Why the U.S. Is So Far Behind the Brits on Climate Change
Nothing screams "I (heart) global warming" quite like a romp around Capitol Hill in your bikini top at Christmastime. I speak from experience; this past holiday season, high on Coppertone and early-blooming cherry trees, I found myself all too eager to tryst with the infamous 21st-century menace--never mind that he'd recently melted the heart of the Ayles Ice Shelf, screwed 2,000 polar bears in the Beaufort Sea and sweet-talked the pasty male congressional interns into prematurely bearing their chests on the National Mall in January. Do I regret my indulgence? No. Have I repented? Yes. My cure? A blustery island called Great Britain.
When I returned to my new flat in the UK after the holidays to discover freakish winds that chapped my lips and trapped my neighbor under a pile of scaffolding until the local authorities could dig him out several hours later, the symbolism wasn't lost on me.
If America lubed up my climate change romanticism, the motherland was having nothing of it. In their mass media, the British have long favored unambiguous front-page headlines like "Global Warming May Kill Millions" over manufactured debates about whether climate scientists are the millennial Chicken Littles.
In their elected government, they share a cross-party consensus on the need for urgent action, as evinced by Prime Minister Tony Blair's ambitious pledge to cut UK carbon emissions at least 60 percent by 2050. And in their national temple to intellectual argumentation -- the pub -- the Brits' carbon-conscious banter flows as freely as Old Hooky.
In fact, it was around the stained oak tables of Oxford's Eagle and Child that I first noticed my British peers' dexterity in the lingo of "eco-footprints" and "carbon sequestration," meanwhile discovering my great American knack for mixing ale with scientific illiteracy with less-than-stellar results.
Whereas my job as a freelance journalist is typically to write my way around my ineptitude, on this particular occasion I would like to write about it. The question was simple when I pitched it to my editor several months ago: Why are the Brits kicking our arse on climate change awareness? That was back when news of a 14 percent reduction in perennial Arctic sea ice cover was relegated to the footnotes of The New York Times, and when the Republican-ruled Congress still boasted a prime soapbox for Sen. James Inhofe's (R-Okla.) diatribes against the liberal "hoax" of greenhouse gases. But times they are a-changing.
Now that the crisis has exploded into the mainstream U.S. press upon the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in February -- and with Al Gore suddenly hedging his bets for a Nobel Peace Prize, Snoop Dogg rapping for the cause, and even our recalcitrant commander in chief promising a spankin' new climate agenda -- America appears to be reaching its tipping point.
My original question about the U.S.-UK climate divide hasn't disappeared in this new landscape; it's simply proved more complicated and urgent than I'd first imagined: Why did the Brits catch the climate change bug several years before the America public, and has this pop trend really translated into meaningful policy? What makes a troubling environmental truth take hold of a nation's psyche -- earning that coveted "stickiness factor" to which Malcolm Gladwell traces all revolutions of consciousness? And how can we ensure that America's recent attempts to close the climate change gap translate into immediate action -- individually, culturally and politically -- on both sides of the Atlantic this year?
I decided to consult more than 20 climate change scientists, politicians, journalists and environmentalists for answers. And the insights they shared form a surprisingly coherent picture, even if it looks less like one of Gore's tidy Power Point slides and more like an epidemiologist's tangled causality web: Scientific research breaks through to the mass media (or doesn't); the media transform pop culture; public opinion tilts political leadership; political leadership stocks the coffers of new scientific research; and the circle goes 'round again, ricochets, darts sideways and globalizes.
What follows is a tour of three major strands from this web that seem worth splicing, since they allow us to look beyond the symptoms of climate apathy in order to address its underlying practical and philosophical structures.
A Nation of "Once-lers": the Strand of Addiction
Let's begin with the most simple of explanations for the cross-Atlantic climate divide, one shared with me by global warming guru Bill McKibben: "Americans are deeper in denial because they're deeper in addiction." Best-selling author of The End of Nature and Deep Economy, McKibben has an arsenal of cheerless facts to back him up.
The U.S., with only 4.6 percent of the world's population, is now responsible for 23.5 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide, the dominant greenhouse gas. "Per capita, we use twice the energy of Europeans," McKibben noted, conjuring an image of Joe Average driving home from Wal-Mart in his SUV, stocked with carbon-coughing gadgets and grocery bags full of perpetual summer (mangos from China, anyone?).
