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The Climate Change Tipping Point?

By Stephen Leahy

20 December, 2006
The Inter Press Service

This was the year that most people in the U.S. and Canada began to take climate change seriously and express hope that their governments would take action to reduce emissions -- but it is unclear if they will take action themselves.

Last month, thousands of people stood outside electronics stores for three, four and more days and nights to be the first to spend 600 dollars for the latest electronic video game console, but how many would spend two hours protesting the inaction of their governments on climate change?

"There is increasing public support for action but I'm not sure there's a willingness to do anything," said Eileen Claussen of the Pew Centre on Global Climate Change, a U.S. environmental think-tank working with business leaders and policymakers.

Public opinion polls conducted last fall show that Canadian and U.S. citizens are clearly worried about the impact of climate change on their children and grandchildren. And they know their governments aren't doing much to reduce emissions, the polls show..

The recent film "An Inconvenient Truth" by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, in which he systematically lays out the enormous body of evidence that the world is becoming dangerously warm due to human-generated greenhouse gas emissions, is the third-highest-grossing documentary in the United States ever and has been screened around the world.

But experts caution that simply raising public awareness of the problem is not nearly enough.

"The most important action needed is to establish a national policy to reduce emissions," Claussen told IPS. "Cities, states, industry and business all agree we need a national policy."

For example, the U.S. retail giant Wal-mart is both insisting that its 30,000 plus suppliers reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and also informing people who shop in their stores about the issue, she said.

"But there won't be a U.S. national emission reduction policy for at least two years and more likely four," she added -- in other words, long after the George W. Bush administration has left office.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, which came into effect in February 2005, 34 industrialised nations are obligated to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-12.

Although Washington signed the treaty in 1998, the Bush administration has refused to send it to the U.S. Congress for ratification, arguing that the cuts would be too costly to the economy and unfairly exempt large developing economies like China. Since 1990, U.S. emissions have risen about 16 percent, and now account for about a quarter of all global carbon dioxide emissions.

Canada, which did ratify the treaty, has also seen its emissions rise nearly 30 percent since 1990, mainly due to a booming oil and gas sector. The country needs a good national reduction plan but there is no political will to do so within Stephen Harper's Conservative government, says Morag Carter, director of the David Suzuki Foundation's climate change programme, a Canadian environmental group.

"Hopefully the public will convince the politicians to take action," Carter said in an interview.

Despite their concern, it is an open question whether U.S. citizens and Canadians are willing to drag themselves away from their televisions and video games to make sure their leaders do something.

Meanwhile there are still plenty of oil- and coal-company-funded climate change or global warming deniers and media pundits claiming the issue is "too complicated" to know for sure what to do.

"I'm hoping the U.S. media is finally beginning to understand that the scientific debate is over," said Claussen.

But the public still does not understand that their personal actions and decisions about what car or washing machine they buy can reduce or increase emissions of greenhouse gases, she said.

"People also discount the effectiveness of personal action because they see so few other people doing the same," she noted.

It would help if the average person was clear about 10 things they need to do in their daily lives to reduce emissions, she said.

The David Suzuki Foundation launched such a programme four years ago called the Nature Challenge. It asks people to sign up and commit to taking action on the 10 most effective ways to reduce emissions and protect nature. These include reducing home energy by 10 percent; walking, biking or taking public transit to regular destinations; eating meat-free meals once a week; and choosing energy-efficient homes and appliances. More than 238,000 people have joined the programme, which also provides monthly tips on making sustainable choices.

"Canadians are willing to make modifications in their lifestyles -- hundreds join the programme every week," Carter said.

However, to achieve the deep cuts that many scientists say are needed -- 80 percent by 2050 -- major industries that are responsible for more than half of Canada's emissions have to play a significant role. Emissions caps are the best and fairest way to do that, Carter says. And it need not be costly. Canada's oil and gas sector, which is making billions of dollars in profits, could become carbon-neutral at a cost of only pennies per barrel of oil, studies have shown.

However, Canada's government has made it clear that it prefers voluntary measures.

That is a long, long way from Britain's proposed legally binding, three percent annual national emissions reduction plan. Nearly 400 members of parliament support the new climate change legislation that would force the government to ensure national emissions are cut by three percent every year.

It could become law next year, says Catherine Pearce, Friends of the Earth (FOE) International's climate campaigner.

Britain is one of the world's leaders in tackling climate change, and yet 70 percent of Britons don't think their government is doing enough.

"People in the UK and Europe are willing to make changes and know their behaviour is destructive," Pearce told IPS from London. "Governments are forced to do more because of the growing knowledge of the public."

Business also needs a framework and targets that won't allow them to get away with increasing emissions. The three percent target, which FOE calls "The Big Ask", will also help Britain develop new technologies before other countries, which can then be marketed to the rest of the world, Pearce said.

One of the reasons Britain is so far ahead of North America has been Prime Minister Tony Blair's leadership, she acknowledges. And it looks like the next British election will be fought over which party has the toughest climate change action plan.

Germany will provide stiff competition in the emissions cuts race with a recent proposal to reduce emissions by 40 percent by 2020 if the European Union (EU) takes on a target of 30 percent.

"These are extremely ambitious targets but there is a great deal of activity in the EU to move away from importing oil and gas to domestic renewable energy programmes," Pearce said.

The EU believes it should show leadership and set the standard for rapidly industrialising countries like India and China to follow, said Pearce.

Meanwhile, many politicians in the United States and Canada complain that they shouldn't have to do anything unless India and China make commitments of their own.

"The world community is exasperated with Canada's and the U.S.'s irresponsible attitude," Pearce concluded.

Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service

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