Life after Copenhagen

Two things can be said with confidence about this December’s Copenhagen Conference on climate change. First, the outcome will be hailed as a ‘breakthrough’ and a ‘great step forward’. And second, it will be another failure.

No doubt there will be many business interests quietly pleased at this outcome, relieved at the prospect of less pressure for costly regulation. But if these interests imagine that the failure of Copenhagen will result in a quiet life, they are in for a rude shock.

This is not the place to dwell on the reasons for Copenhagen’s likely failure. But this meeting will be the fifteenth ‘Conference of the Parties’ and there is no reason to suppose any of its achievements will be more meaningful or adequate than those of the previous fourteen. Key to Copenhagen’s failure will be the perception among developing countries, China and India in particular, that the West is simply not serious about taking effective measures to reduce greenhouse gasses.

This ‘West-South’ division has already been the subject of comment in the media (see, for example, Gideon Rachman, Climate activists in denial, Financial Times, 27 July 2009). The question such media commentators tend to ignore, however, is why the West is not serious about tackling climate change in the first place.

The traditional narrative within the environmental movement holds that the ‘big business lobby’ is the biggest obstacle to change. While it is true that some corporations promote a contrarian view, they are not to blame for the failure of western governments.

The main fault lies with public opinion. The uncomfortable truth is that politicians in the West will not take meaningful action to tackle climate change because the majority of their voters will not support it if they are required to pay more money or make significant changes to their lifestyles.

There is an important difference between ‘expressive’ opinion and ‘instrumental’ opinion. Most people will usually sign up for desirable objectives (say, saving the planet) but object to any practical means of achieving them (such as paying more for petrol or taking fewer cheap flights). They seek the fruit but will not tend the tree.

This difference is rarely understood. Most observers assume that, when people tell pollsters that they will support action on climate change, this will translate into support for a particular action. But when people see any proposed instrument for change and grasp the implications for personal action, they reject the instrument. Clearly, if one rejects the potential instruments, it is meaningless to claim one supports the objective. This is the means by which public opinion can be mobilised against action on climate change.

The result is that the public is never actually confronted with the question as to whether to do anything about climate change, only encouraged to oppose any particular measure at any particular point in time. The cumulative effect of the successive rejection of practical measures is that the public comes to despair of the whole process.

So Copenhagen will fail. What next? The more moralistic of western governments may take piecemeal or token actions, but such steps are already perceived cynically by the developing nations as thinly-disguised trade barriers. This will lead to deterioration in the terms of international trade.

The European Union will be riven by a dispute between those wishing to maintain the present regulatory momentum and those wishing to revive the old ‘environment vs. jobs’ argument. Regardless of the outcome, the practical effect will be a loss of the EU’s moral authority, both in the international arena and with its own publics.

The general sense of failure will lead to a further loss of public trust in politics and government. The public will assume that, if governments cannot agree, it lets individuals off the hook. People will transfer their social expectations and moral obligations onto business, expecting business to act where governments can’t and individuals won’t. This makes business highly vulnerable.

How will politicians react? They will of course act in a way that is acceptable to their electorates. Voters will not permit government to take any meaningful action, yet will continue to clamour for meaningful action in the abstract. Hence governments will adopt business regulation as a form of surrogate action, where the costs are not borne by the public exchequer (or at least not obviously). We can therefore expect much more ‘encouragement’ from government to the likes of Tesco to cut down on the number of plastic bags it distributes.

The environmental movement is likely to change its strategy and tactics. Since lobbying government seems to lead nowhere, many pressure groups will give up on democratic politics and conclude that the only viable option is to bypass the legislative process and force changes in corporate behaviour through direct action.

The environmental movement will seek to demonise both industries and particular products, because it is incapable of recognising that the problem is public opinion. It doggedly insists that the public wants action on climate change and the government will not deliver it, so it assumes there must be malevolent influence from somewhere and the obvious source is ‘industry lobbyists’.

The consequence is that key industries will find themselves on the receiving end of direct action, either perceptual (attacks on corporate reputation and brand values) or physical (blockades, boycotts, etc.). Rather than attack a whole industrial sector, smart protestors will seek to set an example by picking on and shaming one company within a sector. The target companies are likely to be those at either of the two extremes, those that are ‘dirtiest’ or those that make the grandest claims to be ‘green’.

Far from the failure of Copenhagen making life easier, business will find the going much harder, with guerrilla action by pressure groups making the political weather much worse than it would have been in the more predictable climate of civilised negotiations over regulatory reform.

The failure of Copenhagen is to be bitterly regretted. But rather than shrug one’s shoulders, it would be wise to start looking at the consequences of that failure for all of us.