Last year in Copenhagen we were among a very few UN outsiders daily blogging from inside the climate summit and we went to great lengths to be relatively punctual and reliable in our reporting. This year, in contrast, there are scads of bloggers — an entire “bloggers loft” at the Cancun Messe site devoted to video bloggers (vloggers).
Just to read the feeds from all the tweeters here you would need multiple heads. So we are off the hook this year. Whew! Why spend time wading through security and trying to parse all the acronyms when you can be in a turquoise sea looking up at seagulls?
Yesterday we attended the Pew Center/Government of Mexico forum on Communicating Climate Change and got to knock elbows at the chow line with climate celebrities. Simon Anholt gave the equivalent of a TED talk to close the morning session and IPCC nobelist Rajendra Pachauri gave the luncheon keynote. Ozone hole discoverer Mario Molino, No-Impact-Man Colin Beavan, and Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa were among the afternoon line-up. While Anholt really got people’s juices flowing, Espinosa’s rousing stand-up slayed.
You don’t need to take a survey, as the Pew Center and Yale did, to know there is an enormous and growing gap in the public appreciation of climate change. Awareness of the climate is actually higher in China and India than it is in the United States and Mexico, but awareness does not mean understanding. While more than 40% of people in the US think climate change is serious (down from more than 50% five years ago), 97% of the 600 million Chinese who know about climate change feel it is no threat. Similar numbers can be found in India. This takes Fox News and the Koch brothers off the hook. The US is feeling less dumb already.
As Simon Anholt said, climate change, put as simply as possible, is the impact of having 7 billion people living at the highest level of resource consumption the world has ever seen. In many ways, that is a mark of the success of the United Nations, and of the international aid and development work of many agencies and individuals over the past 50 years. And not surprisingly, many of the stakeholders one finds roaming the halls at a UN event have the expectation that “sustainable development” mandate can and should continue. Most, if not all, would even go so far as to say it must continue. And so we drift, by Millennial Development Goals and Clean Development Mechanisms, towards unparalleled catastrophe.
Another point made by Anholt is that governments care a lot about their reputations. Sweden has a great reputation and finds it easy to get credit, enter markets, attract tourists and so forth. Mexico, by contrast, has a serious image problem about safety. Its drug cartels, some trained and equipped in the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia, are now more powerful than its government, and certainly more wealthy and with better long-term prospects. Such insecurity makes it much harder for Mexico to attract investors, credit and tourists, although it is the drug money that likely built the luxury resorts we are shuttling between. These resorts have more than one kind of laundry to do.
Anholt, who is a free-lancer parachuted in by Ogilvy Public Relations of Beverly Hills when the need arises (his business card bears only his name), said that countries know that they need a good image to have success, and so they waste millions of tax dollars on gawd-awful propaganda, not noticing that in the information age it has gotten harder to buy a good reputation. Sweden’s message is that you may have to actually do something good, like give to the poor, or save the environment. Many companies are starting to get this. Countries will eventually have to. Mr. Calderon’s Mayan Riviera windmill is a poignant case of trying to appear greener than you actually are, but at least it actually works. The first time we saw it we thought it was being turned by motors, entirely for show.
So that’s the formula. If a country wants to do business it must be admired. In order to be admired it must do good. This is a conundrum for many governments, not the least the USA, whose reputation took a huge hit from the Bush-Cheney torture-and-mayhem brand. It briefly revived with the Shepard Ferry “Hope” poster but that has now tarnished with the Obama torture-mayhem-and-cover-up re-brand, the Obama Security State (OSS) that imprisons whistleblowers, and the recent right wing election coup. A Pew survey found that of 22 US Senate challengers in the last election, 20 did not trust climate scientists. Given this display of Tweetle-dee and Tweetle-dumber on the world stage, USA’s credit and confidence reservoirs are drying up, globally, and the Cancun talks are a very clear indication of that. A US citizen attending these meetings feels much like a Japanese citizen attending a screening of The Cove. An icebreaker at parties is to find a shared interest in Michael Moore.
The problem is not confined to a few bad countries, however. We live in an era of borderless problems. As Simon Anholt told the forum, one thing our problems share is that they are all symptoms of a lack of any sane global governance. We haven’t attained the next stage of our evolution: species self-awareness. We are still fragmented and competing nation-states and soul-less corporations. The UN is in 0.9 beta. But, and we keep saying this whenever we get stuck in a long queue for a shuttle bus, as bug-prone as it is, its the only game in town.
