Denmark deadline

Environment | A sagging global economy and a shift in public opinion make next year's international climate treaty less likely
by Mark Bergin
Posted 12/05/08, 12:00 am

The election of Barack Obama as the United States' 44th president was supposed to usher in a new era of international climate talks. For years, environmentalists, journalists, and European heads of state have cast President George W. Bush among the primary obstacles to worldwide agreement on greenhouse gas reduction targets. The debate on global warming is over, so the story goes; Bush simply hasn't gotten the memo.

Turns out, the debate will rage on long after President Bush exits the White House. A December 2009 deadline to form an international treaty in Copenhagen that would replace the failed Kyoto Protocol now appears in jeopardy. At the U.N. Climate Change Conference this month in Poznan, Poland, international delegates in favor of dramatic action wielded the usual alarmist threats of disease, hunger, and weather catastrophes if global warming is not reversed. The public yawned. And some political leaders once considered part of the environmentalist coalition now seem unimpressed.

Even the European Union, a driving force behind much of the international push for emissions cuts, is divided against itself. The EU's current effort to set climate policy has stalled in a quagmire of dissent. Italy is threatening a veto of the proposal to trim emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. And about 11,000 steel industry workers from throughout Europe gathered in Brussels, Belgium, Dec. 2 to protest the EU's climate policy plans.

Nor is the shift in international public opinion limited to affected industries. A recent poll from the financial institution HSBC of 12,000 people across 11 nations found that the number willing to change their lives for the sake of cutting greenhouse gas emissions has fallen to 47 percent, down considerably from the 58 percent of a year ago. What's more, just 27 percent want their countries to participate in international pacts to reduce emissions.

Such shaky support has prompted some analysts to question whether finalizing a post-Kyoto treaty at the December 2009 meeting in Denmark is realistic. Harlan Watson, the chief U.S. delegate in Poznan admits, "It won't be easy." Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, called the deadline "too optimistic to begin with."

Some observers are hopeful that Obama's installation as president will provide a boost to international accord, but any such lift likely would prove strictly emotional. The new Obama administration is not expected to push any climate policy positions through Congress before the Copenhagen meeting, leaving the United States unable to negotiate specific targets or timetables.

Further mitigating the prospect of an Obama bounce, new data on global temperatures is raising significant questions as to whether climate change is manmade. For the past decade, the Earth's warming trend has ceased, despite steady increases in global carbon dioxide emissions. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world's temperature peaked in 1998 and has shown marked cooling over the past three years. That reality combined with the dangers of hamstringing industry amid a sagging global economy could be enough to cool climate alarmism well past next December's deadline.