There is still a substantial and influential body of climate doubters, particularly in the US but also in countries such as Australia and Saudi Arabia. This unpromising situation demands a change of course from everyone.
Climate change a tricky message to sell to the planet
Who bears the blame for public confusion about climate change? Is it well-funded coal and oil lobbyists in the US, casting doubt on the idea that we are affecting the climate? Is it UK scientists, accused of manipulating data to fit their pet theories? Or is the problem more subtle, and more fundamental? Climate change is a tricky subject to explain to people. The inhabitants of any one area cannot easily observe rising worldwide temperatures, and might easily use the recent cold snap in Europe as evidence against global warming.
Warming takes place over decades and, indeed, centuries. Predicting the details of change requires synthesising a mass of data from satellites, ground stations, historical records, cores from ice sheets, ocean sediments and tree rings, and running these through vast computer models. And climate action threatens the world view and livelihood of many who enjoy or aspire to an affluent lifestyle with plane travel and air conditioning, or who work in carbon-intensive industries, or who are politically opposed to greater government involvement in the economy.
The broad trends of climate change are clear and unequivocally accepted by most scientists, yet it is a very complex and relatively young discipline. Unsurprisingly, many important details remain uncertain. "Deniers", who argue against human influences on climate, seize on any item of uncertainty to discredit the whole body of climate science. Although they have themselves no coherent scientific explanation of the changes we see about us, their tactics create a false impression that current climate theory is too doubtful to be a basis for action.
The modern information age plays an ambiguous role in all of this. On the one hand, everyone has instant access to the whole body of climate science. On the other, anyone can feel themselves to be an instant expert. Myths and politicised attacks on climate science circulate and prove impossible to dislodge. The leaked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit in East Anglia, England, were scientifically insignificant. Yet they have been a PR disaster for climate change campaigners. No doubt those emails, selectively quoted out of context, will be dragged up for many years to come by those opposing climate action.
So the climate debate presents scientists with a very difficult challenge: how to convey a complex and nuanced message clearly enough to give impetus for action. This is where campaigning environmentalists play a crucial role. They are skilled in activism, in motivating changes in policy. Environmental groups have been the critical actors in creating awareness of the dangers of climate change among the general public. In turn, that encourages politicians to move.
Yet some environmentalists have failed the essential test of politics: they are pursuing the art of the impossible. Tackling climate change demands an unprecedented degree of global co-operation. But some modern "Greens" are attempting to fight simultaneously against the petroleum business; against coal that powers India, China and bellwether US states; against nuclear power; against air travel; even against the meat industry. Significant groups are hostile to economic growth and global capitalism in general, and therefore indirectly to the innovation in clean energy that entrepreneurs can deliver.
Some more hardline environmental groups are resolutely against certain heresies. Greenpeace rejects nuclear power. Helene Pelosse, the head of the now Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency, opposes carbon capture and storage, and maintains that "only 100 per cent renewable energy is clean". The spokesman for the large natural gas producer Devon Energy, speaking to a US Congress legislative director about proposed restrictions, was reportedly told: "What you're saying may be true but it doesn't matter, because I'm 47 and I want to have this country off fossil fuels by the time I'm 70."
Many in the oil business are ready to cross the divide. ExxonMobil has long been painted as a global warming villain, but I recently heard its president, Rich Kruger, speak candidly in Doha about the climate challenge. Gas is by far the most practical fuel for a rapid replacement of coal. Abu Dhabi aspires to demonstrate the compatibility of hydrocarbons, nuclear and renewables in our energy future. Yet many environmental groups offer the fossil fuel business only the choice of extinction or resistance.
With such a constellation of opponents, it is hardly surprising that there was no comprehensive agreement at the Copenhagen climate conference. Now, with the loss of the Democrats' filibuster-proof Senate majority, the global climate is once again held hostage by domestic American politics. Almost 20 years after the Rio Earth Summit, which led to the Kyoto Protocol, there is still a substantial and influential body of climate doubters, particularly in the US but also in countries such as Australia and Saudi Arabia.
This unpromising situation demands a change of course from everyone. Scientists need clearly and honestly to distil the essentials from complexity. Green organisations must be more open to engaging with businesses, even those they dislike. Carbon-heavy industries have to realise that climate change is not going away; it has to be addressed rather than denied. It is too much to expect a sudden change of heart from those resolutely denying human-made climate change, but a rational, less hostile and more skilfully presented message can persuade the undecided.
Robin Mills is a Dubai-based energy economist, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis (Praeger, 2008).