Current Affairs

Packed crowd picks apart climate progress

On Monday evening the Habakkuk lecture theatre, tucked away at the far end of Jesus College, hosted a very well-attended panel discussion on the current state of the climate. Professor Julia Steinberger, Dr Simon Evans, and Professor Henry Shue looked back on the progress made in the past year and set out a plan for the coming year.

The opening addresses of the panellists all lambasted the relatively insignificant action undertaken on an international level in the past year. Dr Evans attended the most recent United Nations Climate Change Summit in December 2019, known as COP25. The deputy editor of Carbon Brief, a website dedicated to climate change, described the obvious “disconnect” at the meeting. There was a cavernous gulf between the rise in public demands for action internationally and the sedate and fruitless negotiations.

Despite the backdrop of the bushfire crisis in Australia, and reports that 2019 was the second warmest year on record, discussions were held up by finer details, such as the formatting of spreadsheets in which climate targets were to be reported.

Professor Steinberger, an author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 6th Assessment Report, attacked the recent failures of leadership of the UK government, who despite publicly acknowledging the threat of climate change, continue to fund oil and gas projects globally and have labelled Extinction Rebellion, the climate action group, an extremist group, along with Greenpeace and neo-Nazi groups such as National Action. In defence of this latter decision, Home Secretary Priti Patel has claimed that the organisation posed “security risks”.

Professor Shue, a professor of politics and international relations at Oxford, warned of prematurely celebrating the growing use of alternative energy as a panacea to the climate crisis. Although using renewable energies is a crucial step, the consumption of fossil fuels is still rising every year. Professor Shue highlighted the role that financial institutions play in facilitating this. Fossil fuel giants rely on credit from banks such as JP Morgan, Wells Fargo, and Barclays in order to fund their ever-expanding projects, according to Shue. He added that this process shows no sign of relenting. Stopping the “money pipeline,” as he described it, will be crucial in deciding the fate of the planet.

The discussion then turned to what the next year might hold. Though the panellists described numerous mechanisms currently proposed to help reduce overall emissions, such as imposing import duties on carbon, the general thrust of the discussion was clear. The solutions and technology to stop and even reverse climate change have largely already been invented. The crucial element missing is leadership and an international consensus motivated to save the planet.

With this in mind, the UK will have a very important role in shaping and building agreements between nations as it gears up to host next year’s COP26 in Glasgow. The panellists hope that it can use its role to unite the European Union, China, and the United States with common goals, such as tackling air pollution in big cities and expanding the electric vehicle industry. 

The panellists also highlighted two other major events on the horizon that will be critical to the state of the climate: The US election in November and the conclusion of the EU-China trade deal. The trade deal has the potential to bring China under stricter regulations and hopes to bring the world’s biggest polluter in line with the EU’s ambitious climate targets. Success here would yield a genuinely significant step in the right direction.