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The Tyranny of Inertia
Egypt Dispatch 6: Getting something this big done is...hard
I’ve actually been home from Egypt for a couple of days, so this final dispatch comes in part from talking to people still in the conference center at Sharm El-Sheikh where—with utter predictability—talks went into 24 hours of overtime before finally concluding in the early morning hours Sunday.
The talks produced one real success: civil society had focused on getting the rich nations to agree to a ‘loss and damage’ fund, and at the last minute they did just that. It was a triumph for movement organizers from the global south—for groups like the Climate Action Network—that made the issue the unrelenting focus of their efforts in the lead-up to this COP, and for good reason: as Reuters reported
55 vulnerable countries estimated their combined climate-linked losses over the last two decades totalled $525 billion, or 20% of their collective GDP. Some research suggests that by 2030 such losses could reach $580 billion per year.
Read those numbers again—they are astonishing (a fifth of GDP!) and there is no doubt where justice lies: the iron law of global warming is, as always, those who did the least to cause it suffer first and most.
This is a fighting newsletter, and because the fight is existential it goes out free to everyone. But those who pay the modest monthly subscription fee allowed me, for instance, to report from Egypt. If it won’t cause you financial hardship, I’d be glad if you joined in.
But it wasn’t an unalloyed triumph. Setting up a fund and filling it with money are two different things, and the second task will be harder. So far a handful of the usual suspects (Scandanavia, Japan) have contributed amounts in the tens of millions of dollars. I do not think it will be easy to find tens or hundreds of billions of dollars—not, at least, from the government I know best. The U.S. Congress is going to be in divided hands; I think it will be simple for Kevin McCarthy to block progress here and get in some demagogic licks in the process, especially since China—officially a ‘developing country’—isn’t obligated to take part in the new effort. There may be other sources of money (a tax on Big Oil profits? a modest tax on all financial transactions?) but none of these will be easy; pundits are hailing the Loss and Damage agreement as a way to ‘rebuild trust’ between north and south, but it’s also possible it will be one more ongoing source of rancor.
The other cost was focus. It seems almost impossible to get these COPs to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. Last year in Glasgow there was a big push to get banks and financial institutions to take climate change seriously—the jet parking lot at Glasgow Airport was filled with planes from the planet’s biggest capitalists—and so we got the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero. But in the course of the year GFANZ’s aspirations began to wither; very few of the banks have managed to even stop funding coal-fired power, which is the most obvious first step. The big American banks threatened to walk away this summer when it appeared GFANZ rules might restrict their ability to keep financing fossil fuel expansion (something that climate science has said clearly and repeatedly should be verboten), and so…the rules were changed. Republican attorneys general have mounted a red-state push to keep the banks on board with Big Oil, and they’ve met with little resistance from boardrooms. And so on—there was hardly a peep about any of this in Egypt, which I fear teaches the rich and powerful a lesson: if you say the right things when the spotlight is bright, your problems might go away.
And the bank story is emblematic. With the focus on loss and damage, this year’s COP did not manage to push harder for new climate targets, or even to call for an (undated) “phase out” of fossil fuel—which, after all, is what is required to have some hope of bringing climate change under control.
If this were a normal political problem, that might be okay: slow but steady progress counts. But this—almost uniquely for world leaders—is a timed test. Every year brings us 12 months further into the new geological epoch we’re creating. As we come out of Sharm el-Sheikh we’re still headed for a world nearly three degrees Celsius warmer.
What I’m trying to say is: inertia is becoming an enormous factor. Because Big Oil cost us three decades, we have to move with unheard-of speed. As Vaclav Smil has pointed out, big energy transitions (wood to coal, say) normally play out over a century. Since physics is allowing us a decade or two instead, we have to constantly goose this process. Movements have done a good job—without them we’d be nowhere—but we’re not managing to push things fast enough. Renewable energy is cheap enough that we could plausibly roll it out with real speed, but vested interest stands in the way, and without endless pressure we’ll never build up the necessary head of steam.
The tactic of the bad guys is delay, and delay is incredibly easy to achieve; a body at rest stays at rest. Our job is acceleration, and that’s not happening, at least at the pace that’s required. We’re starting to run out of years, so we best make the next one count.
Other news from the world of climate and energy:
Kate Aronoff, not for the first time, cuts through the news to get at the core. She describes the “effective altruism” movement funded by disgraced crypto financier Sam Bankman-Fried:
“Rich makes right” is not exactly revolutionary stuff. “Doing good by doing well” has been a long-held mantra of Davos types spewing TED-talkish bromides about wanting to make the world a better, greener place. “The laws of accumulation will be left free; the laws of distribution free. Individualism will continue,” steel magnate Andrew Carnegie wrote of his class’s charitable giving in 1899, “but the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor; entrusted for a season with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, but administering it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself.” Bizarrely, though, E.A. has been successfully marketed as new and innovative, mostly by dint of its proximity to tech.
+A new effort called Fossil Free Zones was launched in the waning days of the COP, with organizers highlighting “places that do not burn or extract fossil fuels. The framework aims to highlight the pioneers of ending fossil fuels and inspire others to follow in their footsteps. 250 Fossil Free Zones in 30 countries have already been identified,” ranging from individual homes to Antarctica, a “fossil-extraction-free continent.”
+The irreplaceable Emily Atkin makes the climate case against one Elon Musk. Yes, he’s brought us Tesla, but as she makes clear there’s another side to the ledger. His rocket company spews methane, and
By advocating for Republicans, Musk is using his massive influence as the world’s richest man to empower a party owned by the fossil fuel industry. He is advocating for political leadership that would seek not only reverse existing climate policy, but pass new policy ensuring new fossil fuel infrastructure for decades to come. There would be no bigger climate negative than this.
Not only that, but screwing up Twitter “has put this critical climate communication, education and advocacy platform at risk of failure. After mass layoffs and resignations, a former Twitter employee told The Washington Post Thursday that at least six critical systems that keep the site functioning no longer have any engineers.Climate disinformation has also increased on the platform since Musk took over,” which is something I’ve noticed too.
+A fascinating new study from Pew tracks the intersection between religious and environmental concern:
the survey finds that highly religious Americans (those who say they pray each day, regularly attend religious services and consider religion very important in their lives) are far less likely than other U.S. adults to express concern about warming temperatures around the globe.
To which one can only say, Sigh.
This is a fighting newsletter, and though jetlag has me by the throat at the moment, the fight continues. Please read and share this free newsletter—and if you can afford, without real hardship, to pay the modest subscription fee I’d be…truly grateful