Economic Hardship And Nationalism Are Gutting Climate Action


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

What a difference three years makes. In December 2015, world leaders gathered in a historic display of species consciousness to sign the Paris climate accord to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. Today, in December 2018, Paris is experiencing a winter of discontent, with a virtual uprising against a tax increase on fuel aimed at fulfilling France’s 2015 obligations.

In a dramatic illustration of the battle between the present and the future, the mantra of the protestors, angry over the affordability of the increase, is that their top concern is not “the end of the world” but surviving until “the end of the month.” On Tuesday, the government temporarily suspended the tax.

The conflict is also writ large on the world stage. Growing nationalist resistance to global climate action is unraveling the fragile consensus to save a fragile planet. In the name of “America First,” President Trump withdrew from the Paris accord altogether. Brazil’s president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, has expressed admiration for Trump’s stance, vowing to stay in the pact only if Brazil’s sovereign control of the Amazon forests, which many believe will now be open to more development, are not affected. Even stalwarts of climate action such as Japan and Germany are backsliding as they discover just how hard it is to wean themselves off coal while keeping their economies humming. Indeed, global carbon emissions reached a new high in 2018.

This clash between the short-term and the long-term is front and center as national representatives convene this week at a United Nations meeting in Katowice, Poland to devise common rules for implementing their climate commitments.

WorldPost features editor Peter Mellgard reports from Keyenberg, Germany on how fraught the transition away from fossil fuels is even for a country with the greenest of intentions. “Germany is by far the worst emitter of greenhouse gases in Europe, and coal is the main source of those emissions,” he notes. While the government pledged to cut carbon emissions 40 percent by 2020, it is on track to achieve barely more than a 30 percent reduction. As local residents explain to Mellgard, that is not only because it is taking longer than expected to close coal-fired power plants, but because mining companies are expanding their operations in the near-term despite long-term plans to phase out reliance on fossil fuels. As elsewhere, the pace of Germany’s “coal exit” is hindered by the tough tradeoffs between jobs, present energy demand and climate protection.

The sweltering cities of Asia pose a different kind of challenge to meeting climate goals. Some years ago, I asked Lee Kuan Yew, the legendary founder and long-time leader of Singapore, what the key factor was behind that prosperous city-state’s success. Aside from policies encouraging multi-ethnic harmony, he answered: air conditioning. “Air conditioning,” he told me, “was a most important invention for us, perhaps one of the signal inventions of history. It changed the nature of civilization by making development possible in the tropics.”

After decades of rapid development, Chandran Nair assesses the cumulative warming consequences of cooling Asia’s megacities. “The very air-conditioning that protects many of us from debilitating and life-threatening temperatures,” he writes from Hong Kong, “contains greenhouse gas-emitting refrigerants and requires significant amounts of energy, which resulted in 1.25 billion tons of carbon emissions in 2016. In short, they keep us cool while heating up our planet, particularly in cities where this type of cooling is highly concentrated.” He looks to innovative measures, from energy efficient technology and urban design to roof gardens, to escape this conundrum.

The conflict between economic development and environmental protection is also rattling Mexico, where the new government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is planning a new rail system, approved by a flawed public referendum. The train is intended to attract tourism to the richly biodiverse rainforests in old Mayan territories. Writing from Mexico City, ecological activist and poet Homero Aridjis and Victor Lichtinger, Mexico’s former environment minister, worry about destruction of the ecosystem that they believe will not deliver the promised economic benefits. “Presenting the train as a panacea for reducing rampant poverty in southeastern Mexico is highly misleading,” they argue. “Poverty is best eradicated through education and provision of basic services such as health care, housing, drinking water, nutritious food, employment, and sustainable and productive projects that allow communities to thrive on their own terms.”

The forests of Colombia, too, are facing a similar assault — paradoxically as a consequence of the recent peace agreement with guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia whose presence kept out developers and loggers. As Lucy Sherriff reports from the Magdalena River Valley, wedged between the Andes mountains, “Once inaccessible land is now up for grabs, and trees are being felled to make way for mines, cattle ranches and farms. … Between 2015 and 2016, deforestation rose by 44 percent.”

In an interview, José Manuel Ochoa Quintero, the head of Humboldt University’s biodiversity monitoring program in the area, outlined the challenge. “Colombians do not have a great awareness about the environment,” he told The WorldPost. “It is mostly due to a lack of education and the fact that they have had to worry about more pressing issues, such as the war. It is difficult to get people to prioritize caring about the environment when they are worried for their lives.”

In the end, he observed with a hefty dose of realism, “We cannot expect people to make sacrifices to benefit the environment when they have little resources to begin with. Deforestation can provide lucrative financial gains, and so we have to try and match that.”

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.