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Feature

Polar bear, cubs

Polar bears are feeling the heat from global warming. A recent University conference explored ways to speed up action on the crisis.

Climate change is easy; breaking habits is hard

Or, how to get the world to stop talking and do something about global warming

By Deane Morrison

Jan. 30, 2007

If anybody knows why the U.S. government has moved so sluggishly on global warming, it's Walter Mondale. As Jimmy Carter's vice president, the University of Minnesota alumnus went up against a host of opponents as the two pushed to write energy efficiency into the laws of the land. Speaking last week at a conference designed to promote action on combatting global warming, Mondale described how his relatives in Norway have said the glaciers are melting and that no one seems to be rushing to the rescue. He labeled global warming an emergency and said that "special interests, Congress and the whole federal system seem almost built to slow things down." Those who want progress find the system stacked in favor of powerful entrenched interests.

Symposium on Biofuels

Some of the nation's top biofuels experts will meet at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities Thursday, Feb. 1, to discuss ways to reduce dependence on fossil fuels by producing sustainable, environmentally friendly and abundant biofuels. "This is a valuable opportunity to learn how our country's transition from fossil fuels to biofuels may unfold," says event host David Tilman, Regents Professor of Ecology in the College of Biological Sciences. The public is welcome, but space is limited and registration is requested. To register, click here and then on "upcoming events." Read more about the symposium in a news release.

No one would agree more than University sociology professor Jeffrey Broadbent, who organized the conference. Called "Risk and Response to Global Warming and Environmental Change: Lessons from Social Science Research," the gathering Jan. 25 and 26, 2007 at the University's Humphrey Institute exposed the political and social underside of the climate change issue and some of the stumbling blocks to actually doing something to stem the tide. Broadbent's efforts are the latest example of the University's determination to play a leading role in the drive to conserve and protect the environment. "Most study of climate change has been from a natural science perspective," says Broadbent. "Much less attention has been paid to why governments, people, and societies don't take this problem seriously. It's a unique problem, global in scope. To solve it, we have to make deep changes in how we get our energy. The biggest obstacle is that people think in the short run." A failure to communicate For too long, global warming has been poorly presented to the public and to governments and other institutions in power, said keynote speaker Leslie King of the University of Manitoba. "I think global warming has suffered from a framing problem from the start," she said. "A lot of people can't relate to an increase of one or two degrees over 50 or 75 years." But when the issue hits home, all of a sudden things get done. "It's been said that California's policy on emissions was informed by predictions of the number of days with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees and the human deaths that would result," said Kathryn Harrison of the University of British Columbia.

"Environmental laws open new investment and create new industries," [Schofer] said. "For example, Germany has more people employed in environmental cleanup than in the auto industry."

Another speaker, Radoslav Dimitrov of the University of Western Ontario, underscored the importance of telling people not only what damage global warming is causing, but what it means to them. For example, acid rain and ozone destruction were successfully addressed because scientists made it clear how damage in one country could be caused by activity in another. In Europe, acid rain was seen as a threat to forests, while in Canada and the northeastern United States it was known as a destroyer of lakes. Ozone-depleting substances can drift widely, leading people around the world to be exposed to higher levels of cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation. In contrast, said Dimitrov, efforts to protect forests and coral reefs from global warming have been stymied because scientists have not shown that destruction will cause worldwide harm. Coral reefs seem to be the ecosystem with the greatest biodiversity and, says University ecologist Clarence Lehman, have great potential to remove and store carbon dioxide in the coral matrix. But, said Dimitrov, scientists haven't made the case for transboundary consequences of reef loss. "It's as if a dead reef affects local fisher[people], not people on the other side of the globe," he commented. The powers that befuddle Other stumbling blocks in the road to action arise from the complex interplay of power and economics. Brazil was the first to sign the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, yet it opposes accords to limit deforestation. "The Brazilian government delinks deforestation--which causes two-thirds of [greenhouse gas] emissions--and climate change," explains Myanna Lahsen, a researcher with the International Geosphere-Biosphere Project in Rio de Janiero. "The government has fears about its sovereignty with respect to the Amazon." Brazil has recently become a major supplier of soybeans, and Lahsen said the Brazilian government apparently thinks that countries threatened by the growth of Brazilian agribusiness are trying to use the deforestation issue against it. Worries that countries with tough environmental laws will abandon them to attract foreign capital are unfounded, said Evan Schofer, associate professor of sociology at the University. In a recent study, he found pro-environment countries fared better with respect to gross domestic product, industrial activity, and investment. "Environmental laws open new investment and create new industries," he said. "For example, Germany has more people employed in environmental cleanup than in the auto industry." Further, by reducing the number of safe havens for polluters, treaties and environmental institutions diminish the attractiveness of moving industries to other countries. A growing divide exists between the European Union and the United States where the environment is concerned, said Miranda Schreurs of the University of Maryland. While Europeans generally accept the precautionary principle--that action to prevent damage should be taken in the face of uncertainty--the United States has insisted that action against global warming is not scientifically grounded and is a barrier to trade. Schreurs linked recent U.S. recalcitrance on enacting tougher environmental laws to industrial lobbying. She also said that in Europe, unlike in the United States, proportional representation [where parties get seats in legislative bodies according to the percentage of votes garnered], allows "green voices" to be heard. Also, Peter Ester of Tilburg University, Netherlands, presented data showing that environmental decision-makers often severely underestimate public support for measures to protect the environment. Taking into account the reports delivered at the conference, a working group met over the weekend to design a global research project. "It will compare countries, bring in new people [to explore the issue] and see what works to get things done," said Broadbent. "We have to get people to work for the public good, and the solution must spread benefits to poorer nations." Further reading Learn more about environmental work at the University of Minnesota: Gorham led the way in curbing fallout, acid rain The forest of the future The rotten truth New college and environmental institute gear up Digging deeper pays off