The Brits, meanwhile, ranked 38th in world carbon emissions per capita in 2003 -- a less-than-saintly stat, to be sure, but also one that reflects the UK's unique history of incentives to reduce coal dependency. David Demeritt, a climate change expert at King's College, London, pointed me to Britain's "dash for gas" in the 1990s as the origin of the country's kinder carbon status--a period after the privatization of the electricity sector when coal-fired power stations were replaced by more efficient gas-fired plants.
The key motive? Not former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's pursuit of good climate karma, but rather her attempts to break the National Union of Mineworkers and cut energy costs. Even so, the resultant carbon reductions helped the Brits meet their Kyoto commitments with relative ease, while inaugurating an ongoing national quest for cheap and renewable energy sources.
At the individual level, guilt-ridden UK carbon addicts tend to enjoy more accessible rehab options than their American counterparts. Want to start keeping track of your electricity consumption? British Gas customers can easily install a smart-metering device that allows them to monitor their electricity use in real time or track it on their computer screen. Want to calculate your eco-footprint? Grass-roots "CRAGS" -- carbon reduction action groups -- offer self-help sessions with volunteer "carbon accountants" as well as a variety of DIY tools. Want climate-friendly produce? Britain's extensive local food networks offer organic fruits and veggies while sparing you, for instance, the 127 calories of fossil energy it would take to transport a single calorie of iceberg lettuce from California to London.
For those who'd rather not give up the mega-store shopping experience, Tesco -- the nation's largest supermarket chain -- will soon be labeling all 70,000 of its products with the amount of carbon generated from their production, transport and consumption.
But if Britain offers more opportunities for citizens to make ecologically informed choices, whether or not people actually do is another question altogether. As appetites for cheap flights, big cars and big-screen TVs prove increasingly insatiable, the UK-U.S. addiction differential to which Bill McKibben points grows smaller by the day -- and not because America is decreasing its carbon generation. Soon enough, Britain may be whistling to the tune of Dr. Seuss' The Once-ler, that infamous corporate grump from "The Lorax" who currently holds America under his thumb: "I meant no harm. I most truly did not. But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got."
States of (In)Action: The Strand of Political Leadership
Recognizing the gross levels of carbon addiction throughout the Western world begs another simple point about the cross-Atlantic divide: Political leadership matters.
It's almost too easy to trace our current climate gulf back to the divergences between George W. Bush and Blair. "The two guys have a very different relationship to the scientific community," explained Brooklyn-born Oxford researcher William Motley.
"On the one hand, you have a president who willfully ignores or doesn't know how to cope with scientific data, just like when it comes to evolution and intelligent design. On the other hand, you have a prime minister who engages with scientists, understands what the wealth of data reveals about the effects of greenhouse gases and turns to the public to convey a necessary sense of urgency."
Motley joked that in order to lead the fight against global warming, you first need to believe in it. Blair, no environmental he-man, cleared this hurdle over half a decade ago, calling the phenomenon "a challenge so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power that it alters radically human existence."
But as recently as last June, Bush still waffled about the scientific validity of man-made climate change, putting his faith in Michael Crichton's best-selling novel about a global warming conspiracy over a definitive report by the National Academy of Sciences released that same month.
Despite his supposed agnosticism on this subject, Bush mustered the leadership skills to thwart national caps on greenhouse gas emissions. He proved equally feisty on the global stage, earning America its lone-star status as the only developed nation besides Australia to oppose the Kyoto Protocol. Even in his recent State of the Union address, which many considered an overdue about-face, Bush mentioned "global climate change" only once in 49 minutes, offering a tepid energy initiative that's about as ambitious as a middle school science fair project.
Meanwhile, Blair has fought to strengthen the European Union emissions trading scheme, "radicalize" Kyoto and amplify the effects of the controversial Stern Review -- a 700-page battle cry on the economics of global warming that claims unchecked carbon emissions could cost the world $3.68 trillion per year and create 200 million refugees. While many accuse Blair of spin-doctoring -- a fair charge for rhetoric that flies faster than it can walk -- others contend that the PM's climate leadership smacks of age-old imperial grandeur.
