Darkening Skies on the Road to Durban – Part I

The discomfort over record floods, droughts and wildfires is merging views around the globe – with many hoping for decisive action from the more than 200 nations gathering for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban. This YaleGlobal series focuses on the challenges confronting decision-makers. Climate change, as the dominant issue of our time, demands global cooperation, writes J.R. McNeill, historian with Georgetown University, in the first article of the two-part series. Instead, nations cling to old habits, institutions and self-interest, long after their reliability is tested and questioned. China’s exceptionally fast rise has followed the traditions of the West by depending on fossil fuels. “China has chosen the same path as the countries that industrialized in the 19th century,” McNeill writes. “As China commits to fossil fuels, the globe will find it harder to choose a new path.” He concludes that the planet’s future health ultimately rests with Asian capitals. – YaleGlobal

Darkening Skies on the Road to Durban – Part I

Despite growing unease about an unstable climate, nations cling to 19th century energy habits
J.R. McNeill
Monday, November 21, 2011

WASHINGTON:  Confronting an environmental future that promises more unstable climate, the nearly 200 nations convening in Durban for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have no easy answers. The world seems stuck in the 20th century, and no technological advances are ready to alleviate the climate consequences of fossil-fuel combustion.

The most powerful economies thrive on fossil fuels. Nuclear fusion remains a dream and effective carbon sequestration, too. We rely upon complex technological systems that can fail with disastrous consequences, as at Chernobyl in April 1986, the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, or in Fukushima in March 2011. 

The political institutions and habits of mind that took shape over the centuries do not lend themselves to global-scale cooperation that climate change requires. National governments normally put short-term self-interest first.

Some governments have shifted positions. The election of a new prime minister in Australia in 2007 and a new US president in 2008 temporarily eliminated powerful resistance to negotiations on climate change. But so far, the negotiations have led to no action, in part due to the intervening financial crisis that struck in 2008.

The balance of power in the international system is changing fast. The rise of China is exceptional in historical terms, a global and scaled-up version of the meteoric rise of Germany within Europe circa 1870 to 1900. But China is unlikely to change the fundamentals of global environmental history any time soon and gives every sign of behaving in traditional great power fashion, pursuing perceived self-interest without much concern for the biosphere. The same is true of India and its climb to power in the international system. The players may change, but the rules of the game remain the same.

The economic ideologies of the 20th century remain intact in the 21st. The quest for economic growth continues to dominate policy thinking, whether in meetings of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington, or the corridors of power in Brussels. A few individual voices may offer ideas that challenge consumption as the path to wellbeing and happiness, as they did centuries before. Buddhist, Christian or other religious leaders periodically call for observing the non-materialist principles within their traditions, but few of the faithful have chosen to answer these calls. Eloquent pleas for good stewardship, restraint or responsibility to future generations continue to fall overwhelmingly on deaf ears. Environmentalism may have gained some popularity since 2000 in some places, but when put in the balance against the imperative of economic growth, environmentalism remains overmatched. It has not won over the indifferent masses. It has not reduced the power of those who remain hostile to environmentalism, including the more conservative half of the Republican Party in the US, the New Right in Australia or a wing of the Independence Party in the UK. Ideas matter so much because they have changed so little.

Enlarge ImageFigure 1. Global Commercial Energy Use Since 1985. BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2010. Data includes commercial energy only and not biomass, which in India and Brazil might add as much as 10 to15 percent.

All is not stasis, and there are some harbingers of change in the realm of energy. In North America, Europe and Japan, total energy use reached a plateau shortly after 2004: The peak year was 2004 in France, 2005 in the US, 2005 for Japan and 2006 for Europe as a whole. In all these places, energy use began a tiny decline before the economic crisis. In the world as a whole, total energy use declined in 2009, for the first time in several decades. (See Figure 1) Two specific shifts in the world energy system deserve mention. The first is the modest rise in wind and solar power in western Europe since 2000. Denmark, Germany, Spain and Portugal significantly raised their capacity to produce electricity from these renewable sources. Second is the enormous expansion of coal use in China, which as of 2006 made China the world’s leader in carbon emissions. China in 2009 produced 24 percent of the globe’s carbon emissions, the US 19 percent and the EU 13 percent. 

A third potential change is the revival of nuclear power. Nuclear power plants release little in the way of greenhouse gases, but the social and economic costs of disasters, as dramatically shown in Fukushima disaster, are horrific. Italy, which banned further construction of nuclear plants just after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, reversed that law in 2009. After the Fukushima accident, the German government closed its oldest reactors and pledged to shut down all nuclear reactors by 2022. But Fukushima’s impact on the future of nuclear power might well be weaker than Chernobyl’s. As of 2011, about 440 nuclear power stations were in operation in 44 different countries with 50 more in the works.

Meanwhile, evidence for manmade climate change continues to build. Data collected at thousands of meteorological stations around the world show a rapid warming trend since 1970. The summer of 2003 and the deaths of 70,000 Europeans helped convince millions that climate change was urgent. Average global temperatures of both atmosphere and oceans have continued to rise, and so do sea level and carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.

Climate change is the dominant environmental issue of our time, and as such could lead to unlikely frictions and alliances in international politics. 

Emerging powers in Asia underscore what is different about environmental history in the 21st century and much of what remains the same. The main locus of acidification has shifted to East Asia. The greatest source of carbon emissions is now China. The fastest-growing electricity grid, road network and automobile fleet are also centered in China.

At the same time, China’s rise accounts for much inertia in environmental trends. Without China’s recent contributions, the rate of CO2 emissions would have slackened. Global energy consumption growth would be less than one-third its current rate. China’s economic success is offsetting almost all the environmental success achieved elsewhere in the world in terms of CO2 reduction, SO2 reductions and air-quality improvements. 

A decade ago, it would have been possible, if extraordinary, for China to opt for another path, one that did not require wholehearted commitment to fossil fuels. Despite China’s notable investments in hydro, nuclear and solar power, the evidence is clear that China has chosen the same path as the countries that industrialized in the 19th century. China’s voracious appetite for energy has had little impact on the world’s energy mix, except to raise the profile of coal. Fossil fuels account for 77 percent of the world’s energy use. As China commits to fossil fuels, the globe will find it harder to choose a new path, however urgent that may become. 

The most important decisions for the environmental history of the 21st century will be made not in Durban, but in Beijing, if they haven’t already been made.


J.R. McNeill is professor of history and university professor at Georgetown University. His most recent book is “Mosquito Empires: War and Ecology in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914” (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
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