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Karl Mathiesen is the senior climate correspondent at POLITICO Europe.
Not now, climate change scientists. Don’t they know there’s a war?
On Monday, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the second part of a major report, five years in the making, that paints a stark picture of the impact climate change is already having on the world.
Yet, amid the urgency and desperation of the war in Ukraine, the report is unlikely to get the attention it warrants.
Given the timing of the release, the IPCC is inadvertently conducting an experiment proving its most crucial new finding: Whatever disorder we make in the world will ally itself with climate change and deplete our ability to respond to either.
The war in Ukraine is tied to the climate crisis in multiple ways. The aggressor is a petrostate whose long-term economic future depends on slow action to cut emissions. Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas is driving rival conversations about accelerating clean energy and exploring new, alternative sources for fossil fuels. Ukraine is a major grain and corn producing country, and the invasion may create a food shock that exacerbates climate-driven hunger in parts of Africa.
In a smaller, more human example, Ukraine’s IPCC scientists had to quit working on the final wording of the report this week as they sought shelter from Russia’s missiles, while Russia’s delegates were able to continue their efforts to insert language playing up the benefits of global warming. One Russian used the meeting to apologize for his government’s aggression.
This interconnectedness is at the heart of the IPCC’s latest conclusions, and it overturns conventional thinking about climate change, said one of the authors on the panel François Gemenne.
“I think that there is still a tendency amongst many governments, and policymakers at large, to consider climate change as one risk amongst others,” he said.
Instead, he said, we must “consider that climate change is really a matrix of risks and that all of the issues that will be key in the 21st Century — with development, security, migration, health — all of these issues will be transformed by climate change.”
The IPCC report, which captures and distills much of the last decade of climate science to paint a picture of the world as it is today and will be in the future, repeatedly identifies poor governance as a risk factor. As we enter the age of climate consequences, the report finds, governments that lack the institutional structures, political will or accountability toward their citizens will fail to protect them against the impacts of the climate crisis.
This is a problem Russian President Vladimir Putin will have to face along with all other leaders.
In Russia, the very ground is moving. Melting permafrost, the IPCC said Monday, is believed to have brought on one of the worst environmental disasters in the country’s recent past. In 2020, during a record-breaking heat wave, the subsiding earth is thought to have caused a tank to split, spilling around 20,000 tons of diesel into the rivers and lakes near Norilsk, a city of 175,000 built entirely on permafrost. Across Russia’s frozen north the ground’s ability to support buildings will degrade by up to a third by 2050, creating an enormous infrastructure disaster that one study estimates could cost $132 billion.
And while Russia pursues its imperial war in the south, in the north, climate change has launched a chemical one: Anthrax released from the melting soil in recent years is only the first warning shot.
So how will Putin respond? Tackling these problems requires money, planning and shifting priorities. Where that is lacking, scientists warn of a feedback loop of inaction, impact and loss of control.
“Climate change is the ultimate threat multiplier,” said Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy. “Take almost anything we already know to be wrong with the world … and the climate emergency is making it harder to solve.”
It cuts the other way too. In the gathering gloom before Russia’s invasion, leaders at the Munich Security Conference last week expressed deep concern that a war would slice through their ability to muster the global response they promised at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow just 100 days before. Developing countries lamented that a military buildup may drag funding away from the billions promised to help make them more secure against extreme weather and rising seas.
While Putin is dragging the world into a new era of higher defense spending and military priorities, the IPCC has delivered a stark reminder that it cannot be understood in isolation from climate change and the geopolitical and social fallout from the transition to green energy.
There is one more connection between the nightmare unfolding in Ukraine and the climate crisis. At the center of the IPCC report, said Gemenne, is the question of a homeland: “Where will it be possible to live? And clearly, life in some places of the world will become increasingly challenging,” he said.
The people arming themselves in Kyiv, from accountants to actors, face military invasion. In the Pacific islands of Kiribati, people are building seawalls from broken coral because it’s all they have to fight the invading sea, said former President Anote Tong. Without the world’s attention and help, he said, “there will come a point, not so far into the future,” when their efforts are overwhelmed. “And then, what?”
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