How we can share our divided world

Co-operation is essential if nations are to provide the necessary global public goods for humanity

Martin Wolf 

© James Ferguson

Human ingenuity has delivered an integrated global economy, weapons of mass destruction, and threats to the biosphere on which we rely. 

Yet human nature remains that of an instinctively tribal primate. 

This contradiction is becoming more important than before, as interdependence deepens and superpower rivalry grows.

This raises a sobering question: is it possible for a divided humanity to provide essential global public goods? 

Since Xi Jinping, leader of the country with the largest emissions of greenhouse gases, has decided not even to attend COP26 in Glasgow, the answer does not appear encouraging.

The core global public goods are prosperity, peace and protection against planetary disasters, such as climate change or serious pandemics. 

These goods are interconnected: without peace among great powers, prosperity is at best fragile; and neither peace nor prosperity will last in a world ravaged by environmental catastrophes.

States exist to provide public goods and even so often fail to do so. 

But no global state exists. 

Instead, global public goods must be provided by agreement among some 200 sovereign nations, especially competing great powers. 

This leads to freeriding and disputes over whether planned burden sharing is fair.

After the second world war, global prosperity was underpinned by a patchwork of rules and institutions designed and run by western powers, led by the US. 

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union chose to stay outside the new system. 

The rules governing trade were built on the mercantilist principle of reciprocity. 

Meanwhile, after the collapse of the Bretton Woods exchange rate regime in 1971, currencies and capital flows were unmanaged. 

Migration has also been left to decisions by individual states.

Meanwhile, global peace was maintained by a balance of terror between the contending nuclear-armed superpowers. 

But this did not preclude proxy wars and very dangerous moments, notably the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

Finally, action on the global environment and even pandemics has been limited and ineffective, apart from one great success, the agreement on the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer of 1987. 

We have now been engaging in discussions of the threat of climate change for three decades: emissions have continued to rise throughout.

Alas, our ability to provide global public goods, modest in the past, is likely to shrink still further as rivalry between the US and China grows. 

True, China is not promoting a global ideology, as the Soviet Union did. 

Nevertheless, China and the US are very different countries, one a centralised despotism, the other a crumbling democracy. 

Unlike the Soviet Union, China has a dynamic market economy highly integrated into the world economy. 

It is also central in resolving global environmental challenges. 

Managing the global public goods of prosperity and protection of the planet — in addition, evidently, to peace — cannot be done without China.

So, how might this work, not just over the next few years, but over what is likely to be many decades, possibly generations? 

The short answer is: with difficulty. 

The longer answer is: by being ambitiously pragmatic. 

We need to accept that we share our planet and interact with one another too profoundly to avoid co-operation, however much we may dislike one another. 

What we must do is define and internalise the fundamental interests that unite us.

What might this mean in practice?

On prosperity, the most important requirement is for every country, especially the superpowers, to define the freedom they need to protect their desired economic, political and security autonomy, while sticking to the commitments that make their actions predictable.

On peace, the objective must be transparency about each side’s objectives and capabilities, with a view to avoiding military or related surprises. 

This will require deep engagement between Chinese and western military and civil establishments, across the board.

On protection of the planet, among the most important challenges, it is essential to agree on how to mitigate threats to climate. 

The outcome of COP26 will provide a compelling indication of whether this is possible. 

But greater capacity to manage pandemics is also urgent.

We are at a hinge moment in history.

The old western-dominated economic system is not going to develop into a more ordered global system, as some hoped in the 1990s. 

Meanwhile, the great challenge of securing peace in a nuclear age remains and the newer challenge of protecting the biosphere is becoming ever more urgent.

We must not abandon attempts at global co-operation. 

That would be a catastrophe imperilling peace, prosperity and planet. 

We must focus, instead, on defining and then making workable the minimum co-operation we must now have if humanity is to achieve what we will all need.

This will involve sitting down with one another to establish or renew: first, institutions and practices for promoting prosperity that can offer economic development, debt management, and liberal and predictable trade; second, institutions and practices for protecting peace that will deliver transparency and credible security to all; and, finally, institutions and practices for protecting the planet that will deliver a habitable Earth for us and our fellow creatures.

