Toward a more effective EU policy on global warming

by Ira Straus

Chair, Center for War-Peace Studies

11th February 2020

Only new approaches, supplementing current anti-emissions policies, can stop the warming not just slow the emissions

Global warming is a matter where EU and global policy has been failing, despite long and heavy investment in the current line of policy. The warming has not only continued but sped up. Annual global emissions not only remain high but continue to increase. This, after decades of major Western emissions-reduction policies that have had significant if oft-denied costs to European economies, and that in the last two years brought on a damaging street reaction in France.

This indicates a need to step back and rethink the policy. It is no longer enough to continue merely upping the ante on doing the same thing. What is needed is to amend and supplement the substance of what is done. This requires thinking through qualitatively different policies, not just quantitatively different.

The goal must be to figure out what is needed for a policy that can actually achieve the goal. This is a goal that has to be distinguished somewhat from making sacrifices in the name of the goal.

In my estimation, no policy against global warming can be counted as serious unless it stabilizes and slightly reduces global temperatures themselves, rather than only reducing emissions or, even worse, only slowing the rate of increase in emissions. At the same time, a serious policy must be socially and politically viable; it cannot be counted as serious if it needs so much intensification, as the current policy is increasingly held to need, as to likely come crashing down socially long before it would be sufficient to stop the warming.

It is in principle possible, even fairly easy, to meet these dual requirements for seriousness, but only if we think outside the restrictions of the existing box along the following four lines:

1. Advance major new supplementary measures to the existing emissions reductions and renewables programs for counteracting global warming.

At least two major supplements — nuclear energy and preparations on geoengineering (see items 3 and 4 below) — are indispensable for stopping the warming. This is because emissions reductions can at most slow down the pace of warming’s further growth. As yet they are not even doing that. After two decades of stringent measures for reducing emissions, the result has not even be to slow down the warming’s acceleration of growth; nor to slow down the global rate of increase in carbon emissions into the atmosphere. In mathematical terms, the second derivative is still going up, when we want not only it but the first derivative and indeed the original curve to be going down. The amount of atmospheric carbon continues to grow; so does the pace of its growth; so does the warming; so do the feedback loops. The first and second derivatives would both have to be going down instead, and with dramatic speed at that, to bring about an overall positive trend, were we to continue relying solely on emissions reductions to combat the warming.

However, only a socially catastrophic program of reductions could promise, if adhered to long and rigidly, to bring such reductions in the timeframe needed for stopping warming with this method alone. In practice such a program, far from being adhered to long, would almost by definition disrupt society to such an extent as to collapse politically and fail altogether.

A broader, more balanced program is indispensable for enabling the reductions program to proceed soberly and cumulatively, without leaving the planet to overheat along the way, and without catastrophes that would lead to its own abandonment.

2. Be socially and economically viable. The program must never send countries into political chaos, as did President Macron’s plan of further carbon tax increases by spawning the Yellow Vests. This undermined the great promise his government initially held both for reforms in France and for rebuilding the EU’s spirit. It is, sadly, a consequence of his insistence on an emissions-cuts-only approach to the warming problem as the exclusive path to salvation, denying the very existence of any “Plan B”. This leads quite logically to demanding ever more emissions-cutting until it becomes socially unsustainable. The Green New Deal-type programs proceed much farther than Macron with this attitude, again logically given the premise, and would bring social disruption like his but in more severe forms and more countries. The climate emergency declarations, coupled with the doctrine of there being no alternative, are a portent of how far this could go in damaging almost all elements of public life: the economy, the public order, the very constitutional order. A few extreme greens in Germany and America have in fact drawn the conclusion, again logical, that a dictatorship is needed and critics of the plan should be locked up.

This provides a lesson on where not to go. It is necessary to do the opposite: recognize the legitimacy of the concern for economic viability, and factor multiple considerations fully into the balance of policy-making. The single-minded denial of the multiplicity of necessary purposes is something that leads not only to fanaticism but to sure failure.

