It was a strange but prescient dot connection. As Russia invaded Ukraine, I sat in a 3-day “deep dive” at Harvard, learning from some of the brightest minds at the forefront of climate change thinking and action. Meanwhile, the US National Ocean Service has released a new report predicting that sea levels will rise one foot by 2050, whatever we do. We face a tsunami of almost inextricably linked man-made threats, all of which have energy at their core.
Extraordinary growth and prosperity was built on a dangerous habit. We have spent nearly a century becoming addicted to fossil fuels. Kicking this habit is going to be harder than any of us know how to handle. Nor can any political leader recognize the full implications of what is needed – and expect to be re-elected. Wars, disasters, extinctions, innovations, geopolitical realignments and migrations will be the multiple symptoms of our common disease. They are linked.
Here are three takeaways from a non-specialist learner from people who are dedicated to navigating barely charted and inevitably stormy seas for us.
Energy defines history
The link between human activity and the Earth’s climate may seem like a relatively recent discovery. Yet it has been around for much longer than many of us realize. In 1898, Svante Arrherius foresightedly noted that burning coal would double the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and cause the temperature to rise by 5 to 6 degrees. He wasn’t far. In the last 5 million years, there has never been such a rapid evolution of atmospheric temperatures. We have had centuries of economic growth and rising living standards thanks to fossil fuels. Now we are well on our way to having unpleasant heat. No one knows exactly what will happen. But we are seeing scale changes in 100 years that previously took 10,000. For a visual map of the science behind our high-speed trajectory, check out detailed video presentations from Harvard Center for the Environment director Daniel Shrag.
There are two fundamentally difficult things about fighting climate change. The global reach and spread of the problem. And its multigenerational temporality. As the world grapples with Russia’s attempt to claim Ukraine, our ability to focus on the crisis facing the planet is further challenged. “The first and most obvious result of a return to the law of the jungle,” writes Yuval Noé Harari, “would be a sharp increase in military spending at the expense of everything else.”
Many wrote that the Covid pandemic could be seen as a dress rehearsal for the kinds of pressures humanity would face as the climate crisis began to hit. As we begin to shed our masks, Helen Thompson’s new book, Disorder, describes the seas we navigate, how energy has long been a cause of turbulence, and how Ukraine has become a fault line in a larger picture. “Governments must simultaneously increase energy security,” she writes, “and keep prices low as they attempt to achieve an energy revolution unprecedented in human history.” Everyone blames the resulting tensions on weaknesses in an increasingly polarized democratic process. But she accuses us of passing the buck. It’s not democracy that’s the problem, but rather our “collective inability to come to terms with how successful Western democracies had energy histories and why the world of energy is now extraordinarily tougher.”
Who is the pain, who is the gain?
The climate challenge is global, so no one is in charge or officially responsible. Yesterday’s polluters are beginning to clean up their actions but not their cumulative contributions to the current problem. Developing countries have caught up – fast. China has become the world’s largest emitter, followed by the United States and India. Together, these three countries now account for 50% of global emissions – but are not aligned on much. Notably because, per capita, the United States remains by far the worst emitter. Many of the poorest countries most affected by climate change – and who care most about it – had the least to do with its creation. And are the least able to solve it. The free rider problem means that countries that reduce their emissions transport those that do not, without benefiting from the investments they make. While the shift to renewable energy and a low-carbon world offers economic opportunities, the changes needed involve real costs and real pain for real people, on a timescale where the return is more for generations. future only for those who bear the costs.
Meanwhile, Russia, the world’s fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases (and one of the highest per capita) also provides energy to much of Europe. Europe’s need for gas (considered a less polluting fossil fuel) and its desire to draw Russia into an interdependent trade relationship have led to energy dependence. At the same time, he is perceived by an increasingly neurotic and authoritarian Russian leadership as a direct threat to Russian regional hegemony. Ukraine has become the fault line between energy-hungry Europe and Russia. Germany has danced a dangerous dance, abandoning both coal-fired power plants and nuclear power to become dependent on Russian gas. He then agreed to a highly controversial new gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, across the Baltic, threatening to weaken Ukraine’s role in energy supply, while increasing dependence on Russia. As Helen Thompson points out, “the imaginary European identity of Ukraine is irreconcilable with political reality”. This results in mutual recriminations both between Russia and the West and between divergent Western interests and perspectives.
Today, tragically, the result is unbearable pain for the Ukrainian people caught in the middle of a geopolitical mess that is not their fault.
Think centuries, not decades
All the costs of climate transition are upfront and huge, the cure hard to fathom and the reward somewhere in the impenetrable fog of the future. The time scale of decarbonization is far longer than what our political and social systems are designed to handle. Our problem with emissions is not limited to what we emit today, but includes everything we emitted yesterday. Even if we were to stop them all now, a part of our collective and global past will haunt us 1,000 years from now. And while politically unappealing to activists around the world, the clear message is that we need to start adapting to the consequences of our carbon habit as well as mitigating them. Many major cities around the world on every continent will be threatened (think New York, London, Dhaka, Buenos Aires, Brisbane, Shanghai and Dakar). This week’s NOAA report says sea levels will rise a foot no matter what. If we continue to emit at current levels, this could reach up to 7 feet by the end of the century. Yet projections for global population growth, GDP and energy consumption continue to grow rapidly.
The arbitrary invention of a maximum global warming target of two degrees is both seductive and dangerous. Intended to focus minds and actions, failure to do so should not cause us to raise our hands and stop our efforts in desperation. We will work on the climate for centuries. The only question is when will we start taking it seriously – and together. Some believe the tipping point may be upon us as investments and mindsets begin to change.
An example came from an unexpected source. War is often a time of great technological innovation. Ray Mabus, former US Secretary of the Navy, described the US Navy’s dramatic shift to renewable energy and biofuels not as an advantage, but with safety and flexibility as a priority. Navy ships and submarines can now go much farther, much longer than before, and at lower cost. The goal was not so much green as greater strategic security.
The invasion of Russia might unite enough of the rest of the world in the right direction for unexpected reasons. Not to save our planet from self-destruction. But to get Ukraine (and the next one) out of the suffocating grip of the autocrat.
We must get rid of the habit of freeing ourselves from dealers.