Climate Change Fever, Late 2021 Edition

If you haven’t caught the climate change fever yet, you almost certainly will catch it in the next few weeks. Even a cursory glance of the news will familiarize you with COP26. As the climate conference approaches, Western publications have gone all-in and bet that the conference will generate a large amount of news. They are right about this, the conference is definitely going to be a hotbed of some stunning news stories. Some countries might announce new targets, others might go back on their existing targets or not commit to anything new, etc. Every change in policy will be followed extremely closely and dissected and analyzed from every possible angle. Only one question will remain unanswered: What is the point of all this hoopla?

Climate change science and climate change activism are no longer distinct. Scientists and activists used to occupy different positions in the discourse, as Matt Yglesias has pointed out before. Science is about trade-offs, because very few things come at 0 or near-0 costs. Activism is about convincing other people to share your beliefs and implement your proposals, and thus, selecting evidence that will help you achieve that end and ignoring evidence that will hurt your ability to achieve your goals is ethically acceptable to an activist. Returning to a Matt Yglesias quote,1 “If you are an activist and you are admitting that there are trade-offs to your proposals, then you are doing activism wrong.”

When it comes to the topic of climate change, scientists often speak like activists, issuing dire warnings about the devastating effects of a warming planet. Activists speak like scientists, armed with information that has become ridiculously easy to access and easier still to understand, as it has been boiled down to a few numbers. Never mind if the numbers actually tell the story that a naive interpretation of them would suggest.

Politicians occupy a sticky position in this discourse. Their job is to reflect the majority’s thoughts back at their voterbase. On an issue such as this one, it is nearly impossible to poll the right number of people and find out what the majority thinks. This has crippled the political response.

Some activists have become politicians but have not changed their role as their constituencies are so “in the bag” that what they say or do is completely immaterial. AOC’s recent questioning of executives from big oil was a good instance of toxic, futile posturing. I believe that smart, sarcastic coverage of Big Oil has always hit the mark in convincing people of the shady roles that Big Oil and their lobbyists play in the lives of the citizenry and how they are warping (education, energy and economy) policy. Laura Grey’s segment from the show, The Opposition with Jordan Klepper, is a good example of such coverage.

In the face of opposition even from members of their own party in countries like America, politicians have ended up facing the reality that is clear to neutral observers: The economy is deeply tied to the technologies which the climate change activists say must be eradicated and the economy is one thing that has real impact on people’s lives and swings elections.

The media has undoubtedly taken a side. Articles about how COP26 is the place where most problems will be solved are commonplace. “The importance of this summit cannot be overstated,” “It is high time that the leaders of the world get together and do something about this existential threat.,” “Rich nations have a responsibility to the global poor,” “Poor nations that continue to pollute must be penalized by rich nations,” and so on. The unending contradictions are impossible to parse.

But there is one specific talking point that I want to delve into.

Who Is The Biggest Polluter?

Most publications and activists point at India and China as the biggest polluters. This is an intentional jibe and a mischaracterization of the issue at hand.

Here’s the table of emissions and populations, sorted by annual emissions. (A note about abbreviations can be found in the footnotes2.)

Country Annual GHG emissions (billion tonnes) Population (billions) GHG emissions per capita (tonnes)
China 10.17 1.402 9.22
America 5.28 0.329 20.20
India 2.62 1.380 2.38
Japan 1.11 0.125 11.59
England 0.369 0.067 9.20

Indeed, China appears to be the largest polluter. Sorting this table by per-capita emissions tells a different story.

Country Annual GHG emissions (billion tonnes) Population GHG emissions per capita (tonnes)
America 5.28 0.329 20.20
Japan 1.11 0.125 11.59
China 10.17 1.402 9.22
England 0.369 0.067 9.20
India 2.62 1.380 2.38

Both America and Japan are far bigger polluters, per resident of their nations. Looking at per-capita emissions seems like the obvious method for assigning blame because the number of people in a country is the only constant which can’t be changed, in the lack of drastic changes like a war.

The high GHG emissions are due to the level of advancement of these countries, which entitles them to uninterrupted electricity, cheap gasoline, higher levels of disposable income leading to far more air travel, etc. These advancements are objectively good things for the populations of these countries and not something to be looked at grudgingly or that countries should be penalized for. So, hiding behind the “Annual GHG emissions” number is a dodge from the media. They recognize the failure of the US and Japan to take any action; and they channel this recognition into an effort to reassign blame to China, a poorly understood nation without the power of a persuasive English media ecosystem.

As the failure of the degrowth movement (even in the most liberal parts of the world) has shown, the solution that holds sway among populations is not one which involves a compromises of any kind. So, any rhetoric about how “human beings have hurt the planet and its time we suffer to redeem ourselves” is useless.

Griffith’s vision is a solution that involves retaining the same level of comfort but changing the energy sources to ones that have lower emissions for producing the same amount of energy. But as Griffith admits, the problem is not one of engineering, it is one of political will.

So, as you look at the coverage of the COP26 summit, bear in mind that the summit exists only to convince people in the speakers’ countries that their country is doing enough and that the cause of inaction is abroad. The likelihood of any major treaty emerging from this summit is low, especially given that the world’s largest polluters are stuck in political limbo with a polarized voter base.

There will be a lot of “symbolic” announcements3 and these will be celebrated in lieu of the real action that this conference was supposed to coerce out of nations. The blame-game against China and India’s refusal to commit to any new net-zero goals will continue unabated.

  1. This quote is from Matt Yglesias’ appearance on the Ezra Klein Show podcast in late 2020. 

  2. Note: 1. GHG = Greenhouse Gases; 2. CO2 equivalent: Equivalent emissions of CO2 gas if the emitted gas is not CO2 

  3. Such as Saudi’s commitment to Net-Zero in 2060; a commitment that does not involve a reduction in crude oil production and is focused only on the consumption of fossil fuels inside Saudi Arabia.