"British politics of left and right still feel the need to talk presumptuously in terms of 'leading the world,' " writes journalist David Cox. "Cecil Rhodes and Lord Palmerston might have considered [Blair's climate agenda] over-ambitious."
Blair's bravado echoes in his recent decision to sidestep the White House and work directly with state and local leaders in the U.S., launching a transatlantic carbon market with California's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Many more options for U.S.-UK cooperation have suddenly popped up now that the Democrats have won control of Congress. The party of climate change believers recently introduced four bills in the Senate to tackle global warming, all demanding mandatory caps on greenhouse gases. House Democrats have been even quicker to the plate, passing the Clean Energy Act of 2007 -- a bill to funnel taxpayer money away from the oil industry and into renewable energy -- within their first 100 hours in control.
But full-blown optimism would be overkill. Amid all the cheers about baby steps on Capitol Hill, few pundits have acknowledged the Democrats' continued ties to the very same corporate interests -- agribusiness, automobiles, lumber -- that stoked mammoth carbon emission increases on Bill Clinton and Gore's watch.
Initiatives in the UK deserve to be treated with similar skepticism, according to Ragnar Lofstedt, an expert on risk management from the Harvard School of Public Health who warns against glorifying British climate rhetoric. The real leadership, he told me, is happening elsewhere in Europe -- with German home insulations, Danish wind farms, Greek solar panels.
Cynical about the British prime minister's motivations for recent climate jeremiads, Lofstedt remarked: "Climate change leadership was a way for Labour Blair to gain the green vote initially. Then it became a way for him to keep the green vote. Look at [him] becoming even greener following the strengthening of the Tories."
But a democracy is only as good as its people, right? And so Lofstedt's assertion -- that Blair is merely pandering to his constituents' pleas -- only takes us back a step, to the neglected question of how Brits came to demand such cheeky things of their leader in the first place.
How is public opinion on environmental issues really formed in an era of scientific specialization? What makes people care when it's so much easier to dillydally? This brings us to the heart of the cross-climate divide: two very different philosophical beliefs about the relationship among science, the media and public consciousness.
A Tale of Two Medias: The Strand of the Denial Industry
Not all citizens were created equal when it comes to scientific acumen. While a handful of NASA nerds operate $22-million climate simulations as if they were simply playing Zelda, the rest of us struggle to fix the toaster or memorize 10 digits of pi.
As a result, we -- and by we I mean the vast majority of Western laypeople -- have become largely reliant upon the mass media to serve as our interlocutors, those intellectual chefs who whip raw scientific data into easily digestible nibblets. Before we can influence our elected representatives on a scientific issue, we must first undergo pressures of our own: attention-grabbing headlines, popularized reports, educational documentaries and even tabloid spreads that carry scientific truths out of the lab and into the collective imagination.
In Britain, these pressure points are almost impossible to avoid. When the Stern Review was released last October, The Independent offered a huge headline touting "The Day that Changed the Climate," while The New York Times buried Stern's predictions about coastal flooding, species extinction and global food shortages on Page A15.
More recently, when American journalists met Bush's SOTU address with hopeful headlines like "Has Bush Gone Green?," The Guardian offered a front-page jab instead: "U.S. Answer to Global Warming: Smoke and Giant Space Mirrors."
Even Britain's famously smutty tabloids have caught on, promising juicy gossip like "Low-carbon Diets of the Stars" and "Secret Pics of Celebrity Eco-footprints" to compete with the traditional papers' advice columns on reducing personal carbon emissions. Mike Hulme, director of Britain's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, calls it "climate porn," and he warned me that it's already causing many Britons to develop "climate fatigue."
Things look quite different on U.S. soil. "Americans don't have enough direct, solid information that is not couched in terms of 'debate,' " according to Lynne Carter of the U.S. Climate Change Research Program and the Adaptation Network. "The media keep giving equal measure to the 0.1 percent naysayers that they give to the 99.9 percent scientific community information."
An empirical study of 636 U.S. media stories between 1988 and 2002 shows that a whopping 53 percent of coverage offered equal attention to unequal views: that humans contribute to global warming, on the one hand, and that climate change is a strictly natural phenomenon, on the other.
Even in the wake of the unequivocal report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Fox News continues to showcase deniers like Steve Milloy as evidence of "fair and balanced" coverage, despite his reckless claims that global warming is "the mother of all junk science controversies."
