There is ample evidence global leaders at every level have failed to improve living conditions or to protect the planet. Few politicians care to face up to reality until it stares them in the face.
Economically, the gap between rich and poor has never been greater. The Five Eyes countries are no longer at war, but the residue of misery left by dubious engagements in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan will last at least another generation. The main burden of dealing with the ensuing refugee crisis will be borne by countries that did not participate in those wars. China has taken a billion people out of poverty, but its president is now a dictator for life, bent on military aggression across the East and South China seas, castrating freedoms in Hong Kong, and persecuting minorities and dissenters. For its part, the United States is struggling to regain its world leadership role. Its intention to intervene to defend Taiwan if and when Xi Jinping decides to invade the island state remains uncertain. Meanwhile soldiers who fought in Afghanistan look on aghast as the Taliban wreak a horrible reprisal, destroying the short-lived freedoms of the Afghan people.
But conflict is only part of the story. An even bigger picture emerges from cataclysmic natural disasters around the world in recent days. The catalogue of extreme weather events is truly shocking, so much so that the hard-nosed global insurance industry no longer talks about “Acts of God.” Instead, policy terms are being rewritten to exclude underwriting thermal coal mines and their related power generators, some oil exploration projects, and new Arctic and Antarctic energy exploration.
The cost of extreme weather events and disasters in the past month alone is staggering. Floods in Europe and China caused economic damage estimated to be more than A$13.16 billion. Germany and Belgium were the hardest hit, with 226 deaths in these two countries in July. The floods were attributed to storms that followed extreme heat. The same deadly combination caused widespread wildfires which are still raging in Greece and Turkey. Last weekend very high summer temperatures were recorded in Sicily and across Greece. On the other side of the Atlantic, western Canada and the western US are once again suffering a heatwave, although not as intense as the heat in July that broke the Canadian national temperature record, when Lytton, British Columbia reached 49.6°C. The settlement was destroyed a few days later by a wildfire. The Lytton temperature shattered the previous Canadian record by 4.6°C.
On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global group of eminent climate scientists, warned in the starkest possible terms that time is running out if we want to stop Planet Earth getting hotter and causing devastation and loss of life beyond most peoples’ comprehension. While the report does not single out any individual world leader for sharp criticism, it mocks the idea that action to achieve the Paris Accord greenhouse gas emission and temperature targets can happen in the fullness of time. The time for action towards net zero is not 2050, (2060, as China attests) or even 2030 – it is NOW.
COP26, the large week-long United Nations conference on climate change to be held in Glasgow in November, less than 100 days from now, is seen as the last chance to avoid a catastrophe. In their report, scientists expressed the earnest hope that deep cuts in emissions and a war on carbon and fossil fuels will stabilise rising temperatures. Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general called the report a red code for humanity, saying “there is no time for delay and no room for excuses. I count on government leaders and all stakeholders to ensure COP26 is a success.”
Here’s hoping, but the omens are not good. Alok Sharma, the British cabinet minister appointed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to lead the preparations for COP26, has publicly condemned 12 countries in the G20, including China, India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Australia, for failing to submit new climate change proposals to the United Nations. However, shamefully, he spared Boris Johnson from criticism. Despite having the responsibility for chairing the COP26 meeting and having earlier this year twice promised to produce a detailed road plan for Britain getting speedily to net-zero emissions, nothing of substance has emerged from a disorganised 10 Downing Street. Expectations of a plan emerging on Monday to coincide with and blunt the impact of the stark new IPCC report were dashed when the PM decided to go on a two-week holiday to an unknown destination.
Critics were left to ridicule the one proposal put forward by his COP26 media adviser, Allegra Stratton, who told a national television audience that savings could be made by not rinsing dirty dishes before putting them in a dishwasher. To be fair, the government is also adopting the Europe-wide plan to ban the sale of petrol and diesel automobiles by the end of the decade, and oil companies and supermarkets are rapidly installing battery charging points as the sale of electric cars takes off. Britain is a world leader in wind power generation, but with a national housebuilding boom underway, it has failed to diversify from gas for central heating.
In the United States, things look a little different, mainly because the man who called climate change a hoax, President Donald Trump, was replaced by the Democrat, Joseph Biden. During the week, the US Senate passed President Biden’s US$3.6 trillion budget by one vote – that cast by Vice President Kamila Harris. Of this, $13.6 billion has been assigned to fighting climate change. Leading projects include $10 billion for clean energy innovation, $4 billion for advanced climate research, and $6.5 billion for clean energy storage. The budget still has to be approved by the House of Representatives, with lawmakers to be recalled early in September to make the decisive vote.
Biden has pledged to cut America’s emissions in half by 2030, eliminate fossil fuel emissions from power plants by 2035, and reduce gas emissions to net-zero by mid-century. Few doubt his sincerity, but Biden faces mid-term elections next year, and there is no doubt he is under pressure, particularly in the industrial Midwest. He too has yet to deliver to a suspicious American people a detailed plan of how he intends to achieve his goals.
China is the world’s greatest emitter, but there have been some signals from Beijing that it intends to cut coal generation earlier than expected, although no one can accurately predict what Xi will do. Saudi Arabia is the one country that had arguments with the IPCC about its report ahead of publication and is not expected to cooperate. Australia remains a laggard, mainly because Prime Minister Scott Morrison continues to introduce power generation based on gas, declines to consider nuclear energy despite his nation sitting on the world’s largest reserves of uranium, and talk blithely about long-term solutions based on new technologies which are as yet unproven.
Although only a small country by population, Australia is a significant emitter, particularly of carbon emissions from heavy traffic congestion in its two major cities, Sydney and Melbourne. We are all waiting for Morrison to come up with a plan. Morrison deserves some sympathy for having to work with a National Party now led by Barnaby Joyce, which is very pro-fossil fuel. Equally, however, he deserves criticism for his failure to develop a coherent national energy policy.
Colin Chapman is a writer, broadcaster, and public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.