Energy, Politics

Only One Earth: To Protect or Not

“In some cases, in order to protect global issues, some sacrifice for national interest is worth it in the long run”

Dalai Lama

For this year’s World Environment Day, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) chose to repeat an instructive theme first used five decades ago. “Only One Earth” reinforces the message that we need to protect the earth because it is the only liveable planet we currently have. In light of this, the Dalai Lama’s quote above would appear germane, especially as it was made in reference to climate issues. However, recent developments worsened by the Russo-Ukrainian war makes one wonder if the main proponents of the fight against climate change really have their mouths where their heart is.

Before we proceed, let’s make something very clear—this is not a climate change denying article. I strongly agree that the climate is fast changing. This article is about the modalities of addressing the change and not a denial of that change.

So, where were we? Thanks to the Black Swan combo of COVID-19, supply chain issues, the Russian invasion, and rising inflation, European countries that were hitherto the champions of the climate change campaign are now happily seeking natural gas from any available crevice and even procuring more coal for their energy needs. To put this in context, barely a year ago, some entities linked to the EU and the US had argued against any new investments in developing gas resources even in Africa where energy supply is grossly inadequate. For those same people to be willing to use more coal, which is even dirtier than natural gas says a lot about the impact of “national interest” on global decision making.

Let’s even dare to take a step back and ask why we are all up in arms about climate change. You may be aware of the concept of the “institutional imperative” that pushes companies to seek growth as a fundamental requirement for survival, or the “societal imperative”, which I have argued influences the push for societies to ensure there is always another generation to take over. The climate change campaign appears to me as an extension of the societal imperative given that we just assume that we have an obligation to protect the earth but no one has shown any conference where humans were issued a protective mandate and assigned responsibility to protect a planet that we do not fully understand; a planet whose core we have never reached and whose oceans we have barely explored.

If we recall the central thesis of scientific explanation of life on earth, my heretical thought might be forgiven. If we say that life on earth is a random, chance event that occurred over billions of years of unguided evolution, then, why are we bothered about whether humans remain on earth or the earth itself remains? After all, as per time projections, the sun, our reliable star and ultimate energy source, would at some point expand and engulf the earth, destroying everything that we currently know as our planet.

Coming back to our brethren in Europe and even the United States where President Biden (formerly aggressively anti-fossils) is now upbraiding the oil majors for not quickly ramping up production, we see some acceptance of practical reality. To be fair, if Europe had the petroleum resources of Russia or Saudi Arabia, it may not have been at the forefront of the climate change campaign. It is easier to reject something that you barely have, just like a poor man cannot honestly say he’s fasting when he actually has no food to eat. It is plain hypocrisy for Europe (at this time) to refuse to make some worthy sacrifice of national interest to protect a global issue like climate change, especially as it consumes a lot more energy than Africa that it was pushing to rapidly abandon fossil fuels. If Africa were deleted from the earth, it is possible the climate would not even notice any difference, but try deleting Europe and you get the picture.

If we are going to address climate change, we would need to embrace some level of pragmatism. We should not sacrifice the present for an unassured future. At least this is something power brokers in the EU have now accepted. The energy transition would require some synergy between renewable energy sources and fossil fuels until a time that renewable technologies would have matured enough to provide majority of the energy needs at cost-effective prices. Anything other than this would be a recipe for disaster. We also should not be sanctimonious about climate change when we very well know that should the chips go down, each sensible country would do whatever is in its national interest to stay above troubled waters.

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