None of this will be easy. 

Yet we have reached a point at which the alternative to rising above our limitations is catastrophe. 

If we are to enjoy peace, to prosper and to protect our planet, we must agree to disagree, while still co-operating.

No reasonable alternative exists.

As Earth Warms, Human History Is Melting Away

Climate change is revealing long-frozen artifacts and animals to archaeologists. But the window for study is slender and shrinking.

By Franz Lidz

A mask belonging to the Yup’ik people of Alaska emerging from the permafrost. It is one of more than 100,000 artifacts retrieved from Nunalleq, the site of a village that was attacked by rivals 350 years ago.Credit...University of Aberdeen

For the past few centuries, the Yup’ik peoples of Alaska have told gruesome tales of a massacre that occurred during the Bow and Arrow War Days, a series of long and often brutal battles across the Bering Sea coast and the Yukon. 

According to one account, the carnage started when one village sent a war party to raid another. 

But the residents had been tipped off and set an ambush, wiping out the marauders. 

The victors then attacked the undefended town, torching it and slaughtering its inhabitants. 

No one was spared.

For the last 12 years, Rick Knecht has led an excavation at a site called Nunalleq, about 400 miles west of Anchorage. 

“When we began, the hope was to learn something about Yup’ik prehistory by digging in an average village,” said Dr. Knecht, an archaeologist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. 

“Little did we know that we were digging in something approaching the Yup’ik equivalent of Troy.”

Their most astonishing discovery was the charred remnants of a large communal sod house. 

The ground was black and clayey and riddled with hundreds of slate arrow points, as if from a prehistoric drive-by shooting. 

In all, the researchers and native Yup’ik people who live in the area unearthed more than 100,000 well-preserved artifacts, as well as the singed carrion of two dogs and the scattered bones of at least 28 people, almost all women, children and elders. 

Several of them had evidently been dragged out of the house, bound with grass rope and killed — some beheaded. 

“It is a complex murder scene,” Dr. Knecht said. 

“It is also a rare and detailed archaeological example of Indigenous warfare.”

Until recently, the site had been deepfrozen in the subsoil known as permafrost. 

As global temperatures gather pace, permafrost and glaciers are thawing and eroding rapidly across vast areas of Earth, releasing many of the objects that they had absorbed and revealing aspects of life in a once inaccessible past.

“The circumpolar world is, or was, full of miraculously preserved sites like Nunalleq,” Dr. Knecht said. 

“They offer a window into the unexpectedly rich lives of prehistoric hunters and foragers like no other.”

The Iceman emerges

Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old man discovered in the Alps in 1991, in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.Credit...Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

Glacial archaeology is a relatively new discipline. 

The ice was literally broken during the summer of 1991 when German hikers in the Ötztal Alps spotted a tea-colored corpse half-embedded on the Italian side of the border with Austria. 

Initially mistaken for a modern-day mountaineer killed in a climbing accident, Ötzi the Iceman, as he came to be called, was shown through carbon-dating to have died about 5,300 years ago.

A short, comprehensively tattooed man in his mid-40s, Ötzi wore a bearskin cap, several layers of clothing made of goat and deer hides, and bearskin-soled shoes stuffed with grass to keep his feet warm. 

The Iceman’s survival gear included a longbow of yew, a quiver of arrows, a copper ax and a kind of crude first-aid kit full of plants with powerful pharmacological properties. 

A chest X-ray and a CT scan showed a flint arrowhead buried deep in Ötzi’s left shoulder, suggesting that he may have bled to death. 

His killing is humankind’s oldest unsolved cold case.

Six years later, in the Yukon’s snow fields, hunting tools dating back thousands of years appeared from the melting ice. 

Soon, similar finds were reported in Western Canada, the Rockies and the Swiss Alps.

In 2006, a long, hot autumn in Norway resulted in an explosion of discoveries in the snowbound Jotunheimen mountains, home to the Jötnar, the rock and frost giants of Norse mythology. 

