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As climate change brings flames, heat and death to their doorsteps, the leaders of the world’s most powerful economies have other things on their minds.
On Tuesday, the U.K. is predicted to have its hottest day since records began. France, Portugal and Spain are on fire. More than 1,000 have died and many more deaths are expected. Most of the Continent is in drought. In the Alps, ancient glaciers are collapsing.
Yet politicians who left the COP26 in Glasgow last November promising to tackle climate change are now struggling to stay focused on a problem they all said was existential.
Instead, they are overwhelmed by short-term crises, most notably the steepling cost of living. Even as their countries burn, Western governments seem content to let their climate policies slide.
No wonder U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told a meeting of ministers in Berlin on Monday that international cooperation on climate change had “weakened” since the start of the Ukraine war. “We have a choice,” Guterres said. “Collective action or collective suicide.”
Across the board, leaders insist the war and cost of living pressures that have intensified as a result will not distract them from their lofty environmental goals. But climate advocates are increasingly alarmed by what they see as a vacuum of political leadership at the top of the world’s largest nations.
“There’s not one G20 leader that is talking about this crisis as an opportunity,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in the U.S. She said the imperative to wean off Russian energy or expensive gasoline prices meant that “if you’re worrying about your energy transition, this is a gift.”
Joe Biden came into the White House declaring the U.S. was back on climate change after four years of dormancy under former President Donald Trump. But the world’s largest historical emitter is left with few options for meeting Biden’s goals without his sweeping legislation that has now fallen apart in Congress.
“If you asked people a week ago, I’ll stick with my earlier prediction that it was less than 50-50 but not zero,” said the Center for American Progress’ board chairman John Podesta about Congress passing clean energy incentives. “Now it’s zero, and people have to digest that.”
The U.S. is also struggling with extreme climate impacts. The southwest is the driest it has been in 1,200 years and this week several states in the south are being hit by near-record temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius.
Yet this week, Biden was in Saudi Arabia bumping fists with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He was there in part to convince the kingdom to pump more oil to tame high prices besieging his presidency and Democrats’ hold on Congress.
“He’s not prepared to incur the wrath of anybody by saying ‘this winter, you’re gonna have to put a cardigan on, and I want you to drive 5 miles an hour slower and I’d like you to change your thermostat,’” said Kyte. “But he’s prepared to go and fist bump a pariah. So, the politics is the problem.”
European leaders also find themselves trapped between public anxiety about rising energy prices and their climate promises. The EU has offered encouragement to Norway to explore for new oil and gas fields, potentially in Europe’s Arctic backyard. The bloc’s proposed climate legislation gives it a shot at reaching its emissions targets, but the plans are under pressure from governments spooked by high prices.
After noting the need to stamp out all fossil fuels, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the climate ministers’ meeting on Monday it was “temporarily” necessary to increase liquefied natural gas capacity “so that the lights don’t go out in people’s homes.”
On the heels of Biden’s trip to Riyadh, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen flew to Azerbaijan on a similar mission. Standing next to President Ilham Aliyev on Monday, she lauded a deal with the strongman, which she said would ensure that “gradually, Azerbaijan will evolve from being a fossil fuel supplier to becoming a very reliable and prominent renewable energy partner to the European Union.”
European companies, meanwhile, hold long-term contracts that will expand shipments of gas from Baku to the EU for decades.
In the U.K., the ruling Conservative Party is choosing a leader to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister. As the country sweltered in near-record temperatures Monday, five leadership contenders were grilled by their colleague COP26 President Alok Sharma. Afterward, the best Sharma could say was that they all agreed not to scrap the U.K.’s net zero target (which is enshrined in law anyway). But one contender, Kemi Badenoch, later walked back on that commitment.
According to a readout shared with POLITICO, the British leadership hopefuls each nodded to one or two policy initiatives, but none promised to complete Johnson’s so-called Green Industrial Revolution. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told the private meeting she admired beavers because of their industry.
In Europe on Monday, temperatures soared. By the evening, more than 20,000 people had been evacuated from their homes in France and over 100 heat records had been broken in the country within a week. Airfield tarmac melted in England, forcing the military to halt flights from its largest base and disrupting flights at Luton airport. In Germany, 80 children had to be rescued from a playground after parched fields nearby caught fire.
The heat was expected to worsen Tuesday in the U.K. before rolling into Germany and parts of Central and Eastern Europe.
“Climate change kills people,” said Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on a visit to the fire-ravaged Extremadura region.
Hours earlier, in neighboring Castile and León, the body of a 69-year-old shepherd was found near the site of a wildfire, surrounded by the remains of his flock; a firefighter was killed trying to contain the flames in the same region overnight.
For hot countries in Europe’s south, like Spain, Italy and Greece, the summer is always a struggle and high energy prices are forcing their citizens to choose between potentially life-saving air conditioning and impoverishment.
And this is the heart of the problem.
If political leaders have dropped their guard on climate change, it’s in part because the message from voters is that there are more pressing problems. Soaring prices — for electricity, gas or food — are now the dominant concern for many Europeans. People die at home every winter because they can’t afford heating and every summer because air conditioning costs too much to switch on.
A McKinsey survey of people in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K. in June found just over half of respondents named rising prices as their main worry, followed by the Ukraine war at 15 percent. Only 8 percent said extreme weather events were their top concern.
More than half of Germans, a recent survey found, approve of Scholz’s government’s short-term reactivation of coal plants to secure power supply. A large proportion of Germans — 42 percent — aren’t too bothered about climate action taking a backseat in the current crisis, another survey found this month.
Those attitudes stand in sharp contrast to the promises from COP26 to act decisively during the 2020s — years that Biden has called the “critical decade.”
Just when a huge political push is needed, said Bernice Lee, a Hoffmann distinguished fellow for sustainability at the Chatham House think tank, “we are stationary cycling.”
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