how the world sees america

Schwarzenegger's Green, But Bush's Barely Catching On

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Oxford - Maybe because World War II didn’t demolish most of America, we can’t visualize the total havoc that climate change could one day reap.

Maybe because we’re not as densely populated as Japan, we are a little less attuned to nature as she strains to meet our needs. And maybe because we have only two big political parties duking it out for power, a green party can't influence a ruling coalition like it does in Germany today.

These maybes come from German citizen Katarina Umpfanbach, currently a master’s student in environmental change here at Oxford. But unlike most of her peers, she nevertheless believes Bush's announcement today signals a somewhat meaningful change.

Katarina wonders “how Bush can sleep at night” with Bangladesh flooding and New York overheating. She urges him to “open his eyes.” But unlike the outspoken green left in Germany, Katarina moderates her discussion of America's environmental record. She admires America for launching environmentalism several decades ago, and for the myriad local chapters at work today across the country trying to make a difference. She also praises state-wide changes like the one Austrian-born Californian governor Arnold Schwarzenegger launched in California (which was well covered in the Germany press). Unlike a lot of the German left, she has faith that Bush’s announcement yesterday might be the beginning of some real change, at least in the far right's outlook.

For most of Oxford, however, Bush’s new strategy for combating climate change, which made front-page news in this newspaper, was hardly worth a yawn. The Independent, a tabloid-style newspaper usually fond of covering climate change, put Bush’s announcement on page 26 of today’s issue under the headline “Bush makes ‘empty’ climate change pledge.”

Why so down? There are a number of reasons. All Bush has really said, students tell me, is that there will be a target for greenhouse gas reductions rather than simply slowing the growth of emissions. That’s new in the U.S., but doesn’t sound big from here where these goals are accepted as baseline necessities. And the talk of getting nations together to pursue these modest aims isn't new either. In fact, the U.S. has thwarted attempts to reach international agreements on post-Kyoto policies for some time. And Bush's proposed framework is voluntary. So what's the point? I ask.

According to Dr. Max Boykoff, a professor here who focuses on how media affects environmental policy, Bush is trying again to influence perceptions. Boykoff says, “The only action here [in yesterday’s announcement]…is distraction.” In the lead up to the G8 summit in Germany next week, Bush is trying to dull fierce criticism such as that issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It’s smoke in mirrors, Boykoff says.

Any good news? Well, at least Bush recognizes climate change publicly, boldly, Katarina says. Boykoff says that until recently the U.S. media heavily utilized the norm of balance: having two climate scientists, one concerned about climate change, one less so, debating news topics. Now the media is less likely to do this, Boykoff observes through a review of papers like The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, because the threat of climate change is now a consensus view. Today Bush strengthened this consensus, news for the U.S. but not for folks over here. At any rate, it's not enough to earn Bush a page one article over here, nor will it earn him many student fans in Oxford.

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Comments (11)

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Amar:

Salamon, Would be interested in your POV on this as time goes by.

Amar:

Hi JRLR, Ironic name indeed. She spent a long time talking about Katrina as well and the heat wave in New York as examples of climate change (most likely) having an affect just outside Bush's front door.
Max Boykoff was great. I interviewed him on video but didn't end up posting it. At some point though I'll go back and transcribe parts of it so you and others can see the interview.

JRLR:

Amar, for you to have managed to find at Oxford, of all places, someone who has ”faith that Bush’s announcement yesterday might be the beginning of some real change… in the far right's outlook”, and whose name is Kat(a)rina (!!!), is quite a feat...

Last night, I was watching a piece of investigative journalism, on tv. It showed how the Bush administration had succeeded in preventing the best US climatologists from making public what appeared to them to be the truth about climate change and global warming. The interviews with those scientists as well as the documents presented to us were fascinating. It follows that I remain extremely sceptical as to how sincere all those late “green” converts really are.

On the other hand, I find “Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias, Creating controversy where science finds consensus” (by Boykoff and Boykoff) remarkable. It has long been my opinion that after putting aside the traditional, so-called “objectivity” claim, it was high time journalists move beyond the balance-reporting paradigm and bias. Too often, that so-called “journalistic balance” is only an excuse for not wanting to know the truth of the matter, leading necessarily to sloppy, wishy-washy journalism. Better than in-bed journalism, of course, but just the same... one can undoubtedly do much better. You know that better than I do.