Of all the dislodged detritus, the most intriguing was a 3,400-year-old proto-Oxford most likely fashioned out of reindeer hide.

The discovery of the Bronze Age shoe signified the beginning of glacial surveying in the peaks of Innlandet County, where the state-funded Glacier Archaeology Program was started in 2011. 

Outside of the Yukon, it is the only permanent rescue project for discoveries in ice.

The Langfonne ice patch in Norway. Credit...Glacier Archaeology Program, Innlandet County Council

Glacial archaeology differs from its lowland cousin in critical ways. 

G.A.P. researchers usually conduct fieldwork only within a short time frame from mid-August to mid-September, between the thaw of old snow and the arrival of new. 

“If we start too early, much of the snow from the previous winter will still cover the old ice and lessen the chance of making discoveries,” said Lars Holger Pilo, co-director of the Glacier Archaeology Program. 

“Starting too late is also hazardous. 

We might get early winter snow, and the field season could be over before we begin.” 

Glacial discoveries tend to be limited to what archaeologists can glean on the previously ice-locked ground.

When the program started, the finds were mainly Iron Age and medieval, from 500 to 1,500 years ago. 

But as the melting widens, ever older periods of history are being exposed. 

“We have now melted back to the Stone Age in some places, with pieces as old as six millenniums,” Dr. Pilo said. 

“We are speeding back in time.”

To date, the Glacier Archaeology Program has recovered about 3,500 artifacts, many preserved in extraordinary delicacy. 

Norway has more than half of the prehistoric and medieval finds from the ice globally. 

A freshly unfrozen alpine pass at Lendbreen — in use from about 600 to 1,700 years ago — yielded evidence of the tradespeople who traversed it: horseshoes, horse dung, a rudimentary ski and even a box filled with beeswax.

Over the last decade, the relics melting out of the Alps have included the mummified remains of a Swiss couple missing since 1942 and the wreckage of an American military plane that crash-landed during turbulent weather in 1946. 

In Russia, scientists have regenerated reproductive tissue from unripe fruits of a narrow-leafed campion freeze-dried under the tundra for 32,000 years. 

A farsighted arctic ground squirrel had stored the fruit in its burrow.

This 42-inch-long foreshaft of a throwing spear, carved from birch sapling and estimated to be 10,300 years old, is the earliest organic artifact ever to be retrieved from ice.Credit...Tara L. Hornung/INSTAAR

Spectacular glacial finds invariably involve luck, as Craig Lee, an archaeologist at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, can attest. 

Fourteen years ago, in the mountain ice outside Yellowstone National Park, he spotted the foreshaft of a throwing spear called an atlatl dart, carved from a birch sapling 10,300 years ago. 

The primitive hunting weapon is the earliest organic artifact ever to be retrieved from an ice patch.

“In the Yukon, ice patch discoveries have given us new insights into the pre-European tradition of copper-working by Indigenous peoples,” said William Taylor, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History in Boulder. 

“In the Rockies, researchers have recovered everything from frozen trees that document important changes in climate and vegetation to the hunting implements of some of the first peoples of the continent.”

Dr. Taylor’s own work focuses on the relationship between climate and social change in early nomadic societies. 

His ongoing survey of melting ice margins in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia has produced artifacts that upended some of the most basic archaeological assumptions about the area’s history. 

Although people in the region have long been classified as herders, Dr. Taylor’s team discovered an icy killing ground of argali sheep, along with the spears and arrows used to slay them. 

Laboratory analysis revealed that big-game hunting has been an essential part of pastoral subsistence and culture in the Eastern Steppes for more than 3,500 years.

Meet the ancient beetles

Researchers examined the 42,000-year-old remains of a foal, just a week or two old and belonging to an extinct species, that was dug from permafrost in Siberia’s Batagaika Crater in 2018.Credit...Michil Yakovlev/EPA, via Shutterstock

About 10 percent of the planet’s land mass is covered with glacial ice, and as the world defrosts, ancient creatures great and small are being unburied as well. 

