Childhood analysis

Ted Nordhaus on how environmental activists mislead and hold back progress

TWELVE YEARS ago, the UN climate summit in Copenhagen, COP15, was nicknamed “Hopenhagen”. The 11-day event opened with a short movie depicting a fictional Scandinavian girl having a nightmare: An Earth shaken by climate change opens to engulf her and violent waters threaten to drown her. She wakes up screaming, watches world leaders give speeches on climate change on the COP15 website, then films herself begging politicians to “please help the world!” “

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But the procedure ended in failure. Environmental groups and European officials blamed America. Small island nations blamed China. China and India blamed the rich countries.

Today a real Scandinavian girl insists the nightmare has come true and accuses world leaders of not taking action. “You stole my dreams and my childhood,” thundered Greta Thunberg, to the acclaim of the world climate commentator at the United Nations General Assembly in 2019. “There is no planet B”, a- she declared. sneered, “bla bla bla”, mocking French President Emmanuel Macron for adopting the long-standing slogan of environmental activists, at a youth climate summit in September.

At the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, COP26, Hopenhagen’s false optimism and Greta’s adolescent cynicism were present in roughly equal measure, two sides of the same apocalyptic coin. Activists, scientists and commentators have spoken of dire futures and lamented the lack of progress, while protesting against “doomism” and demanding immediate and dramatic social and political transformation.

Taken at face value, fate would not be an irrational reaction to the demands of the climate movement. If planetary catastrophe, societal collapse, and perhaps even human extinction are likely (in the absence of a complete transformation of human civilization), then fatalism is a reasonable response. But the realities of climate change are less terrifying and the global response more promising than the simplistic claims of environmental activists might suggest.

Neither dystopian nor utopian

Deaths from climate disasters around the world are at an all-time low. The vulnerability of populations to extreme weather events has declined rapidly in recent decades. Recent research in Global environmental change shows that climate vulnerability has declined the most in recent decades among the world’s poor, due to the resilience that accompanies economic growth and development.

At the same time, long-term efforts to slow the growth of emissions appear to be paying off. Global emissions appear to be near a peak and the International Energy Agency predicts the world is on track to warming less than 3 ° C above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century , far from forecast of 5 ° C or more. that many probably thought a decade ago. Certainly, a warming of 3 ° C is not a walk in the park. But given continued economic growth and development, this is likely to be a future in which human societies do reasonably well. The good news is that if countries keep their commitments over the past few years to sharply cut emissions, the world will be in danger. position limit warming to more than 2 ° C, a long-standing international goal for climate stabilization.

Unfazed by these less than dystopian assessments, the global climate-industrial complex – a network of activists, green charities and sustainable trade practitioners who are aided, encouraged and amplified by their ideologically (and socially) aligned female servants in academia and stenographers in the media — simply shifted the climate stabilization targets from 2 ° C to 1.5 ° C warming above pre-industrial levels, precisely when the main emitting countries had found a viable framework to limit warming to 2 ° C, or at least to be within earshot of it.

The 1.5 ° C target, on the other hand, is implausible (and, like all temperature targets, largely arbitrary). To achieve this, it would be necessary to rebuild the entire global energy economy within a decade. It means inventing technologies to make steel, cement, and fertilizers, and to power ships, planes and more over a similar period, as well as to remove large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. during the second half of the century. The activist community further insists on reengineering the global economy without many of the technologies that most technical analyzes suggest would be needed, including nuclear power, carbon capture and removal.

The exaggerations and unrealistic demands of the global climate movement are often excused as useful nonsense, an incentive for national leaders to take more ambitious action. But there are other consequences which are much less beneficial. To appease influential national environmental constituencies, Western political leaders have made far-reaching but non-binding commitments to reduce emissions that they certainly cannot meet. To justify these commitments politically, even in theater, these same leaders must demonstrate that they demand similar commitments from emerging economies, especially China and India.

And so, even as China has pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2060 and India by 2070, many national leaders and environmentalists are still demanding more, such as a phase-out of all new coal production. ‘by the end of the decade, despite the fact that most rich countries continue to rely heavily on coal, oil and natural gas themselves.

China and India are big and powerful enough not to be intimidated. But other poor countries are not. The very financing of natural gas, the least emitting of all fossil fuels, has dried up across Africa and much of the developing world, under pressure Western countries and Western-led development institutions.

From the perspective of equity, economic development and (not incidentally) climate resilience, fossil fuel infrastructure is arguably the highest value in poor countries. Historically, international development finance has guaranteed these investments. But in the greenhouse that is international climate policy, these are the investments that the climate movement and Western political leaders insist on being abandoned, ironically in the name of climate justice, even as rich countries pursue plans. like the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and Cumbria. coal mine in the name of energy security.

The resulting contradictions are dizzying. The harsh rhetoric of Western leaders to appease the climate movement is followed by modest, symbolic and unenforceable commitments. The big deals to end deforestation and phase out fossil-fueled infrastructure within a decade turn out, on closer examination, to be vague and subject to very different interpretations.

The costs, predictably, fall on the world’s poor. Lured by apocalyptic panic among the talkative classes of the world’s richest countries, unable to ditch fossil fuels domestically or force their emerging economic rivals to do so, Western leaders are lashing out at poorer nations of the world.

See the world as it is

This is where the fundamental tension lies within the climate movement. Acknowledging progress or recognizing that climate change mitigation goals must be balanced with other societal priorities, including adaptive capacity made possible by continued use of fossil fuels, would require abandoning pseudo-scientific claims according to which strict biophysical borders are looming and the dropping of utopian fantasies of a world government and a world entirely powered by renewable energies. Plus, it would mean letting go of self-flattering notions that the future of humanity depends on the outcome of an epic struggle between business and environmentalists.

A climate movement less plagued by feverish dreams of the apocalypse would focus more on balancing long-term emission reductions and growth, development and adaptation in the here and now, recognizing that the former will take decades to be achieved while the latter not only confers much more climate resilience today, but a range of other benefits for people in the future.

Unfortunately, doing this does not meet any of the discursive needs. of the climato-industrial complex, which seems to grow and grow richer with each failure. The real outcome of the COP26 meeting is to further entrench the grim reality that the world’s poor are on their own. Concrete actions to reduce emissions and improve resilience will remain primarily a national, not a global endeavor.

More than a decade after COP15, poor countries are still waiting for the modest pledges of technology transfer and climate adaptation assistance made in Copenhagen. Meanwhile, Western nations and development institutions, encouraged by the climate movement, will work to stifle virtually all funding for fossil fuel-based infrastructure in poor countries. It’s an easy choice for Western environmentalists, UN officials and political leaders, and there is no one who can stop them.

What would a constructive way forward look like? An activist movement that takes its concerns about climate justice seriously would recognize that environmental impacts occur at the intersection of global warming and poverty – and it would support, rather than oppose, continued access to fossil fuels for the world’s poorest people, because they are too expensive to replace at 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 emerging, they will not quickly give in to calls for radical and immediate transformation and that, as such, there are limits to what politics and protest can accomplish.

More importantly, a wiser environmental movement would recognize that when it places Western leaders between impossible demands and the realities of their national political economies, it is the poor, not the militant class, who end up paying.

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Ted Nordhaus is the founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, a research center focused on technological solutions to environmental challenges. He is co-author of “Break Through: Why We Can’t Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists” (Mariner, 2009) and of the essays “The Death of Environmentalism” and “An Ecomodernist Manifesto”.


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