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Week 24: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso... a Divine Hypocrisy
I sort of caught myself, sitting in front of the screen like so many times before questioning my own sanity. Year after year, month after month, week after week, the messaging is sort of the same, becoming even more, crisper, and clearer. Yet, silence is hysteric. Slow silence and ignorance, hitting flesh, ripping apart parts of the body, making it all look like a good Friday night entertainment with some commercial breaks between.
I went back, far back in history, this time, and maybe for the first time in my life I understand what my teacher in literature back then wanted us, testosterone loaded, and MTV numb, students to read Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. Completed just before Dante died in 1321, it consists of three parts, Inferno, Purgatorial, and Paradiso. The Divine Comedy is also an allegory of the soul’s progress through sin (hell), penitence (purgatory), and redemption (paradise), the last being the joyful ending promised in the title of the three sections, however, it is the lot of the souls in the Inferno that has had, by far, the greatest resonance with readers and artists.
In the middle of the journey of his life, Dante finds himself lost in a dark wood, and he cannot find the straight path. He cannot remember how he wandered away from his true path that he should be following, but he is in a fearful place, impenetrable and wild. He looks up from this dismal valley and sees the sun shining on the hilltop. After resting for a moment, he begins to climb the hill towards the light, but he is suddenly confronted by a leopard, which blocks his way, and he turns to evade it. Then a hungry lion appears more fearful than the leopard, but a "she-wolf" comes forward and drives Dante back down into the darkness of the valley.
This is how he describes it: Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, ché la diritta via era smarrita. Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.
The lost pathways. And we have encountered so many so far, yet they come to us, again and again, and we fail, and we rise again. And we walk backwards into the future. The souls of our predecessors resting gently upon our shoulders trying to point direction leading to Paradiso in silence.
I wonder which part of the Divine Comedy our reality would fit in and how Dante would describe all of it. Maybe as Divine Hypocrisy, or Divine Ignorance.
Global surface air temperatures crossed the key 1.5C warming threshold temporarily at the start of June, as the world’s oceans hit record-high temperatures for two months running. If the trend continues, the level of global warming since the pre-industrial era presents a stark indicator of worsening climate change.
Scientists at the Copernicus Climate Change Service said the first 11 days of June had been the hottest on record for this time of year, and that the 1.5C warming threshold had been temporarily crossed. The threshold was first exceeded during December 2015, and crossed “repeatedly” in 2016 and 2020. This year is the first time it has been breached in June. The findings “should be a stern warning sign that we are heading into very warm uncharted territory," said Melissa Lazenby, a lecturer in climate change at the University of Sussex in the UK.
Global ocean temperatures, meanwhile, reached their highest levels on record for April and May, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Above normal sea-surface temperatures had “recently expanded across the central and eastern equatorial Pacific”, it said Thomas Smith, a professor in environmental geography at the London School of Economics, noted that the top few metres of the ocean stored enormous amounts of energy, and warned that hotter water temperatures meant a very large amount would be transferred to the atmosphere.
Scientists this month declared the return of El Niño, the weather phenomenon that is associated with warming across the Pacific Ocean. But they said the recent record heat was not necessarily a direct result, since its effects were typically felt after it had been active for some time.
Becoming more efficient planet wreckers
This one fits very much in the Purgatory part of Divine Comedy. UN secretary-general António Guterres attacked oil and gas industry attempts to justify fossil fuel expansion with carbon capture technology as “proposals to become more efficient planet wreckers," in a speech that appeared to be a thinly veiled critique of the UAE hosts of COP28.
The industry’s stated plans to deal largely with the emissions behind global warming by capturing them, rather than phasing out production, were undermining the climate agenda, Guterres said.
The UAE COP28 president-designate Sultan al-Jaber, who is also the head of the state oil company Adnoc, has consistently reflected the industry view that the focus should be on the control of emissions.
”Let’s face facts. The problem is not simply fossil fuel emissions. It’s fossil fuels — period,” Guterres said. Guterres noted that for every dollar the industry spent on oil and gas drilling and exploration, only 4c went to clean energy and carbon capture combined. “Trading the future for thirty pieces of silver is immoral,” he said.
The halfway point to COP28 was marked on Thursday in Bonn, Germany, with the conclusion of discussions over an agenda. Countries were deadlocked until the penultimate day when they finally managed to agree on what issues might be carried over for consideration at COP28.
While the EU had proposed an agenda item about work to cut emissions, it was ultimately not included following pushback from a group of oil and gas-producing nations including Saudi Arabia. Instead, the discussions on the issue at Bonn will be recorded in a “note”, to inform the talks at COP28.
Pakistani co-chair of the Bonn talks, Nabeel Munir, at one point, warned the negotiators that all their work would be wasted if an agenda was not officially adopted, accusing them of acting like a “primary school class”. The ambassador, whose country has been devastated by floods, urged them to “please wake up, what is happening around you is unbelievable.”
Treading the path of destruction
This one is more like an overture to the well-known part of the Divine Comedy, the Inferno.
Trillions of dollars of subsidies for fossil fuels, farming and fishing are causing “environmental havoc," according to the World Bank, severely harming people and the planet.
Many countries spend more on the harmful subsidies than they do on health, education or poverty reduction, the bank says, and the subsidies are entrenched and hard to reform as the greatest beneficiaries tend to be rich and powerful.
Reforming subsidies would provide vital funding to fight the climate and nature crises at a time when public coffers are severely stretched, the bank says.
