The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The climate catastrophe is here, whether governments face it or not

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The major COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, is less than a week away. The roughly 25,000 delegates — including top-level officials from more than 100 countries — expected to attend the United Nations-convened sessions and side events have their work cut out for them. Big gaps remain around commitments to cut emissions, with many governments still not on track to fulfill past pledges to wean themselves off fossil fuels, let alone face the shifting demands of the present. Climate activists and scientists warn that the world’s major economies and corporations must take far more radical steps to rein in global warming.

The Biden administration directly spelled out the urgency last Thursday when it issued a number of reports from various agencies on the effect of climate change and the new national security threats it provokes. A landmark National Intelligence Estimate put forward three “key judgments” on how climate change is expected to affect the calculations of U.S. policymakers over the next two decades.

First, it projected that geopolitical tensions will increase as countries chart their way toward greener economies, jostle over new technologies and compete for resources. “Debate will center on who bears more responsibility to act and to pay — and how quickly — and countries will compete to control resources and dominate new technologies needed for the clean energy transition,” the NIE concluded.

Second, it warned that the number of “cross-border geopolitical flash points” will grow due to climate change and its discontents. The report highlighted the Arctic as one such likely zone of major international contestation as its ice caps continue to melt, as well as new battles forming over water and waves of climate migrants being forced to leave their homes.

Third, the report determined that the “intensifying physical effects of climate change … will be most acutely felt in developing countries, which we assess are also the least able to adapt to such changes.” That could in turn likely mean additional commitments of American diplomatic, economic and military resources in the years to come.

None of these conclusions ought to be surprising. But they follow four years of a climate-denying Trump presidency that actively sought to suppress the climate-based assessments of federal agencies. Now, the Biden administration is trying to signal both at home and abroad how seriously the United States takes the challenges posed by a warming planet.

“Climate change is altering the strategic landscape and shaping the security environment, posing complex threats to the United States and nations around the world,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement accompanying the Pentagon report. “To deter war and protect our country, the [Defense] Department must understand the ways climate change affects missions, plans, and capabilities.”

“The Department of Homeland Security, which includes the U.S. Coast Guard, warned that as ice melts in the Arctic Ocean, competition will increase for fish, minerals and other resources,” noted the New York Times. “Another report warned that tens of millions of people are likely to be displaced by 2050 because of climate change — including as many as 143 million people in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.”

For all the clarity of these warnings, though, there’s far less certainty about the scope for action. President Biden and his allies are struggling to push through legislation necessary for the United States to meet the administration’s stated commitments to cut emissions. Ahead of Glasgow, numerous governments have made lofty pledges to achieve “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by the midway point of the century or a few years thereafter; few, however, have shown clear road maps of how they intend to go about it, while also continuing to invest in expanding fossil fuels.

Such has been the case with Australia, which is expected Monday to announce a “net zero” pledge after a lengthy delay. Oil giant Saudi Arabia also declared over the weekend its intention to reach “net zero” by 2060 — though “there was no indication in Saturday’s announcement that Saudi Arabia aims to slow down its investments in new oil and gas development,” my colleague Sarah Dadouch noted.

“The Saudi economy still heavily relies on revenue from fossil fuels, despite an aggressive campaign spearheaded by the crown prince to diversify its commerce away from the production of fossil fuels,” Dadouch wrote.

Idealistic organizers of the U.N. climate summit had intended it to be an inflection point: a set-piece moment for the phasing out of coal. But the relatively cheap commodity remains a vital part of the mix in much of the developing world, including major emitters in China and India, which both see coal as a mainstay in producing electricity for their vast populations.

“Although the developed world is responsible for most historic greenhouse gas emissions, the ability to avoid further warming will largely depend on what happens in countries where emissions are still rising,” my colleague Christian Shepherd wrote. “One projection holds that, in the worst-case scenario, the mostly developing countries along China’s Belt and Road initiative could account for two-thirds of global emissions by 2050, up from about 26 percent in 2019.”

As part of its climate efforts, Beijing pledged to no longer build coal projects overseas. But that comes with its own downstream effects. “The risk with China’s announcement is that if coal plants are not funded, countries might just turn to gas,” Christine Shearer, program director for coal at Global Energy Monitor, told my colleagues. “New gas plants running for 30 or 40 years is also not compatible with the Paris climate agreement.” He added: “We are talking about countries that are still building up the power systems. They are asking, ‘If we want to go the route of just solar and wind, what are the examples?’ And there really aren’t any.”

It’s not just in the developing world. My colleagues in Germany examined how Europe’s biggest economy and industrial trendsetter still can’t shake its addiction to coal. “We want to be a front-runner on climate. We sell ourselves as this,” said Pao-Yu Oei, a professor in the economics of sustainable energy transition at the Europe University of Flensburg, to my colleagues. “But for some very easy, simple things, we are not willing to take the sacrifice and basically take on our own lobby groups.”