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Economies Must Grow for the Climate Change Fight

Source: Guardian

Maxwell Boykoff, The Guardian

Beyond the current wedge-issue politics and culture wars on climate and environment issues, the "climate problem" suffers from a more powerful and enduring force: economic stagnation.

As such, immediate worries of job security and economic well-being have taken precedence in the collective conscience and public discourse.

Economic growth and reduced concern for the immediate worries will foster action on longer-term issues such as climate change. Credit: Toban Black/flickr

These pressing matters facing citizens today do not mean that they necessarily care less about long-term threats. In fact, a recent Rasmussen poll shows that concern for climate change is at its highest level in years. But they do mean that immediate concerns crowd out more diffuse and often abstract challenges like the causes and consequences of climate change.

These trends are particularly evident when looking at how much attention has been paid to climate change in the finite mass media "news hole" in recent years. In 2011, climate-related stories were published much less frequently than they were just in 2010. In the UK, a look at aggregate 2011 coverage in eight high-circulation newspapers and their sister Sunday editions — the Telegraph, Times, Independent, Guardian, Sun, Mirror, Daily Mail and Express — saw a drop of more than a third from 2010 levels.

Clearly, economic woes and political (in)action on climate change has dampened the amount of media coverage devoted to the topic in recent years. But this can also be turned on its head: to the extent that policy negotiators, elected officials and their staffers garner public priorities and possible pressure by proxy from public polling and news attention, then media attention feeds policy prioritization amongst political leadership.

I have taken up these issues in my recent book Who Speaks for the Climate?, working to make sense of how media influence ways in which climate science and policy become meaningful in people's everyday lives, and how media representations shape the spectrum of possibility for action on climate change.

There is a certain stubbornness of the human condition here perhaps, which can be associated with what my University of Colorado colleague Roger Pielke Jr has described as the "iron law of climate policy." Pielke has argued that "even if people are willing to bear some costs to reduce emissions (and experience shows they are), they are willing to go only so far . . . the unavoidable reality is that policy makers and those they represent are committed to sustaining economic growth . . . emissions reduction goals will not be achieved by policies that seek to stimulate innovation by constricting, much less by reducing, economic activity."

Put simply, this "iron law" is why economic growth is vital for cutting carbon emissions in today's climate.

In fact, economic contraction has not had demonstrable influence on comprehensive and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2009, GHG emissions actually dropped 1.3%, and this was associated with the global economic meltdown. Glen Peters from the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo (Cicero) posited that this was an opportunity to move the global economy to lower emissions trajectories.

But the time that followed has shown this not to be the case. In fact, in December, the Carbon Disclosure Project reported a massive jump once again, with GHG emissions increasing 5.9% in 2010. Longer term forecasts predict a steady increase of global GHG emissions of around 3% a year over the next decade.

All this shows we need to face the realities that economic growth is a necessary component of realistic and sustained carbon emissions reductions.

Of course, a reversal of economic misfortunes in the years ahead will not remove all barriers to action on climate change. But, less concern for the immediate will foster an atmosphere of more expansive reflection and action on longer-term issues, increasing our public caring capacity for interconnected 21st-century challenges such as climate change.

And such a turnaround would force leaders to confront the realities of issue as well. In the meantime, we'll just continue to face weakly enforced UN agreements, carbon emissions reductions promises that look like failed new year's resolutions, and recycled cliches on climate action.

Reprinted with permisison

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