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COP26 and all that

November 9, 2021

I’m all for hope, enthusiasm and determination. But I’m trying to understand why I find it hard to pay more than minimal attention to Cop26.

Is it because those who are making promises will be out of office long before they have to deliver on them? Or is it that a number of leaders who have failed to attend feel no need to grandstand because they do not depend on voters to stay in power? Or perhaps because even more leaders (and a notorious former one) have so polluted public faith in information that a large percentage of the world’s population doesn’t believe what the scientists are telling us, even if the evidence is staring us in the face.

I can hardly blame Boris Johnson and Joe Biden for nodding off during the opening proceedings, because the endless procession of dignitaries and notables banging home the same message would probably send me to sleep.

Of course it’s encouraging to hear of the pledges being trumpeted: an end to deforestation by 2030 and a plan to cut back on methane release. But are they achievable? Cutting down trees might be preventable, but how do you prohibit the Siberian permafrost from letting loose vast quantities of methane? Not even Putin can manage that.

And who would bet on the mass closure of coal-fired power stations if the leaders of countries that rely on coal for power faced being skinned alive by angry populations facing economic collapse and existential hardship?

Alas, I fear that human nature will stymie the best endeavours of these who are striving to find solutions in Glasgow. Promises will be made, money will be pledged, but when it comes to delivering, national interest will always trump the common good. If we can’t get entire populations vaccinated against COVID, how can we expect to deliver on the far more arduous task of carrying out a patchwork of measures on a global scale for three decades?

Our problem as a species is that we seem incapable of thinking globally. Whether it’s between families, societies or nations, our natural setting seems to be the zero-sum game: I gain, you lose. Even if we devised a technological solution that would reduce carbon emissions to the desired level, would we be able to implement it without nations and commercial interests seeking to gain an advantage over rivals?

Take nuclear fusion, for example. An international fund to develop the technology, perhaps in the order of a trillion dollars – less than the size of the US infrastructure programme just passed into law – might accelerate the point at which fusion power plants become affordable on a global scale. But who would pay for the plants themselves and the supporting infrastructure required to get power to all who need it? If the basic know-how is locked up into patents in the name of return on investment, it’s hard to see any but the wealthiest nations benefitting in the short term. If that meant that the most prolific carbon emitters were able to cut back more quickly, fine. But what about those countries that won’t be able to afford such technology, yet have fast-growing populations? Might they not undercut the gains made by the wealthier nations by emitting even more carbon?

All this stuff is beyond my pay grade and level of comprehension. Of course I want to see us stay under 1.5%, even though I won’t live to see it. And anyone with an ounce of compassion would be appalled to see the loss of habitat for all species, not just human, that might result from desertification and rising sea levels. So by all means let the COP-26ers come up with agreements on a basket of measures, because every little helps.

Yet I can’t escape this dark feeling that humanity has never before been required to act as a species and isn’t capable of doing so now. We may be able to respond to short-term crises, but not to the slow death that climate change threatens to deliver, because the one is a moment and the other is a process. Our problem is that most of us can’t think beyond our noses – or our back yards.

Does this defeatist talk make me a more of passivist than an activist? Neither, I suggest. More of a realist. My gut feeling is that rather than relying on democrats, autocrats and oligarchs with vastly differing interests to work together for the common good, we’ll end up having to bet on one or two big technological fixes.

Good luck with both approaches. I’ll help with my voice and my vote, but I have no intention of gluing myself to a highway. Hopefully when it all comes together I’ll be watching from a better place, though I’m not counting on that prospect either.

From → Business, Politics, UK, USA

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