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Opinion: War and energy woes push the climate crisis to the back seat 

As Russia resumed its supply of natural gas to Germany after weeks of what it called “maintenance” on its Nord Stream 1 pipeline, leaders in Berlin breathed a sigh of relief. A day earlier, US President Joe Biden chose to defer declaring a climate emergency, which could have unleashed a wave of resources to fight the crisis, despite his opponents torpedoing his plans.

At the same time, Europe more widely is devouring enormous amounts of liquefied natural gas — a harmful fossil fuel — imported from the US and other allies to temper its reliance on Russian energy. Europe is also returning to coal, the most carbon-heavy of fossil fuels.

All this while the northern hemisphere swelters through a summer of extreme heat. More than 100 million Americans are under heat alerts as a heat wave spread further and further afield. They are forced to stay home or seek air-conditioned venues until the heat passes. Germany has had its hottest day of the year. Greece is literally putting out fires around its capital.

Yet Germany and Netherlands are upping their coal use. Greece’s state energy company said last week it would delay its coal exit by another one to two years. Even Austria, which stopped using coal for power in 2020, is preparing to reopen a mothballed plant in case of a winter emergency.

Countries committed to fighting climate change are being cornered into pushing the issue to the back seat as Russia’s war exacerbates a global energy crunch and a cost of living crisis.

And ironically, the climate crisis is worsening energy shortages in a vicious cycle. Extreme heat is causing some power plants to buckle, forcing blackouts, even in homes that rely on air conditioning to keep temperatures tolerable.

Just about everyone in the northern hemisphere is talking about air conditioners. Those who have them are cranking them up. Many who don’t are thinking about buying them. That requires more energy, usually from burning fossil fuels, and so the cycle goes on.

But there is reality to what energy sources are available here and now. Slow action on the green transition in the past means there simply aren’t enough renewables for a quick fix.

“We’re going to have to swallow some uncomfortable options in the short term to get through this winter,” said Tara Connolly, a senior gas campaigner with the NGO Global Witness.

Europe’s climate paradox

In Europe, where scorching temperatures broke records in the UK and left hundreds of millions sweltering on the continent, this week’s heat wave has exposed deficiencies in how prepared some countries are for extreme weather.

“The current heatwave should be driving more action,” said Lisa Fischer, program leader at London-based environmental think tank E3G. “It affects productivity, it affects the functions of the economy … that feedback loop hasn’t been understood in the past.”

The effects of the climate crisis are visible almost wherever we look: Several days of unusually warm weather in northern Greenland have triggered rapid melting there, and globally, hot-temperature records are outpacing cool records by 10 to 1, according to data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

To reduce its reliance on Russian gas, the European Union on Wednesday unveiled an emergency rationing plan. The “Save Gas for a Safe Winter” plan announced sets a target for the 27 member states to reduce their gas demand by 15% between August and March next year. That reduction is based on countries’ average gas consumption during the same months over the previous five years.

Among the proposed measures, the EU Commission is encouraging industry to switch to alternate energy sources — including coal where necessary — and to introduce auction systems that compensate companies for reducing their gas consumption.

“We’re seeing an acceleration on clean energy … what has previously been seen as climate action has become part of the energy security conversation,” Fischer said. “(And) it’s remarkable that the European Green Deal hasn’t been dropped or abandoned” amid this turbulent period, she added.

Analysis by Rob Picheta and Angela Dewan, CNN

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