Climate Words and Deeds
Terry H. Schwadron
Nov. 2, 2021
The promises on display as world leaders at the international meeting in Scotland said they were trying harder show the gap between words and deeds. Saying you want to halt rising global temperatures, however eloquently or fervently, and doing it are two different worlds.
However upbeat the final communiques from the Glasgow meeting will end, the evidentiary timeline shows that the world and its biggest polluting countries lag well behind the actions needed to stem global warming.
Indeed, in the same week as this gathering, China, whose leader ducked the session altogether, was hiking the use of coal-fuel plants as that country is seeing disappointing economic numbers (drawing sharp U.S. rebuke), Russia, Brazil and India are skirting full compliance, and in the United States, our split Congress has been unable so far to embrace Joe Biden’s proposals for government investment in alternative energy sources.
Because of one or two senators, Democrats have been unable to insist on the most central climate commitment to turn electric power production away from coal and natural gas, and now the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up a challenge on whether federal agencies even have the power to take broad environmental actions without authorizing legislation.
Big Oil company executives were braced by questions last week before Congress about their history of lobbying and climate change disinformation. Again, those hearings may have produced a few fireworks, but little immediate changes, though there was too little made of an emergent industry note that a carbon tax plan might be a better path than myriad patchwork regulations for oil and gas.
There seems a lot more attention on the political personalities and polls of world leaders, including Biden, than on whether the Glasgow meeting and the attempts to verbalize concern about climate than on measuring whether we are getting the necessary commitments into place.
Progress, But How Much?
There is progress on climate, even by the standards set by international environmentalists, with Biden announcing methane restrictions and declarations against deforestation. The questions are whether those will be enough for companies or cities or even individual countries to forestall the worst predictions for effects — and whether they actually will come about as announced.
We see efforts at balance going on among politicians and countries worldwide over preserving profits over planet, with a built-in preference to do little to nothing. That is made worse, of course, by denial that climate issues are largely man-made.
So, we saw agreement on Sunday from the Group of 20 leading economies to stop subsidizing foreign fossil-fuel power plants, but not the ones they have domestically.
We may see a vote this week in Congress on Biden’s rewritten economic plan that calls for $555 billion in spending towards encouraging a turn to electric vehicles, wind and solar equipment manufacture, moves as Washington Post columnist Fred Hiatt notes “are vastly superior to doing nothing . . . Given the planetary emergency, the need to set an example for other countries, and the years of delay, missing this opportunity would be close to criminal.”
The news is dotted with individual entrepreneurs coming up with carbon capture inventions, with cities and states setting more stringent goals than the federal government, with renewed efforts under Biden to overturn years of climate change denial under Donald Trump, who insisted that he was president for Pittsburgh not Paris. Public relations efforts aside, big automakers are moving quickly towards electric cars and fossil fuel companies are diversifying into growing their own solar and wind alternatives.
But it is also true that our politicians are insistent on heeding perceived job and economic impact to dictate national policies. On a global basis, it is clear that no one country can implement policies alone that move the climate needle.
Too Easy Criticism
The constant effort in the media to declare climate progress as a measure of personal leadership by Biden or past U.S. presidents seems overwrought, if not trite by now.
Sure, there is a leadership component here, and there is a question of whether Biden in particular right now has entered the climate stage with a weaker hand than he might have had if his one-vote majority in the Senate had already voted approval for his economic proposals.
But it is too slick, too easy an argument. Navigating this kind of change in personal habits, corporate desires and aspirations, nationalist competitive spirit and verifiable scientific progress is too complex for those kinds of judgments.
We can’t get agreement on paid family leave or on abortion policies in this country, why do we think a positive political poll to say we like Biden more or less will alter our headlong race towards much more serious global problems. Whatever else our American political divides have created, we have all but lost our national will to solve problems amid self-promotion, lobbying money or the domineering need for partisan parties to win over addressing recognized problems.
Whatever a Glasgow or Paris accord comes up with, it will take years to see the results. It feels as if whatever Glasgow comes up with will be simply ignored by the Republican half of Congress and the country over immediate concerns about gas prices. Americans concerned with the immediate effects of supply chain issues seem to be paying little attention to the fact that the exact same problems are hitting all the countries of the world at the same time.
Sloganeering about America First, or even for repairing the world, does not create implementable solutions for global problems like climate.