The “toxic” subsidies total at least $7.25 trillion a year, according to a major new report from the bank. The explicit subsidies – money spent by governments – account for about $1.25 trillion a year, or more than $2million a minute. Most of these are harmful, the bank says.
There are also implicit subsidies such as waived taxes and the cost of the damage caused by worsening global heating and air pollution. These total $6 trillion a year, according to the World Bank, although a higher recent estimate that includes the costs of pollution and destruction of nature by farming pushes the figure to almost $11 trillion a year.
In total, the subsidies supporting environmental destruction could amount to $23 million a minute. The bank said the estimates were conservative, as some countries did not fully record subsidies and they had risen since the Covid pandemic and had yet to be fully counted.
The bank also said the bulk of the subsidies were regressive, benefiting the rich more than the poor, and that direct aid to the poorest would be far more efficient.
“Environmentally harmful subsidies [are] one of the most toxic aspects of development that we have in the world,” said Richard Damania, the World Bank chief economist for sustainable development. “These are trillions that we are throwing away, trillions that are doing harm. And yet we need that money.
“There’s something really quite strange about subsidising fossil fuels on the one hand, while we spend money to fight climate change on the other hand,” he said. At $577 billion, the explicit subsidies for coal, oil and gas in 2021 were twice as large as those for renewable energy, and almost six times higher than the climate finance promised by rich countries to developing nations.
Descending into the inferno of failed commitments
Broken promises, missed opportunities and a failure to see the bigger picture: that’s the story of the west’s approach to developing countries in recent years. Money to help with climate breakdown has been pledged but not delivered. Vaccines have been hoarded. Aid budgets have been cut.
From any perspective – be it geopolitical, economic, humanitarian or ecological, the indifference to what is happening elsewhere is disastrous. If the west wants to counter Beijing’s influence in Africa, to secure the raw materials and metals it needs for its green industrial revolution, to prevent a debt crisis and to have any hope of tackling global heating, it needs to sharpen up its act fast.
While western countries have been pre-occupied with their own problems, the situation in the global south has been growing progressively darker. The UN goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 will be comfortably missed, the number of extreme weather events is increasing and the number of countries either in debt distress or on the verge of it is rising.
To make matters worse, the global financial system is broken. Poor countries that borrowed in US dollars are being punished because US interest rates are going up. Money from the World Bank was supposed to be the catalyst for a wave of private sector capital to finance clean energy in Africa, but it isn’t arriving. A new system designed to speed up debt relief is unfit for purpose.
All of which makes Emmanuel Macron’s development finance summit in Paris later this month a much bigger deal than the average run-of-the-mill talkfest. Or it will be if the leaders of the developed world bother to show up. Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, plans to be there. But he is the only other G7 leader on the list of attendees. You can read more on this in this excellent piece.
The German summer may officially be just two weeks old but the Rhine river — a vital artery for the country and other parts of inland Europe, is already seeing water levels low enough to restrict trade. The measured water-level at Kaub, a key chokepoint, stood at 1.43 meters on Friday afternoon, government data show. It’s forecast to slump 16 centimeters more by early Tuesday morning.
That’s well below the seasonal norm, although far from the low-point of last August, when the measure hit about 30 centimeters and brought widespread disruption.
Comedy or a new path?
Switzerland is doing what few have done as Swiss citizens prepare for rare vote on net-zero climate law.
Dozen of countries have enacted climate targets through legislation, but the question is rarely put to ordinary people for a vote.
Many national legislatures have passed climate laws, and all 10 of the world’s biggest economies have now committed to net zero targets. Switzerland’s distinctive approach to democracy means its voters will have an unusually direct say in how the government deals with reducing its emissions.
Campaigns for and against the law will be familiar to anyone who watched the tug-of-war over the Inflation Reduction Act in US and most any other climate legislation introduced elsewhere: One side argues that urgent action is needed to slow global warming, the other highlighting what it claims are the painful changes that will have to be undertaken to get there.
In Switzerland, the campaign in favour of a net zero target is drawn from a broad coalition of 200 groups that includes political parties, scientists and activists who are presenting the measure as a chance to get the nation on track to meet its Paris Agreement target and ensure a smooth transition to a clean energy economy.
Which circle of hell is this?!
There are nine circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno. I wonder in which of them this would fit? Why banks aren’t too worried about climate credit risk yet.
The impact of the climate crisis has been felt keenly this year all over the world, from Madrid to Manilla. But inside the London headquarters of Standard Chartered Plc, it might be another decade before the reality of a warming planet registers—at least when it comes to certain loans extended by the financial institution.
The key takeaway from the bank’s analysis is that the full weight of climate change hasn’t yet fed through to its balance sheet. Or, as the bank said it in its report, while it considers climate change to be “qualitatively material,” it isn’t yet “quantitatively material.”
A key reason for this dynamic is that the fossil-fuel industry is currently a gold mine. Elevated energy prices have led to higher revenues for companies in high-carbon, heavily polluting sectors, meaning most have no short-term problems servicing their debt.
In fact, while the eight carbon-heavy sectors accounted for 14.4% of Standard Chartered’s loan balances last year, they only comprised roughly 11% of the bank’s credit losses. And since more than 70% of the bank’s loans to these sectors come due in five years or less, the money will likely have been repaid before climate risks begin to undermine companies’ creditworthiness, Newby-Fraser said.
And here is a “visitors guide” to Dante’s Inferno:
Fourth Circle: Greed
Fifth Circle: Anger
Sixth Circle: Heresy
Seventh Circle: Violence
Eighth Circle: Fraud
Ninth Circle: Treachery
Have a great ‘Divine Comedy’ week!
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