Fighting climate change in a fragmented world

Currently, seven astronauts are living on the International Space Station: three Americans, one European and three Russians. They may not agree on much outside the day-to-day management of their vessel, but they must cooperate on that task if they all are to survive. The same is true for us on spaceship Earth.

Unfortunately, geopolitical forces threaten to dismantle the world order established after World War II. This disruption of relations among the great powers makes it even harder to sustain the international collaboration needed to tackle climate change. Its chilling effect extends not only to cooperative efforts to meet global emissions goals, but also to the research and policy studies that are needed to guide global action.

The growing stress between the U.S. and China is one obvious problem. In advance of the 2015 Paris climate negotiations, President Obama and Chairman Xi met to declare their joint commitment to enhanced climate action. It is hard to imagine a similar meeting taking place today. One U.S. response to the perceived China threat has been enhanced supervision, and in some areas the restriction of academic contacts. The concern lies with the protection of intellectual property in particular technologies, like chips, artificial intelligence and biotech, but the reporting requirements are broad. They cast a pall of suspicion over all joint work, including on climate change. Cooperation has become more difficult for both U.S. and Chinese scholars.

And now there is Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine. In response, other nations have taken measures to cut Russia off from the rest of the world economy, remove it from international institutions like the UN Human Rights Council, and isolate Russian citizens, both within Russia and abroad, who support Putin’s “special military operation”. This now includes not only targeted financial sanctions, but also exclusion from sports, the arts, intellectual exchange and other normal aspects of global society. Considering the extreme brutality of the Russian army’s pursuit of the war, it is easy to understand the impulse to punish and perhaps restrain this aggression through every available channel short of expanding the war. 

Unfortunately, there is a downside to shutting off all contact with Russian society. Justified as this urge may be, there is a risk of losing sight of our common interest in the midst of conflict. Fruitful collaboration on climate issues involving Russian and U.S scientists and other researchers has essentially ended. Canceling joint projects and suspending communications will have dire implications for the needed climate research and the continuity of supporting data sets.

Nobody knows when or how the Ukraine war will end, or what international trade and security system will evolve from the supply chain disruptions of the COVID epidemic and intensifying U.S.-China rivalry. Some fear the globalized world that has emerged over the last half century will evolve into two or three semi-autonomous trading blocs characterized by mutual hostility and distrust. Such a profound decoupling will make collaboration on meeting the global climate challenge much more difficult.

So what’s to be done? Clearly, top priorities include finding a just end to the war and achieving a peaceful resolution of other great power tensions. But there is another task along the way, to preserve international contacts and lines of scientific communication. Severing of these ties will make it more difficult to restore cooperation in what we hope will be a more peaceful and collaborative future.

Thus government agencies, even as they act to protect U.S. interests, need to try to maintain conditions favorable for international climate research efforts. Also, non-governmental organizations, like the National Academies and scientific societies, should oppose calls to sever all contacts with sister agencies. Isolation is not feasible for those on the International Space Station, nor is it feasible to address the global climate threat without Russian and Chinese cooperation.

Action by individual researchers is important as well. Those of us who have been involved in the climate issue should also try to preserve our own personal relations and lines of international scientific communication. Contacts with colleagues in China and Russia are not only critical for reinvigorating collaboration in less adversarial times. They also provide support and encouragement for those brave enough to speak out.

There are dramatic examples of such public acts of courage. Hundreds of Russian scientists signed a letter declaring their unequivocal opposition to the invasion of Ukraine. And the leader of the Russian delegation to a February meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offered an apology for the war. Given the harsh penalties for criticizing the Putin regime, such brave individuals deserve our support — they must not be isolated from the global community of their colleagues.

Indeed, now may be the time to revisit the spirit of the Pugwash Conferences. In the depths of the Cold War, meetings by a group of scientists and policymakers provided an essential line of communication between the Soviet Union, Western Europe and the U.S. The participants’ motivation was to avoid destruction in the then-prevalent nuclear strategy of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD). Efforts to sustain engagement with our Chinese and Russian scientific peers is no less urgent in response to the rising threat of MAD of the global environment.

Henry Jacoby is the William F. Pounds professor of management, emeritus in the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management and former co-director of the M.I.T. Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

Ben Santer is a climate scientist, a visiting researcher at UCLA’s Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering, and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur fellow. He was also the lead author of Chapter 8 of the 1995 IPCC report and has been a contributor to all six IPCC reports.

Gary Yohe is the Huffington Foundation professor of economics and environmental studies, emeritus, at Wesleyan University. He served as convening lead author for multiple chapters and the Synthesis Report for the IPCC from 1990 through 2014 and was vice-chair of the Third U.S. National Climate Assessment.

Richard Richels directed climate change research at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). He served on the National Assessment Synthesis Team for the first U.S. National Climate Assessment and as lead author for multiple chapters for the IPCC from 1992 through 2014.

Tags Barack Obama China clean energy climate chnage Fossil fuels Global warming International Obama Paris agreement Putin Russia Vladimir Putin Xi

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