This means we need to step back far enough to think the matter through again afresh: to put aside the mentality of “no Plan B”, and in fact fairly evaluate and compare the plans B, C, and D that actually exist, as they inevitably do in all policy matters. Comparing options rationally is the very purpose of having a mind; a purpose that is dangerously precluded by the language of denial of alternatives. Democratic discussion and deliberation are also precluded by that language.

Considering new alternatives does not mean scrapping everything that is being done. It will however surely mean ending the exclusive reliance on present methods and adding some substantially new ones to the mix, if only because that is the only way the present methods could have a chance of doing much good. The two most probable additions are nuclear and geoengineering.

3. Make dramatically more use of nuclear energy; reverse the policy of shuttering it. This is the only way to go beyond slowing the rate of emissions increase and get to an actual reduction of global emissions. If nuclear were counted as a renewable, it would be the one renewable capable of being rolled out on a scale that would make the requisite difference.

There are several specific needs and opportunities for the EU and its member countries here: to accelerate and better fund R&D on thorium reactors, on small modular reactors, and on other promising new forms of reactors; to make more use of the longstanding reactor format meanwhile; and to continue and expand the EU’s important work on fusion reactors.

Expanding the use of nuclear energy will unfortunately require some lead time; the hostility toward it has taken a toll on the readiness for it. What can be done immediately is to get a faster start on its future potentialities, and to cease the reckless shutdowns of existing nuclear energy in Germany and France.

These ongoing shutdowns of nuclear energy, like the obstructions of its expansion in almost all Western countries, are being done out of political and ideological motives. It is misleading to call these motives “environmentalist”; they are pursued without regard for their actual environmental consequences, which are harmful. The shutdowns unavoidably increase total emissions, directly and indirectly. This is a reality that is officially denied, but is understood widely enough that it has led many to think that the present policies, conducted in the name of opposing emissions, are not really intended for that purpose, but are just talking about that hypocritically while serving special economic interests and special ideological interests instead. People who favor the shutdowns seem unaware — subcultures in these matters tend to stick to listening within their own silos — of how much this is discrediting the present anti-emissions policy. A return to serious advancement of nuclear energy would go far toward restoring trust in emissions-cutting efforts.

4. Accelerate R&D, testing, and practical preparations for SRM geoengineering [1], that is, for deflection of a fraction[2] of incoming sunlight.

SRM geoengineering, by cooling the planet directly to stop and partially reverse its recent warming, has become urgent as a supplement for emissions reductions. Fuller research, development, and testing on it is overdue, in order to prepare for better, safer, and more timely implementation. It is also needed to find out more about the risks and unintended consequences involved; whether and how the risks and side-effects can be reduced; and compare more accurately the overall risks of proceeding with geoengineering vis-a-vis the risk of not proceeding.

The evidence is strong at this point that the risk of further delay, letting the warming continue instead, is considerably greater than the risks of geoengineering; but it is certainly advisable to get this more fully evaluated, on an expedited plan of research, and in the process improve the capability to prevent or correct for harmful side-effects. Indeed, it was simply by pointing to the need to stop merely keep compiling arguments for fearing geoengineering[3], and to start using instead a rational comparative framework for evaluating the options — mainly, the risks of geoengineering versus the risks of further warming — that a brave band of climate scientists was able finally, in 2017-18, to get large numbers of people to see that geoengineering was very likely the lesser risk and should be receiving serious public consideration.

What needs to be overcome first is the slowness and delays in research and testing on SRM. Delay has been a costly mistake and added to the dangers for the future of humanity[4].

The urgency of SRM is because it is, as noted earlier, the only way to actually stop the warming from continuing and further increasing in this period. It is additionally the only way to stop exacerbation of the feedback loops or “tipping points” that are already in operation.

For this reason, it is probably inevitable that SRM geoengineering will be implemented sooner or later. In the worst case, if it is obstructed too long, low-lying flooded countries will become desperate and the implementation will be done by one of them, with or without full preparation. Continuation of the delays and inadequacy of the research on it will only lead to SRM being used in the least safe manner, and too late to avoid passing more tipping points.