BCG:

this has been very educational, and your bringing up relevant topics keeps me looking forward to your next report. I am one of your eager readers looking to journey along with you on my laptop.

BCG:

this has been very educational, and your bringing up relevant topics keeps me looking forward to your next report. I am one of your eager readers looking to journey along with you on my laptop.

Salamon:

The meat of Bush's speech will be open to analysis when EPA [Enviromental Protection Agency] publishes its views regarding CO2 consequent to the Supreme Court [of USA] recent ruling, which is effectively demands action in JUNE of this year by the EPA.

Til that time any and all "analysis" regarding Bush's speech is but blowing hot or cold air.

Alex:

Excellent post. I think it really gets things right about the different perceptions on climate change between Europe and the US. Excellent point too that it is the federal government and not other levels of government or US citizens that are preventing the US from embracing its legacy as an environmental leader.

Europeans are right to be cynical about the Bush administration announcement this week; it is an insult to all the efforts the Europeans are already making to cut greenhouse gas emissions. There is already a comprehensive dialogue on climate change mitigation occurring through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the administration's announcement only serves to undermine it.

It can be easy to conflate statements on climate change with action, but don't confuse the recent Bush administration announcement with real policy aimed at reducing emissions. The announcement was only a distraction.

Alex Dewar:

Thanks for this article. Here are some thoughts of mine from research in the U.S. and Oxford on climate change. Hope this is of help to some readers.

The Basics of Climate Change from the 4th IPCC Assessment

* The global average concentration of carbon dioxide has increased from a pre-industrial average of 280ppm (parts per million) to 379ppm in 2005. The natural range of carbon dioxide concentrations has been 180ppm to 300ppm for the past 650,000 years. Similar increases have been observed for other greenhouse gases.
* The mean global temperature has increased by .76 degrees Celsius in the past century and a half. Eleven of the past 12 years rank among the 12 hottest since 1850.
* The scientific consensus of the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that with very high confidence (90%), global warming is being caused by the radiative forcing of greenhouse gasses emitted from human action.
* Other direct impacts from global warming include glacier and ice cap melt around the globe and sea level rise of .17m in the 20th century.
* Changes in climate from global warming include: widespread changes in precipitation and an increase in extreme weather events, such as droughts, heavy precipitation, heat waves, and an increase in intensity of tropical cyclones.

Potential Impacts of Climate Change

* Melting glaciers will increase floods and cause droughts in summer months, affecting roughly 1 billion people.
* Declining crop yields are projects to affect hundreds of millions of people. While the northern latitudes will likely experience an increase in productivity, the poor in developing countries (particularly in Africa) will be most affected.
* Rising sea levels will affect tens to hundreds of millions of people in low lying areas, with a temperature increase in the range of 3 to 4 degrees C. Sea level rise will cause increased flooding, contaminate fresh drinking water supplies, and displace whole cities.
* The health effects of climate change include higher rates of malnutrition, heat stress, and a potential increase in vector-borne diseases.
* Generally the world will experience an increase in severe weather events, from more and hotter heat waves, to more intense tropical cyclone events.
* Ecosystems will face severe stress. One study concludes a warming of 2 degrees C will result in the extinction of 15-40% of species. Marine ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to the increasing acidification of oceans due to absorption of CO2.


The Economics of Climate Change from the Stern Review

The Stern Review concludes that the worst impacts of climate change can be prevented if global concentrations of CO2 are stabilized between 450ppm and 550ppm. Even then temperature increases will range from 2-3 degrees C over pre-industrial levels. To reach stabilization in that range, emissions will have to be cut by 25% by 2050, and eventually 80%. The Review estimates that global costs of stabilization are in the range of -1% to 3.5% of GDP, with an average of approximately 1% of GDP. It is important to note that estimate is based on mitigation beginning immediately, because the longer it takes to begin annual emissions reductions the more expensive it will be. Meanwhile the costs of not taking action to mitigate climate change range between 5% and 25% of current per-capita consumption, now and forever.

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