Monday, September 24, 2012

Still the bad guys

Outside of our imperial military adventures, nothing influences our international reputation more than environmental policy.  Obama inspired a lot of hope that maybe, just maybe, the USA posture on environmental issues would improve.  As can be seen from this from Deutsche Welle, the Germans have given up their hope for change.

Gone with the wind: Obama's green credentials

Sascha Müller-Kraenner  06.09.2012

One of President Obama's key electoral pledges in 2008 was a commitment to tackle environmental issues. Four years later, little to nothing has happened - and is unlikely to anytime soon, writes Sascha Müller-Kraenner.

When President Obama was elected four years ago, his platform promised to put the environment at the top of an agenda to revitalize the economy at home and America's standing abroad. Looking back after four years, the record is mixed. Ambitions for the next four years are much more modest.

Four years ago, Obama announced three major environmental policy initiatives. Comprehensive climate legislation with a European-style emission trading system (cap and trade) should regulate domestic greenhouse gas emission by putting a cap on them. Based on that domestic reduction target, the new government promised to re-engage constructively in the United Nation's climate talks where the Bush administration had been near absent after bowing out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. In addition to climate change, an ecological modernization of America's wasteful economy was put at the center of Obama's plan to regain technology leadership in critical sectors such as renewable energy and green technology.

After four years the record remains decidedly mixed.

Little progress

Comprehensive climate legislation failed in Congress after having been blocked by the Republican minority plus a group of Democrats mainly from states with coal mining and heavy industry. However, US emissions have declined significantly in the past years due to the combined effects of the economic recession, a shift from coal to gas from shale gas extraction, and other policy measures such as increased fuel efficiency standards for cars. Another push for climate legislation, an emission trading system or an energy tax is not on the agenda due to lack of political support in either party.

In the absence of domestic climate action, the re-emergence of the US as a leader in international climate policy was seriously impacted. The Obama administration put forward a modest 17 percent greenhouse gas reduction target for the period of 2005-2020. Although this was the first time after Kyoto that the US pledged to reduce its emissions, the target falls behind what others like Europe are doing and will probably be met without major policy action as emissions are sinking anyway. The current budget deficit, as well as resistance from Republicans in Congress, also presents a danger to maintaining US financial commitments for climate action in developing countries. Although the national development agency USAID has made climate change one of its priorities, current payments lag behind what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised at the climate summit in Copenhagen.

Most progress was made on the technology front. Investment in research and development, particularly under the aegis of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, was significantly increased. Several states introduced tax breaks or renewable portfolio standards that led to a small boom of renewable energy, in particular wind energy. The boom of cheap shale gas development led to a shift away from coal and the decommissioning of major coal plants. Fuel efficiency standards were increased and, together with rising gasoline prizes, led to a broad shift to smaller more efficient cars, although not yet to the extent as in Europe or Asia. The Environmental Protection Agency, although still seriously understaffed, was finally given the permission to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, which may lead to new licensing standards for power plants in the future.

A greener future?

Although progress was made in several areas, the dependence of the US economy on a resource depleting economic model and in particularly cheap fossil fuels remains. The Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico remains a symbol of the American addiction to oil and its negative effects on human health and the natural environment.

While the environment figured as a major theme of Obama's first campaign, it is almost absent in the second. No major green reform projects have been announced so far. Still, incremental progress in many areas should be expected if Obama wins. Fuel efficiency standards might be further increased, as already announced by the administration. Support programs for renewable energy will continue and will eventually lead to a self sustaining industry as in Europe. Long-term research and development investments in renewable energy, efficiency solutions and electric mobility could slowly start to pay off.

The problem remains that large parts of the US economy, particularly the manufacturing sector, are not competitive. A green economy and a push for sustainable technologies could be part of an economic resurgence and at the same time create high quality jobs that the US labor market urgently needs. more
And no, I don't even pretend to understand what must be on the minds of the climate change denial crowd.  This, from the Guardian is an attempt to explain it.

America's miasma of misinformation on climate change

With serious reporting of global warming by US media virtually nonexistent, it's no wonder Americans are paralysed in denial, 23 September 2012

Since 1950, humans have manufactured more goods than have ever existed in history. Our consumption of those goods – a highly inefficient use of our natural capital – has wrought a long list of environmental consequences. Staggering deforestation, check. Increasing greenhouse gas emissions, check. Rising heat, sea level, and incidence of extreme weather events – check, check and check.

