Climate change overshadowed by economic cloud

 
 

As the economic recession deepens, William O’Brien asks whether efforts to tackle climate change will become less of a priority for governments, businesses and citizens.

While the economic climate continues to dominate the news headlines, it is the weather-related climate which will continue to affect us long after we have weathered this particular fiscal storm.

Climate change is the single most important social, economic and political issue in the world. Yet it seems that even this platitude has lost its resonance against the backdrop of the global economic crisis. The reason for this is simple.

Economic welfare will always take precedence over environmental issues. That is why the US failed to agree to the Kyoto protocols in 1997 and why countries around the globe are all defaulting on their commitments to cut back on carbon emissions, Ireland included.

This is axiomatically the case for emerging economies such as China and India that need to maintain high levels of industrial output if they are to catch up with the West. Therefore, the onus is on the advanced economies to set the example.

Effective environmental policies are however contingent upon the very lifeblood of democracy – elections. Governments need to get elected and then re-elected if they are to remain in power. The efficacy of a particular environmental policy counts for little if it is not palatable to the electorate.

Climate change is as much a political problem as it is an individual one and no government is going to implement a policy that is going to hurt it at an election or in the opinion polls.

The ongoing dichotomy within the scientific community as to the root causes of global warming and climate change is another reason for the absence of a coherent and strategic global attempt to tackle the problem. This problem was brought to the fore recently when Republican Vice-Presidential nominee, Sarah Palin argued that the question over whether carbon emissions were man-made or natural remains open. Discord in science, it seems, breeds dissent in politics.

Economic welfare will always take precedence over environmental issues

Palin’s viewpoint is politically advantageous as it gives large corporations a carte blanche approach to maximise profit without taking into account the detrimental effect this may have on the environment.
This is particularly the case with Palin’s home state of Alaska. It has huge oil and gas reserves and with dependence upon high-priced oil from the Middle East a salient feature of this year’s election, drilling there is becoming an increasingly attractive option.

Palin has aligned herself with the big oil and coal corporations that are racing to exploit these vast reserves. In the short-term, this has brought her popularity at home but in the long-term, it could have a hugely negative impact upon the Alaskan environment.

The politicisation of climate change has done little to tackle the problem. For most governments who view the economic well-being of their citizens as their first priority, tackling climate change has become a thorn-in-their-side. Indeed, environmental issues generally come way down the line of government priorities.

Last week’s Fianna Fáil think-in discussed the economy, health and the defunct Lisbon Treaty with no mention of the environment or climate change despite 2008 being one of the worst summers on record. Economic development is simply not synonymous with tackling climate change at this point in time.
The trade-off between maintaining a vibrant economy and limiting our carbon footprint will become increasingly challenging. Economic development must remain the government’s priority but it also must be done in a way that mitigates the effect upon the environment.

The cabinet sadly rejected Minister John Gormley’s recent proposal that Ireland become a world leader in green technology, however it was a very welcome initiative. It shows that there is some innovative thinking going on within the Department of the Environment as to how best reduce emissions without reducing our industrial capacity.

Governments must lead the way when it comes to creating awareness of environmental issues but in the end it is up to the individual to follow through. The ongoing campaign by the Department to increase this level of awareness through expensive ads and glossy brochures gives the appearance that the government is doing something but in reality there is little that it can do.

The relatively muted outcry to the recent news that the polar caps are melting at a quicker rate than was first assumed and the breaking-off of a chunk of ice nineteen miles long off the Canadian island of Ellesmere is perhaps reflective of the more pressing economic concerns facing people these days.

An interesting study published last week puts forward a theory that abrupt climate changes in the Earth’s ancient past occurred when weather systems crossed tipping points. Arguing that the earth may now be at such a juncture, the situation can be likened a canoe flipping over after leaning too far to one side. With the summer-wash out here, the proliferation of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the continuous melting of the polar ice-caps, one has to beg the question, have we already capsized?

Despite this, climate change is increasingly becoming the elephant in the closet – we know it exists but do not want to do much about it and as long as our economic woes continue, so climate change will fall down the list of government priorities.

Real change can only come about through a revolution in attitudes and the way we live our lives. This simply will not happen as long as the global economic downfall continues. One hope is that in ultimately adjusting to a harsher economic reality, society may also learn to prize efficiency and conservation more than at present.

Tentative steps have been taken towards reducing our carbon-footprint and addressing environmental issues but it will require a collective leap to make a real and lasting difference.

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