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Avoiding Another Kyoto Commitment

A study says government leads public opinion on anthropogenic climate change.

by
Tom Harris

Bio

July 24, 2012 - 12:00 am

The 15-year battle in Canada over the Kyoto Protocol ended last week when the Federal Court ruled the Stephen Harper government’s withdrawal from the agreement was legal. Countries that do not meet their emission targets and did not withdraw before the end of 2011 — as allowed by Kyoto’s Article 27 — will soon have to face the music for having violated the treaty. Thanks to the Canadian government’s clear thinking, Canada will not be one of those nations.

But the Canadian government — and many other governments of developed countries — has not thought clearly regarding future international climate commitments. Unwittingly, they are drawing Canada back into another Kyoto.

At the climate conference in South Africa in December 2011, delegates from 194 countries — including Canada and the U.S. — agreed to the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. Under this agreement, the Canadian, American, and other governments pledged to work with the UN to establish by 2015 a global apparatus to force countries to enable legally binding greenhouse gas reduction plans starting in 2020. Environment Minister Peter Kent boosted the plan, saying repeatedly:

We support the establishment of a single, new international climate change agreement that includes greenhouse gas reduction commitments from all major emitters.

The Durban plan advances — “in a balanced fashion,” the UN asserts — the implementation of the December 2010 Cancun Agreements that Canada, the U.S., and many other countries say provides the framework for future legally binding deals. U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern stated:

[The Cancun Agreement] is a very good step and a step that’s very much consistent with U.S. interests and will help move … the world down a path toward a broader global response to changing — to stopping climate change.

But Western countries are being hoodwinked again. Cancun has an opt-out clause for developing countries that allows them to agree to legally binding emission cuts yet never actually carry them out. Developed nations do not have this option. Cancun states this twice. Here is one instance:

Reaffirming that social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing country Parties, and that the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs.

Since actions to significantly reduce GHG emissions will usually interfere with development priorities, developing countries will soon realize that an agreement based on Cancun will not limit their emissions. Such a treaty would then work in the same asymmetric fashion as Kyoto.

The only solution that makes sense for Canada and the U.S. — and indeed for all developed nations — is to get out of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) that spawned the Kyoto, Cancun, and Durban agreements in the first place. Like Kyoto, the FCCC text lays out simple steps for withdrawal, stipulating:

Any Party that withdraws from the Convention shall be considered as also having withdrawn from any protocol to which it is a Party.

But, as last month’s Angus Reid public opinion poll found, almost three in five Canadians still believe that global warming “is mostly caused by emissions from vehicles and industrial facilities.” Government strategists have obviously therefore concluded they must continue to play along with the climate scare until public opinion changes. Consequently, the Canadian government continues to support alarm, telling citizens that “scientists agree” we are causing a climate crisis and that we must reduce GHG emissions to prevent a two-degree temperature rise. That none of this makes sense is immaterial.

Government cannot lead public opinion, they assume. But recent research shows this is not the case. In “Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S.,” published in February in the scientific journal Climatic Change, Professors R. J. Brulle of the Department of Culture and Communications at Drexel University in Philadelphia, J. Carmichael of McGill University, and J. C. Jenkins of Ohio State University showed that the stated positions of politicians and other “elites” in society is the major factor driving public opinion.

Their analysis, based on the construction of “aggregate opinion measures” from 74 separate surveys over a nine-year period, supported the 2009 conclusion of Harvard University’s Susan McDonald:

When elites have consensus, the public follows suit and the issue becomes mainstreamed. When elites disagree, polarization occurs, and citizens rely on other indicators … to make up their minds.

Brulle and his colleagues showed that, beginning in the first quarter of 2006 and continuing until the third quarter of 2007, when prominent Republicans worked with the Democrats in support of the dangerous human-caused global warming hypothesis, the public was far more supportive of this position: ”These elite cues worked to increase concern about this topic,” Brulle et. al. said, as did the release of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth.

But starting in 2008, the Republicans split with the Democrats on climate change. Coupled with increased unemployment, this led to a sudden drop in the fraction of the public who ‘”worried a great deal” about climate change.”’ (Click here for graph adopted from Brulle et. al. 2012.)

Said Brulle:

When politicians focus on climate change, their statements are transmitted to the public via the media. The media will cover the issue if it deemed newsworthy. This then influences public opinion. So by not talking about climate change, the politicians diminish media attention to the issue, and thus public concern goes down.

There are important lessons in this for Canada’s Conservative government:

1. Support for the climate scare remains significantly higher in Canada than in the U.S. largely because the issue has become mainstreamed with all party support in our country, while political opinion on the issue is polarized in America. Clearly, Kent’s strong advocacy of the climate scare must stop if the government wants Canadian public support for action “to stop climate change” to diminish.

2. Climate alarmism needs to be quietly purged from Canadian government websites and other communications. Even a neutral stance is preferable to David Suzuki-like proclamations on Environment Canada’s website.

3. The government must talk about the issue much less. Instead, they need to quietly set the stage so that it is possible for the public to more frequently hear the voices of qualified, independent skeptics. Supporting an advertised-as-neutral climate science and energy conference, and inviting in experts from all reputable points of view, would be a start. So would occasionally bringing up, in the House of Commons and interviews, the growing credibility of the worldwide skeptic movement as a reason for going slow on (and eventually cancelling) GHG regulations.

4. Kent and his cabinet peers should support adaptation to climate change as a more cost-effective and humane approach to the file, devoting the bulk of our resources to helping real people today cope with deadly threats such as droughts and floods. Putting the vast majority of climate change monies into vainly trying to stop what might happen late in the century, as is happening around the world today, is irrational and immoral, the government could say.

Simply waiting for public opinion to change while the government itself helps feed the fire that threatens to burn down our economy is obviously a serious mistake. It’s time for the Harper government to help lead public opinion if Canada is to avoid another Kyoto.

Tom Harris is Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC).
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