To environmental experts, such evidence is the proverbial writing on the wall: we must transition to a low-carbon economy, stat, in order to avoid irrevocable damage. As President Obama affirmed, upon accepting his party's nomination for president, no less:

"Climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They're a threat to our children's future."

The president's choice of words seemed a pointed response to Republican Senator James Inhofe, author of The Greatest Hoax and, it's worth noting, recipient of $1.3m in campaign contributions from the oil and gas lobby.

Political maneuvering aside, why are Americans so disengaged from climate change – arguably, one of the most critical problems of our time?

Denial ain't just a river in Egypt; it's also in places like North Carolina and perhaps even embedded into America's cultural DNA. According to the latest study from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, the American public's concern about global warming can be sorted into six categories, ranging from alarmed (13%) and concerned (26%), to cautious, disengaged, doubtful and dismissive (that's the other 61% of us). Among the many explanations offered for the knowledge gap are clashing worldviews, varying education levels, demographics, and the media's handling of the issue.

Even as evidence for climate change mounts and the consequences of the phenomenon become more severe, the amount of climate coverage on broadcast networks has plummeted. According to a stunning analysis by Media Matters, the Sunday morning current affairs shows averaged about one hour each on climate change in 2009, compared to averaging 21 minutes apiece in 2010 and only 9 minutes per program in 2011. In 2011, Fox News Sunday covered climate change the most (just under an hour), "but much of the coverage promoted the 'Climategate' controversy and downplayed the threat of climate change," reports Media Matters.

At the other end of the spectrum, CBS had the least climate change coverage, devoting four minutes to the topic in three years. Altogether, in 2011, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox spent twice as much time discussing Donald Trump's "will he, won't he" run for president rather than climate change. In fact, NBC's Meet the Press devoted 23 minutes to Trump that year – but not a single minute to climate change.

While there is virtually no mention of climate change in the local news, reporters have turned the weather into a national pastime. Perhaps this is because storms, hurricanes and tornadoes ignite a primal reaction, whereas climate change requires an intellectual one. There is also a perception of trust that grows from constant visibility on television – although we poke fun at the weatherman, we still hide in our closets during tornado warnings. On the other hand, we regard PhD-level climate scientists with suspicion, even though their work must hold up to rigorous peer review. The weather versus climate conflict illustrates what behavioral economists have said for years:

"We base our decisions on emotion far more than reason."
Flawed climate risk perception may also explain why meteorologists have an advantage over climate scientists in making immediate weather more urgent than climate change. Although hard data do influence thinking, the psychology of risk perception is complicated. Often, our fears defy reason and statistics. For instance, blood-curdling events like shark attacks and plane crashes scare the living daylights out of us, when we have more reason to be afraid of climbing into our cars each morning: sharks claimabout 12 lives per year, while car crash fatalities average around 93 per day. In the case of climate change, fear over problems that will affect us 50 years from now cannot compare with fear of challenges we face today. What people don't understand is that climate change is, in fact, already affecting our economy.

It's understandable that our perception of risk may lead us to focus on surviving an immediate disaster more than preventing a future one. But it defies logic that so many would fall prey to "infotainers" such as Glenn Beck, who uses sustainable development as fodder for jokes. From McKinney, Texas to Trenton, New Jersey, sustainable development projects are being held up due to aggressive pushback and fear-mongering over Agenda 21, a voluntary initiative that some suspect to be diabolical attempt on the part of the UN to force a one-world government.

Fortunately, most folks are not held back by reactionary ideology so much as basic lack of exposure to the problem. More than 1 billion people live in low-lying coastal areas, and most live in poverty. Already, at least 25 million climate refugees and counting are facing the consequences. For them, climate change is no longer an abstract concept to get their minds around; they are literally wading through it.

Seeing is believing. If weak perception of risk is our blind spot, we needn't let the media keep us in the dark. Instead, we can use media – pictures, videos and websites such as National Geographic – to confront the challenges, and so mobilize citizens and students toward solutions. Weather may fade, but pictures of post-drought west Texas, hurricane-ravaged New Orleans and submerging countries such as Tuvalu are a stark reminder that climate change carries not only an economic or environmental toll, but also a human one.

Sure, we can always evacuate, but we cannot get around paying a price for avoiding climate change. And the price – like the sea level – keeps rising. more 

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