Looking back over 2018, three recent events in three different countries illustrate just how far the fortunes of climate change politics have fallen.
The first event was the death of George H. W. Bush, forty-first president of the United States. His passing on November 30 at the age of 94 occasioned an outpouring of sympathy from across the world.
In many ways, he was a symbolic man. Like millions of his generation, he answered the call to arms during World War II. After serving heroically as a Navy pilot in the Pacific Theater, he embarked on a lifetime of public service, both in and out of government.
He was characteristic of an era in American history of warrior statesmen, and noblesse oblige, one that we almost forgot existed in our age of endless sex-scandals and profanity-laced political diatribes.
Few Americans remember, however, that President Bush was not quite as conservative as the Reagan Revolution that swept him into the Vice Presidency in 1980. One of the more important political positions that he shared with the Left was his embracing of the modern environmental movement and its central tenet: man-made global warming.
In a campaign speech on August 31, 1988, Bush stated:
“Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the ‘greenhouse effect’ are forgetting about the ‘White House effect.’ In my first year in office, I will convene a global conference on the environment at the White House. It will include the Soviets, the Chinese… The agenda will be clear. We will talk about global warming.”1
President Bush flew to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the June 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also called the “Earth Summit.” Rio 92 was undoubtedly the high-water mark of international climate politics. It remains the largest gathering of heads of government in world history and was the culmination of decades of environmentalist activism at the UN.2 One hundred and seventeen presidents and prime ministers gathered on the beaches of Rio to endorse the UN’s environmental agenda.
These leaders did not travel to Rio for a photo-op. They signed important documents such as the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and Agenda 21 which still serve as the framework for international environmentalist ideology.
To his credit, President Bush did oppose calls for specific CO2 emissions cuts or other policies that would hurt the American economy. Before departing for Rio on June 11, 1992, President Bush affirmed, “I go to Rio with the firm conviction. Environmental protection and a growing economy are inseparable…It is counter-productive to promote one at the expense of the other.”3 However, he did believe that the global environmental movement and its underlying ideology was, in his words, a “noble” one.
In the 25 years since Bush left office, the environmental movement has increasingly revealed itself as a political ideology with socialist ends. Far-left climate activist Naomi Klein wrote in 2014:
“[A]s we remake our economies to stay within our global carbon budget, we need to see less consumption…less trade…and less private investment…. Implicit in all of this is a great deal more redistribution, so that more of us can live comfortably within the planet’s capacity.
“Which is precisely why, when climate change deniers claim that global warming is a plot to redistribute wealth, it’s not (only) because they are paranoid. It’s also because they are paying attention.”4
Americans have come to believe or disbelieve global warming according to their political beliefs. Only 15% of conservative Republicans believe that global warming is caused mostly by human activity, compared to 79% of liberal Democrats.5 Polls, if they are to be believed, say that the number of Americans who believe that man-made global warming exists has increased slightly since the 1990s, to somewhere between 40-50%.
But it is one thing to mouth agreement to a theory, and quite another to be willing to endure hardship for it. Whatever the polls say, it is simply undeniable that the vast majority of Americans, Canadians, and Europeans are unwilling to accept the steep financial hardships that environmental activists say are necessary to stave off a catastrophe that is, at best, questionable.
It is partly for this reason why every United Nations treaty to curb greenhouse gas emissions has been dead on arrival in Congress. President Clinton signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol but did not dare submit it to the U.S. Senate, as he knew it stood no chance of passing. President George W. Bush officially withdrew from the treaty in 2001. President Obama signed its successor, the 2015 Paris Agreement, but President Trump—fulfilling a key campaign promise—pulled out of it in June 2017. American withdrawal was a massive blow to global climate politics and widely lamented by liberals and the media.
The second recent event was the “yellow vest” street protests in France. Beginning on November 17, hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen have protested in the streets against an upcoming fuel tax increase imposed by the government of President Emmanuel Macron. Touted as a means for France to meet its greenhouse gas emissions goals per the Paris Agreement, it quickly became a bête noire of ordinary and working-class French people, already the highest taxed nation in Europe. The resulting “yellow vest” protests have been the worst street protests since 1968. On December 5, President Macron finally bowed to the pressure and canceled the tax. Climate change politics suffered a humiliating defeat in the namesake city of the vaunted Paris Agreement.
The third event was the annual UN COP 24 World Climate Summit held in Katowice, Poland from December 2-15. Hundreds of representatives from the UN, individual governments, and non-governmental organizations converged on Poland to keep the green flame alive.
In spite of all the money, effort, and media propaganda, COP 24 conference was unable to come to any meaningful consensus on how to implement the Paris Agreement carbon reduction targets. More than 95% of all signatories of the agreement have failed to meet their targets, especially the biggest emitters such as Canada, Germany, India, and China. With the yellow vest protests riling France, the summit opened under a black cloud of pessimism.
Some countries were actively working to oppose any serious results from coming out of the summit. UN bureaucrats deliberately chose Katowice because it is in the heart of the coal-producing region of Poland. The theme of the summit was the abolition of “fossil fuels,” especially coal, from energy production in the developed world. Almost as if to mock the summit, the American delegation directly challenged this goal with an official presentation on the merits of energy from coal, oil, and natural gas. Many commentators are calling COP 24 a “defeat” with no clear way forward for climate politics.6
It was highly symbolic that George H. W. Bush, the very same president who attended the 1992 Rio Earth Summit with so much enthusiasm, passed away just as its modern incarnation suffered humiliating defeats. Public opinion across the Western world has turned away from the self-destructive climate agenda, and no amount of apocalyptic rhetoric can easily change that fact. On the contrary, if the UN, European Union, national governments, and the media resort to ever more threats and dictatorial measures to impose their unpopular climate politics, we can expect even more movements like the “yellow vests.”
4. Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, p. 92-93