Can humanity really win the global warming fight?
“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made,” wrote Immanuel Kant in 1784. It is still true.
On Sunday, the 24th Conference of the Parties — the 180 countries that signed the 2015 Paris climate change treaty — opened in Katowice, Poland. Warsaw presumably chose the venue, home to Europe’s biggest coal company, in a thinly disguised show of defiance.
It’s not just Donald Trump who loves coal. It’s the worst of the fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but Poland gets 75 per cent of its electricity by burning coal and has no intention of changing. In fact, shortly before COP24 opened, Poland announced plans to invest in a large new coal-mine in Silesia.
That same day, 1,500 km west in Paris, municipal workers were cleaning up after the third and most violent weekend of protests — the biggest in decades — against French President Emmanuel Macron.
And what were the demonstrators (dubbed “gilets jaunes” after the fluorescent yellow vests French drivers must keep in their vehicles) protesting? In Paris and other cities, they built barricades, torched cars, banks and homes because Macron’s government has raised the tax on diesel fuel by 6.5 cents a litre.
This was on top of a 7.9 cents-a-litre jump earlier this year. Most French vehicles run on diesel, but the reaction does look a bit excessive. That Macron justified it as a “green” tax meant to cut fuel use only seemed to make protesters angrier. And, at least until Saturday’s extreme violence, most French people supported them.
Poles clinging to coal despite the coal smoke that envelops Polish cities in winter and kills thousands a year, and ordinary people in France rioting for the right to go on burning cheap diesel in their cars despite a comparable death toll from atmospheric pollution there, suggest the quest to cut greenhouse gas emissions before global warming goes runaway faces even greater resistance than experts feared.
Bear in mind that Poland and France are relatively well-educated countries that belong to the
European Union, the world leader in commitment to emission cuts. Neither country has the kind of climate-change denial industry, lavishly funded by fossil-fuel producers, that muddies the waters and spreads doubt about the scientific evidence in the U.S. Neither the Poles nor the French are in denial. And yet …
Now, it’s true Poles have a large collective chip on their shoulder for historical reasons — their country was erased from the map for more than a century — so they often respond badly to being lectured by well-meaning foreigners. It’s also true that President Macron is arrogant and has a tin ear for public opinion. But neither nationalist resentment nor clumsy political leadership are in short supply worldwide.
Bear in mind also that the emission cuts promised in the 2015 accord won’t kick in until 2020: we have a mountain to climb and we are not even in the foothills yet. Much bigger sacrifices than a few cents extra on diesel prices or an end to burning coal will be required before this process ends, if it ever does.
The question is: can we really expect the relatively large (but still inadequate) greenhouse gas emission cuts promised in Paris in 2015 to ever win the public support necessary to make them happen? If not, our current global civilisation is doomed.
If you were designing a species capable of making this hard transition, you’d certainly prefer to start with one that was wiser, more co-operative and less excitable than ourselves. Something a little less crooked, at least. But this is the timber we have to work with. Good luck.