These include the difficulty people in general have in taking on board that mega-disasters, of a kind which they previously have had no experience of, may happen to them. A recent example of this was the calamitous delay in Europe and the US in 2020 in understanding the seriousness of the coronavirus epidemic and that it would not be confined to east Asia.
The most dreaded consequences of the climate crisis are still in the future, even if there may be signs of disasters to come in the wildfires in Australia and California and the increasing desertification of countries in the Middle East and North Africa from Iraq to Chad. People may speak of making sacrifices for their grandchildren and for future generations, but they seldom expect to do so in practice. “Do it for posterity,” urges the old joke often attributed to Groucho Marx, but in fact much older. “But what has posterity every done for me?” comes the reply.
People may worry about the climate crisis, but this does not mean that they are willingly assent to higher fuel taxes. Political leaders in both democratic and authoritarian states understand that people do not like governments of any stripe which preside over a reduction in their standard of living, unless they are frightened by a great threat like a war or a pandemic, and possibly not even then.
At the government level, another strong impulse is simply that the political, bureaucratic and military powers feel comfortable in the cold war world of great power confrontation. It was this confrontation that gave them huge influence and vast budgets during the original Cold War against Communism and the Soviet Union, and there is no reason it should not do so again. “This helps explain the enthusiasm with which western security elites have embraced the idea of a new cold war against Russia and China – an analogy that is both largely false and wholly unnecessary,” writes Lieven.
To point this out is not a defence of the authoritarian nationalist regimes in Moscow and Beijing, or, more specifically, of Putin’s repression of his critics and fixed elections or of Xi Jinping’s persecution of the Uyghurs and jailing of opponents in Hong Kong.
In terms of realpolitik, Russia and China are smaller players than they are portrayed by themselves or by their enemies. Russia may still be a nuclear superpower, but in Europe it is territorially weaker than at any time since the 17th century. China may have the world’s second largest economy, but to pretend that it now has the world’s biggest navy by counting every patrol boat in coastal waters is misleading threat-inflation.
America’s fixation on China as a rival is shared by Donald Trump and Joe Biden, but it has an additional input. Hostility to China is a bi-partisan issue in Congress, about the only serious one on which Republicans and Democrats are agreed. This is very different from the vaccine campaign and other anti-Covid measures that have produced only rancorous division. In such a bifurcated political scene, it is not surprising that an embattled Biden is boosting China as the enemy at the gate and calling for Americans to rally around the flag with some expectation that they will do so.
Belief and disbelief in the climate crisis is one of the most envenomed dividing lines in American politics. Conviction that it is not happening or is grossly exaggerated has become part of Republican identity. The hundred or so world leaders gathered in Glasgow in November will know this and that the shaky Democratic control of Congress may soon end, stymying any further climate control measures, so why should they do what America cannot or will not do? They know also that Trump, or a Republican sharing his opinions, could well be back in the White House in 2024.
An international jamboree like Cop26 will be full of rhetorical appeals for global action and solidarity. As during the pandemic, real action, if it happens at all, will be by nation states acting in their own interests. Despite all the apocalyptic predictions of climate catastrophe, the moment when these countries really believe that they face an existential threat has yet to arrive.