In response to Greta Thunberg’s recent guest edit of the NS, John Gray argues that the West needs radical energy solutions that go beyond a faltering transition to renewables.
If Cop26, which took place in Glasgow in November 2021, was a jamboree of unreal pledges and empty rhetoric, the Cop27 meeting in Egypt this month has been a festival of fantasy and denial. The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, issued a chilling warning that “humanity has a choice: cooperate or perish”. Yet neither he nor any of the delegates at the conference offered any solution other than doubling down on policies that have already failed.
On 7 November, in a grandstanding audition for a career as a populist whom global elites are comfortable with, Boris Johnson presented himself as “the spirit of Glasgow”. Rishi Sunak, racing through a speech of mind-numbing banality, confirmed that he is a floundering managerial technocrat with no vision and nothing to say.
None of the delegates confronted the fact that abrupt climate change has become unstoppable. Global heating can, in principle, still be slowed, but geopolitical conflicts and escalating risks of war will limit coordinated action by the world’s major powers. Even if existing commitments to curb greenhouse gases by 2030 were delivered there would be a rise in global heating of around 2.5°C, a level that ensures severe climate turbulence. The UN environment agency finds “no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place”. The only way forward now is through a “rapid transformation of societies”.
The activist Greta Thunberg agrees. In a conversation with the musician Björk published in the New Statesman’s 21 October issue – for which Thunberg was guest editor – she denounced the Cop gatherings as “a strategy” devised by politicians “to make it seem as if they’re doing something when in fact they are not”. At the launch of her The Climate Book at the Royal Festival Hall on 30 October, Thunberg described Cop27 in similar terms – as being part of “a colossal scam” – and revealed she had declined to attend any of its meetings. There is no “back to normal”, she declared. Normalcy was “the system”, imposed by “the Global North”, which produced the crisis in the first place.
It is true that there can be no return to the world as it was before climate change, but an accelerated move to “clean energy” will not prevent environmental devastation. The green transition on which environmentalists pin their hopes is a meandering path to nowhere.
A worldwide conversion to renewable energy involves moving from a type of industrialism based on fossil fuels to one based on metals. Hundreds of millions of electric vehicles and countless wind farms and solar panels will be needed. Storing electricity requires batteries, which contain lithium, nickel, cobalt and other elements. Moving to renewables demands mining on a hitherto unimagined scale. Inevitably, there is already intensifying competition for scarce materials.
The dash to renewables has created a new “Great Game” of imperial rivalry for natural resources between international powers. Unlike in the original competition, which was staged before the First World War, the Global North is only one of the players, and not at all the obvious winner. The epicentre of competition is in Africa, which has become a site of devastating neocolonial resource wars. Nearly six million people are estimated to have died from disease, malnutrition and other side-effects of the Second Congo War – which was fought over the region’s rich mineral resources between 1998 and 2003 – and two million or more were displaced by the conflict and the violence that continued in many areas for years afterwards.
China has been most successful in these great power struggles so far. Without any significant military intervention, it has achieved a near-monopoly in rare earth metals of the sorts that are used in the automotive, aerospace and defence industries. Building a global supply chain of its own, it has acquired strategically located ports in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Djibouti, the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean and, most recently, in Germany, where a Chinese company, Cosco, bought a substantial stake in one of the harbour terminals in Hamburg.
Spiralling demand for raw materials is influencing plans for deep-sea mining, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the oceans. The melting Arctic ice cap faces its own hazards. Russia has been enlarging its military position there, and China is pushing for large-scale mining in the region. One of the Earth’s last redoubts is about to be pillaged and despoiled.
A yawning disconnect with geopolitics is a chronic weakness of green thinking. Fossil fuels now account for approximately 80 per cent of the world’s energy mix. Phasing them out completely would not only require a stupendous increase in mining, but it would also ruin states that are dependent on fossil fuels for their revenues. Bankrupted by falling prices, Saudi Arabia and Russia would implode. Many people might say that would be no bad thing, but it’s unlikely democracy will be found amid the wreckage of these collapsed states. The upshot in both cases would more likely be anarchy, with contending ethnic and sectarian groups fighting over whatever resources remained of marketable value. The Congo wars serve as an augury of the struggles that would follow.
While the West has been chasing the phantom of green transition, Russia has been perfecting environmental warfare. Huge volumes of the highly potent greenhouse gas methane were released by damage to the undersea Nord Stream pipelines transporting gas from Russia to Europe – undoubtedly caused by Russian sabotage – in late September of this year. Precise estimates are not available, but the emissions may be equivalent to those produced over a year by a city the size of Paris. With the destruction of Ukrainian crops, theft of agricultural machinery and attempts at blockading food supplies, Vladimir Putin has reinstated the threat of famine as a strategy in war and weaponised the refugees who will flow into Europe from the zones of hunger that he has created.
At the same time, the curtailment of Russian gas supplies has boosted the use of the dirtiest fuels. In Germany, where ill-judged green initiatives were conjoined with Angela Merkel’s ruinous policy of tying energy security to Russian autocracy, fear of winter shortages has led to coal-fired plants being reopened or their lifetimes extended. The much vaunted German shift to clean energy has been delayed until the late 2030s. Beyond Europe, India is reopening abandoned coal mines, while China is modernising existing mines alongside its large investment in renewables and increase in nuclear power stations.