A more balanced policy will get more robust societal and global consent

An anti-warming policy that includes these necessary supplemental elements will find stronger societal consent than the present one. The support will, to be sure, not be unanimous. The change will be deplored by some, particularly on the ideological fringe. But it will in return gain more balanced support across the core of the political spectrum. It will be seen by the mainstream of society as finally serious about stopping warming, and as finally free of the glaring inadequacies and hypocrisies of the anti-nuclear, anti-geoengineering, and yet somehow also anti-warming position. It will also be seen as finally free from the combination of ineffectiveness and societal suicide that can be sensed in present policy. It can expected to be viewed as more truly legitimate because itself recognizing the legitimacy of all major interests: attending to the public’s needs for actually stopping the warming, and for basic prosperity and societal continuity; no longer sacrificing the latter needs for the sake of a policy that is strong on the rhetoric against the warming but ineffectual in combatting it.

A more comprehensive and balanced anti-warming program stands to be more effective, not only in the basic sense — its direct impact on warming — but in garnering adequate political support to sustain it. It will also inevitably lose some supporters, but is likely to gain considerably more than it will lose. It can be expected to post gains in consent both domestically within nations, and internationally, that is, from more of the major nations of the world — and bring more truly onboard some of the EU’s own member nations; with consequent benefits for implementation.

Clarifying who is really supporting what on global warming

Attention to nuclear energy and to geoengineering will additionally serve to clarify what is really meant by what people say on all sides of the warming issue. It will do this by making visible the difference between those deniers of global warming who really think it is unreal, and those others — rather many — who are using denial only as a tactic, meant for pushing aside the pressures to support the current policies on warming, which they regard as unviable. At the same time, it will make visible the difference between those environmentalists who are really concerned with combating global warming, and those who are more concerned with redistributing global wealth and standing against modern Western industrial society.

In-depth interview surveys have found that many of the deniers of warming in fact think global warming is real. However, they apparently feel that a giving “no” answer, when asked whether warming is real, is the only way to avoid getting counted, falsely, as supporters of the emissions-reductions-only policy, when in fact they oppose the latter as ineffective and harmful to society.

It is significant that these two objections — ineffectiveness and harmful societal consequences — along with the “unfairness” of advantaging China economically at America’s and the West’s expense, are the same reasons that Mr Trump gives for opposing the present Paris plan for reducing emissions. This suggests that his denialism is, like that of many others, a tactic, one that means something other than what it says at face value. A similar conclusion is indicated by his statements that he might support a different, more effective, less invidious policy to combat global warming. Such statements are not to be ignored; least of all by those who would prefer a more positive response and a more comprehensive global cooperation.

Rebalancing anti-warming policy and rebalancing the EU’s lion-fox culture

The broadening and rebalancing of the anti-warming program is also important for addressing the need for a better balance of the lion and fox sides, to use Machiavelli’s language, within EU political culture. This refers to the balance, as yet inadequate, between the traditional group persistence norms, which tend to societal strength, loyalty, and continuity, and the more modernistic combinational norms, which tend to change and emergent interconnections.

The need for rebalancing the fox culture with more of the lion culture was discussed at some length in a previous treatment of EU tasks after Brexit[5]. A potential was seen in the person of the new head of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, for leading in this rebalancing, given her former position as head of a Defense Ministry where the lion culture remains strong. Her success in rebalancing the general EU culture may turn out to hinge on the specific question we are addressing here: whether she can move toward a rebalancing in the area of warming policy, an area where she has been compelled to become active from the start.

The fox culture has heavily predominated in the EU hitherto, as the Union has developed almost entirely around joint economic tasks. This imbalance is part of the explanation for the relative negligence of nuclear energy and geoengineering: nuclear energy is associated with the lion culture of Western power and the Western side of the Cold War; geoengineering is associated with Western science and technology.

It is not the EU alone, to be sure, that has neglected to pursue these two supplements to the anti-emission program. It is pan-Western phenomenon; as is also, surely, the subculture that takes a mostly negative view of Western society and its role in the world. It is important to remind ourselves how far this subculture is from the bulk of Western society, which thinks of itself as legitimate, wants to sustain itself, affirms its group persistence norms, and sees its power as mostly good for the world.

