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Afghanistan and climate change: the West’s twin failures

16 September 2021

10:35 AM

16 September 2021

10:35 AM

The West’s humiliation in Afghanistan has an older brother: climate change.

As siblings, the two share characteristics, most obviously an inability to confront unwelcome facts. In Afghanistan, there was a large constituency led by the Pentagon invested in the mantra of proclaiming progress in the fight against the Taliban. Climate has its own industrial complex of NGOs, climate scientists, renewable energy lobbyists profiting from the energy transition, eager helpers in the media, and politicians posing as world saviors.

Energy experts tell us renewable energy is cheaper than building new fossil fuel power stations. If they’re right, why did China build the equivalent of more than one large coal plant a week last year? Its slave labor camps help produce materials for Chinese solar panels, which make them the cheapest in the world. This led the Biden administration to ban their importation. In 10 years, India — a country more susceptible to Western fads — increased the amount of electricity it generated from coal nearly six times faster than from wind and solar. In 2020, fossil fuels accounted for almost 90 percent of India’s primary energy consumption.

These facts help explain the biggest fact of all. The first 20 years after the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change saw carbon dioxide emissions rise 60 percent. From 2012 to 2019, they rose a further 5.4 percent. However this is dressed up, it’s failure. Meanwhile, the West’s energy emissions have been more or less flat for nearly three decades and on a downward trend since 2007. Emissions from the Rest of the World account for all the growth in global emissions, suddenly accelerating in 2002 from an average of around 1 percent a year to nearly 5 percent a year in the 12 years until 2014.

As a matter of simple arithmetic, the West’s declining share of global emissions means that whatever it does or doesn’t do is of diminishing relevance to the future of climate change. The West’s solipsism of ‘we’ — as in ‘we must act’ — is a profound self-deception.

This delusion is mirrored in the West’s climate diplomacy. At the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, Western nations made their most determined attempt to include the powerhouse economies of the rest of the world in a legally binding global emissions reduction regime. It failed. China and India, joined by South Africa and Brazil, said no. Without a global emissions regime, unilateral emissions cuts are senseless. The Senate understood this in 1997 when Joe Biden, John Kerry and 93 other senators voted unanimously to adopt the Byrd-Hagel resolution, effectively vetoing American participation in the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that it excluded the majority of the world.


Rather than facing reality, the Obama administration chose to keep alive the illusion of a future global emissions regime. China, for its own reasons, was willing to help out, opening the way to the much-misunderstood 2015 Paris climate agreement. Far from being a cunning way of smuggling a treaty-based global emission regime under the noses of developing nations that had spent more than two decades opposing one, the Paris agreement is the climate equivalent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Sinatra Doctrine allowing individual parties to ‘do it their way’. Just as this Sinatra Doctrine was an admission that the Soviet Union had lost the Cold War, the Paris agreement signaled that the West had lost its fight for a binding global decarbonization regime while maintaining the pretense that it hadn’t.

Foolishly, the West swallowed the claims of small island states that they would sink beneath the waves unless the rise in global temperature was kept below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This was how ‘pursuing efforts’ to meet the 1.5°C limit ended up in the Paris agreement. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) later confirmed, there was no scientific basis for this. ‘Observations, models and other evidence indicate that unconstrained Pacific atolls have kept pace with S[ea] L[evel] R[ise], with little reduction in size or net gain in land,’ the IPCC said. Instead, the IPCC argued that the 1.5°C target and net zero emissions by 2050 — a target set by the IPCC and not in the Paris agreement — provide the opportunity for ‘intentional societal transformation’.

Stamped all over the West’s two decades of failure in Afghanistan are the words ‘societal transformation’. ‘It has been the hubristic belief that Western values should be universally applied that has led to the folly of nation-building in Afghanistan,’ Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain’s former ambassador in Washington, has written. Climate involves a double dose of hubris. Western politicians expect other countries to turn their backs on the development paths that made the West wealthy. Yet the same politicians seek to transform their own societies in ways that will make many people — especially the middle class and working families — poorer without having won an honest, democratic mandate to do so. They will thereby invite a populist backlash.

Meyer argues that foreign policy works best when based on hard-headed calculations of national interests. President Biden’s justification for pulling out of Afghanistan, he believes, is an apparent recognition of this. True, his administration carried over its predecessor’s realist posture on US-China relations. During his confirmation hearings to be secretary of state, Tony Blinken declared that China poses ‘the most significant challenge’ of any nation-state. Realism disappears on the shoreline of climate change on the presumption that other nations share the Western belief that climate transcends geopolitics.

It wasn’t a pretty sight when John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, met China’s gimlet-eyed realists earlier this month. In a blunt statement, they told Kerry that Washington should correct its ‘wrong policies’ on China if the US wanted a dialogue on climate. The requirement to appease China could not have been clearer.

Kerry had presented the Chinese with a list of demands, including making a public commitment to the 1.5°C limit and publicizing plans to peak emissions by 2030, as China had pledged in its 2015 Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris agreement. It was an abject performance. By building huge numbers of new coal-fired power stations, China is already in breach of its NDC, in which China pledged to make its ‘best efforts’ to peak emissions before 2030. Kerry’s Chinese counterparts knew he could not call this out because it would expose the senselessness of the West’s net zero policies.

In all likelihood, Kerry will probably get off more lightly than Boris Johnson and the British government, the hosts of this year’s UN climate conference in Glasgow. They naively built up expectations that the talks would produce a deal to save the planet. It showed great ignorance of three decades of UN climate diplomacy: there was never going to be a deal to cut emissions at Glasgow. The last time that happened was at the Kyoto climate conference 24 years ago.

Under the Paris agreement, emissions cuts are decided by each party independently. Glasgow’s best shot was as a giant show-and-tell, with countries taking turns to boast about their climate pledges, which collectively would avert catastrophe, probably accompanied by some non-binding conference communiqué; in other words, a huge climate PR fest. But along with India, China has yet to publish its second NDC. Russia and Australia have, but left unchanged their 2030 emissions targets. If anything is salvaged from Glasgow, it will be because it’s in the interests of the enemies of the West to keep alive the West’s net zero delusion.

The UN climate convention was a product of a different era. Nato’s Afghanistan operation occurred at the apex of the America’s unipolar moment. The short era of George H.W. Bush’s new world order is over. We live in a time of renewed great power rivalry. China and Russia act in ways Otto von Bismarck would recognize. Of the great powers, they are the principal winners from the West’s humiliation in Afghanistan and they are the biggest winners from the Paris agreement. China keeps its coal-based economy while America runs down its oil and gas industries, only recently having become the world’s largest producer of hydrocarbons.

As Europe phases out coal, so too does it become more dependent on the Kremlin for natural gas. The lessons of Afghanistan and climate are the same: the West won’t be defeated by its enemies, but by its refusal to see the world as it is.

Rupert Darwall is a senior fellow of the RealClear Foundation.

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