Global efforts to address climate change are already clouded by bitterness and distrust among countries of the world.
Now a widening gyre of conflict in the Middle East threatens to fracture an already divided world, raise oil and gas prices at a time of persistently high global inflation and direct financial resources to the business of fighting wars instead of the business of slowing down climate change.
That the fighting between Israel and Hamas is in the middle of an energy-rich region amplifies the risk. It tempts countries to secure their supplies of oil and gas rather than transitioning away from them, even after the hottest summer on record.
The winners so far are the producers of weapons and, to a lesser degree, of oil. Defense stocks have rallied. Oil prices inched up. The historical echoes are chilling, coming 50 years after the Arab oil embargo roiled energy markets. That episode was provoked by the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
All of this makes the next round of climate negotiations, scheduled for late November in the United Arab Emirates, itself a Persian Gulf petrostate, even more complicated.
The next few weeks will be crucial. If the conflict spills across the Middle East, it would likely shatter hopes of mustering global agreement on anything else, including the shared crisis of climate.
“This is a fundamental test of whether nations can firewall climate diplomacy from immediate crises,” said Comfort Ero, president of the International Crisis Group, a research organization.
Leaders of the U.A.E., who continue to expand oil and gas production, face a particularly acute challenge. They are responsible for bringing countries together at the climate talks, even as they are expected to take up the Palestinians’ cause at the United Nations Security Council, where they hold a rotating seat this year.
Risk: Cooperation Fractures Further
The conflict has erupted at a time of many crises across a deeply divided world. It follows a global pandemic and comes amid a war in Ukraine that has pummeled economies, driven countries deeper into debt, raised food and fuel prices, and worsened hunger among some of the world’s poorest people.
“Any increase in geopolitical tensions, any fracturing of multilateralism, will potentially make significant cooperative progress more difficult,” said Tim Benton, director of the Environment and Society Center at Chatham House, a London-based research organization.
Already tensions between the United States and China, the world’s two biggest economies and also the two biggest emitters of planet-heating greenhouse gases, have spilled into climate politics. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moscow and Beijing have strengthened ties.
At the same time, India is buying discounted oil from Russia and Russia is courting countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Among the world’s less-wealthy nations, grievances are piling up over the West’s failure to share access to Covid vaccines and provide sufficient financial aid to help poor countries deal with climate hazards.
Risk: Inflation Gets Worse
The global economy remains sluggish, and an increase in oil prices could further complicate central bankers’ efforts to tame inflation.
Biden administration officials are particularly nervous about oil. So far, energy has avoided a big supply shock, but it could see one if the conflict spreads to Iran or other major oil producers nearby.
Even a temporary loss of oil supply could once again send gasoline prices soaring in the United States, eroding voter support for President Biden and leaving him more vulnerable to Republicans who have attacked his climate agenda. U.S. officials worry that erosion would more than offset any climate gains from a temporary period of high oil prices, like $5-a-gallon gasoline pushing more people to buy electric cars.
If an oil shock further raises global interest rates, that would make it even more difficult to draw investment into renewable energy projects, particularly in emerging markets and developing countries, where the cost of capital is already far higher than in the United States and Europe. What’s more, even rich countries would find it harder to throw public money into shifting their economies away from fossil fuels.
Risk: Money Fails to Flow, Still
Rich countries had promised to provide $100 billion a year by 2020 to assist lower-income countries adapt to climate risks and scale up renewable energy. They have yet to deliver. Anger and frustration are simmering among the would-be recipients.
Even $100 billion would be a drop in the bucket. If the world is to hit the target of keeping the average global temperature from rising past 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, compared to before the industrial age, an estimated $4.5 trillion a year is needed between now and 2030 in renewable energy investments, according to the International Energy Agency.
To proponents of renewable energy, that makes sense not just to slow warming but to ensure energy security. Today’s conflict in the Middle East “should also be a stark reminder that moving to clean-energy solutions faster benefits not only the climate equation, but energy security, too,” said Jason Bordoff, who heads the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.