Cancún is climate change groundhog day

Nowhere in the world is battling climate change a priority.

Climate change groundhog day is almost upon us. Environment ministers have gathered in Cancún, Mexico, for the annual meeting at which they never quite manage to sign a new global treaty. At least not one that includes the world's largest emitters of carbon dioxide – namely the United States and China. This year the negotiators may manage to reach agreement on some rules for how developing countries can be more transparent about their domestic climate initiatives in return for delivery by rich countries on pledges of climate finance.

Many followers of the UN climate talks blame a failure of leadership by governments or expeditious corporate lobbying for the recurring nightmare, but often overlook a basic, underlying political principle: that global deal-making cannot outpace public opinion back home. The big picture still sees the US too hidebound by its domestic travails to make any grand promises on cutting its emissions.

In the relatively climate-friendly UK, even in the teeth of the Climategate email debacle, 78 per cent of people recently polled by Ipsos MORI believe that climate change is either partly or mostly caused by human activity (the number of people who accept humanity's role in climate change is smaller, but still in the majority even in the US). However, in an IPPR poll prior to the May general election, fewer than one in five put climate change in the top three or four issues on which they would base their voting decisions.

Over time, environmental issues in general enjoy the strong support of less than 10 per cent of the UK electorate and rarely peak at more than 20 per cent. The economy peaks at roughly 70 per cent.

This pattern is repeated in many developed countries, on whose leadership the rest of the world's pathway to a clean economy rests. In the recent Australian election, climate change was typically rated eighth or lower in the list of voters' priorities. A US poll from early 2010 ranked climate change 21st out of 21 "priority" issues for the year ahead.

People's views are of course shaped by many influences and the war of attrition is doubtless being fought with considerable funding from carbon-intensive corporate interests. But the paradox of climate politics is more profound and deeply rooted than this. Safeguarding tomorrow's climate requires action today that in many cases may harm the interests not only of what environmentalists call "Big Carbon", but also consumers and taxpayers.

A report this week from the UK's Climate Change Committee suggests that the annual cost of decarbonising electricity supply could be £10bn. This cost will be passed on by utilities to households and industry. Annual household electricity bills in the UK currently add up to approximately £10bn, so it's not hard to imagine how quickly the flimsy support for climate policy could melt away as people see steep rises in the costs of heating their homes.

You don't have to be a climate-change sceptic to feel that a largely regressive de facto tax on household energy, at a time when people are already feeling the pinch, could prove an emissions reduction pledge too far.

Until the climate debate is better handled at the domestic level and the knotty question of who pays is resolved, it is hard to see how the climate cabal can escape their international negotiations groundhog day.

Andrew Pendleton is senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research:

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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.