After Copenhagen public opinion towards the UN, and government in general, entered a new crisis of confidence. The Wikileaks phenomenon is just another symptom of that. Wilkileaks’ popularity (not to mention its revelations) demonstrates that our governments are incompetent at best, corrupt and greedy at worst, and people now get that. That new branding is being seared into our common psyche. What Karl Rove couldn’t accomplish, Hillary Clinton is driving home.
As we begin the chaotic Anthopocene Epoch, the public is beginning to understand that no one is in charge and we are all aboard a burning ocean liner. Are there evacuation plans? A fire brigade? Any plan at all? Do we have a string quartet to play “Nearer My God to Thee?”
Rajendra Pachauri told the audience that the only superpower today is public opinion. We can take that a step farther and say people’s perceptions are based on patterns of development that begin while they are still in the womb, are strongly embedded by cultural experiences, and continue along driven by that inertia even in the face of strong evidence that the accepted norms of their parents no longer obtain. We are creatures of habit. The big picture – that there are 7 billion of us consuming resources at unsustainable rates, and that both the number of us and our rate of consumption are increasing, not diminishing — is an intractable dilemma simply because opinion about it is fixed and non-negotiable.
Jennifer Scott, Global Head of Strategy and Planning, Ogilvy & Mather, outlined a survey of more than 500 participants at COP-16. The study found that 56% believe that there has already been irreversible damage to the planet, and another 27% believe that such damage is coming within 10 years. Nearly 90 percent believe that the time to act is right now, but only 33% think the talks are headed towards resolution (29% developed world respondents, 38% developing). A full 83% believe response will only come once countries experience the consequences in the full 3D surround sound of real time. Appearances to peers matters — 64% believe the unwillingness to risk economic or political damage at home is the greatest barrier to reaching an agreement. Only 20% think public apathy is due to skepticism in the science, although 58% say the public has only very limited understanding of the issues. Scientists are trusted by 66%, journalists by only 24% (and probably those respondents were the journalists). Still, 76% rank mainstream media as the best vehicle for conveying the message, and human interest stories as the most effective way (65%).
That last point was driven home by “No Impact Man” Colin Beaven, who put up two images, side-by-side, one of climbing stairs with a child on his shoulders and the other of a MEGO chart. “Which of these images is more likely to draw your attention?” he asked.
Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Project on Climate Change at Yale University, said that 66% of people surveyed in 150 countries trust scientists and experts, but less than half trust global organizations like the UN (42%), or public figures and activists (41%). “Just between China and India we are talking about 2 billion people who know nothing about climate change,” he said, and added that this is very unfortunate because these are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.
The sad thing, and Pachauri and many others alluded to this, is that our species’ suicidal, geocidal meander toward “sustainable development” is not even going where people think it is going. The objective is happiness, and every study shows that happiness is increased by factors having nothing to do with shopping in WalMart or the Gap; turning dolphins and salmon into catfood, or bling. Consumption doesn’t work.
The Onion ran a fake story yesterday with the headline “Report: Unemployment High Because People Keep Blowing Their Job Interviews.” The irony is that may be true. People want jobs that maintain their status quo. They want governments that will give them whatever they consider their patrimony or natural right to consume. Those are impossible career goals, but public opinion, the world’s only superpower, has yet to come to grips with it. Demands for the impossible are clashing with what is possible, as in the case of a family whose breadwinners are out of work, the house has been foreclosed, social welfare provides for neither the children’s food nor the grandparents’ medical needs and they so they just decide to pack up and go to Disney World.
And the irony is that it is all so unnecessary because the low-energy, low-carbon, low-impact path is so much more fun, healthier, and more fulfilling than the dead-end wage slavery it could be replacing before it is all too late. After all, many good studies in various countries already show profitable means to achieve 40% aggregate reductions from 1990 levels for 2020. Some UN observers, like Zero Carbon Britain, Climate Action Network and European Climate Foundation, have shown how we can transition to a zero carbon economy for developed countries by 2050. Dubious technologies like clean coal and nuclear can be pursued by countries inviting their own financial ruin, but most would likely prefer to adopt clean renewables targets like China’s.
Speaking in Spanish, Patricia Espinoza said that while it is the usual thing to talk about climate solutions that involve energy production or transportation, and numeric limits, that few people yet see the whole picture. When we talk about climate change we are really talking about changing everything. She listed some of the things that people need to think about, like the size of their house and car, where their food comes from, how many children they have, and what it would be like if not just the business they were in was closed, but that entire industrial sector was phased out. Big problems require big thinking, she told the conference, and we are still thinking much too small.