Our Politicians Not Warming to Climate Change

10/04/2011 02:14 EDT | Updated 12/04/2011 05:12 EST

The upcoming 17th conference of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) later this year in Durban, South Africa represents the last chance for international policy makers to negotiate an extension of the Kyoto Protocol after its first reporting period ends in 2012. In the lead up to this event, we will almost certainly see numerous campaigns aimed at galvanizing public opinion in support of a binding international deal. Some, like Al Gore's 24 Hours of Climate Reality event on Sept. 14, and's Moving Planet initiative on Sept. 24, have already happened. Others will almost certainly emerge in the weeks ahead.

The Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC was adopted in 1997. It was designed as a first step towards reducing global greenhouse gas emissions (192 nations are now a party to the Accord). Annex B (developed) countries agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 5.2 per cent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012. Canada's target was six per cent below 1990 levels. The U.S target was seven per cent below 1990 levels. While both Canada and the US signed the Protocol, it was never ratified in the U.S. Canada ratified the Protocol on Dec. 17, 2002.

In 2009, Canada's emissions were 17 per cent above 1990 levels. U.S. emissions had increased by seven per cent. On the other hand, UK emissions had decreased by 27 per cent, Germany's by 26 per cent and Japan's by 4.5 per cent. European efforts combined with the recent global economic downturn means that as a group, Annex B countries will almost certainly meet their 5.2 per cent targeted reduction by the end of 2012. Put another way, the Kyoto goal was reached (despite the lackluster performance of the U.S. and Canada).

China, India and other developing nations are all parties to the Kyoto Protocol. Just as in the case for the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, the expectation was that these countries would be required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the second reporting period. Bringing them into the umbrella of a global treaty would be an important outcome of the South Africa negotiations.

Despite the numerous commentaries masquerading as science that have permeated the Internet and certain media outlets, global warming is real. The scientific community has known this for a very long time. Global warming is being caused by increasing greenhouse gases associated with human activities, and in particular the combustion of fossil fuels. This is another well-understood scientific finding.

However our decision whether or not to deal with global warming really boils down to one question. Do we have any responsibility for the well being of future generations? Unfortunately, science cannot provide an answer to this question. It must be answered by society as a whole. Are we willing to take the steps required today to ensure that future generations are able to enjoy the same economic stability and ecological diversity that we currently enjoy? Wishing that the problem would go away is not a solution.

It's no wonder that our political leaders are having such a difficult time introducing the policies needed to ensure a reduction in greenhouse gases. Politicians are typically elected for short terms in office. Every four years or so there is a new election. A politician who introduces a regulation limiting greenhouse gases would not see the climate effects of this policy realized during their political career. In fact, they may not be realized in their entire lifetime. They would start to have an effect in the lifetime of the next generation. That's hardly something you can point to in the next election campaign.

Solutions to the global warming problem generally fall into two categories: technological and behavioral. The technological challenge is enormous. We need to move our energy systems away from fossil fuels. Of course there are many benefits to doing this anyway, including the fact that oil is a depleting resource. The technological barriers may be large, but, in truth, most of the solutions are readily available. They are just costly. Economists worldwide agree that the single most important solution to global warming involves putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions. Pricing emissions levels the playing field. New energy technologies are then able to compete with traditional fossil fuels. As these new technologies become commonplace, their price goes down.

Behavioral barriers are also present. Our current patterns of consumption are unsustainable. This doesn't mean we should all stop buying cars, flat-screen TVs or cell phones. Rather, it requires us to think more deeply about how these are produced and how they will be disposed of when they are no longer working.

In recent decades North Americans have not had to live in a world where duty and greater good is placed before personal entitlement and individual needs.

Should society decide to address the issue of global warming, then instead of fixating on how the actions of others affect us as individuals, we will be compelled to focus on how our actions as individuals affect others. This will require us to move away from a culture of fear and denial to one of excitement and empowerment.

It's a tall order. But it is within our grasp.