Is International Climate Change Gridlock a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

“The parable tells us that public definitions of a situation (prophecies or predictions) become an integral part of the situation and thus affect  subsequent developments.  This is particular to human affairs.  It is not found in the world of nature.  Predictions of of the return of Halley’s comet do not influence its orbit.  But the rumored insolvency of Millingville’s bank did affect the actual outcome.  The prophecy of collapse led to its own fulfillment.”

-Thomas Merton 1948

A Washington Post-Stanford University poll that is generating a lot of coverage came out yesterday showing that only 18% of Americans named global warming as the most pressing environmental concern–a drop from 33% in 2007.  This is not the only poll showing this trend.  A Gallup poll from 2011 showed that 51% of Americans “worry a great deal or fair amount” about global warming–a drop from 66% in 2008.  The Pew Global Attitudes Survey similarly saw that percentage of Americans who feel that global warming is a very serious problem fell from 47% in 2007 to 37% in 2010.  Some similar trends are seen in other European countries, Japan, and North American countries, but not in Latin America, Middle East, or Asia.  (Britain fell from 56% in 2008 to 40% in 2010, France fell from 68% in 2007 to 40% in 2010, Spain fell from 70% in 2007 to 50%).   There are good reasons to question these and Richard Sclove has a great post about how these polls are ready to be mobilized for a fixed narrative. On another issue, a lot of practitioners have mentioned to me over the past few years that they think climate change dominates too much of the agenda and that other problems may deserve to increase their prominence a little bit.  However, for a minute, let’s work with the polls and try to understand why public concern appears to be decreasing.

Most polls show a high point in 2007-2008, some small decline in 2009 and then significant drops in and after 2010.  The typical answers don’t seem to work.

The best answer seems to be that the decreased concern is a result of the international deadlock that came out of the Copenhagen Conference.  Lots of hope and efforts went into the Copenhagen meeting, Obama signaled a clear break with the past administration by attending, China and India signaled some willingness for targets to be imposed on the developing world, and it looked possible that Kyoto might at least get back on track out of Copenhagen.  But that December 2009 meeting fizzled and produced a morass of environmental policy rather than any clarity or clear direction.  The impact may be seen in the polls which all stay high in 2009, but dip after the Copenhagen meeting.  The timing here is far better than either economic or prominence points make clear: public concern drops with the failed Copenhagen meeting and not with the economic collapse or just wears out after 2007 as the prominence explanation would want it to.

The point is this: international negotiation deadlocks do not simply halt international progress, they may lead to decreased concern in the population and thus reduce pressure to break the deadlock.  It may be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Failure, roadblocks, public gridlock of course may feed itself, but what these polls suggest is that they have larger public impacts.  International negotiations gridlocks, probably particularly when it is so public as Copenhagen, does not just cause people to decrease trust in multilateralism (which would be partially expected), but can also result in decreased concern with the problem. With decreased concern of course, it is possible that some of the partisan divisions on an issue may decrease allowing moderation, but it is also possible that necessary but costly policies will be ignored.  This is how it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Gridlock in negotiations leads people to decrease there concern with the problem because there isn’t a clear solution, which then lessens pressure on governments to negotiate some outcome which reduces the chances of breaking the gridlock.

This isn’t definitive of course, and I do want to highlight Sclove’s criticism of these type of polls that I liked to above.  This is actually good enough evidence to ask the question: Are international climate change negotiation gridlock actually producing more problems?  Are these gridlocks a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts?  If so, the implications could be quite large and need significant work to work against that prophecy.  If not, if it is actually just the economy or whether there is a movie about the problem, that might be a little easier to figure out.  In the end, negotiation deadlocks may be much larger than their direct impacts and this is something to keep in mind at every international conference or convention.


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