The Political Climate Is Reaching A Tipping Point

It’s a race against the point of no return for the biosphere.

Marc-Aurèle Palla for Noema Magazine

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

The stakes get higher with every passing moment. Only new superlatives can describe the explosion of extreme climate events across the world in recent weeks, from megadroughts to unprecedented monsoonal deluges to wildfires so intense they create their own weather. 

The volume of the downpour during one hour in Zhengzhou, which flooded subways and killed scores of people, exceeded anything in 5,000 years of recorded Chinese history. Hundreds were killed in Germany by rivers surging to levels not seen in 500 or even 1,000 years. And for the first time, temperatures hit 121 degrees Fahrenheit in the normally cool climes of Canada. 

Recent months, however, have also seen the most significant shifts yet in the political climate which, alas, is placing global warming at the top of the agenda. 

The European Union announced its most ambitious mitigation plan yet, aiming to be a carbon neutral continent by 2050. The core of the initiative is to deepen its cap-and-trade program, which sets a carbon price for heavy industry and coal plants while expanding it to the emission-intensive transportation sectors such as airlines and vehicle manufacturers. Revenues from the escalating cost of emission permits will be used to blunt the economic effect of a higher cost of living on the less well-off in order to avoid the kind of gilets jaunes uprising France saw a few years back when it introduced a fuel tax. The EU plan also calls for a carbon border tariff on imports from countries that don’t meet its standards.

Last week, the French parliament passed a series of climate regulations derived from proposals by the Citizens’ Convention on Climate. Among other measures, the new laws would prohibit one-use plastic packaging and ban domestic flights for trips that can be taken in 2.5 hours by train. 

In the United States, President Joe Biden has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030. In China, Xi Jinping has spoken often of building an “ecological civilization” and pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, with peak emissions by 2030. Just this month, China opened a national carbon emissions trading program modeled on California’s that it has been experimenting with for years in various provinces. 

Though they failed to reach agreement on the pace of phasing out coal-powered plants (opposed by China) and subsidies for fossil fuels (opposed by India and Saudi Arabia), the G20 environment ministers who met in Italy last week did agree to boost their “nationally determined contributions” to accelerate climate targets by the next United Nations climate conference in Scotland in the fall. 

Even the courts are now getting into the act. As Rosa O’Hara reports in Noema, an Australian court recently ruled in favor of a lawsuit against a coal mining operation by a group of teenagers who claimed the government has a “duty of care” for future generations not to allow the destruction of the biosphere.

In short, a race is on between the tipping point of no return for the natural climate and a political climate prepared to do what it takes within the rapidly diminishing timeframe left before it is too late.

The biggest obstacle to timely action is the nature of the challenge. As has long been noted, politics is mostly animated by an outside foil for action: “us vs. them” or “friends vs. enemies,” as in the emergent Cold War between the West and China. Had the casualties of the recent calamities been caused by a terrorist attack or a military strike by another country, the world would be urgently up in arms. But the war against global warming has no precedent in human history because it is “us vs. us,” each of us against our own consumerist habits and addiction to economic growth.

Although we are getting there, the carbon has so far not hit the road. By and large, mitigation has not yet upended lifestyles powered by fossil-fuel energy. The temptation will be to believe we can have our cake and eat it too, to delude ourselves that there is an easy way out through technological fixes that avoid the restraint of politically sanctioned, culturally bounded limits that will be unpopular. 

Perhaps the most tempting delusion is to ignore the sage warnings of those like Vaclav Smil, who points out that “there is no ‘economy’ — there is only energy conversion” and that the only realistically effective course of action is to curb upstream consumption, not just downstream emissions. 

This delusion is most manifest in the notion that the digital economy is environment-friendly because it is a resource-efficient, “de-materializing” path to sustained growth, that a “virtual economy” requires less energy use than an industrialized one. To bust this bubble, consider the striking observations of Ronald Deibert in his 2020 book, “Reset.” 

The idea that “data is the new oil,” Deibert notes with irony, takes on a new and menacing meaning in this context. Aside from the energy intensity of mining metals that go into mobile devices manufactured in polluting factories transported by air or carbon-belching cargo ships across globe-spanning supply-chain routes, the cloud-computing processes that drive data use and power the accelerating computational speed of artificial intelligence devour energy as if there were no tomorrow. 

According to Deibert, training a single AI model can emit more than 626,000 tons of CO2, equivalent to the lifetime emissions of the average American car. A smartphone streaming an hour of video on a weekly basis uses more power annually than a refrigerator. In China, 67% of the energy used by Tencent’s various online services, from shopping to banking, comes from coal power.

While we experience the “cloud” and the muted taps on our laptop, iPad or smartphones as “clean” access to data, notes Deibert, the magic of connectivity passes through undersea fiber-optic cables and satellites to “server farms” that are computational hogs, consuming vast amounts of energy and water. He cites the electricity demand of a “data center alley” in Virginia that is equivalent to the power output of six coal-fired plants in that fossil-fueled state. A medium-sized high-density server, he reports, can consume as much as 360,000 gallons of chilled water a day to cool its computations. Across the world, many such server farms are located on cheap land in poor countries like Kazakhstan that are mostly dependent on coal-fired energy.

None of this is to mention that enhancing the vital storage capacity for solar power and for the electric car batteries we expect to de-carbonize our mobility also entail the human and environmental costs of mining conflict-zone cobalt in Congo and dredging rare-earth metals from the heretofore undisturbed seafloor. 

As much as the leap of climate action to the top of the political agenda is welcome, the time-thieving technological detour around an inconvenient truth is what may well sap the collective will necessary to reach a tipping point before the climate does. As political systems of all stripes engage in protracted negotiations among their multitude of contending interests, the quickening clock is ticking on Earth time.