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Environmental activists wear costumes representing an alien delegation mingled with UN delegates during climate-change talks in Barcelona on Friday, November 6, 2009.


Within the next few weeks, the global media will turn its attention to Copenhagen with ferocious intensity.

The news will suggest that any prospect the planet has of surviving rests or falls on the achievement of an agreement. Some will argue that without a binding accord, the planet is doomed. Others will argue that with an accord, our standard of living will fall to miserable levels.

Most readers will be left a bit frustrated, the rest angry.

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There is a huge dysfunction between the way the average voter comes at these issues and the way policy spokespeople in the corporate, environmental NGO and government worlds often do. And at no time is this more visible than when mega climate/carbon events like Copenhagen come around.

Most people are worried that the planet is under a lot of pressure, and many believe the climate is changing as a result. Considerably fewer have examined the science behind climate change, and fewer still the complex formulae that are at the heart of greenhouse-gas reduction targets.

But whether everyone embraces the evidence the climate is changing, or the techniques proposed to mitigate it, may be somewhat beside the point.

The strong public consensus is that we should reduce extravagant or unsustainable consumption of resources and do a lot more to avoid pollution, because we have a moral responsibility to do better by future generations. How well we do at living up to these goals is debatable, but the fact that we have embraced them more fervently than in the past is pretty hard to argue with.

And the reason we have done so has only a little to do with climate change.

When we feel impelled to take reusable grocery bags to shop, it's not because we have done the climate math, it's because we have adopted a new moral math.

Many climate-change stakeholders lose focus on the moral question in a rush to debate the details of climate science or the specifics of GHG reduction targets and tools. When this happens, millions of concerned citizens drift away from the coverage, and end up uncertain about whether anything is happening, and what if anything they should support.

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The coverage that surrounded the Kyoto negotiations, and the subsequent debate about ratification was a good example of how dysfunctional this can be. One on hand, I'm sure there are many who would make the case that Kyoto was an unmitigated failure, since it resulted in no binding targets being adopted by countries like the United States, and progress that fell far short of the goals set for the accord.

But a counter argument can be made, that the Kyoto debate was one of several turning points in the flow of our collective psychology about the environment.

It caused many people to do a gut check, to consider whether we really believe that we have a responsibility to conserve the planet for those to come. When we look around us today, as markets for a wide variety of energy sources are taking shape, as the automotive industry is rushing to produce greener cars, as new building practices are taking root across the planet, as emitters in one part of the world prepare to pay other parts of the world to leave their forests intact, can we really conclude that Kyoto was pure failure?

The fact that our behaviour post-Kyoto did not correspond to a certain set of timetables and schedules of parts-per-million of carbon doesn't alter the fact that behaviours are changing and markets are forming to alleviate environmental stresses. My guess is that Copenhagen will be another important catalytic moment, agreement or not.

Whether we are changing quickly enough is another matter. But there can be little doubt that change is afoot, and will continue, deal or no deal.

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About the Author
Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of the At Issue panel on CBC’s The National and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. More

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