Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

Climate Skeptics Should Find a New Job

Climate Skeptics Should Find a New Job

Friday, 14 May, 2021 - 04:30
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

The climate summit recently hosted by President Joe Biden created a ripple in stagnant waters. Early indications show that it is not going to be a casual occurrence, because it resulted in specific commitments linked to deadlines which exceeded expectations. The United States itself led the way with bold measures, as evident in President Biden’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions in half by 2030, which is double the previous US commitment under president Obama. Biden reiterated the pledge to reach zero carbon in 2050.

It was also noteworthy that while attempts to hold a US political summit with China and Russia had not materialized since Biden became president, both the Chinese and Russian presidents participated in the US climate summit, marking it as their first meeting with the new US president. Also noteworthy is that when the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, no country followed suit, whereas Biden succeeded in attracting instant global support for his initiative, which was evident in the comprehensive response and renewed commitments to climate action.

Trump, a climate change skeptic himself, sought to attract Arab oil-exporting countries to his anti-Paris agreement and climate inaction camp. However, these countries preferred to remain part of the global consensus and rather strengthen their climate commitments by launching major programs to reduce carbon emissions. This was founded on enhancing efficiency, advancing carbon capture and storage applications and expanding the use of renewable sources as an integral part of the energy mix, in parallel with diversifying the economies in preparation for a new era. These countries were aware that Trump was a passing populist incident, while climate change was an established scientific fact. The business sector set its plans on this assumption as well, continuing to shift its operations towards reducing carbon emissions instead of risking following Trump’s path, whose policies also failed to attract new investments to revive the US coal industry, even after environmental restrictions were slashed.

The unprecedented commitments of the Biden administration to reduce carbon emissions were accompanied by an implementation program based on three pillars: efficiency and renewable energy; the shift to electric cars, whether powered by batteries or hydrogen fuel cells; carbon capture, reuse and safe storage. This was also accompanied by a promise to switch to a green economy, which will create millions of well-paid and stable jobs. “For me, when I think climate change, I think jobs… There’s no reason why American workers can’t lead the world in the production of electric vehicles and batteries,” Biden declared in an address to a Joint Session of Congress last week.

Also notable was an invitation from the US Secretary of Energy to Saudi Arabia to participate with the United States in an international coalition to develop carbon capture and storage applications. Saudi Arabia had already launched at the G20 summit, hosted in Riyadh few months ago, a circular carbon economy initiative, based on reducing carbon emissions and capturing the residues for reuse in various industrial operations employing non-polluting processes, and safely storing the remaining waste. This represented the most realistic and integrated plan so far to deal with the remaining carbon and prevent its release into the atmosphere.

European Union countries have also increased their commitment to reduce carbon emissions to 55 percent by 2030, pledging to reach the zero carbon target five years before the 2050 deadline. India and Russia, both leading emitters, renewed their commitment without improving the figures. China, the largest polluter by far, pledged to accelerate work to reduce its dependence on coal in the generation of electricity, expand renewable sources of energy and popularize electric and hydrogen-based transportation, to eliminate carbon emissions by 2060. While the Chinese president promised to help poor countries to face climate challenges, he ignored to address the hundreds of coal-fired electricity plants being built by China around the world, under the pretext of helping developing countries fight energy poverty. China is still trying to hide behind developing countries within the Group of 77, of which it was a founding pillar, demanding concessional and privileged terms involving time extensions and reduced commitments on carbon emissions, at a time when it has become an industrial superpower with its carbon emissions surpassing double those of the United States and topping all developed countries combined.

Nevertheless, the Biden summit opened the door for competition among countries that have yet to prove their seriousness and commitment at the Glasgow summit in a few months, to support international climate action, technologically and financially.

In the wake of the Biden summit, I was invited by an American television network to participate in a discussion about its results, with two senior research fellows at US think tanks. In the past, I felt embarrassed in such situations, for having to justify the absence of Arab initiatives and the weakness of Arab contribution to international climate endeavors, thus defending the indefensible. This time, I felt proud, because I had a lot to say about serious Arab initiatives in climate action, expressed by the participation of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the summit, where they presented real achievements and ambitious future plans linked to a timetable. These start with a balanced economic and social transformation, which wisely invests in natural resources in a balanced manner, to secure the continuity and sustainability of development. I spoke proudly of programs to plant 50 billion trees, develop and protect coastal areas, enhance the marine environment, switch to clean and renewable energy, manage water efficiently to cope with droughts, and adopt a diversified green economy that creates millions of sustainable jobs for the youth. Other countries in the region, including Egypt and Morocco, are also undertaking promising initiatives.

One of the American participants questioned Biden’s plan, claiming that it would eliminate the competitiveness of the US economy, while neglecting to include the cost of pollution, resource depletion and environmental damage in general in the balance sheets. He claimed that the projections of the effects of climate change were exaggerated and lacked enough scientific evidence and consensus. While I agreed on refusing the doom and gloom approach, I could not accept using it as basis to deny climate change. This becomes especially alarming when a denier is associated with special interest groups financed by corporations and individuals with suspicious agendas, and when he publicly considers environment protection measures and social governance as being ‘socialism without legislation’. I had to remind the audience of reports issued as recent as 20 years ago by people with scientific titles and affiliations, claiming that there was no conclusive evidence of the harmful effects of smoking on human health, only to discover that they were receiving their funding from the tobacco companies.

Fred Singer, an American physicist, was a leading representative of arrogant skepticism, who was known for rejecting the scientific consensus on several issues, including climate change, atmospheric ozone loss and even the health risks of passive smoking. His book entitled Unstoppable Global Warming- Every 1,500 Years claims that climate change is the result of natural cycles not carbon emissions due to human activities. Some apostles even followed the steps of Singer to deny the risks of coronavirus. But the impact of today's climate change skeptics, like that of smoking skeptics earlier, has become marginal, representing less than 2 percent of the American scientific community, according to a recent survey. It is evident that those are fighting their last battle, after the sweeping winds of change which Biden unleashed.

On the day Donald Trump was elected president, some old guard in Arab countries breathed a great sigh of relief, considering that climate action was over. One of them, who had represented his country for years in the climate negotiations and whose main accomplishment was disruption and obstruction, wrote at the time that “Trump's advent to power has put a definitive end to the illusions of climate change, and the likes of Najib Saab should find new jobs outside climate and the environment”. The former negotiator is lucky to have retired earlier, now that climate action is on top of the agenda, globally as well as in his own country.

Najib Saab is Secretary General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development- AFED and Editor-in-Chief of Environment & Development magazine.

Other opinion articles

Editor Picks