We could avert the worst effects of climate crisis, but this is why we won’t

Global warming has the uncanny ability to challenge our ideologies, political systems, and individual values right at their core. It’s calling us to rethink our world in a fundamental way, or it’s threatening to violently reshape it against our will. But despite the dire warnings, I doubt that our political systems are capable of delivering the kind of radical change that we need. Moving away from fossil fuels fast enough is probably not going to happen, here’s why. 

Committed to our demise

We have already committed ourselves to a lot of fossil fuel based energy infrastructure in Europe (7% of the currently committed emissions)  and the US (9%), but the situation pales in comparison with China (41%), which has many new dirty power plants and it’s building even more. It’s very unlikely that the infrastructure which is already in place will be abandoned before its lifetime expires and this already reduces our chances of limiting global warming to a manageable level. And it’s not like our countries have stopped building new infrastructure for coal, gas, and oil. Every power plant and every pipeline is a commitment to continue using dirty energy for decades to come.

But what makes the situation even worse are emerging economies like India, Indonesia, Pakistan, etc. who are likely going to follow our example and the example of China. They want to experience the kind of rapid economic growth that we have enjoyed and the easiest way to do this is through the burning of fossil fuels. If their growing energy sector becomes centered around coal, we can be sure that they will commit the planet to high carbon emissions for many, many decades to come. In this scenario, it’s safe to assume that we’re going to be screwed, 1.5 or 2 degrees warming is going to sound like a fairy-tale. 

Sharing the responsibility

It might already be too late to avert the 2 degrees warming, but let’s hope that the conservative estimates about climate change are correct and that it’s not too late to avoid the most severe consequences of a rapidly warming planet. Let’s hope that we’ll miraculously manage to convince our politicians that we need to stop building infrastructure for fossil fuels in our countries. But so far the West, Russia, and China certainly didn’t want to think about the negative consequences of our fossil fuel addiction,  we just wanted to profit from the cheap energy they provide us. How do we get to convince countries like India to pay the higher price of renewable energy? Why should they be the responsible ones and pay an unfair price for it? 

We can say that over the years green technology has improved significantly, and it’s more feasible to build a largely renewable energy system, but the price is still high. We can’t expect developing countries to pay a higher energy bill and sacrifice economic growth, while all the other big players did the exact opposite.  This won’t be a popular political move in these countries, since even in our rich countries, even to this day, politicians are trying to scare us with the cost of the transition to renewable energy. 

If every country wants to follow our bad example, everybody on Earth will pay a price much higher than the price-tag of the wildest green stimulus packages.  The countries who have benefited the most from the pollution so far should admit their responsibility and recognize their vested interest in preventing developing countries from emitting as much greenhouse gases as we did. We can only do this by providing them direct and urgent assistance. These people need energy and they’ll get it, so let’s try to help them achieve this in a that will benefit all of us. Developing countries are the first ones to suffer from the negative effects of climate change, but the rich countries are already being impacted as well. Check out this study on the projected costs of damage related to global warming on the US economy.

How do we get this done?

Obviously, I don’t know how this should be done in practice  We should discuss the many different pathways that can lead us to effective solutions. I’m sure that some people will want to see market-oriented solutions that will involve western private companies owning the energy production of these countries. And I can imagine lefty ideas, where local communities are provided with the resources and know-how that will enable them to produce and sell their own renewable energy. We talk a lot about bringing democracy to the world, and I don’t think that this should be limited to voting. The democratization of the energy production can be a game changer on the social, economic, ecological and even political development of billions of people, including in our own countries.

We can look at the Paris Climate Accords and the establishment of the Green Climate Fund which has the mission to do pretty much what we are talking about in this article. The main problem with this fund is the extreme lack of funding. It was supposed to operate a budget of 100 billion dollars per year in order to make the green transition fairer for the developing countries. It’s nowhere near this level of funding The American president withdrew the US from the Paris Accords and called the Fund a scheme to transfer wealth from rich to poor countries. He was right about it, this is part of the goal, but the real context is that the rich countries not only have a moral responsibility to assist the rest of the world, they also have a lot to gain from this.

We’re screwed

Let’s disagree about the politics and debate about the solutions, but let’s stop ignoring this problem, in our backyard as well as on the other side of the world.  Global warming is a global problem, and we need to start looking for bold global solutions. Unless we create strong incentives for developing countries to power their economic growth with renewable energy we’re all going to suffer the inevitable negative consequences of a rapidly warming planet. And to be honest, I don’t believe that we’ll be able to implement a policy that is bold enough. It’s hard to imagine that people in the West would take the climate threat seriously enough. And even if we do, we still have to face the fossil fuel oligarchy, which is having tremendous power over our institutions. Our countries bailed out the banks by printing trillions of dollars, but somehow the destabilization of the climate isn’t worthy of urgent and radical action. Serious climate action will not necessarily cost anything to for regular people, we should experience improvements in our standard of living and of well-being. But on the other hand, it will inevitably infringe upon the financial interests of the fossil fuel companies and they will not allow this to happen. We need nothing short of a political revolution in every major country in order to allow this kind of change to see the day.

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