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Disaster response

Disaster response

The weather has never been more political. When will it actually change policy?

There has never been more abundant evidence of the need to act to control climate change. This could provide cover for ditherers to get on the right side of history and science at last. But will it? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

A quick recap on the evidence for those who’ve been hors de signal:

  • In Germany, at least 184 people are dead after a month’s rain fell in two days on the watershed of the lower Rhine, dragging whole neighbourhoods into churning brown floodwaters as if Wotan himself had lost his ticket to COP. Angela Merkel said Germany had to move faster against climate change and Axios said scientists were about to shed their caution in attributing extreme weather events to global warming. 
  • In Siberia, 30,000 square miles of tundra are burning in Yakutia, which is supposed to be the coldest inhabited place in the world. Last year 60,000 square miles or nearly 40 million acres burned, but there is still plenty of 2021 left for records to fall. 
  • In the American West, 80 wildfires are burning in a giant triangle from Montana to California and South Dakota. In Oregon the fires are fuelling 30,000-foot pyrocumulus clouds that threaten to rain hot embers on firefighters below if they collapse.

It’s notable that deniers who might want to contest the idea that climate change could simultaneously be behind fires and floods have been cautious about breaking cover. Perhaps this counts as progress. Certainly, this piece of climate science is not seriously contested: as night follows day, higher temperatures dry out forests and underbrush and also increase the water-carrying capacity of the atmosphere.

But policymakers aren’t seizing the moment either. It might seem reasonable to suppose that simultaneous disasters on three continents would focus minds on preventive action; on turning vague aspirations from COP in Paris into concrete undertakings for COP in Glasgow. It ain’t happening.

  • There is no clear plan to produce binding emissions targets in Glasgow, or indeed to produce anything else beyond restated ambitions to keep warming under 2 degrees, as we noted in a recent Tortoise Take.
  • Nor is there agreement at the G20 on the need to achieve 55 per cent decarbonisation by 2030, even though the IPCC says this is a crucial waypoint towards net zero by mid-century. “And we’re talking about 20 countries, not 160,” says Robert Cingolani, Italy’s energy transition minister, who’ll host a G20 climate summit on Thursday. 

At least the EU has an alternative of sorts in its proposal for a carbon border tax. US Democrats would like one, too. The thinking is that border taxes encourage overseas (ie mainly Chinese) manufacturers to make their products less carbon-intensive to avoid the tax. There are just a couple of difficulties:

  • Russia is not on board since its economy depends on oil and gas exports to Europe, and Russia is not a rational actor. Its MO is simply to cut off gas supplies in the middle of winter rather than negotiate or diversify. Also, Europe still depends on Russian gas. 
  • The chances of the US Congress approving a carbon border tax are slim to vanishing. To work properly (rather than simply protect overpriced domestic producers), a domestic carbon tax would be needed as well, and as Yale’s William Nordhaus notes, on taxes “the US is sort of stuck somewhere in the 18th century”.

This regressive approach is largely a function of the over-representation in the US Senate of thinly-populated conservative states from the high plains to the intra-mountain West. States which are mainly on fire. 

Science and Tech

Chinese thorium
Wouldn’t it be great to be able to pump out limitless nuclear energy with no risk of nuclear waste or leaks of radioactive cooling water? That vision has spurred on fusion devotees for decades, but also thorium reactor fans. China has many of these, and yesterday they announced plans to build a couple of virtually waste-free thorium reactors in their western deserts. Their favoured design uses molten salt instead of fuel rods, both to drive the reaction and transfer heat to turbines. Thorium sits two places away from uranium in the periodic table and becomes uranium in the standard thorium fuel cycle. This is not pure fantasy – experimental thorium reactors have existed since the 1960s. But if China is truly about to commercialise this technology it has leaped ahead with no one noticing. Best to take this one with a spoon of molten salt. 


Green Greenland
Greenland won’t be issuing any more oil and gas exploration licenses. Ten years ago they were being handed out quite freely, not least as a revenue raiser for a local government anxious to boost the case for independence from Denmark. Since then oil prices have slumped and with them the value of the licenses, while concerns have grown about climate and the giant melting ice sheet that is the Greenlanders’ hinterland. Bloomberg Green has the story, whose most arresting data point is that sea levels round Greenland have risen nine inches since 1880. Can they do that without doing it everywhere?

Engagement and activism

Save the Amazon
Last week’s study showing that big parts of the Amazon have flipped from being carbon sinks to carbon sources was widely covered, including in our daily Sensemaker. It is truly worrying. This moment has been foreseen for decades. The implications are dire. The causes are intractable. Or are they? The Guardian has a piece by the science director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute that suggests ways to react. These include boycotting goods and companies that further deforestation; incentivising sustainable forestry; and enforcing laws against illegal logging more strictly. All of which have been tried and none of which have worked. The article as a whole is eloquent and sobering but the suggestions at the end are pure boilerplate, as if tacked on by a weary editor. What gives? Has the world run out of ways to save the Amazon?


Net zero costs
Nothing good comes easy. That includes net zero, which will be expensive as well as hard to achieve. The standard answer to those who say it’ll cost too much is to point out doing nothing will cost much more. The Economist cites figures from a recent report from the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility which suggest that in a 4-degree warming scenario the debt to GDP ratio would treble to 300 per cent by the end of the century. There are two problems with this, one of which the Economist acknowledges. This is that the costs of tackling climate change all come before the benefits. The other problem is that achieving net zero as a country is pointless in scientific and ecological terms unless everyone else does too. A bit like vaccinating against Covid.

Do share this around, and let us know what you think of it.

Thanks for reading.

Giles Whittell

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