Nov 19th 2021
by Ted Nordhaus
TWELVE YEARS ago, the UNs climate summit in Copenhagen, COP15, was dubbed Hopenhagen. The 11-day event opened with a short film depicting a fictional Scandinavian girl having a nightmare: an Earth wracked by climate change opens up to swallow her and violent waters threaten to drown her. She wakes up screaming, watches world leaders giving speeches about climate change on the COP15 website, and then videos herself begging the politicians to please help the world!
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But the proceedings ended in failure. Environmental groups and European officials blamed America. Small island nations blamed China. China and India blamed rich countries.
Today, a real Scandinavian girl insists the nightmare has come trueand blames world leaders for failing to act. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood, Greta Thunberg thundered, to cheers from the global climate commentariat at the UN General Assembly in 2019. There is no Planet B, she sneered, blah blah blah, mocking the French president, Emmanuel Macron, for adopting the long-time slogan of environmental activists, at a youth climate summit in September.
At the UN climate conference in Glasgow, COP26, the phony optimism of Hopenhagen and the adolescent cynicism of Greta were present in roughly equal measure, two sides of the same apocalyptic coin. Activists, scientists and commentators conjured up catastrophic futures and bemoaned the lack of progress, while inveighing against doomism and demanding an immediate, dramatic social and political transformation.
Taken at face value, doom would not be an irrational reaction to the claims of the climate movement. If planetary catastrophe, societal collapse and perhaps even human extinction are likely (absent a complete transformation of human civilisation), then fatalism is a reasonable response. But the realities of climate change are less terrifying and the global response more promising than the reductive claims of environmental activists might lead people to believe.
Deaths around the world from climate-related disasters are at an all-time low. Peoples vulnerability to extreme weather has fallen rapidly in recent decades. Recent research in Global Environmental Change shows that climate vulnerability has declined the most in recent decades among the poor globally, owing to the resilience that comes with economic growth and development.
At the same time, long-running efforts to slow the growth of emissions appear to be working. Global emissions appear close to a peak and the International Energy Agency projects that the world is on track for less than 3C of warming above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century, a far cry from forecasts of 5C or more that many thought likely a decade ago. Admittedly, a warming of 3C is not a walk in the park. But given continuing economic growth and development, it is likely to be a future in which human societies will fare reasonably well. The good news is that if countries uphold their commitments from the past several years to sharply cut emissions, the world will be in position to limit warming closer to 2C, the long-standing international target for climate stabilisation.
Unfazed by these less-than-dystopian assessments, the global climate-industrial complexa nexus of campaigners, green charities and sustainable-business practitioners who are aided, abetted and amplified by their ideologically (and socially) aligned handmaidens in academia and stenographers in mediahas simply moved the goalposts for climate stabilisation, from 2C to 1.5C warming above pre-industrial levels, precisely when major emitting countries had found a workable framework to limit warming to 2C, or at least be within shouting distance of it.
The 1.5C target, by contrast, is implausible (and, like all temperature targets, largely arbitrary). Achieving it would require rebuilding the entire global energy economy within a decade or so. That means inventing technologies to make steel, cement and fertiliser, and to power ships, aircraft and much else on a similar timeframe, as well as removing vast quantities of carbon from the atmosphere over the latter half of the century. The activist community further insists upon re-engineering the global economy without many of the technologies that most technical analyses conclude would be necessary, including nuclear energy, carbon capture and carbon removal.
The exaggerations and impractical demands of the global climate movement are frequently excused as useful idiocies, a prod to national leaders to take more ambitious action. But there are other consequences that are far less salutary. To appease influential domestic environmental constituencies, Western political leaders have made far-reaching but non-binding commitments to cut emissions that they almost certainly cannot keep. To justify those commitments politically, even as theatre, those same leaders need to demonstrate that they are demanding similar commitments from emerging economies, notably China and India.
And so, even as China has promised to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060 and India by 2070, many national leaders and environmentalists demand ever more, such as a phase out of all new coal generation by the end of the decade, despite the fact that most wealthy nations continue to depend heavily on coal, oil and natural gas themselves.
China and India are large and powerful enough not to be bullied. But other poor countries are not. Finance for even natural gas, the least emitting of all fossil fuels, has dried up across Africa and much of the developing world, under pressure from Western countries and Western-led development institutions.
From the perspective of fairness, economic development and (not incidentally) climate resilience, fossil-fuel infrastructure arguably has the highest value in poor countries. Historically, international-development finance has underwritten those investments. But in the hothouse that is international climate politics, those are the investments that the climate movement and Western political leaders insist must be abandoned, ironically in the name of climate justice, even as rich countries pursue projects like the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and the Cumbria coal mine in the name of energy security.
The resulting contradictions are head-spinning. Tough talk by Western leaders to appease the climate movement is followed by commitments that are modest, symbolic and unenforceable. Grand agreements to end deforestation and phase out fossil-fuel infrastructure within a decade, turn out, upon closer examination, to be vague and subject to wildly different interpretations.
The costs, predictably, fall on the global poor. Stoked by an apocalyptic panic among the chattering classes in the richest countries in the world, unable to give up fossil fuels domestically or force their emerging economic competitors to do so, Western leaders punch down on the poorest nations in the world.
Therein lies the fundamental tension within the climate movement. To acknowledge progress or recognise that climate-mitigation objectives need to be balanced with other societal prioritiesnot least the adaptive capacity that is enabled by the continuing use of fossil fuelswould require abandoning pseudo-scientific claims that hard biophysical boundaries loom, and jettisoning utopian fantasies of global government and a world powered entirely by renewable energy. Moreover, it would mean giving up self-flattering notions that the future of humanity hangs on the outcome of an epic struggle between corporations and environmentalists.
A climate movement less in thrall to fever dreams of apocalypse would focus more on balancing long-term emissions reductions with growth, development and adaptation in the here and now, recognising that the former will take decades to achieve while the latter confer not only much greater climate resilience today, but a range of further benefits for people far into the future.
Unfortunately, doing this serves none of the discursive needs of the climate-industrial complex, which seems to grow both larger and wealthier with every failure. The real outcome of the COP26 meeting is to further entrench the sad reality that the global poor are on their own. Practical action to cut emissions and improve resilience will remain primarily a national, not global, enterprise.
More than a decade after COP15, poor nations are still waiting for the modest pledges of technology transfer and climate-adaptation aid made at Copenhagen. Meanwhile, Western nations and development institutions, egged on by the climate movement, will proceed with efforts to choke off virtually all finance for fossil-fuel-based infrastructure in poor countries. Its easy pickings for Western environmentalists, UN functionaries and political leaders alike, and there is no one capable of stopping them.
What would a constructive way forward look like? An activist movement that took its concerns about climate justice seriously would acknowledge that the environmental impacts happen at the intersection of a warming climate and povertyand it would support, rather than oppose, continuing access to fossil fuels for the poorest people in the world, since theyre too expensive to replace for the moment and they make poor countries more resilient to the impact of climate change. Moreover, the movement would understand that because energy economies are path-dependent and emergent, they wont yield quickly to calls for sweeping and immediate transformation and that, as such, there are limits to what both politics and protest can accomplish.
Most importantly, a wiser green-activist movement would recognise that when it places Western leaders between impossible demands and the realities of their domestic political economies, it is the poor, not the activist class, that end up paying for it.
Ted Nordhaus is the founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, a research centre focused on technological solutions to environmental challenges. He is a coauthor of Break Through: Why We Cant Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists (Mariner, 2009) and the essays The Death of Environmentalism and An Ecomodernist Manifesto.
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