The view from the big chairs – speculating on superpower strategies for the coming climate change vs. lifestyle clash of the titans
A fascinating collision is about to take place, like two runaway trains heading towards each other. As you might imagine, climate change is involved, because it is the new barometer of everything. If something is good, it is in peril from climate change. If something is bad, it is that way because of climate change. The narrative has become exceedingly simple – agree and shout, like shotgun-wedding-style participants in a Kim Jong Un parade crowd, or risk ostracization and belittlement from “97 percent” of the world’s academics and their terrorized acolytes.
The climate change narrative is one of the trains, no longer just a temperature phenomenon but an overwhelming call to arms against civilization as we know it. We’ve seen recent media fixations before, like the dot-com and US housing booms, and various other crushingly dominant narratives, but nothing like this. Not a single news item works its way through the web without notice of the climate change impact. Some concerns are legitimate, as with pollution; others are simply hysterics. When fear dictates the agenda, kooks will come out of the woodwork and have an unimpeded free-for-all with a press that is too frightened to object. Thus, we hear of impacts from global warming that range from dog depression to an increase in volcanoes to lower quality wine and an increased likelihood of being murdered. Mesmerized news reporters hint that hoarding and “naked fear” are the most appropriate responses and any thought to the contrary labels you as Fox News material. The underlying message through all of this is that fossil fuel usage is the cause, and that, for all the depressed-dog/volcanic/oenophilic/homicidal/other reasons above, continued fossil fuel usage is dooming us all.
In the other train are nearly 7 billion dozing citizens enjoying the ride and asking for more wine (before climate change ruins it). Despite the omnipresent warnings about fossil fuels, global demand continues to rise for natural gas, oil, and coal (yes, even forlorn coal). After two decades of rocket-fueled (that is, government-debt fueled) investment, global renewable energy capacity growth has stalled, and despite these hundreds of billions, energy-related CO2 emissions rose to an all-time high in 2018. Electric vehicle sales growth is slowing despite ever more models, and even Apple-cool Tesla’s non-Model-3 sales have slumped. Don’t shoot me, it is what it is.
Try an experiment with the most ardent climate activist you know, one that turns purple and crazed at the word “oil” or “capitalism.” If your personal safety is not at risk – and it most assuredly will be, so try to find a little one – ask the earth-warrior which of the most devastating environmental problems they will swear to abandon: flight, inter-time-zone holidays, plastic, etc. A thousand things may happen to you in the following second, but not one of them will be a pledge to live without. They are not alone; that is the world as we know it.
We therefore find ourselves in what is like the world’s largest particle accelerator, where molecules are smashed into each other at near light-speed just for fun, to study what will emerge from the collision. In the bigger human world, we are about to see a cataclysmic collision between the forces of climate change activism and the real-world everyday actions of a comfort-seeking humanity.
Such theatrics are amusing for us little people, but how then do these realities play out for the world’s leaders? They may seem like useless bureaucrats or impervious dictators, and they may well be, but they also are forced to think in broader horizons than most of us ever know exist. Given that they can see these two inevitabilities, how might they deal with the conundrum?
The world’s largest economies have one thing in common as bedrock for their actions – national security. The United States has long been paranoid about running out of cheap energy, and this overarching policy objective explains many current US international relations (especially and obviously the Saudi relationship). Despite the relative blip of US shale production, which in the big scheme of things will be a multi-decade high impact phenomenon and not a century-level one, the US is well aware of the risk of losing access to cheap energy. The US will never take for granted access to cheap petroleum, and to act in the interest of its mighty economic engine. This will be true no matter what party wins; as with Rachel Notley becoming a pipeline fan once in power and Trudeau claiming the see the need for pipelines over the activists’ howls of protest. Any leader has to face reality at some point; even AOC herself would have second thoughts about leveling the country’s economy.
China is likewise focused on national security, in their instance feeding over a billion people and maintaining law and order. India has a similar population and concern. Each is concerned about air pollution, particularly China, but the impact on emissions of their investments is neglible. China is resolute about electric vehicle adoption, however this is a function of the overwhelmingly poor air quality in large cities. In India, their current elections are focused on national security and jobs, not climate concerns.
Russia is Russia, or as Winston Churchill put it the country is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Churchill went on though, “…there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” He was right there. What other country shuts off natural gas supplies to other countries in the dead of winter, to make a point? We can surmise therefore that Russia is light years away from worrying about climate change.
Europe is the field marshal in the war against climate change, and has been leading the charge. Europe, however, is perhaps close to implosion. Brexit is a disaster, and a multitude of countries are rising up to challenge the leadership of France and Germany. It was under those powers that the climate change war was most fiercely waged, and that rug might get pulled from under them by Italy, Hungary, and other mid-European countries that have had enough of their agenda. In addition, Europe has invested hundreds of billions in renewable energy, which has lowered emissions, but the strain is showing with yellow-vest protests in France and populist uprisings in many countries.
The rest of us, to be blunt, don’t matter. The ones listed above are either economic powerhouses that will do whatever it takes to remain that way, or are environmental monstrosities that can move the enviro-needle globally with the right policies. But no one should pretend ever that, when push comes to shove, economies – the mechanism by which people stay fed and alive – will ever take a back seat to climate change doomsday scenarios.