All sensible people are environmentalists. We want to enjoy clean air, land and water and we like to think that future generations will live in an even better environment.
So why is it that, according to a Gallup poll released last month, Americans’ concern about environmental issues now rates near its lowest since the late 1980s?
While Gallup proposes several causes of the decline — a more positive view of the state of the environment, increased economic concerns, politicization of environmental issues — one explanation should trouble environmental strategists: they are, in effect, focused on the wrong issue.
“The primary focus of the environmental movement has shifted toward long-term threats like global warming — issues about which Americans tend to worry less than about more immediate threats like pollution. … Americans’ worry about it [global warming] is no higher now than when Gallup first asked about it in 1989.”
Among six items of environmental concern the public was asked about, “global warming or climate change” rated last. After last year’s environmental survey, Gallup wrote, “warming has generally ranked last among Americans’ environmental worries each time Gallup has measured them with this question over the years.”
Yet climate change now dominates the environmental movement. Besides Earth Hour, an event focussed on “changing climate change,” climate activists are increasingly taking center stage at Earth Day, celebrated every year on April 22.
We can expect all other environmental campaigns to take a back seat to climate change for the rest of the year. Global warming activists are working hard to prime the public, politicians and the press to support what they hope will be the largest climate change agreement in history this December in Paris. The goal is to create a situation in which our negotiators feel compelled to agree to a new United Nations treaty to “save the climate,” no matter the cost.
Besides the strategic blunder of focusing so much attention on an issue the public does not particularly care about, there is a serious ethical problem that will come back to haunt the environmental movement if its leaders don’t soon change focus.
Reports such as those of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change illustrate that debate rages in the scientific community about the causes of climate change. Scientists cannot even agree on whether warming or cooling lies ahead, let alone the degree to which we affect it. Yet climate campaigners assert that “the science is settled.” We know with certainty, they claim, that our carbon dioxide emissions will cause a planetary emergency unless we radically change our ways.
This is irrational. Uncertainty is inherent to all science, especially a scientific field as complex as climate change.
The consequence of overconfidence about climate science is tragic. According to the San Francisco-based Climate Policy Initiative, of the $1 billion spent worldwide each day on climate finance, 94 percent goes to mitigation, trying to control future climate. Only 6 percent of global climate finance is dedicated to helping vulnerable people cope with climate change today. In developing countries, even less, an abysmal 5 percent, goes to adaptation. Based on a theory about climate, we are letting people die today so as to possibly help those in the distant future.
As the public comes to understand how immature the science of climate change actually is, it will regard today’s funding situation as immoral and the focus of today’s environmental movement ridiculous.
That scenario, not hypothetical future climate states, is what should most concern environment activists.
Tom Harris is executive director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition (www.ClimateScienceInternational.org).