Tuesday, May 06, 2008

What, me, worry?

When it comes to masterplans for a global reduction in carbon emissions, it's usually taken as read that the world's richest economies will take the lead. Not only are they (well, we) best resourced to lead the necessary technological investment, and have the necessary economic and political stability to achieve their targets, they're generally also the ones responsible for large amounts of historical emissions. In short, it's their fault there's a problem, and they're the ones bet placed to help provide a remedy.

Of course, things are never that simple. Particularly when, it seems, the richest and most polluting countries are the least inclined to see the need to actually do anything.

That's long been a strong suspicion for many, but it's one that's borne out by new research by Hanno Sandvik of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Sandvik's paper, forthcoming in Climatic Change, finds a strong inverse correlation between the level of concern in a country’s population about the costs of climate change, and that country’s gross national product and greenhouse gas emissions.

Sandvik's explanation is primarily a psychological one. From the university's press release:
“People are all too willing to repress unpleasant truths, particularly if one is responsible for something that’s not good. I had a theory that the countries that contribute the most to global warming might perhaps have a population that would rather not believe so much in the dangers from climate change,” Sandvik says.

When Sandvik compared data on level of concern to data on emissions, he found support for his theory: the more responsibility a country had for causing global warming, the greater the tendency of its citizens to explain away or ignore the problem. And as a country’s emissions levels increased, the level of concern sank even further.
The five richest countries in the dataset were Norway, the United States, Ireland, Denmark and Canada. All of these countries are also considered to be among the worst in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. That consequently doubles the fertile ground for the lack of worry. Researchers were not particularly surprised by the findings. All “idealism research” shows that those who are most well off are always the least willing to contribute.

“If you take global warming to heart, you understand that you have to sacrifice something. And the richer you are, the less willing you are to sacrifice. It’s far more pleasant to decide that you actually don’t quite believe in the climate threat”, Sandvik says.

This also gives the lie to the line, occasionally parroted by the climate change denial lobby, that reducing emissions is the preoccupation of a wealthy minority who don't care about the wealth of developing countries. Like virtually all their arguments, that's demonstrably utter bollocks.

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