Press play to listen to this article
ZUGSPITZE, Germany — If they need reminding about the urgency of climate change and their role in stopping it, all G7 leaders needed to do was look up.
High above the opulent Schloss Elmau, the resort in which the leaders of the world’s most powerful democracies have held earnest (and not so earnest) discussions over the past three days, Germany’s largest — soon to be last — glacier sits in a saddle at the top of the 2,962-meter Zugspitze mountain.
The glacier is dying, losing 250 liters of water — more than a bathtub — every 30 seconds. A scientific survey last year found it would likely disappear within the next decade. In any case, scientists say, it is melting and can’t be saved.
Climate change, which is killing glaciers and reshaping the planet, has been a top priority of the G7 for years. But with the war in Ukraine, spiralling inflation, global food shortages, and spiking energy costs — the leaders of the largest industrialized democracies were once again daunted and distracted by immediate imperatives.
As they wrapped up their talks, the world’s most powerful leaders seemed to be tinkering at the margins and failing on all fronts — powerless to stop Russia’s war or stop prices from racing out of control, unable to stop the Zugspitze glacier from melting, or to even to end the blockade of millions of tons of Ukrainian grain vitally needed to feed the developing world.
While they boasted of uncommon and unprecedented shared purpose in tackling all of these challenges, the solutions they endorsed in some cases seemed self-defeating and contradictory, such as seeking to lower the prices of oil and gas while simultaneously restating their aims to end the use of fossil fuels. They want to end the war but not fight in it. They want to promote rules-based capitalism, while imposing price controls on energy.
“The decisions now being made do not address the issue of the war in a timely way and exacerbate the challenges of the climate crisis,” said David King, chair of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group and the U.K.’s former chief scientific adviser, as the meeting closed.
The impossibly difficult circumstances and excruciating choices facing the leaders underscored the inherent contradiction between their own short-term electoral imperatives, driven by impatient voters are constantly demanding to see instant results, and the long-term moral obligation to do right by their great-great-great-great grandchildren not yet born.
When G7 leaders last year gathered in Carbis Bay, England, they could hardly have foreseen that discussions at their next summit would be dominated by the return of large-scale war to Europe. The focus then was on the fallout from the COVID pandemic, and more broadly on climate change and the clear, rising threat of China.
Rockets versus rhetoric
But on Sunday, as leaders arrived in Bavaria, the focus was primarily on the war in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was kicked out of the G8 in response to his invasion of Crimea in 2014, quickly sent an unmistakable message as Russia unleashed a barrage of missiles at Kyiv, the first strikes on the Ukrainian capital in weeks.
The explosions, which damaged a residential apartment tower, provided an unnecessary reminder that despite Ukraine’s initial success in pushing back Russian troops that had sought to seize Kyiv and topple the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, none of the steps taken by the West in support of Ukraine — neither stiff sanctions, large supplies of weapons, nor political statements like the granting of EU candidate status — have deterred Putin from persisting in his military onslaught and effort to capture all of Donbas.
Russia’s war in Ukraine haunted nearly every conversation in Elmau, and even before the leaders welcomed Zelenskyy into their discussions on Monday via videolink they had announced a robust new package of military and financial assistance and promised to continue helping “for as long as it takes.”
The problem, however, is that none of it seems to be enough, and all of it is taking too long. Zelenskyy said as much, telling the leaders that his country was in desperate need of more advanced missile defense systems and pleading with them to help Ukraine tilt the war in its favor within the next months.
The continuing horrors of the war were further brought home to leaders during their discussions on Monday as Russian missiles struck a crowded shopping center in Kremenchuk in eastern Ukraine, killing at least 18 civilians and injuring many more.
And despite the resolve to help Ukraine, there were also some worrying signs of continuing differences in perspective among the G7 heads over how to deal with Putin, with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office using a readout of a bilateral meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron to pointedly stress Johnson’s message to his French counterpart that this is no time to think about settling the war.
Russian forces are now occupying large swaths of southern and eastern Ukraine and a ceasefire at this point would leave Putin solidly in control of that territory, including a so-called land bridge to Crimea.
But even as the G7 reiterated their commitment to Ukraine’s victory and, consequently, to Russia’s defeat, they did not even hint at taking action that might decisively shift the war, which seems destined to become an interminable battle of attrition.
Although military matters will be more directly discussed at a NATO summit in Madrid, where the G7 all jetted off at the close of their talks in the Bavarian Alps, there is no indication that Western powers would directly enter the conflict by, for example, imposing a no-fly zone. There was also no sign that they would even use military ships to potentially open a corridor for trapped Ukraine grain to be shipped around the world.
The blocked grain shipments are a major cause of a worsening global food crisis — although climate change plays a role here too. And the inability of the G7 to show any progress in breaking that impasse was a metaphor for their larger failure to move the ball forward on so many of their big policy objectives.
