Let’s say you’re a major player on the world stage but have a serious insecurity problem. No matter where you look, there’s always someone—always the same someone—who is bigger, stronger, and more prosperous.
It would piss you off right?
You’d constantly want to prove yourself and claim unfairness at every advantage the Big Guy seemed to take for himself. He has nuclear missiles, 20 aircraft carriers, and bases all over the world. He has friends, and despite being a total dick, is always more popular than you at parties, like the G20 or more exclusive clubs like the G7. Hell, maybe you’re not even invited to the G7!
Now here’s another party. Sure, you’re invited to COP26 to hang out and talk about climate change. But do you really want to go? People are just going to point fingers at you and tell you you have to change things you aren’t going to change.
Besides, there’s a plague out there.
Sure, you’re cutting off the world’s nose to spite your own face, but really, it just isn’t fair at all. You never got your chance to play in the sandbox, not as long as you wanted to. It’s still your turn to spew greenhouse gasses into the air! The United States did it for a century and they’re the reason we’re in this mess in the first place!
Of course, you tell people that global warming scares you and helping prevent it is a top priority. Just a little more industrial development and we’ll get right on it.
The United States can afford to cut emissions (in fact American emissions have been falling, despite few policy changes of substance at the federal level), its economy is already mature (we really mean it’s in decline, but we’re trying to be polite here).
But if you’re China, Russia, or India, there’s still a long way to go to hit your stride, be all you can be, meet your destiny. It’s not out of stupidity. It’s all in the stories you tell to yourselves: stories of growing economies, stronger militaries, and ever-increasing global prestige.
There is no magic bullet for climate change. No single technology has come along and made fossil fuels obsolete. This column has mentioned Isaac Asimov and his vision of the future, formed in the 1940s and 1950s. Back then, atomic energy was going to fix everything. Asimov didn’t even know about global warming, but he’d already fixed it.
So, atomics (whatever he really meant by the word) didn’t do it, cold fusion is bullshit, and regular fusion is a decade away from being a decade away. And even if these mythical things did exist, what are the chances they’d be cheap?
So, China, Russia, and emitter number four, India, aren’t seriously thinking about dumping coal and oil. How solar panels would work in countries where the sun can’t even reach the ground because of pollution is unclear.
No, fighting global warming is all about short-term sacrifice, though, to be fair, not everyone can afford to consider a couple of decades to be short term.
India, under the populist, nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, still claims the right to vastly increase its emissions before considering slowing down and leveling off. It’s only fair that India gets room to grow like the big boys, right?
But at least he’s showing up to the party.
Not Xi Jinping (in person). Not Vladimir Putin (at all), either.
Putin is an interesting case. He’s talked a lot about the importance of fighting global warming but shows no sign of doing anything about it. And he must know the stakes. Russia is the most frozen country in the world (sorry Canada, it’s just bigger), and the tundra is changing. That change has the potential to unleash incredible amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that puts carbon dioxide to shame.
But maybe he’s thinking of building a summer home in Irkutsk, or Kamchatka? Maybe he sees advantages to a warmer Russia in a world where arable land could be in short supply? There have already been advantages in navigation along Russia’s northern coastline.
Maybe not everyone views climate change as a zero-sum game, or a game they can afford to stop playing. And maybe that’s not surprising.
It’s hard to make sacrifices when you already feel like you don’t have enough.