Heat wave, inflation remind leaders of challenges beyond Ukraine

Alberto Gandolfo/LaPresse/AP
A man cools off at a drinking fountain in Turin, Italy, June 17, 2022. A blanket of hot air stretching from the Mediterranean to the North Sea is bringing much of Western Europe its first heat wave of the summer.
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The warning messages are growing ever starker. But they are ending up in the junk mail folder.

The record high temperatures felt around the world in recent days are a reminder of the need to confront climate change. But the world’s leaders have been focused on more short-term crises, such as the war in Ukraine and spiraling inflation.

Why We Wrote This

A global heat wave is a reminder to world leaders to cooperate not just on pressing short-term problems, such as Ukraine and inflation, but also on global warming.

Their policy bandwidth is being taxed. But the big questions – how we balance our own immediate interests with those of the planet, or how seriously we take our responsibility toward generations to come – demand answers now, because those answers will decide how effectively we come to grips with global warming.

The recent heat waves have been extraordinary. It’s almost as if the planet were trying to elbow its way onto policymakers’ list of priorities by shouting that global warming isn’t a “long-term” threat. It’s here. It’s intensifying. Its effects are growing.

There is no doubting the seriousness or urgency of the war in Ukraine, or of the worldwide economic strains that conflict is exacerbating.

But climate scientists are warning that nations do not have the luxury of choosing to address one crisis rather than another.

They have to tackle both.

The warning messages are growing ever starker. But they’re ending up in the junk mail folder.

That’s the fate of efforts to confront climate change at the moment. And the implications have been dramatically brought home in recent days by the punishing effects of worldwide record-high temperatures.

But world leaders have been focusing their attention elsewhere – on the war in Ukraine and a widening economic crisis.

Why We Wrote This

A global heat wave is a reminder to world leaders to cooperate not just on pressing short-term problems, such as Ukraine and inflation, but also on global warming.

Those problems are not going away, which means evidence of the worsening effects of climate change is taxing governments’ policy bandwidth.

It has also highlighted a series of deeper questions – for both governments and their citizens – about priorities and values. Chief among them: How do we balance our own interests, or our own nations’ interests, against those of the planet? Or our responsibility for our own generation against those yet to come?

The question of how we address the wider responsibilities may seem abstract, but it has serious practical implications for our chances of coming to grips with global warming.

Almost all the other major policy challenges preoccupying policymakers worldwide point them toward the short term: the Ukraine war, commodity shortages and rampant energy and food inflation, supply chain bottlenecks. So, too, the overarching conflict between democracy and autocracy that U.S. President Joe Biden has made a cornerstone of his foreign policy.

All have been prodding governments to prioritize their own countries’ economic, political, and security positions. All have assumed a daily-headline urgency overshadowing other, longer-term policy questions.

That’s where the recent weather comes in.

Even by the standards of increasingly familiar “climate extremes,” the intensity of June’s heat has been extraordinary. It’s almost as if the planet itself were trying to elbow its way onto policymakers’ list of priorities and shouting that global warming isn’t a “long-term” threat. It’s here. It’s intensifying. Its effects are growing.

In the United States, nearly a third of the population has been advised to stay indoors. 

Miguel Oses/AP
A firefighting plane drops a fire retardant on a burning area of San Martin de Unx in northern Spain, June 19, 2022. Firefighters in Spain are struggling to contain wildfires in several parts of the country suffering an unusual heat wave for this time of the year.

European schools and businesses have closed or sent people home early. In France, authorities in the region surrounding Bordeaux ordered citizens to cancel public events or outdoor gatherings, as well as indoor ones without air conditioning.

The risk of heat-related wildfires has prompted bans on forest visits in some areas of France. Blazes in Spain led the authorities to order the wholesale evacuation of a number of villages. 

Pakistan and India are also in the throes of a searing heat wave, with temperatures reaching their highest on record. That is doing major damage to India’s wheat crops, even more important than usual to the country’s 1.3 billion people because Russia’s invasion is disrupting exports from Ukraine, one of the world’s key grain suppliers.

Still, it is Ukraine, not the climate, that has been dominating international policy discussions.

This may be inevitable. There’s no doubting the seriousness, or the urgency, of the war, or of the worldwide economic strains it is exacerbating.

Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP
People bathe in the Ganges River to cool themselves off as northern India reeled under an intense heat wave.

But climate activists point out that even before the war began, only a few governments in the developed world were on track to achieve carbon neutrality by midcentury – a benchmark for avoiding irreversible and catastrophic global warming, scientists say. In their minds, Ukraine and other competing issues may be less an explanation for inaction than an excuse.

They’re especially disheartened because of signs that progress is indeed being made, and that more is possible. Wind and solar energy is being used more widely. Electric car sales are growing. “Low-hanging fruit” prospects for further carbon cuts – moving away from coal, for instance, or reducing the amounts of methane that escape during gas production and transport – are available.

In that context, it’s not a matter of choosing to address one urgent crisis rather than another, they argue. It’s about the value judgment, the “wider responsibility” choices.

It’s about doing both.

My own late father-in-law faced a similar trade-off in very different circumstances, when he led a campaign during World War II to persuade the U.S. government to save European Jews from the Nazi Holocaust. Though the Roosevelt administration did, late in the war, finally move to help, officials argued for a long time that such action would deflect them from their central goal of defeating Adolf Hitler.

Early in his advocacy campaign, he partnered with the celebrated screenwriter Ben Hecht to place a series of controversial full-page ads in The New York Times. One featured a Hecht ballad counseling the Jews just to suffer in silence: Their voices weren’t being heard anyway.

The poem ended with a powerfully ironic line that may resonate with those now arguing for stronger action on climate change:

The world is busy with other news.

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