The great global warming distraction – take 2

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Courtesy of Richard MacLean & Associates, LLC

My first Competitive Strategy column (see EM July 2007, page 22) led with this same title, sans “Take 2.” Back then, the title alone was enough to trigger a few recipients on my article e-mail distribution list to fire off requests that I stop sending them “spam.” With a title like this, what else could this be besides junk e-mail? No need to read further.

Those brave enough to read beyond the title would have found that I am not a “climate change denier.” Just the opposite. My point was that there was so much attention and controversy surrounding climate change that it was distracting the public,
the media, scientists, politicians, and regulatory agencies from numerous other issues just as threatening to human health and the environment, and possibly more urgent.

The recent Climatic Research Unit e-mail hacking incident is just the latest controversy that has distracted everyone’s attention. A Google search on “Climategate,” as it was dubbed, yielded over 3 million hits just one month after the news broke. The newly minted word immediately made its way into Wikipedia’s lexicon. Climategate is, however, symptomatic of an issue much more serious than just dueling scientists. It is a metaphor for a problem as significant as climate change itself.

The Environment Then versus Now
The modern environmental movement began in the 1960s over the controversy surrounding specific chemicals, manufacturing processes, and disposal practices. Resolution required the creation of new legislative and regulatory frameworks, the
building of pollution control infrastructures and the creation of management systems to run everything efficiently. These demands were almost exclusively directed at manufacturers, not consumers. In the grand scheme of things, it was relatively inexpensive, readily doable, and created little inconvenience or change in the public’s lifestyle or affluence level.

Not so for environmental concerns today. Issues such as climate change, water resources, topsoil erosion, depleted fisheries, loss of biodiversity, and deforestation are on a massive, global scale. The stakes are orders of magnitude higher and the underlying drivers are related to population growth and affluence, not out-of-control manufacturing facilities. For example, the World Bank suggests that the global economy will expand from $35 trillion in 2005 to $72 trillion in 2030, and the United Nations projects the world’s population increasing from 6.8 billion today to 9 billion in 50 years.

With all this growth in population (read: consumers) and affluence (read: consumption), who will get what slice of the earth’s finite resources? Targeting manufacturers to “fix” the environment was easy. Dealing with issues concerning population control and the distribution of wealth are the environmental third rail. What politician, or even “thug dictator,” is willing to tackle both of these head-on? It’s far better to change the subject or focus on the issue or scapegoat du jour. Another meeting may give the illusion that global leaders are united in watching out for the planet, but what will it really accomplish in the time frame necessary to affect real change?

Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, ran a series of opinion columns in The Wall Street Journal leading up to the Global Climate Summit in December, pointing out more pressing issues such as malaria in undeveloped countries.1 Such articles fall on deaf ears, since climate change has transcended from science to ideology. Galileo was placed under house arrest; today, we ban the skeptics from peer-reviewed journals. Climate change currently is big business with obvious winners and losers. Everything from research funding to international disputes over resources and money is in play. It may be grabbing headlines, but again, this is just one of the many global environmental concerns.

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