Climate change, Ukraine and pitfalls of international goodwill

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Even before Russian troops moved across eastern Ukraine in late February, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government was flooding channels with information casting Ukraine as an aggressor and pedaling the narrative that the country needed to be denazified.

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is a tragedy in many respects, but one is the stark reminder it serves as to how difficult it may prove to tether every nation in the world to the arduous goal of rapidly reaching net-zero emissions. To the extent that the West labors hereafter to destroy Russian President Vladimir Putin’s economy via sanctions, it should expect little cooperation in pursuing a climate goal that relies heavily on international goodwill.

Russia was ambivalent on climate in the first place, with its mid-century decarbonization goal deemed “critically insufficient” by one prominent climate referee. The opening of sea lanes in the Arctic and the expansion of agriculture on the steppes give Russia more reasons than most to believe it could win as much as it loses in a warmer world. If the global economy hereafter cleaves into opposing camps, Moscow should be expected to cling to its fossil fuel legacy rather than to join in painful decarbonization.

Nor is Russia the only major economy failing to put its back to the climate oar. Brazil set a monthly record in January for acreage of Amazonian rain forest destroyed since record keeping began in 2015-2016. India has yet to update its 2030 climate targets under the Paris Agreement. China is still building rather than retiring coal fired power plants, and the climate pledges of much of the global south are contingent upon receipt of adaptation funding that the north is balking at delivering.

Even climate-woke Europe will likely reconsider its pace to net zero as it reels from spiking energy prices in the aftermath of a partial decoupling from Russian supplies. Meanwhile in the U.S., the prospect of Republican electoral victories in 2022 or 2024 could see the nation yet again halt or reverse climate pledges made under Democratic administrations.

The unfortunate fact is that despite the increasingly unequivocal and dire assessments emanating from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), humanity is not yet of a single and determined purpose in respect of climate. We are the Titanic — a massive fossil-fuel based global economy chugging at top speed toward a clearly visible iceberg from which we cannot seem to swerve away. It is a foreseeable catastrophe playing out in agonizingly slow motion.

And yet, as with the ominously reawakened threat of nuclear war, excessive climate change is a hazard that we must pray humanity can somehow find a way to avoid. We should hope that despite conflicts in other arenas and occasional backward steps, over time the Paris Agreement can restrain and ultimately choke off our ongoing emission of greenhouse gases. It may, unfortunately, prove that in this arena, only loss instructs, and that climate damages will need to progress from the occasional pinpricks we experience today to savage gashes, but presumably, if the problems become sufficiently dire, we will begin to finally turn the ship.

However, the poorly appreciated problem therein is that climate change does not respond quickly to our prospective elimination of greenhouse gas emissions. It is as if we are filling a bathtub (our atmosphere) with greenhouse gases. When we finally turn the spigot off, the water level remains at its crest. The natural drain by which nature removes CO2 from the atmosphere flows on a timescale measured in centuries to millennia, so whenever we finally reach net zero, humanity and the natural world will live with that peak temperature for many human generations. And since it is elevated temperatures that provoke climate damages, people born in the net-zero year will live their entire lives in a world of maximized floods, droughts, sea-level rise, heatwaves and the like.

If one believed that we were headed for net zero in a Paris-compliant mid-century time frame, perhaps this matters little. Such a scenario would constrain peak temperatures in the range of 1.5 degrees Celsius, resulting in moderate climate damages to which we could likely adapt with determined effort. But if the invasion of Ukraine presages a world of continued strife and conflict rather than virtuous convergence, then the achievement of net zero could easily be deferred into the next century, as the “middle of the road” emissions pathway presented in September’s IPCC Working Group I report implies. In that scenario, we are likely headed for a roughly 3 degrees Celsius temperature anomaly, locking in massive climate damages for the 22nd and 23rd centuries.

In that wretched state of affairs, reaching net zero would not prove the end of the climate crisis, but merely the end of a ghastly beginning. Net zero would turn off the emissions spigot and stop the climate from further changing, but it would not restore the prior climate or rapidly cool the earth. For that, we would need to engage in a colossal project of climate repair, which would involve sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere on an industrial scale and burying it back under the earth’s crust — ironically where we got it from in the first place when we drilled for oil or mined coal.

While trees and other soothing “nature-based solutions” could help at the margins, the vast majority of this would need to be done via a huge industrial infrastructure roughly the size of the entire fossil fuel industry. Even at that scale, repairing the climate to a state acceptable to future generations could take a century or two — after all, that’s how long it took us to deploy the carbon into the atmosphere in the first place. 

And like the fossil fuel industry, this would entail a huge swath of the global economy — all to remediate the waste dump we are making of our atmosphere today. Nonetheless, for future generations, this will likely prove a worthwhile investment to restore an acceptable climate and natural environment. If the tanks currently encircling Kyiv are any indication, humanity’s Kumbaya moment on emissions reductions may be some years off. And if that is true, we will saddle future generations with an awesome environmental debt. To redeem it, they will be destined after they arrest climate change to commence climate repair.

Wake Smith is a lecturer at Yale University, where he teaches on climate intervention. He is author of the new book “Pandora’s Toolbox: The Hopes and Hazards of Climate Intervention”. Smith is also a senior fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at Harvard Kennedy School. Smith previously worked in several executive roles in the commercial aviation industry, including as the president of the flight training division of Boeing and the COO of Atlas Air.

Tags Climate change Energy Fossil fuels Global warming Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin Wake Smith
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