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Analysis | As the world boils, a backlash to climate action gains strength



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U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has a habit of making apocalyptic pronouncements about climate change. But his latest warning, as scientists confirmed that July was set to become the Earth’s hottest month on record, is impossible to ignore. “The era of global warming has ended,” Guterres declared in a news briefing at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York on Thursday. “The era of global boiling has arrived.”

Across the world, we’ve seen the stark effects of what amounts to an ongoing planetary emergency. Recent heat waves scorched through North America, Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. They triggered wildfires on both sides of the Mediterranean, and blazes that incinerated millions of hectares of land in Canada. A record monsoon flooded parts of north India. A spike in ocean temperatures baffled and alarmed scientists, while one recent study suggested that global warming was bringing a major circulation system in the Atlantic Ocean to collapse. Meanwhile, in the southern hemispheric winter, fewer stretches of the Antarctic sea are freezing over.

“Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning,” Guterres said at the briefing, where he described “children swept away by monsoon rains, families running from the flames [and] workers collapsing in scorching heat.”

A study published last week by a coalition of scientists found that the extreme heat waves of recent months would be “virtually impossible” without the effects of man-made climate change. Friederike Otto, co-leader of the group of researchers and a climate scientist at Imperial College London, told my colleagues that their findings should come as no surprise, and that we won’t know what the “new normal” of life in the era of climate change will look like until the world actually stops burning fossil fuels.

“This could be even a cold year in the summers to come. This is not what we need to get used to,” Otto said. “We need to get used to this, and worse.”

Floods, fires and deadly heat are the alarm bells of a planet on the brink

Wildfire smoke can degrade air quality to dangerous levels, threatening the health of those in the area. Here’s how to protect your lungs from smoky air. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Despite the visceral evidence of a changing planet, and all the entreaties of U.N. officials and climate scientists, there’s little political unanimity on what must come next. Governments across the world have put forward plans and commitments to drastically slash emissions and decarbonize their economies. But the measures needed to stave off planetary warming beyond a threshold considered by scientific consensus to be catastrophic for the planet are still proving to be a tough sell. Right-wing parties across the West are exploiting public disquiet over green policies.

Last week, as wildfires blazed through the Italian island of Sicily, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni described the conditions provoked by extreme weather as “a test” of her nation’s capacity and resilience. But not long before, Meloni had beamed into an election rally in Spain for the far-right Vox party, a like-minded ally, where she called on the continent’s “patriots” to resist the “climate change fanaticism” of their leftist and liberal opponents.

Vox’s leadership is known for their climate science denialism and they fared disappointingly in elections this month. But the party has previously capitalized in local polls on farmer discontent over water conservation policies and branded the country’s 2021 Climate Change law as “the law for the return to caves and poverty.”

In Italy, where Meloni’s faction holds sway in a right-wing coalition, similar noises are common. Guido Crosetto, the country’s defense minister, complained in a recent interview that Europe’s climate-focused policymakers were creating a security risk for the continent. “Once we have destroyed a quarter of European industry to give it to China, how do you think people will react?” Crosetto asked. “As a reaction, everyone will hate any good environmental intention, associating the battles on the climate with the deadweight loss of jobs.”

Where extreme heat will pose the biggest threat: Look up your city

The European Union has arguably done more than any other polity to shift its societies toward renewable energy. But the transition has surfaced many thorny political debates. Governments in countries such as Poland and Hungary bristle over E.U. strictures on the usage of coal. The anger of Dutch farmers over new mandates for nitrogen emissions may shape the upcoming election campaign in the Netherlands. In Germany, the continent’s leading automakers have launched an insurrection against the E.U. plan to phase out sale of all fossil-fuel-powered vehicles by the middle of the next decade, while the country’s ruling coalition avoided implosion in June after it watered down legislation on heating homes. The country’s far-right Alternative for Germany party, which is in the climate skeptic camp, happens to be surging in the polls.

Unlike in the United States, where much of the Republican base still seems to reject the basic facts surrounding climate change, Europe’s far-right parties are positioning themselves as pragmatic realists. “While no longer openly climate crisis deniers, they denounce the inequalities and the harm caused to industry they say are exacerbated by climate policies,” wrote Nathalie Tocci, a former E.U. foreign policy adviser.

This “greenlash,” she explained, is having tangible effects and may slow down the continent’s decarbonization efforts. Sensing the adverse political currents, technocratic centrist leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo called in May for a pause to the implementation of the E.U.’s environmental standards.

Henry Olsen, a right-leaning columnist at The Washington Post, argued that a more “sensible” policy would focus on technological innovation and offsetting the costs of the energy transition, as opposed to rapid decarbonization. “This inevitably means talking about climate change more as a problem to be managed than as a crisis that requires a total restructuring of the economy,” he wrote last week.

But it’s hard to ignore the gravity of the moment. “We are at war, we will rebuild what we lost, we will compensate those who were hurt,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told reporters last week, as fires scorched through his country’s tourist-clogged islands. “The climate crisis is already here, it will manifest itself everywhere in the Mediterranean with greater disasters.”

In remarks at the U.N. climate summit in Egypt last year, the center-right Greek premier said it was possible to push a climate agenda that both reckoned with what’s happening to the planet, while also not exacting a great toll on the public. “Personally I see no tension between safeguarding the present and investing in the future,” he said. “Our people will not support us otherwise.”

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