Although pundits have exposed the U.S. media's illusion of scientific dissent ad nauseam in recent weeks, most have failed to address its highly relevant philosophical roots. Enter the epistemic dilemma of "objectivity." Americans often think about media balance as an issue of surface representation: the journalist's golden rule of hearing "both sides."
Conversely, a substantial number of Brits -- born and bred with the publicly funded BBC -- tend to grant their newsmakers a greater degree of discretion in the name of public stewardship. As conservative British columnist Peter Hitchens told me with an irritated twitch, "The British press believe that the state has the answer to all our problems and that they [the press] have the duty to deliver it. And most citizens agree." This paternalistic view of fairness privileges veracity over "he said/she said" diversity.
These two conflicting models of the "fair" reflect a simmering culture war over the role of the press, as well as the government, in people's everyday lives. While the British media often fancy themselves to be guardians of the moral good, much of the U.S. media -- at least the big shots like Fox and Time -- believe in giving people what they paid for.
Both approaches have their mine fields. But the widespread American faith in 24/7 free-market journalism is proving particularly hazardous of late. Increasingly, it means that coverage of climate "science" goes to the highest bidder, with ExxonMobil leading the public relations blitz.
Since the negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, ExxonMobil has become the big tobacco of our day, coughing up more than $19 million to finance an elaborate network of over 75 industry front groups in a massive global warming denial campaign.
Making good on the laissez faire commitment to buying science, the American Enterprise Institute -- an ExxonMobil-supported think tank -- recently offered scientists and economists $10,000 each to undermine the IPCC's consensus report. Similar projects have been launched by business coalitions like the Global Climate Information Project, which allegedly budgeted $13 million to flood the media with claims that reducing fossil fuel consumption would cause economic collapse.
I could rattle on about the denial industry's remarkable efficiency at purchasing a "scientific" voice, but the eerie details of such media buyouts have been scrupulously documented elsewhere. I could also pontificate on why Britain lacks a formidable movement of organized unbelievers: fewer bankrolled "junk scientists" like Steve Milloy, fewer "let's blame dinosaur farts" politicians like Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and certainly fewer cultural spokesmen like Michael Crichton and Rush Limbaugh to spread the misinformation gospel.
But instead, I trust it would be more useful to attempt what far too few environmentalists and journalists have done in recent times: to examine the ontological web where the climate divide's three strands -- addiction, failed leadership and manufactured denial -- converge.
What I've found at the web's center is a potent combination of free-market fundamentalism and moral individualism. When it comes to the Addiction Strand, this echoes in the belief that we Americans deserve our gasoline as quickly as we can pump it; within a self-regulatory framework, caps on carbon emissions look like repugnant attempts at moral coercion.
Britons' parallel enthusiasm for the free market is tempered by their general faith in state-imposed ethics; the invisible hand is not without loose cuffs, as seen in the new central London congestion tax. But without a moralizing intervention in U.S. consumption patterns, the crisis of externalities will only continue to grow. As the Stern report explains, " ... Our emissions affect the lives of others. When people do not pay for the consequences of their actions we have market failure. This is the greatest market failure the world has seen."
When it comes to the Political Leadership Strand, laissez faire zeal without ethical checks and balances translates into a blind hope in corporate innovation. Some policy experts call it "the Technology Trap." Whereas Tony Blair proposes a two-prong strategy, cutting carbon emissions in the present while investing in low-carbon energy innovations for the future, Bush hitches his hopes to technological advances alone.
As White House science adviser John Marburger III explained: "It's important not to get distracted by chasing short-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The real payoff is in long-term technological breakthroughs." Translation? We'll send for our spaceship when the world combusts.
The Denial Industry Strand, our third and final consideration, offers a perfect complement to Marburger's logic. In the marketplace of ideas, morality is reduced to a matter of individual will, allowing pollution-heavy industries to dodge short-term responsibilities through carbon-trading schemes and massive propaganda campaigns. Squint hard enough and climate science starts to resemble eugenics and Soviet biology under Trofim Lysenko.
This may be the key wedge between the U.S. and the UK: While ExxonMobil's media deluge has tilted American consciousness in the wait-and-see direction, the Brits boast a very different brand of corporate philanthropy with a much stronger streak of environmental stewardship. Consider Virgin mogul Sir Richard Branson, who recently promised $25 million to any scientists who discovers a way to stop global warming.
