Sunday, August 13, 2006

Kyoto forces win major beachhead in Fortress America—Harper’s Kyoto dilemma, part III

Kyoto skeptics got some bad news last week. After months of slugging it out with Al Gore and his supporters over the size and nature of the scientific consensus on global warming, they found out they now have a more terrible enemy: California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in partnership with Europe’s most successful politician, Tony Blair.

Schwarzenegger-and-Blair’s recent pro-Kyoto pact, which includes an agreement to promote transatlantic emission trading, means that California—a major world economy in its own right—is willing to take action on Kyoto even if the U.S. federal government isn’t.

This can’t be good. In some ways, Al Gore is the perfect enemy for Kyoto skeptics. First, he’s a high-profile loser. As Richard Cramer pointed out, America defiles its losers. Second, he’s a sanctimonious liberal Democrat. This wing of the Democratic Party is a big reason the Republicans have kept the Dems bottled up in their New England stronghold over the past six congressional, and two presidential, elections.

The collective distaste for liberals’ holier-than-thou finger-wagging finally spilled north into Canada on January 23 of this year, when Canadian voters ousted the federal Liberal party, whose members most irritating characteristic was their sanctimonious liberalism. Nowhere was this characteristic more pronounced than in the Liberals stance on Kyoto and the environment, about which they talked much and did precious little.

The publicity generated by Gore’s brilliant documentary An Inconvenient Truth represents the widening of the pro-Kyoto base from the affluent Birkenstock-and-cappuccino crowd to the mainstream. Hence, while it presents a problem for Kyoto skeptics, it is also an opportunity: easier to attack a massed enemy, led by a lightening rod like Gore, than guerillas in the jungle.

And hence the skeptics’ stepped-up re-framing campaign, led, in Canada, by the Friends of Science, an oil industry–funded group of retired scientists who disagree with hypotheses that say we humans are the reason the globe is warming. They resent claims that a scientific consensus exists on these hypotheses.

The skeptics’ campaign has been getting more and more play recently, thus making the game a little more interesting.

But the Schwarzenegger–Blair pact is a daunting setback. Neither has Gore’s liabilities. Schwarzenegger is a hugely successful high-profile Republican, and Blair is the staunchest international ally of the Kyoto skeptics’ favourite politician (George Bush, another Republican). Combined, they represent a new middle way: a safe place for moderate conservatives to park electoral support. Which means it is possible that environmentalism is becoming the new mainstream.

And it gets worse. Schwarzenegger isn’t the only Republican to buck Bush in taking a pro-Kyoto position. John McCain, who lost to Bush in the 2000 primaries, is gearing up for another run at the Big Job. He tried last year to put a carbon-capping bill through the Senate. He’ll try again, and this time he might succeed. Republicans in general are looking at grim prospects in this November’s Congressional mid-terms, and many are distancing themselves from Bush. Bush’s aversion to Kyoto is competing with Iraq and Katrina for top spot among his vulnerabilities. Desperate Republican incumbents wont hesitate to jettison their Kyoto-phobia if they think it’s dragging them down.

Against this backdrop, Kyoto-phobia in Canada looks a bit anachronistic. Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, appears philosophically aligned with the skeptics. He’s never been big on Kyoto, and his government is, rightly, labeled anti-Kyoto.

But the Conservatives’ fortunes in the next federal election might depend on votes from Kyoto supporters. Quebec is full of Kyoto supporters. Harper and company need more Quebec votes.

This means that Harper will have to overcome either his intellectual distaste for the groupthink that characterizes the mainstream Kyoto movement or his yearning for Quebec and Toronto votes.

What would you do?

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