A “polar vortex” scourged America’s Midwest this week, sending the temperature to record lows, icing windows from the inside, and giving people frostbite if they exposed their skin for just minutes. Meanwhile, parts of Australia were scorching in all-time record heat, or ablaze in wildfires. But in (relatively) balmy Germany, policy wonks were congratulating themselves for a plan to phase out Germany’s coal-fired power plants. By ... 2038.
The first two events are more harbingers of what will become normal: weather that is extreme, violent and lethal. And it will get worse than most of us imagine, owing to feedback loops. The Arctic permafrost contains, in frozen form, about twice as much carbon as our entire atmosphere does. This permafrost will thaw, burping out its carbon in the form of methane, which is far worse than carbon dioxide, thus turning up the heat much faster. This will melt more ice, so that less sunlight is reflected and more is absorbed, cranking up the dial yet again. And so on.
As a result, the oceans will not only rise but also become acidic, breaking the marine food chain. Farmlands will turn arid, destroying crops. The resulting famines will spark wars and migrations to make 2015 look like a leisurely stroll. And there will be disease. As the ice melts and forests recede, they will set free viruses that have been locked up for eons, and to which we have no immunity. When you hear “climate change,” think “pandemic.”
So where does Germany’s “coal exit” fit into this picture? It’s better to have a plan than not to have one. But in context, even this compromise will prove hopelessly inadequate. Bound up in that inadequacy is so much that is wrong with our world.
First, Germany’s vaunted “energy transition” has never been what it’s cracked up to be. Yes, renewables (sun and wind, mainly) now account for 40 percent of the electricity mix. But the number that matters is total emissions. And those have not really declined in over a decade. One reason is Germany’s ill-advised decision to exit (clean) nuclear energy before shutting down (dirty) coal. Another is the myopic focus on electricity, and not traffic. A dirty secret is that Germany’s mighty auto lobbyists have long held Berlin, and thus Brussels, in their grip, which is why German cars keep fuming.
But the biggest tragedy is this: This coal exit will make no difference because the Poles and Czechs aren’t part of the deal, and can’t wait to keep burning coal to sell that electricity back to Germany. The greenhouse gases above Europe may simply change passport, as it were.
And that is the crux. Climate change is an existential challenge for homo sapiens and for our planet. To rise to it we need Chinese, Americans, Brazilians, Germans and others to cooperate. Yet we act not as homo sapiens but as nations, tribes, interest groups and lobbies. That’s why, alas, we will be toast.
Handelsblatt Today Editor-in-Chief
If you want to receive the Weekly Briefing in your inbox or subscribe to our other newsletters, please click here.