While they have had minimal success so far dealing with the short-term imperatives of responding to the war, as well as to inflation and spiking energy prices, those urgencies have distracted them from the longer-term challenge of climate change. In some cases, the remedies are directly contradictory — as in the case of seeking to cap the price of Russian oil, while simultaneously aiming to end the use of fossil fuels altogether.
Seven years ago, when the leaders of the same countries were last at Schloss Elmau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel secured a coup by convincing them to agree to end government subsidies for fossil fuels in 2025. In the years since there has been little to no decrease in subsidies globally, said Jakob Skovgaard, a political scientist at Lund University in Sweden who tracks the money.
Meanwhile the tax holidays on fuel taxes being proposed by several leaders, including Biden, “indicate that fossil fuel subsidies probably will increase in 2022,” said Skovgaard.
Flight back to fossil fuels
The self-sabotage continued apace in Bavaria this week.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had made it “much more urgent and led to many more actions so that we accelerate that transition off of our reliance on oil and gas altogether as a world.”
But neither that sentiment, nor the supposed actions, were reflected in the leader’s final statement. Putin’s war gave them urgent cause to shift off fossil fuels, they said, but only those from Russia.
The G7 leaders failed to credibly detail how they would meet their goal to nearly halve global emissions by 2030. It’s an effort that would require them to massively expand the use of renewables and, in some cases, nuclear power, clean vehicles and cut their energy use by replacing gas boilers with heat pumps.
In place of “bold, bold commitments,” said Dominika Lasota, a Polish climate activist who traveled to the summit, “we’re just seeing six or seven guys bragging about who is more positive about the summit, and, you know, who has better shirts and who can fly helicopters.”
In a sign of just how contradictory the leaders’ short and long-term imperatives are, German host Chancellor Olaf Scholz convinced the leaders to back a call for funding new gas infrastructure and exploration to quell Europe’s indefensible dependence on Russian imports.
Funding new oil and gas fields “works on the wrong time scale,” King said, noting that fields typically come into production about 15 years after they are discovered.
But new transit capacity will be required both in Europe and in the countries that would supply it, said Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at the Brugel think tank. There, the key will be to “not over-invest otherwise, these assets would become stranded assets.”
The leaders offered assurances that their climate commitment was unshaken. “It’s my worry as well. So we look at that with great care. We don’t want to recant, we don’t want to go back on our commitments,” said Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi at his closing press conference.
Unlike last year in Carbis Bay, there was barely a discussion about setting a date to phase out coal. In fact, Germany, among other EU countries, recently said it would temporarily restart its coal plants to boost power supply. Meanwhile, Japan was able to divert an effort to put in place a target for half of all new cars to be zero-emissions vehicles by 2030.
If there were advances, they were to be found in the G7’s vision for a different kind of engagement with the emerging economies that are driving the growth in the world’s emissions. A $600 billion infrastructure plan to counter China’s Belt and Road could lay the foundations for green energy in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Similarly, targeted interventions in coal-hungry economies — namely Vietnam, Indonesia, South Africa, India and Senegal — are now on the G7’s agenda.
They also agreed, tentatively, to form a Climate Club by the end of the year — an effort to incentivize green competition across the world, especially in China and big emerging economies, which were explicitly invited to join.
But on all of the above, details and real money were notably sparse. The game of catch-up on Belt and Road is agonizingly slow. The plans were announced at last year’s G7 meeting, but have made no concrete progress since.
Seven outgunned on the mountain
The political lifetimes of most of the G7 leaders are draining away even more rapidly than the ice of the Zugspitze glacier. But while the perspectives of the mighty in the valley below were being narrowed, at the summit’s other summit there were those who were blessed — and cursed — with a far longer view.
Theresa Zwinger’s family has run a restaurant on the mountaintop for over a hundred years. Her father, Hansjörg Barth, who is 74, does the cooking. He said the glacier has shrunk by 90 percent in the past half century.
“This used to be an unbroken blanket of snow, all snow-white, and in the middle the eye of the glacier, as they called it, the green glacier lake,” said Barth. “A beautiful picture.” Now the once-mighty sheet that literally carved the shape of the mountainside is a dirty off-white smudge in a high corner, surrounded by bare rock.
Zwinger, who is 30 years old, works as a personal injury lawyer during the winters but, like three generations before her, she works in the restaurant every summer. If she has children, she’d like them to continue the family tradition.
“But I don’t think they will,” she said. The foundations of the restaurant are sunk into the permafrost, which according to a scientific survey, has begun an irreversible melt of its own. The mountain itself will start to crumble beneath them as the ice that holds it together disappears.
In the face of such inexorable decline, the father and daughter — who understand nature better than any of the leaders down below — are skeptical that their accumulated power is any match for the planet’s unleashed forces.
“If the seven stick together, I think Putin will have to think again,” Barth said.
Zwinger, who was translating for POLITICO from her father’s heavy Bavarian dialect, explained the question was about an even more formidable menace: “No, he means climate change.”
“Ah climate change, that does zero for climate change,” he said.