Don't spoil my Christmas present

The U.S. government is trying to give me a Christmas present this year. Its Environmental Protection Agency has announced it will propose emissions standards for the country’s power plants, which emit 40 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

I’m choosing to take this personally. As an American perched over here in Singapore for the last seven years, I’ve been watching from the outside as my country has laboriously worked on its climate change policies. It’s been excruciating: one step forward, two steps back; or small victories followed by new and seemingly insurmountable barriers. The environment has long been a pawn in our bi-partisan political wrangling.

In 1997 the U.S. refused to adopt the Kyoto Protocol, thereby avoiding any official commitment to limiting its emissions. Many disappointed environmentally-minded Americans accepted this hesitantly, thinking our leaders just needed a bit more time to argue over it. They’ll eventually come around, or at least come up with their own domestic version of a commitment. We put it down to a quirk in our political system, which has achieved many great things, but few of them quickly.

Thirteen years on, we’re still waiting. The U.S. is now the only rich country that has not ratified the treaty. If it weren’t such a serious matter, it would be embarrassing.

We watched political parties come and go. We watched the global fiasco otherwise known the Copenhagen climate change talks last year, which saw China using the U.S.’s inability for legislative action to its advantage. We watched the run-up to this year’s climate change talks in Cancun, during which every government and international body under the sun meticulously lowered our expectations and hopes for action.

Also during this period in November, our president’s party lost their elective majority and with it, much of their clout in the climate change negotiations. Over fifty percent of incoming elected officials consider themselves climate sceptics, making federal legislation on carbon emissions unlikely anytime soon. On December 1st, Republicans announced their intention to disband the climate change committee. This is hardly a government to turn to for leadership in global negotiations.

So what’s happening over there? Nothing is terribly surprising coming from a country where so many refuse to accept evolution as a viable scientific theory. Even so, with our first-rate universities, research bodies and relatively well-educated population, I would expect us to be able to face climate change issues with some sort of proficiency.

Powerful oil and coal interests, short-sighted energy industries and an apathetic public are often blamed, and with good reason. Today I came across a new theory: separation of science and state. Separation of church and state is a well-debated topic in my country (see my earlier point about evolution), and somehow the concept seems to have leached into the scientific realm. It’s as if creationists are saying if the government won’t allow their story about a rib transforming into a well-proportioned female, then climate scientists don’t get to use their life-times’ work of careful scientific research. I’d like to add here, for non-American readers, that the majority of religious Americans I know are NOT against science; it just seems that way when elected officials get involved.

Climate scientists, who used to get on with their work while assuming that sound scientific theories and recommendations would result in logical actions, have had enough. In November, the American Geophysical Union declared that its 700 scientists were now prepared to take on climate sceptics in public.

Good luck to them. They’ll have to fight against such forces as Fox News, a major news network in the U.S. that has been accused by media watchdogs of deliberately skewing coverage of climate change in favour of climate sceptics. A December 15th article in The Guardian of the U.K. described a leaked e-mail in which the network’s Washington bureau chief ordered his staff to immediately counter any assertions about climate change. This was issued at the time of the Cancun climate change talks.

I have my own take on climate change and the debate about who caused it and whether it’s real or not:

I really don’t care.

Let me explain here that to me, it doesn’t matter - in the same way that it wouldn’t matter if I were treading into a den of unfamiliar, hostile snakes and the people around were debating about whether or not the snakes were poisonous. Either way, I’d avoid the snakes.

At worst, measures to mitigate climate change are a really expensive insurance policy that may prove to be unnecessary. At best, those same measures mean that we get to hang around longer, and under much more comfortable conditions than if we ignore the threat.

There’s another factor here too. A Chinese environmental economist I know calls it the co-benefit factor. Since nothing exists in isolation, we can and should look at additional benefits of reducing GHGs. Yes, many mitigation measures, such as requiring new technology for power producers, have a high price tag. But you get much more for your money than just reduced carbon in the atmosphere.

Clean technology, responsible management of natural resources, and reduced dependence on fossil fuels lead to significant improvements in the world around us. We get cleaner air and water, a healthier population, long-term sustainable energy supplies, plentiful forests, food security and much more. On a socio-economic front, we get companies who compete to limit their impact on our environment and developed countries trying to help developing countries grow in a sustainable way.

So absolutely, I’m all for my government taking measures to limit GHGs. The EPA’s new rules are hardly a done deal however; industry lobbyist groups and Republican representatives intend to fight the moves.

I’ll be watching from my vantage point over here, and hoping my Christmas present doesn’t go up in smoke.

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