Tipping Point


Tipping Point

From a paper by : Alex Evans and David Steven, 2007
The London Accord and Centre of International Cooperation, 
Climate change: the state of the debate

2005 to the present day

There have been changes in the US since the Bush’s repudiation of Kyoto – changes that are illustrative of a shift in leadership on the issue. In a trend that parallels the fate of the Global Climate Coalition, a consistent position against action on climate has proved hard to maintain.

According to analysis by Henrik Selin and Stacy VanDeveer, “a growing number of climate change leaders – and the political, legal, and practical actions [these leaders] take – increasingly shape debates and policy-making in the United States.”xxxvi They argue that: “This growth in sub-national and private sector climate change initiatives is driven by a multitude of networked actors who pioneer climate change initiatives ahead of federal requirements. More specifically, network participants channel influence through four overlapping pathways: (1) the strategic demonstration of the feasibility of climate change action; (2) the creation and expansion of markets; (3) policy diffusion and learning; and (4) the creation and promulgation of norms about the need for more aggressive climate change action. Combined, these pathways promote both moral and strategic reasons for policy change.”

Support for these ‘networked actors’ has been forthcoming from outside the country. Europeans have actively attempted to unsettle the US stand on Kyoto by attempting to develop links with scientists, businesses, NGOs, and sub-national entities on the issue. The culmination of this work was the signing, in 2006, of a climate agreement between the UK and California, the latter represented by its governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Europeans have also worked hard to underline the importance they attach to the issue. As British Prime Minister, Tony Blair made climate change one of his two key priorities for the UK-chaired G8 summit at Gleneagles in Scotland (the other was Africa). Germany’s Angela Merkel has made the issue a similarly high priority. She has also shown herself willing to tackle the question of developing country responsibilities, arguing that a policy of ‘intelligent growth’ should be based on the principle of convergence of developed and developing country emissions towards equal per capita levels.

As throughout the course of climate change’s gradual rise to prominence, certain events have continued to act as a lightning rod for spikes in concern, a tipping point. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Whilst scientists had generally been careful to avoid attributing the blame for specific disasters at climate change’s door (preferring instead to say that specific damages were ‘consistent with predicted effects’ of climate change), many media outlets in the US were less afraid of posing the question. Time magazine asked on its cover, “Are we making hurricanes worse?” – and concluded, on inside pages, that indeed we were.xxxvii What was more important, however, is the demonstration of how vulnerable an American city could be to an extreme weather event. Look at the fragility of modern society, was the message many people took home.

The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, meanwhile, appealed to a different audience on a quite different level, and, like the IPCC, showed how expert commentary could help shape the broader debate.xxxviii The review was intended to answer two questions: how much would unchecked climate change cost? And what would be the price of a stable climate? Stern’s success can be attributed in part to his ability to generate eye-catching figures: for example that climate change could cost as much as the twentieth century’s two world wars and the intervening great depression combined. The review also provided much detail for other economists to chew on and had a great impact on economically-minded opinion formers. The Financial Times, for instance, hosted considerable discussion of its findings and, in an editorial, declared itself satisfied that there was now a robust case for tackling climate change. The review, it said, is “not only a counsel of hope, it is a necessary call for action”.xxxix

So we reached – at least according to many media commentators – a tipping point, a watershed on climate change. Business Week called 2006 “the year global warming went from controversial to conventional for much of the corporate world”.xl The Observer newspaper termed it “the year the world woke up”.xli Momentum continued into 2007. The IPCC declared that warming was undoubtedly happening, and that there was a greater than 90 per cent chance that most of this warming was due to human activity. Climate change was reported to be the hottest topic of the 2007 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. Just before the June G8 meeting, President Bush announced that the US recognised climate change as a ‘serious problem’. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon convened an unprecedented head of state level summit to discuss climate change. And to cap it all, Al Gore and the IPCC shared the Nobel Peace Prize. You might have been forgiven for assuming that it was – almost – all over bar the shouting.

xxxvi Henrik Selin and Stacy D. VanDeveer, Political Science and Prediction: What’s Next for U.S. Climate Change Policy?, 2007, available at http://unhinfo.unh.edu/news/docs/020107vandeveer.pdf
xxxvii See http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,20051003,00.html  
tipping point
xxxviii Stern, Nicholas (2006). Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Also available at http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/independent_reviews/stern_review_economics_climate_change/stern_review_report.cfm
xxxix Financial Times, 31 October 2006.  
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xl Business Week (2006). “Global Warming.” Business Week no. 4014 (December 18), p. 102
xli The Observer, 24 December 2006. “The pivotal moments of 2006”.