We’re still in the game, with a slim chance of holding global warming below a catastrophic level through the rest of the century, Gwynne Dyer writes.
By Gwynne Dyer –
Tuesday, October 31, 2023
You would think that all human energies would be focused on avoiding a potential climate calamity, including those of Russians, Ukrainians, Israelis and Palestinians. Especially the Israelis and Palestinians, whose disputed homeland would become uninhabitable by the end of the century in most “runaway” scenarios,
With practically all the media bandwidth for non-local news taken up by two tribal territorial struggles that would not have seemed out of place in the 15th century AD — or indeed the 15 century BC — you may have missed the latest release from the International Energy Agency (IEA).
That would be a pity, because it’s a lot more important than Gaza and Donetsk. The IEA’s annual World Energy Outlook is the best one-stop guide to where we are now in the attempt to keep global warming below a disastrous level.
It says we are still in the game, with a slim chance of holding the warming below a catastrophic level (1.5 Celsius) through the rest of the century. (It was at 1.2 C last year.) Good news — but it has to be read with a lot of riders and codicils.
First, don’t treat these small numbers like minor changes in the outdoor temperature on a spring day. Think of them like big jumps in the temperature of a feverish child. At 1.5 C, she has a mild fever; at 3 C, she’s “burning up”; at 4.5 C, she’s dying.
We will probably have a foretaste of climate hell in 2024, when the El Niño oscillation temporarily drives the average global temperature up to 1.5 C for a year or two, but after that it will drop back again for a while. It will be back up to 1.5 C for good by the mid-2030s, but then, says the World Energy Outlook, we might be able to hold it there for the long term if we do everything just right. That would be wonderful news — but you have to read the small print.
The IEA has a “Net Zero 2050” scenario in which we would indeed accomplish that miracle, but to get on track for that would require tripling our clean power production and doubling our investment in energy efficiency by 2030.
Then there is the “Announced Pledges” scenario (something like “I pledge to start cutting back on my drinking once my marriage and my work situation improve”). If all those promises were kept in full and on time, the world would warm to 1.7 C.
And finally there’s the “Stated Policies” scenario, also known as “the present.” With current policies, including all emissions cuts that are programmed and legally enforceable, we go to 2.4 C. But that is tantamount to “runaway,” because by then we will have crossed all the tipping points and we are heading for 4 C or 5 C. The tipping points, also known as “feedbacks,” are what happens when the warming we have caused with our emissions triggers natural processes that cause further warming on their own. An example would be the permafrost melting and emitting carbon dioxide and methane.
We have no data on the future, but we do know that when the planet climbed out of the last major glaciation 11,900 years ago, there was a sudden 5 C jump in the average global temperature. Only one degree of that was due to the “Milankovic cycles” — tiny changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun. The other four degrees were due to feedbacks in the Earth’s own climate system.
Could that happen again? We supply 1.5 C of warming, and feedbacks supply the rest? Yes, and we can even identify the likeliest candidates to be tipping points on the next five-degree jump.
So you would think all human energies would be focused on avoiding this potential calamity, including those of Russians, Ukrainians, Israelis and Palestinians. Especially the Israelis and Palestinians, whose disputed homeland would become uninhabitable by the end of the century in most “runaway” scenarios.
Not so, of course. The human race is what it is, easily distracted from long-term issues by whatever is loud and immediate. That was what our hunter-gatherer ancestors were like, and it served them well enough. It’s taking us a long time to outgrow that heritage. Maybe too long.
Gwynne Dyer November 2, 2023
On September 10, the great breakthrough was underway.
“The Ukrainians went forward again,” said breathless reports from the front lines. “The Ukrainian Armed Forces are moving west of Novoprokopovka, east of Verbovo and between Novoprokopovka and Verbovo, expanding the breakthrough zone.”
Fifty days later, those obscure villages are still being mentioned every day as the location of ongoing clashes between Ukrainian and Russian forces.
The “Big Push” has stalled and the Russian lines have held. Both sides are making local attacks along the length of the 900-km. front, but nobody is going anywhere fast.
This matters much more for the Ukrainians, for three reasons. First, if it really has become a war of attrition, Russia’s population is more than three times higher and its economy (thanks to oil and gas) is 10 times bigger. Without a lot of foreign help with money and military supplies, Ukraine cannot possibly win.
Secondly, that help must come from countries that are sympathetic, but whose vital interests are not at stake in the war. To keep them committed, Ukraine has to demonstrate on a regular basis that it is winning, or at least has a good chance of winning.
Thirdly, the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas in the Middle East, while a much smaller event with almost no risk of escalation to the nuclear level, is far more resonant emotionally for the big Western powers. For Americans, in particular, the Russia-Ukraine war has already fallen off the news agenda.
Even if there were a rapid resolution to the Gaza conflict – possible, but not likely – the Ukrainians are stuck in a military stalemate unless they can figure out what went wrong with their great offensive and fix it. Figuring it out is the easy part.
Ukraine does not have air superiority even over its own territory, and NATO will never let it have aircraft that could deliver that capability because they could also hit Russian territory. (The long-promised, long-delayed F-16s are 40 years old.)
Without air superiority, the Ukrainians cannot do NATO-style deep penetrations by fast-moving armored forces. They have to rely on the more plodding approach of the Russian army, which has long experience of fighting without complete control of the skies.
Such tactics can succeed, but the Russian doctrine relies on dividing your force into two echelons: first-line units to make the breakthrough, and operational reserve units to develop it.
The first-line units do the lengthy, costly, exhausting business of chewing their way through deep enemy defenses. Then, if and when they have opened up a breach, the reserve units race through to exploit it while the worn-out first-line troops just hold the shoulders of the breach open.
The attackers will take very heavy casualties in the first phase, but that is paid back with interest when the operational reserve pours through the breach and starts tearing up the defending forces from behind. At this point, even the enemy’s entire front might collapse.
But what if the first-line units struggle to make that initial breakthrough? Maybe there are just too many mines, enemy drones everywhere directing artillery that protects those minefields, movement possible only at night.
Then you have to commit some of your reserve units to help the initial breakthrough attempt. Do too much of that, however, and you may not have enough reserves left to exploit the breakthrough when you finally achieve it.
That is clearly what happened to the great Ukrainian offensive. They finally got through most of the minefields and the “dragon’s teeth” by early September, but they ran out of reserves. They have just been bouncing back and forth between Verbove and Novoprokopovka for the past seven weeks.
The Ukrainians don’t have the numbers, and they probably won’t have the numbers. On the other hand, the Russians continue to demonstrate that they may have the numbers, but they don’t have the skill or the will to break through themselves.
So it becomes a waiting game now, with no clear path to victory for either side. If we can think of this situation as the First World War in miniature, then 20 months into the war brings us to early 1916.
What followed in 1917 were more offensives, of course, but much more importantly huge mutinies in the French, Italian and Russian armies as the stalemate lengthened, the casualties mounted ever higher, and the sheer futility of the whole enterprise struck home.
So which army’s morale is worse, the Ukrainian or the Russian? Which leader looks more insecure, Zelensky or Putin? A second presidential term for Donald Trump would confound everybody’s calculations, but the odds still favor Ukraine.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.