Doing Away With Pointless Partisanship

The big news today is the leak of documents from the Heartland Institute, an American conservative think tank that is proudly skeptical of climate change. Whether the leaked documents are authentic is yet to be determined, so we should reserve judgement for now. However it underscores the continued attention we give to the us vs. them climate change paradigm, a way of thinking that ignores what both sides actually have in common.

As climate change continues to be used as a political wedge issue, garnering support based on ideology rather than science, the public is becoming increasingly partisan. That the percentage of Canadians who believe there is evidence for climate change is a full 22% higher than Americans reinforces that politics, media, and ideologies have a significant effect on our perceptions – after all, if we were basing our opinions on scientific evidence, then we would expect numbers north and south of the border to be comparable. Science does not care much for borders. The same study notes that in Canada, public opinion is also divided along political lines; 64% of Conservative voters recognize evidence of climate change, compared to 84% of New Democrat voters and a full 91% for the Liberals. All of this points to an urgent need to reframe the discussion of climate change along non-partisan lines. By demonizing the opposition, and using rhetoric like “anti-science” and “willful ignorance”, those of us on the opposite end of the argument alienate potentially powerful partners.

Similarly, what international climate change negotiations have shown us is that a top-down political process relying on consensus among players with widely varying interests is extremely unlikely to bring the necessary results. And even if we were successful in negotiating a treaty and severely reducing our emissions, according the IPCC, the effects of the current levels of emissions on sea level and atmospheric temperatures will be continued to be felt for a timeframe beyond comprehension.

IPCC graph on rising seal levels
IPCC graph showing rising sea levels despite drastic CO2 reductions

Despite these alarming and dire predictions, greenhouse gas emissions reductions are necessary and desirable. Yet there is almost insurmountable difficulty in achieving a common agreement that seems fair and equitable. Regardless of whether such negotiations are successful or not – and clearly we should all hope against hope for a breakthrough agreement – most of what we can do starts here at home.

Consider the following graph, produced by McKinsey and Co in 2010. This represents the cost of carbon abatement through a number of technologies and practices.

McKinsey Abatement Curve
The McKinsey C02 cost abatement curve

Those boxes to the left indicate lower potential for CO2 abatement, with rising potential to the right. However what we should focus on is the vertical axis, which is all about cost. Those strategies that fall below the main axis are net negative cost; that is, they would save us money. While clearly the opportunity for cutting GHG emissions becomes greater with greater cost, there is no ignoring the not-insignificant action that we could be taking for actual cost-savings.

Electricity generated from landfill gas, switching to LED lighting, increased efficiency in residential appliances and electronics, hybrid cars. These are all steps that we could be taking right now, steps that would create jobs, save money, and at the same time reduce emissions. All this could come without the governmental regulation on emissions that is so feared by Conservative voters worried about the state of the economy. These are places where we could all win, and all be on the same page.

The rhetoric of science versus anti-science, anthropogenic climate change versus natural historical cycles, and liberal versus conservative, are all getting in the way of those areas in which cooperation is not only possible, but desirable. We can hope that future international negotiations will see greater success, but moving ahead to cut our own emissions and lead more energy efficient lifestyles can begin right now, and also save us a few dollars along the way.

(Featured photo courtesy of spettacolopuro/Flickr)