Political leaders and media personalities are fond of saying climate change poses an existential threat to humans and the planet. The weight of scientific evidence doesn’t support this oft-made claim, and national governments around the globe seem to acknowledge this by their actions. Despite what is reported almost daily in the mainstream media, data from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show no increase in extreme weather events as the Earth has modestly warmed over the past 150 years. In fact, the IPCC and NOAA data show cases of extreme cold spells, droughts, floods, heat waves, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires have all declined modestly or remained relatively stable since the late 1870s.
Despite these irrefutable facts, leaders from nations around the world have signed multiple international agreements, the latest being the 2015 Paris climate agreement, intended to avert a supposedly pending climate disaster.
The problem is their actions, both as individuals and as shown by the policies they enact as government leaders, don’t match their words.
When President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, flies around the world on a private jet spewing tens of thousands of pounds of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, to accept awards for his climate leadership or to meetings where he calls for restricting average peoples’ air travel through an international tax on airline emissions, his claim he is concerned about the fate of the Earth rings hollow. Former President Barack Obama’s assertions that climate change will soon swamp coastlines and small islands seem equally insincere when one discovers that after leaving office he bought ocean-front property on a small island only inches above sea level.
It’s bad when political leaders’ personal hypocrisy on climate change is on full public display. It’s even worse when they sign treaties agreeing to restrict emissions from their countries, only to go home and enact policies that increase emissions. The U.N. reports this is precisely what world leaders are doing. Most countries are putting domestic economic growth ahead of the continued existence of a livable planet, the U.N. says.
A recent U.N. report on progress toward meeting the commitments governments made to reduce emissions in the Paris climate agreement says countries are failing to hit their targets. In this regard, the Paris climate accord is no different from past agreements, such as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, in which countries also agreed to cut emissions by certain dates and blithely watched those dates come and go with their emissions still increasing.
Arguably, nowhere has Thomas Hobbes’ observation in The Leviathan that "covenants, without the sword, are but words" proven truer than with international climate agreements.
As of February 26, the U.N. says only 75 of the more than 190 countries that have ratified the Paris climate agreement have tendered firm commitments and detailed plans to cut emissions, despite having committed to deliver those plans by 2020. Most of the nations submitting such plans are developing countries, which account for less than 30 percent of global greenhouse emissions. Even there, the U.N. says, "the level of ambition … indicates that changes in these countries’ total emissions would be small, less than -1%, in 2030 compared to 2010 … [whereas the] IPCC, by contrast, has indicated that emission reduction ranges to meet the 1.5°C temperature goal should be around -45% in 2030 compared to 2010."
Whether by large emitters or small, Paris climate commitments are insufficient to meet the target, and even those limited commitments are falling to the realities of nations putting poverty reduction and economic growth (rightly, in my opinion) ahead of climate action, which of necessity restricts energy use and economic progress.
Let’s look at some examples. India is the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter (although for IPCC purposes, India counts as the fourth-largest emitter because the nations composing the European Union demanded they be counted as a single country). Under the Paris agreement, India did not pledge to cut its emissions, promising instead to reduce emissions intensity (emissions as a percentage of GDP). As a result, the U.N. observes, "with current energy targets and policies, [India’s] emissions are projected to keep increasing (by 24-25 percent above 2019 levels in 2030) and show no signs of peaking, in particular due to the lack of a policy to transition away from coal. Such an increase of emissions is not consistent with the Paris Agreement."
Seventy percent of India’s electric power today is generated by burning coal, and the country is opening or expanding 32 new coal mines and dozens of new coal-fueled power plants. India’s most recent estimate is its use of coal for energy will increase by 40 percent by 2030.
The news is even worse out of China, the world’s biggest emitter. At approximately 25 percent of the world’s emissions, China’s carbon dioxide output is already approximately double that of the United States. China vaguely indicated it expects its carbon dioxide emissions to peak by 2030. That was its Paris climate commitment. Peak at what level, is the question?
Even stopping the increases by 2030 may be difficult: China’s recently released five-year plan for economic development includes no cut in coal use. It would be surprising if it did. In recent years, China has brought dozens of new, large coal-fueled power plants on line and has hundreds more in various stages of construction, development, and planning, in China itself and across Africa, the rest of Asia, and the Middle East.
Meanwhile, China is disincentivizing new wind and solar construction, which the National Energy Administration (NEA) referred to as "unreliables." The NEA has told provinces they will be allowed to auction off grid capacity for new wind and solar projects, provided one-third of the contracts are reserved for developers willing to forgo money China’s government currently owes them for previously developed wind and solar power facilities. In addition, under NEA’s new policy, winning bidders will be limited to a fixed rate for the power produced by new facilities.
Even Argentina, a relatively small emitter, will have trouble squaring its development goals with its Paris climate commitment. At a recent conference, President Alberto Fernandez said Argentina had a "true conviction" to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Rigzone notes, "to get there, it will have to get a fifth of its energy from renewables by 2025, up from about 10 percent now." Meanwhile, at Argentina’s Vaca Muerta shale deposit—far from the limelight of international climate conferences—Fernandez announced the government was doubling down on fossil fuels.: "Today we are relaunching the oil and gas economy," he said, starting with $5 billion in government subsidies to develop shale fields.
The bottom line, according to the U.N., is unless countries large and small significantly step up their efforts and make real, as opposed to paper, emission reductions, the world is doomed. Although I think the evidence shows no climate apocalypse is on the way, the U.N. says otherwise, and all the countries in the Paris agreement say they agree.
In the end, governments are genuflecting to the climate gods while carrying on with the day-to-day business of putting their people to work and growing their economies. Economic growth is necessary to keep the masses from rioting, and it necessarily entails growing energy use, including fossil fuels. Simultaneously, in the background, political elites are accruing ever-more power and control over peoples’ lives, which is what the climate scare is and always has been really all about.
Dr H. Sterling Burnett is a Heartland senior fellow on environmental policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.