Category: Environment

Why It's So Hard to Change Public Attitudes: The Example of Global Warming

HENDRIK VAN DEN BERG 
UNL PROFESSOR OF ECONOMICS


It is looking like we will not get a new international agreement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions at the Copenhagen Conference this December. After several unproductive preparatory meetings among government officials, the news media now report that Copenhagen is unlikely to result in more than a bland statement saying world leaders will continue working toward a new agreement. This is a sharp decline in expectations from a year ago, when Copenhagen was seen as the venue where a new international accord would be adopted to replace the Kyoto Protocol set to expire in 2012.

After initial optimism about the Obama Administration’s willingness to take a lead in framing a new climate agreement, the U.S. is now being accused of playing a spoiler role. The U.S. has ended negotiations over specific emissions targets by insisting that countries be given the freedom to decide their own measures for reducing greenhouse gases. The Obama Administration has cynically appealed to the principle of “national sovereignty” to redirect global negotiations away from a new set of binding limits on carbon emissions. “I feel like the Americans have lost the plot a little bit,” the European Commission president was dryly quoted as saying in the September 22 Financial Times.

A country’s national sovereignty is, of course, under much greater threat from climate change than it is from a binding international agreement on preventing global warming. But nationalism serves as a convenient emotional ‘hot button’ that special interests can use to derail serious climate legislation. Opponents of carbon taxes and environmental regulations know very well that voluntary efforts designed by individual governments will not stop global warming. Permitting individual nations to set their own standards invariably results in an international ‘race to the bottom,’ in which competing countries consistently ‘water down’ the costly measures that actually promote alternative energy and conservation.

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