Politicians jumping on the green bandwagon talk blandly of “green growth”, in which production and consumption continue to increase on the basis of renewable energy, but the economic expansion of the past 200 years was a by-product of hydrocarbons. Intensive farming is the extraction of food from oil. Mechanised agriculture, pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, together with refrigerators, battery farms and transportation systems, require huge inputs of fossil fuels. Contrary to a fashionable green trope, the Industrial Revolution enabled hundreds of millions of people to enjoy living standards higher than most had done throughout history. But high economic growth, which relied on fossil fuels, has come to an end. When rivers are bursting their banks and forests are in flames – over 10 per cent of Pakistan is inundated and tornados are now hitting European cities, as they did in Germany in May this year – visions of resurgent growth are dangerous delusions. Rather than increasing production and consumption, technological innovation must be harnessed to the overriding imperative of human survival.
Greens are right in thinking environmental crisis necessitates a different kind of economic system. Windfall taxes on inordinately profitable oil companies are no more than justice demands. As the climate crisis worsens, energy infrastructures will be removed from the marketplace and commandeered by the state. An anti-capitalist revolution, on the other hand, will do nothing to protect the environment or humankind. Some of the worst environmental crimes in history were committed in the former Soviet Union and Maoist China. The infamous campaign against birds in China is well known, whereas the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of whales by Soviet ships has until recently gone largely unnoticed. Both systems were responsible for artificial famines in which tens of millions of people died.
[See also: A history of nuclear catastrophe]
The planet has no favourites among human regimes and treats them all with impartial indifference. It does not care whether they are capitalist or socialist, liberal or authoritarian. Societies that treat climate crisis as a morality tale in which they are the villains will sink into internecine conflict and a state of chronic disorganisation. The societies that fare best will combine high levels of state capacity with technologies adopted on account of their efficacy, not ideology.
With its systematic, pragmatic approach to reshaping its energy mix, China – despite its brutal repression of minorities and hugely harmful “zero Covid” policy, which only now seems to be easing – is responding more intelligently than any major Western country. There is a stark contrast with Britain, where plans for the Sizewell C nuclear plant – which was expected to supply 7 per cent of the UK’s electricity – are in doubt because of public spending cuts.
Environmentalist groups that block traffic, glue themselves to walls and throw paint at works of art are archetypal expressions of the bourgeois protest culture of the Global North: costly and ineffective forms of psychotherapy rather than serious politics. Along with much of the liberal left, climate activists explain weak support for their cause as evidence of popular irrationality, sinister interests and the power of corporate money.
There is some truth in this, but the bigger picture is that radical green policies cannot be democratically legitimated. One of the results of the American midterm elections is that, even if the Republicans end up failing to control both houses of Congress, Biden’s Green New Deal is history. That programme depended on the promise that jobs being lost in closing down the oil, coal and gas industries would be replaced in a new economy of windmills and solar farms – a speculative if not fantastical supposition, which is belied by the record of abandonment of mining communities.
For those who cannot afford the luxury of protest, the psychological comfort of activists comes at a heavy price. A little Marxian class analysis might be illuminating in this connection. Could it be that the social position of many climate protesters insulates them from the economic damage that would be inflicted by the sudden shutdowns they demand?
The self-absorption of contemporary greens goes with their anthropocentrism. Rightly convinced that climate change today is caused by humans, they believe “humanity” – in other words, themselves and their fellow protesters – can “save the planet”. The planet, however, is now the dominant actor in the crisis. The increasing demands of the human animal are driving mass extinction and the destruction of wilderness, weakening the biosphere’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases. In turn, the planet is becoming less hospitable to humans. The notion that a scattering of indignant demonstrations could halt this process is absurd.
A liveable future requires what the late James Lovelock – who authored the Gaia theory, in which the Earth is seen as a self-regulating organism – called “sustainable retreat”: a shrinkage in the human planetary footprint achieved through the use of advancing technologies. Living with climate change means large-scale development of nuclear and hydrogen energy; strengthened coastal defences; new methods of food production including GM crops and vertical farms; intensive city living, with architecture and infrastructure that are resistant to extreme weather; and countless other practical adaptations.
Many who support technological solutions to environmental problems deny limits to growth. Babbling of infinite ingenuity, they reject any idea of insurmountable limits to human expansion. For manic techno-futurists such as Elon Musk, the project of the age is to escape the boundaries of the planet. But if his madcap scheme of colonising Mars was ever realised, the inevitable result would be an interplanetary extension of our present resource wars.
Technology cannot overcome the limitations that go with life on Earth, but it offers the prospect of coexisting with the planet while supporting its human population. No longer chasing limitless growth, human communities would be more resilient, more secure and more fulfilled. Struggling poor countries could be helped to cope with disasters and supplied with technologies they cannot develop themselves. A deglobalised world of high-tech sufficiency is the only way to environmental stability. As humans withdrew from a position of dominance the biosphere could be partially restored, and much of it rewilded.
Of course, this is hardly the likeliest outcome of the climate emergency. Whereas the global climate functions as a single system, there is no comparable coordination in the human species. Geopolitics and war may derail any programme of adjustment to the climate shift. In that case, the planet will impose the necessary retreat, and rewild itself, regardless of humankind.
[See also: What would make Cop27 a success?]
This article appears in the 16 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in