- The biggest obstacle to climate action is this: the countries that will be most affected by global warming have the least power, but powerful, rich countries that have the means to take action - like the US - don't worry enough the climate
Worry all you like about Hong Kong's little local difficulties, or Brexit, the United States' trade war with China or the looming danger of a global recession " there is that other worry that puts all others in the shade. That is climate change, as thousands will doubtless be telling us as they gather this weekend in New York for the UN Climate Action Summit.
Against a backdrop of the Amazon jungle ablaze, Hurricane Dorian wreaking havoc across the Bahamas, and innumerable other climate indicators blinking red, scientists and environmentalists alike will be tabling incontrovertible evidence of the need for massive action to avert catastrophe.
A year ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we had a window of 12 years to bring carbon emissions under control, and called for US$2.4 trillion a year to be invested in clean energy. Last week, a new report from the Global Commission on Adaptation called for US$1.8 trillion to be spent between 2020 and 2030 to mitigate a crash in crop yields; a competition for water supplies between up to 5 billion people; the displacement of hundreds of millions of people in coastal communities as sea levels rise; and the consequences of around 100 million people being shoved back under the UN's US$2-a-day poverty line.
Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, does not mince words: "Nature is angry … You cannot play games with nature. Nature strikes back." He has reminded the 60-odd global leaders attending the Climate Action Summit about their commitments under the Paris Agreement to mobilise US$100 billion a year to support developing economies in mitigation and adaptation.
In a novel and hopefully effective effort to name and shame countries, he is only allowing leaders to speak at the summit if they commit to at least one of three things: carbon neutrality by 2050; a significant improvement on the present commitment to cut emissions; a "meaningful" pledge to the Green Climate Fund.
Under these targets, the US, Japan, Australia, South Africa, Brazil and Saudi Arabia will be denied their three minutes at the podium.
Although cutting coal-fired power is a priority at the summit, serial offenders China and India have squeaked into speech slots because of commitments elsewhere. But China is in the process of commissioning about 75 gigawatts of coal-fired power and it can expect to take serious heat at the summit.
Why China, not the US, can save us from climate change
Whether Guterres' strong-arm strategy will work is open to question. US President Donald Trump, for one, is disdainful: "I'm not going to lose (US wealth) on dreams, on windmills … And I think I know more about the environment than most people."
Environmental advocates will be squeezing a little comfort from a CBS News poll this week that said 69 per cent of Americans wanted climate action from the next president. For a more sobering glimpse of public opinion, read a recent YouGov survey of international attitudes to climate change that polled 30,000 people across 28 economies.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the US leads in climate change denial: a stunning 15 per cent feel either that there is no climate change, or that change is not the result of human activity, compared to 5-8 per cent in most other economies. A further 10 per cent of US respondents say they don't know about climate change. Clearly Trump is under no pressure to shift his views on the climate.
The YouGov survey's more detailed findings are even more troubling: 15 per cent of Americans believe we can avoid the worst effects of climate change if we carry on like now.
That compares with 4 per cent of Italians, 5 per cent of Spaniards, 9 per cent of Qataris, 7 per cent of Hongkongers and 11 per cent of mainland Chinese. Notably, the rich and cold Scandinavian countries are even less worried than the US.
While between 60 and 80 per cent of respondents in most Asian economies foresee a grave risk of human extinction, only 38 per cent of Americans share the same fear. There is a similar divide when it comes to anxiety about a new world war. And while 61 per cent of Americans expect harm to the global economy, far more respondents in Asian economies " 80 to 92 per cent " are worried.
This is what happens when governments make policy without evidence
The implication of the YouGov findings is clear: while warmer European countries show more concern about climate change than the US, it is the world's less developed economies that are most gravely concerned.
As the authors of the report from the Global Commission on Adaptation noted, the people most affected by climate change have little power. "Power typically rests with those least affected, most insured, and most able to protect themselves from the impacts of climate change."
And if this is true, the elephant-in-the-room question has to be where all these trillions of dollars for mitigating the damage from climate change, and adapting to it, are going to come from. Again, Guterres does not mince words: "We are losing the race."
Perhaps the most striking example of this was when the G7 leaders meeting a month ago in Paris watched the Amazon burn, and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke of responding to "the call of the forest".
Committing to do something to help bring Brazil's forest fires under control, the leaders of arguably the seven most powerful nations on earth offered US$20 million. Not US$200 million, or US$2 billion, or US$20 billion, but US$20 million. Unsurprisingly, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro rejected the G7 leaders' magnanimity.
At present, however stark and terrifying the implications of the climate crisis, and however eloquently Guterres and the climate activists gathered in New York argue their case, I just can't yet see where the money will come from.
For politicians anywhere in the world, immediate issues trump distant ones, and local issues trump global ones. Economists may tell us US$2.4 trillion a year is a tiny proportion of global GDP, and the Global Commission on Adaptation may tell us an investment of US$1.8 trillion over the next 10 years will generate US$7.1 trillion in benefits, but such arguments carry little weight with politicians tasked to fend off an impending recession, reduce debt, keep people in jobs, restore health systems, or improve housing.
As European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker famously noted: "We all know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we've done it." I fear this weekend's climate summit will not move us significantly forward.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view
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