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Before they were drawn into the giant vortex of global warming, activists did useful things. (Miguel Villagran/Getty Images)
Before they were drawn into the giant vortex of global warming, activists did useful things. (Miguel Villagran/Getty Images)

Margaret Wente

Can environmentalism be saved from itself? Add to ...

Maybe it was just a bad dream.

Just a year ago, 15,000 of the world's leaders, diplomats, and UN officials were gearing up to descend on Copenhagen to forge a global treaty that would save the planet. The world's media delivered massive coverage. Important newspapers printed urgent front-page calls for action, and a popular new U.S. President waded in to put his reputation on the line. The climate talks opened with a video showing a little girl's nightmare encounter with drought, storms, eruptions, floods and other man-made climate disasters. "Please help the world," she pleads.

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After two weeks of chaos, the talks collapsed in a smouldering heap of wreckage. The only surprise was that this outcome should have come as a surprise to so many intelligent people. These people actually seemed to believe that experts and politicians have supernatural powers to predict the future and control the climate. They believed that experts know how fast temperatures will rise by when, and what the consequences will be, and that we know what to do about it. They believed that despite the recent abject failure of Kyoto (to say nothing of other well-intentioned international treaties), the nations of the world would willingly join hands and sacrifice their sovereignty in order to sign on to a vast scheme of unimaginable scope, untold cost and certain damage to their own interests.

Copenhagen was not a political breakdown. It was an intellectual breakdown so astonishing that future generations will marvel at our blind credulity. Copenhagen was a classic case of the emperor with no clothes.

Mercifully, nobody will pay attention to the climate conference at Cancun next week, where a much-reduced group of delegates will go through the motions. The delusional dream of global action to combat climate change is dead. Barack Obama's cap-and-trade scheme is dead. Chicago's carbon-trading market is dead. The European Union's supposed reduction in carbon emissions has been exposed as a giant fraud. (The EU is actually responsible for 40 per cent more CO2 today than it was in 1990, if you count the goods and services it consumed as opposed to the ones that it produced.) Public interest in climate change has plunged, and the media have radically reduced their climate coverage.

The biggest loser is the environmental movement. For years, its activists neglected almost everything but climate change. They behaved as if they'd cornered the market on wisdom, truth and certainty, and they demonized anyone who dared to disagree. They got a fabulous free ride from politicians and the media, who parroted their claims like Sunday-school children reciting Scripture. No interest group in modern times has been so free from skepticism, scrutiny or simple accountability as the environmental establishment.

Perhaps some good will emerge from the wreckage. (Humility, for example.) Now that global warming has stopped sucking all the oxygen out of the room, some of those who care about the planet will turn to other - and more pressing - problems. There are plenty. Humans are encroaching everywhere on habitats and species. Don't worry about the polar bears, which have survived hundreds of thousands of years of melting and freezing ice. Worry instead about the lions and tigers, which face extinction within our lifetime. Their problem isn't climate change. It's us.

A century ago, there were more than 100,000 wild tigers in Asia. Today there are just 3,200. Civilization is squeezing them, and poachers hunt them for their skin and body parts. This week, the unlikely team of Vladimir Putin and Leonardo DiCaprio headlined a 13-country tiger summit in St. Petersburg that is tackling the challenge of making live tigers worth as much as dead ones.

Then there are the lions. They're not as scarce as tigers - yet - but their habitats are ideal for ranching, and they face increasing pressure from population growth. Or how about the bluefin tuna? This one is close to home - we catch them and sell them to Japan - and Canada is on the wrong side of the issue. If the World Wildlife Fund could whip up as much alarm over the bluefin tuna as it tried to whip up over fictitious drowning polar bears, I might even be persuaded to send them money again.

Before they were sucked into the giant vortex of global warming, environmentalists did useful things. They protested against massive Third World dams that would ruin both natural and human habitats. They warned about invasive species and diseases that could tear through our forests and wreck our water systems. They fought for national parks and greenbelts and protected areas. They talked about the big things too - such as how the world could feed another three billion people without destroying all the rain forests and running out of water. They believed in conservation - conserving this beautiful planet of ours from the worst of human despoliation - rather than false claims to scientific certainty about the future, unenforceable treaties and radical utopian social reform.

"How high a price must the world pay for green folly?" asked the thinker Walter Russell Mead. "How many years will be lost, how much credibility forfeited, how much money wasted before we have an environmental movement that has the intellectual rigour, political wisdom and mature, sober judgment needed to address the great issues we face?"

The answer is too high, too many and too much. Please grow up, people. You have important work to do.

 

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