Why politicians have failed to tackle climate change | The Economist

published on July 2, 2020

In 2019 millions of climate-change activists took to the streets

Their figurehead, Greta Thunberg, addressed the US Congress

I don’t want you to listen to me I want you to listen to the scientists

Here’s the thing

American politicians have been hearing from scientists

about the threat of climate change since the 1980s

This evidence represents a very strong case, in my opinion

that the greenhouse effect has been detected

and it is changing our climate now

Three decades on from James Hansen’s testimony

climate change is now recognised as the defining threat facing the planet

So, why has so little been done to stop it?

50 years ago environmentalism was a fringe topic

But within a few years in the late 1980s

climate change quickly rose up the political agenda

We have begun to fight an important battle

We must also expect environmental responsibility

140 species are becoming extinct every day

At Rio we have made a start

This is an incredibly fast bit of worldwide discussion and diplomacy

It’s hard to think of something else, other than a war, that went that quickly

But turning this gathering interest into decisive action was another matter

In 1997 UN members met in Kyoto to agree, for the first time

on specific cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions

I am instructing increased negotiating flexibility

But there was a catch

The Kyoto protocol put various constraints on industrialised economies

to cut their emissions

It put no contraints on developing countries

on the basis that, at that point

the vast majority of emissions had come from industrialised countries

Its origin in the UN gave the Kyoto protocol universal legitimacy

But designing a treaty that all countries could accept

meant producing one with very little practical power

The UN has this fundamental issue that it’s a creature of its members

UN organisations lack clout

They can’t just tell their member countries what to do

This wouldn’t have mattered if every country shared

the same urgent need for action

But they didn’t

A sound environmental policy is likely to benefit everyone

But the costs fall on particular groups

typically those that do most of the polluting

And it’s these groups that have a strong interest in avoiding these costs

Most of the beneficiaries of climate action

are people who don’t yet exist or certainly can’t yet vote

And so, aligning the general interests of that mass of humanity

with the specific interests who are genuinely harmed

by reducing fossil-fuel emissions

That’s a hard thing to do It would be a hard thing to do

within one political body

But if you had to do it between lots of nations, that’s even harder

America, a country which relies heavily on fossil fuels

like petrol, coal and natural gas, refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol

The use of fossil fuels has completely exploded

and it’s impossible to disentangle that explosion

from the huge growth in human population and in human wealth

that took place at the same time

So, still about 80% of the energy used on the planet

is dug up from the ground

Fossil fuels were formed from the remains of organisms

that lived and died millions of years ago

They hold a lot of carbon within them

making them a very concentrated store of energy

which helps to explain the political power

of the companies that extract and distribute them

There was a concerted campaign funded by various fossil-fuel interests

And to some extent, it carried on some of the tactics that have been used

by the tobacco companies to try and avoid restrictions on tobacco

And the result was to undermine the science of climate change

Beyond this, it played into a growing polarisation in politics

The right tends to think that governments should regulate less

sometimes much less

And there’s no real way through the climate crisis

without governments taking a very active role in the economy

So, if your starting-point is not just I want to keep my oil profits

but I want to keep the government out of the economy

then wanting there to be less action on climate change kind of fits into that

And then there’s China

In 1997 China was considered a developing country

and so, was exempt from the Kyoto commitment to cut emissions

In the years that followed, it took full advantage of this exemption

In the decade after Kyoto, China’s GDP almost tripled

and its carbon-dioxide emissions doubled

making it the largest greenhouse-gas emitter on the planet

The Chinese attitude to climate action was

basically that it was for someone else to do

It was not going to get in the way of

China’s extraordinary dash to industrialisation

Developed countries should not impose all kinds of unreasonable requirements

on developing countries that go beyond the stipulations of the convention

For almost two decades China refused to act

But in the 2010s all that changed

Let us join hands to contribute to the establishment

of an equitable and effective global mechanism on climate change

So, why the change of heart?

One reason may be that China genuinely does have

quite a lot to lose from climate change

Another thing is that in that period

renewable energy really starts to become a factor

And they’re really going to be able to produce some power

and China is quite keen on making it

And so, leading a renewables revolution

is the sort of thing that the Chinese Communist Party can get behind

The Paris agreement required all countries

both developed and developing, to commit to tackling global warming

It set a specific target

the increase in average global temperature

should be kept well below 2 degrees

with strenuous efforts made to keep it down to 15 degrees

But as with every previous breakthrough agreement

it involved compromise

The problem with this is that that was achieved by saying to all the countries

you tell us what you can do, and that’s great

They’d basically given up on the idea that countries would

commit in some slightly legally binding way to specific reduction

The emissions cuts that nations actually promised

were far too small to meet the 2-degree target

There is the problem—setting goals for 50-years’ time

when your actions that you’ve announced

to do in the next ten years are insufficient

Within the climate diplomatic community, there is now talk of ratcheting up

As things go on, countries will get more developed

more ambitious in what they promise

If countries really do ratchet up their action against climate change

it would break the 50-year cycle in which political compromises

have repeatedly enabled governments to avoid taking effective action

In that time CO2 emissions have more than doubled

And every decade since then has been warmer than the one before

50 years on from the first Earth day

a new generation of environmental activists are taking to the streets

They are determined to ensure that politics finally delivers

the drastic action needed to protect the planet

I’m Oliver Morton I’m the briefings editor at The Economist

We’ve written a series of climate briefs to cover the basics

and a bit more than the basics on all sorts of aspects

of the climate crisis that’s facing the Earth

You can read them all at the link opposite

Thank you for watching

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