In the end, it was really no contest.
On the one hand there were the seven academies of science from the worlds leading industrial powers plus those of Russia, India, China and Brazil the full weight of world scientific opinion. They said that the scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action.
On the other hand there was White House staffer Philip Cooney, a lawyer with a bachelors degree in economics but no scientific training. He altered documents from senior United States government science advisors to produce an air of doubt about findings that are scientifically robust.
But the staffer, a former employee of the American Petroleum Institute, had the ear of the most powerful man in the world, George W Bush. And the president, while voicing general expressions of concern, was not about to commit the US to specific actions to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
We have been here before. In some ways, the debate has advanced little since 1989 when British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev said that climate change posed a massive and serious threat to humanity. The world agreed a Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) and pledged to take action to avoid dangerous global warming. Meanwhile, emissions of greenhouse gases continued to skyrocket.
But the game is not over. The science of climate change has progressed hugely. Energy technology options have come on apace. Political and citizens groups have multiplied and increased in strength and organisation.
It may look like we are going round in circles, but look a little closer and the situation is three-, not two-dimensional more like a helix than a circle. So how do we tell if we are sliding up or down?
A way in
openDemocracys debate on the politics of climate change is a good place to start. It comprises around fifty newly-commissioned articles by leading scientists, writers and others.
Together they address six major aspects of climate change:
- science and uncertainty (e.g. John Sterman & Linda Booth Sweeney, David King and Dave Frame)
- the rights and wrongs of Kyoto and what may come after it (e.g. Aubrey Meyer, Michael Grubb and Benito Müller)
- issues of global justice and development (e.g. Camilla Toulmin, Mayer Hillman and activists from China, India and Brazil)
- technical and policy challenges (e.g. Timothy E Wirth, Michael Davies & Antony Froggatt and Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen)
- arts and imagination (e.g. Bill McKibben, Mark OConnor and Jon Miller)
- creating more environmentally friendly cities (e.g. Bill Dunster, Dan Damon and Ijaz Hossain & Saleemul Huq)
For a speed-read of some of the best of this debate, go to the overview page or dive into this quick eight:
- Ian McEwans introduction
- John Whitelegg on the global transport challenge
- Jim DiPeso on how America faces reality (slowly)
- David Buckland, Max Eastley & Caspar Henderson on Arctic dreams
- British activists debate ( in two parts)
- William Connolley and colleagues on climate change science
- Fred Pearces memo to the G8
- Nick Robinss twenty trillion dollar question.
Already many tens of thousands of people across the world have read these and other articles, and perhaps used them to sharpen their minds for the journey ahead. The debate continues, not least in the work of the British Council, which generously supported this openDemocracy endeavour and whose ZeroCarbonCity initiative a two-year global campaign to raise awareness and stimulate debate around the challenges of climate change continues. Join us!
This article appears as part of openDemocracys online debate on the politics of climate change. The debate was developed in partnership with the British Council as part of their ZeroCarbonCity initiative a two year global campaign to raise awareness and stimulate debate around the challenges of climate change.