I just finished a week in China, including three days at the World Economic Forum’s “Summer Davos” in Dalian. The WEF established this event with three key ideas in mind: the shift of economic and political power to the south and east, the rise of “new champion” companies from emerging markets, and the increasing importance of sustainability.
Five years on, these trends continue to shape our world. And while this was widely understood in Dalian, Washington appears to be willfully ignoring our growing environmental problems. But wishing them away doesn’t make the problems disappear. The picture of our deteriorating climate is still the truth, and apparently it is still inconvenient.
Both major political parties are at fault here: Democrats are backtracking from environmental commitments, and many Republicans are questioning the scientific consensus on climate change. Both parties have taken major steps backward from positions taken before the recession hit. In doing so, they are ignoring or denying the facts, which shows us that we have a problem:
- The summer ice melt in the Arctic this year is close to surpassing the previous record from 2007, with a clear, 30-year trend of thinning ice.
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently reported that temperatures have been above 20th century averages for the last 142 months.
- In 2011, the United States has experienced a record 10 weather-related catastrophes costing more than US$1 billion.
One would think that with the evidence of climate change progressing—and costing the U.S. economy real money—Washington would redouble its efforts to take action. But in recent weeks, we have seen precisely the opposite. Just this month, President Obama ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to withdraw planned regulations requiring lower ozone levels. In a parallel move, the EPA itself delayed announcement of regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, though this may be a matter of timing rather than policy reversal. On the other side of the aisle, most Republican presidential candidates have rejected or questioned the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is caused by human activity.
The U.S. government seems to have succumbed to the argument that regulations are “job-killers.” This is an apparent reaction to an economy that’s stuck in neutral, and an effort to prioritize economic growth over any other objectives.
In fact, fresh polling data show that the American public has grown more convinced that man-made climate change is real: A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll reports that of the 83 percent of the Americans who believe the Earth is warming, 71 percent think it’s happening at least in part due to human activity. Reports that the recession has dented this attitude appear to be overstated, or perhaps reversed following the string of weather-related disasters hitting the United States in 2011.
The biggest climate-related disaster right now may well be Washington’s inaction. It is failing to take a forward-looking approach to climate and energy, a challenge that will be with us long after the current economic problems have passed. It is also reinforcing a sense that the United States is no longer leading, or shaping our collective future. This means the United States is squandering both its soft power and its hard power. More importantly, it means global solutions are less likely to happen: U.S. inaction provides an easy excuse for others not to act. And that’s the least convenient truth of all.