Issue 301: 2021 11 18: Glasgow

18 November 2021


Poker with the devil.

By John Watson

It is hard to know what to make of Glasgow. Plainly the measures agreed there are not sufficient to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees but should they be viewed on their own or are they the opening shots in a dialogue which will end up in something much tighter? What about the watering down by China and India of their undertakings to end their dependency on coal? Is this because they have doubts about what they can deliver or is it because keeping their intentions loose in this area gives them leverage in subsequent negotiations? Would they tighten their targets if science produced equivalent cleaner forms of energy or would they just continue to play some form of international poker?

Then what to make of the agreement between the US and China to work together to cut emissions, an agreement which falls outside the main process. What is that about exactly? It is true that these two superpowers are responsible for about one half of global emissions but it would be naïve to assume that that was their only focus. How tempting, how very tempting, it would be for China to use new targets as a way of expanding their influence. Agree them with the US and then impose them on others? What a wonderful way of pushing for a share in world leadership in an impeccable cause. Criticisms of the way the Uighurs are treated would fade in the face of the greater issue. A form of “climate hegemony” could be imposed over a huge sphere of influence and forceful control over energy policy would bring influence over so much else. This must be what Chinese strategists are thinking and the US too will be keen not to leave a vacuum in this area because vacuums of power do not last long.

If that is right we may be looking at a recasting of the world order with superpowers using climate issues as an excuse to reinforce their dominance and to claim moral authority. After all it has all been done before. The British Empire used the spread of Christianity, modernisation and increased political stability as justifications for expansion. More recently the West has marketed itself as a force for democracy, women’s rights and liberalism. Why wouldn’t the spreading of good environmental practices be just as cogent a force and China, as the world’s leading polluter, is in the best possible place to set an example and to require others to follow it. Are we entering a world in which two great powers will tighten their influence over the rest of us?

And if that is the way it is going, what should we do about it? It may seem unfair that nations which are leading polluters should use that as leverage to enhance their status but if that is the only model which will actually cut emissions then perhaps the political price is worth paying. Or at least it probably is for us and countries like us, aligned as we already are behind the leadership of the Stars and Stripes, but what about the Russians, led by a man keen to recreate the glories of the tsarist empire and the USSR?  A US/China top table overseeing environment issues would hardly please them. If the agreement between the US and China turned out to be more than just words, expect to see other countries keen to push their way into the process.

Perhaps though this is all conspiracy theory and there is nothing of substance behind the commitment of China and the US to work together. If that is the case 1.5% is unlikely to be attained and we can look forward to an era of water wars, mass starvation and, probably, extinction. It isn’t often that one hopes that a cynical international play will work but that seems to be very close to where we are on this now.

Tile photo: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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