from these excit­ing prospects. Ener­gy is to burn; the glob­al envi­ron­ment be damned.

Just about every gov­ern­ment is tak­ing at least halt­ing steps to do some­thing about the like­ly impend­ing cat­a­stro­phe. The Unit­ed States is lead­ing the way – back­ward. The Repub­li­can-dom­i­nat­ed U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives is now dis­man­tling envi­ron­men­tal mea­sures intro­duced by Richard Nixon, in many respects the last lib­er­al president.

This reac­tionary behav­ior is one of many indi­ca­tions of the cri­sis of U.S. democ­ra­cy in the past gen­er­a­tion. The gap between pub­lic opin­ion and pub­lic pol­i­cy has grown to a chasm on cen­tral issues of cur­rent pol­i­cy debate such as the deficit and jobs. How­ev­er, thanks to the pro­pa­gan­da offen­sive, the gap is less than what it should be on the most seri­ous issue on the inter­na­tion­al agen­da today – arguably in history.

The hypo­thet­i­cal extrater­res­tri­al observers can be par­doned if they con­clude that we seem to be infect­ed by some kind of lethal insanity.

© The New York Times Syndicate

Noam Chom­sky is Insti­tute Pro­fes­sor and Pro­fes­sor of Lin­guis­tics (Emer­i­tus) at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy. His most recent book is Who Rules the World? from Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books.
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