Rebalancing the program on combatting global warming will, for this reason, help in achieving the overall rebalancing that the EU needs in its political culture between its lion and fox mentalities. It should therewith bring the EU more solid, better centered support across the political spectrums of the member states.

The EU has in this a unique potential at this time for taking a new global lead. With its considerable weight in the world of diplomacy and culture, it has already taken leads in the global warming sphere in the past. Its leads were effective in leading to signed agreements, yet were ineffective in moving the world toward the goal of climate stabilization, nor, despite the signatures, in achieving genuine societal consensus. A genuine societal consensus is one that, though always falling well short of unanimity and always facing dissent on ideological extremes, nevertheless is fairly evenly distributed across the mainstream of political society and unites it across its center. This is the opposite of polarizing society by favoring strongly one end of it, left or right. It instead fits in with balancing its fox and lion sides.

I have tried to show here that the EU will be able to strengthen its policy on global warming in workable, concrete ways if it attends with a balanced mindset to both sides of the political mainstream in their ideas on how to deal with the problem, rather than continuing to defer heavily to the argumentation from one end and to its demands for exclusion of other approaches. The latter practice is one that, Madison and Hume wrote long ago — in the very essays that gave modern democracy and federalism its new look — encourages the coddled factional end to go literally off the deep end in its policies and in its intolerance; the former, one that leads to solid, politically sustainable policies and governments.

Today the EU could, with a new balanced lead, reform the global effort against warming in a more effective direction. It would be a remarkable achievement for the EU, and an indispensable achievement on behalf of humanity as a whole.


Notes

[1] SRM, or solar radiation management, can be done by several methods. The simplest, SAI/SAG (stratospheric aerosol geoengineering), is as yet the most feasible, and is readily affordable; too affordable in the view of some, as several less-competent actors might attempt it if more-competent actors do not do it collectively. More advanced methods seem likely to be used for permanent global climate regulation in a more distant future.

[2] Studies find that the optimal amount of sunlight to be deflected is not more than 2%. As to how much to reduce global temperature, a recent study found that, from a standpoint of global distributional effects and of moderating storms, it would be optimal to take it back halfway from the recent warming. Peter Irvine, Kerry Emanuel, Jie He, Larry W. Horowitz, Gabriel Vecchi and David Keith, “Halving warming with idealized solar geoengineering moderates key climate hazards” Nature, April 2019, 295-299 ( ). This would require some years to be achieved, providing time for studying whether to move on to a somewhat greater temperature reduction, in order better to halt such feedback loops as icecap melting; but for now, other supplementary forms of geoengineering, more locally targeted than global SRM-SAG, are more often proposed for the latter purpose.

[3] Most people have heard many times the objections that have been raised about geoengineering. It would take us too far afield to examine here all of them. I will simply say that I find the objections greatly exaggerated and in most cases simply misplaced. Some of them, for example, blame geoengineering for things that would be as bad or worse without it but that it fails to fully cure. Where there is likely to be an actual cost from geoengineering is to agriculture, through its up to 2% reduction of sunlight; but even this has to be compared against the cost to agriculture through further warming and flooding. I have reviewed some of the discussions on these questions in a much lengthier article than the present one, http://blog.cwps.org/2020/02/geoengineering-only-way-to-stop-not.html#more .

[4] Kravitz, Ben; MacMartin, Douglas G. (2020): Uncertainty and the basis for confidence in solar geoengineering research .  In calling the problem one of “delay” I am perhaps guilty of understatement; it has not been only laziness but also motivated obstruction. The motivation has come from ideologies of a fundamentalist character, primarily on the left but also on the right. Many greens attack geoengineering as “f—ing with Mother Nature”; some rightists attack it as large-scale government action or deny that warming exists. The opposition on both extremes comes replete with conspiracy theories about geoengineering, which have grown so widespread that they pop up en masse when one googles the word.

[5] https://fedtrust.co.uk/the-relevant-tasks-now-for-europe-and-for-federalists/