At the 21st annual Conference of the Parties back in 2015, more than 190 countries signed the Paris Agreement in an effort to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. Nevertheless, since the agreement’s ratification the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has continued to increase.
In fact, according to an analysis by the United Nations, greenhouse gas emission levels are projected to grow by 16.3 percent by 2030 relative to emission levels in 2010. An ominous figure when considering that the Paris Agreement’s milestone for 2030 requires that emission levels shrink by 25 percent. These results indicate the unraveling of the Paris Accords, such that the next several decades will likely be defined by greater regional turmoil as different groups maneuver to secure their interests.
Although the White House made a big show of reentering the Paris Agreement, the truth is that the United States is not the decider in this venue. The future of climate change and global environmental policy largely rests in the hands of India and China. These two leviathans represent a combined population that is easily an order of magnitude greater than that of the United States. Billions of people, many of whom aspire to the lifestyle of America’s shrinking middle class—ambitions that entail a considerable energy footprint.
So maybe it’s not surprising that China, which emits more greenhouse gasses than the rest of the world combined, is planning to build an additional 247 gigawatts of coal powered energy plants. Note that this is roughly six times Germany’s existing coal power capacity (42.5 gigawatts). Given that more than half of China’s energy needs are met by coal, and in light of the domestic fallout from ongoing energy shortages, it’s doubtful that President Xi will have the stomach to shut down the 600 or so coal plants necessary for China to hit its stated emissions target.
India is likewise heavily dependent on fossil fuels. The country possesses the fourth largest coal reserves in the world and approximately 70 percent of its electricity output is derived from coal. This makes coal an attractive strategy moving forward, and internal government studies single out coal as being India’s cheapest energy option, primarily because India has already made extensive capital investment with respect to production and distribution. The resulting coal-based infrastructure represents a formidable barrier towards transitioning to renewables. Indian officials justify their stance by reminding critics that historically most emissions can be ascribed to more developed economies like the United States.
In 2008 the strategic planners at Royal Dutch Shell predicted two different scenarios for the world in 2050: the “scramble” and the “blueprint.” The former scenario involves a global struggle over dwindling natural resources while emissions surpass 550 parts per million (ppm). In the latter scenario political leaders collaborate and find equitable and sustainable ways to keep carbon dioxide emissions below 550 ppm. When Shell originally published its report, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were at 380 ppm. Thirteen years later they are at 417 ppm. It would seem that the principal actors implemented a hybrid model, one that enabled them to wield the rhetoric of the blueprint in public while quietly choosing the scramble behind closed doors. In this sense the Paris Accords created optics that allowed the high volume polluters to have their cake and eat it too.
The American intelligence community knows the score. A recent assessment issued from the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) comes right out and says “current policies and pledges are insufficient to achieve the Paris Agreement goals.” Which only reinforces the notion that the Paris Agreement has always been wishful thinking, as it was based on concessions that larger world powers weren’t actually willing to make. The DNI warns that “as temperatures rise and more extreme effects manifest, there is a growing risk of conflict over water and migration, particularly after 2030.” In other words, the planet is about to become significantly less hospitable and more violent.
Keep in mind that three of the 11 countries that the DNI points out as being especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change (India, Pakistan, and North Korea) also happen to possess nuclear arsenals. India and Pakistan in particular are already at odds over rights to the Indus River system at a time when access to potable water is fast becoming an existential issue for both countries. It doesn’t take much to imagine how they might inadvertently stumble into a nuclear exchange that drags allies into the fray.
On a deeper level the demise of the Paris Accords is probably inevitable. The forthcoming 26th Conference of the Parties in Glasgow will predictably yield more of the same hollow theatre, as elites congregate, toast each other, and offer hopeful statements. All to no avail, because if the past reveals anything it’s a lack of appreciation for the exponential function, a mathematical construct etched into the DNA of finance which obliges those who offer assurances of steady economic growth to climb an arc that becomes progressively steeper over time. Until the music stops.
And so the manufactured elation of climate summits must give way to more sober evaluation. It goes without saying that policies that deliberately undercut economic growth tend to be deeply unpopular at home, daresay incendiary. The sort of thing that leads to uprisings and regime change. Staying on the growth curve while also maintaining political legitimacy typically leads decision makers to assume a short-term approach which focuses on acquiring energy resources under favorable terms while kicking the climate adaptation can down the road. Witness recent events in India and China.
When environmental consequences are finally severe enough to justify harsh measures that curb domestic growth, the ensuing tidal wave of public discontent will be conveniently channeled against foreign competitors as the race for scarce resources becomes a matter of survival. A dynamic that the German philosopher Hegel understood all too well, history is inextricably linked to conflict. For better or worse, this is the recurring theme of civilization: nations going to war over resources. Leaving death, famine, and pestilence in their wake.
Bill Blunden is an independent investigator focusing on information security, anti-forensics, and institutional analysis. He is the author of several books, including The Rootkit Arsenal and Behold a Pale Farce: Cyberwar, Threat Inflation, and the Malware-Industrial Complex. Bill is the lead investigator at Below Gotham Labs.