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Ramesh Thakur

Rosebuds of consolation in a warming world Add to ...

The Cancun agreement will not save the climate, but it rescued the UN negotiating process. Celebrating such an outcome is testament to the soft bigotry of low expectations: The once dominant global warming lobby is reduced to the sorry spectacle of gathering rosebuds of consolation.

The many turning points - Kyoto, Bali, Copenhagen, Cancun - explain why the world is going round in circles.

The science of climate change is robust albeit, like all science, subject to being modified or superseded by tomorrow's consensus. But agreement on science does not compute into agreement on policy nor trump the politics of global warming.

Policy makers have to prioritize and choose from many competing demands. They need to examine the different issues, the resources required to tackle each, the timescales involved, the opportunity costs of alternative allocation of resources, and the diminishing versus increasing marginal returns of allocating resources to the different problems.

This is true of different goals: climate change, education, health, growth, poverty eradication, energy, national security, abolition of nuclear weapons, etc. It applies also to alternative strategies for tackling an agreed goal, including climate change. What is the best mix of adaptation and mitigation? Should there be voluntary guidelines or binding emission targets? Uniform or variable for different countries? Should industrialized countries freely transfer technology and finance to developing countries? How do we balance market incentives with government regulation, or investment in cleaner technology for existing fuel sources versus alternative, renewable clean and green fuels, including nuclear?

Owing to emissions already released, the climate will continue to heat for several decades. Politicians the world over prefer gain now and pain later, but for their successors in office, climate change requires them to reverse the equation. Current U.S. politics is especially dysfunctional for making long-term strategic decisions in the public interest against faith-based skepticism and a hostile campaign by vested interests with deep pockets.

The global politics are even more vexed. The key decisions impacting on climate change will be made not by the UN but by governments, not at international conferences but in national capitals, and not by the environment but by the finance ministers of China and India. Can Chinese and Indians be persuaded to accept permanently lower lifestyles compared to Westerners? Will Westerners accept substantial cuts in living standards if developing countries reject binding emission cuts?

Western countries refuse to acknowledge culpability for failures to honour Kyoto and Bali pledges, instead pointing a collective finger at developing countries' rejection of binding emission cuts. The latter blame the present crisis on the West's past industrialization. Westerners highlight present and future growth in energy consumption by China and India as the main factors taking us to and beyond the tipping point. Developed countries talk of net national emissions, developing countries of per capita emissions. All are equally constrained by domestic growth requirements and political compulsions.

The problem of global warming was created by the developed countries who have deeper carbon footprints and greater financial and technological capabilities for mitigation and adaptation. An American emits 15 times as much CO{-2} as an Indian. But the deadly impacts of climate change will not be distributed in proportion to those responsible for global warming. The poorest will suffer the most. Moreover, while per capita emissions have been falling slightly in the industrial countries, they have risen steeply in developing countries.

The problem will worsen not because developing countries aspire to Western affluence, but to affordable food, housing, clean water, sanitation and electricity. Developing countries must reorient growth in cleaner and greener directions. Westerners must change lifestyles and support international redistribution.

Those who question the fine details, highlight the occasional errors, or impugn the motives of the scientists to deny the broad consensus, do neither themselves nor their cause any favours. Equally, though, advocates and activists should acknowledge that questioning the best policy option and pointing to political obstacles is not climate-change denial. It is possible to accept the science but contest the policy and politics of global warming.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.

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