The three strands of the climate divide may look simple enough, but their alacrity -- their capacity to bend and shift and evade philosophical intervention -- can't be underestimated. This is precisely why we must start exposing the worldviews that support each strand, particularly the merger of unregulated markets and moral individualism. Skeptics should consider the words of George Kennan in 1950: "History does not forgive us our national mistakes because they are explicable in terms of our domestic politics."
Climbing Out of the Climate Web
But wait: There is also some good news amid the alarmism. If a single trend is connecting both sides of the Atlantic now, it's the grand revival of grass-roots environmentalism.
"You know climate concern has gone mainstream when sororities get on board," Bill McKibben wrote last month in highlighting an Alpha Phi sorority in Texas that joined 600 other student groups in a weeklong string of U.S. campus actions ranging from letter-writing campaigns to winter "beach parties." "Photos petitions" are now showing up in congressional offices, while paintings of hermaphroditic polar bears and apocalyptic coastlines are traveling between the galleries of London and New York. What ExxonMobil did for the misinformation industry, young people and artists are doing for this budding climate insurrection, exchanging denial and addiction for an experiment in transnational cooperation.
Beth Raps, professor and co-director of the Adaptation Network, noted that demands for the democratization of climate change policy is a key part of the new environmentalism.
"Widening the circle of participation in deliberation and policymaking is vital--not just 'nice,' but a sine qua non for collective survival," she insisted. Raps worries that those who have the most at stake in the crisis--"poor people, urban dwellers, people without health insurance, and people who live in areas without clean air or water" -- have only just begun to get their voices heard.
Youths and communities of color figure strongly in this vision. And that's why climate activists are increasingly branching out beyond the marble steps of Washington; on April 14, for example, activists of all stripes in at least 47 states will rally simultaneously at different locations as part of a new campaign called Step it Up, demanding that U.S. carbon emissions be reduced by 80 percent over the next 40 years.
More than a few rosy signs indicate that this momentum is moving uphill to the level of local governance. As Mike Hulme of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research said: "In the U.S., there's an emerging state-led desire for new forms of climate policy, including a huge volume of investment into new forms of energy.... California can lead the world to places that the UK never could, since we're stuck behind the EU cape."
America's cities and towns are also taking the reins, much like their British CRAG counterparts. In Carmel, Ind., for instance, the mayor has promoted hydrogen-powered cars and embarked on a massive tree-planting crusade; in Austin, Texas, local leaders plan to harness wind energy and sponsor plug-in hybrids.
As America inches closer to the European consensus about the state of climate emergency, the motives for action at various societal levels are less relevant than the actions themselves. "There is certain to be movement in the U.S. over the next three years," David Demeritt, the climate change expert, said, "even if it's not done in the name of saving the planet, but instead on the grounds of energy security, ending foreign oil dependences, and the belated efforts to conquer or liberate Iraq."
Even so, the enemies of Demeritt's uncharacteristic optimism are also growing by the day; recall America's Faustian levels of carbon addiction, national leadership failures and corporate pigheadedness that I've just done my best to catalog. The clock, no doubt, is ticking.
In the meantime, I've sworn off my winter wham-bams with the sketchiest Don Juan of the century, despite the guilty pleasures of life on his terms --bikinis in December, azaleas in January, buckets of raspberries in early March. In the wake of the IPCC report and the apocalyptic Stern Review, I'm now keenly aware that a sun-kissed Christmas isn't worth the harsher storm seasons, parched cities and global famines that environmental complacency promises. My recent move to Britain has taught me a lesson that all Americans need to hear: Ignorance is bliss until you step out of the carbon-guzzling garden; then it's just downright embarrassing.
But what would it take to find a new lover in the Green Revolution? Even the British rhetorical tradition of environmental stewardship, which problematically implies that humans are the Earth's caretakers rather than its guests, is largely that: mere rhetoric.
Front-page headlines are not enough to save us. Nor are paintings, or toothless international treaties, or calls for a technological messiah that may never arrive. To break free from the sticky web of climate peril will require radical transnational leadership, but also a philosophical realignment away from free-market fundamentalism and toward -- gasp -- a new regime of personal and collective sacrifice.