In southern Chile, dozens of nearly complete skeletons of ichthyosaurs were disgorged near the Tyndall Glacier. 

The marine reptiles lived between the Triassic and Cretaceous periods, which extended from 66 million to 250 million years ago.

Three-million-year-old insect fossils have been recovered in eastern Alaska (blind weevils of the genus Otibazo) and the western Yukon Territory (the species Notiophilus aeneus, better known as brassy big-eyed beetles).

The flashiest archaeological finds in Yakutia, a republic in northeastern Siberia, have been the carcasses of woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos, steppe bison and cave lions — big cats that once roamed widely across the northern hemisphere. 

The extinct beasts had lain suspended in their refrigerated graves for nine millenniums or more, like grapes in Jell-O.

In 2018, a perfectly intact 42,000-year-old foal — a long-gone species known as the Lena horse — was found entombed in the ice of Siberia’s Batagaika Crater with urine in its bladder and liquid blood in its veins.

Dogor — an 18,000-year-old puppy found in Yakutia, Siberia — appears to occupy a novel niche somewhere between wolves and modern dogs. Credit...Academy of Science of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia)

That same year, in other parts of Yakutia, mammoth hunters chanced upon the severed head of a vanished subspecies of wolf, and researchers dug up an 18,000-year-old puppy that looked like nothing alive today. 

“The canine may have been an evolutionary link between wolves and modern dogs,” said Love Dalén, a Swedish geneticist who has sequenced the creature’s genome. 

“It is named Dogor, which means ‘friend’ in the Yakut language and is also a clever play on the question ‘dog or wolf.’”

Dogor was exhumed in an icy lump of mud near the Indigirka River. 

Ice patches turn out to be where most discoveries are made. 

The basic difference between a glacier and an ice patch is that a glacier moves. 

An ice patch does not move much, which makes it a more reliable preservationist.

“The constant movement inside glaciers damages both bodies and artifacts, and eventually dumps the sad debris at the mouth of the ice floe,” Dr. Pilo, of the Glacier Archaeology Program in Norway, said. 

“Due to the movement and the continuous renewal of the ice, glaciers rarely preserve objects more than 500 years.”

Dr. Lee, of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, likens the destruction wrought by glacial degeneration to a library on fire. 

“Now is not the time to stand around pointing fingers at one another trying to lay blame for the blaze,” he said. 

“Now is the time to rescue what books can be saved for the edification of the future.”

On thin ice

Rick Knecht, right, showing local children the Yup’ik artifacts recovered from Nunalleq in 2019.Credit...Mark Ralston/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It’s a grim inside joke among glacial archaeologists that their field of study has been one of the few beneficiaries of climate change. 

But while retreating ice and snow makes some prehistoric treasures briefly accessible, exposure to the elements threatens to swiftly destroy them.

Once soft organic materials — leather, textiles, arrow fletchings — surface, researchers have a year at most to rescue them for conservation before the items degrade and are lost forever. 

“After they are gone,” Dr. Taylor said, “our opportunity to use them to understand the past and prepare for the future is gone with them.”

E. James Dixon, former director of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico, agreed. 

“The sheer scale of the loss relative to the number of archaeologists researching these sites is overwhelming,” he said. 

“It’s like an archaeological mass extinction where certain types of sites are all disappearing at approximately the same time.”

Climate change has brought with it a cascade of consequences. Oceanfront erosion has been devastating. 

In some parts of Alaska, as much as a mile of coastline has receded over the last 80 years, and with it the entire archaeological and fossil record. 

“Sites are not just being washed away, but literally rotting in the ground,” Dr. Knecht said.

“Saving what we can isn’t just a matter of safeguarding Yup’ik culture or northern prehistory, but the heritage of all humanity,” he said. 

“After all, hunting and foraging is how all humans lived for the vast majority of our collective existence on earth.”

Will This COP Be Different?

Limiting global warming to 1.5º Celsius remains just about attainable, but the path to this target is formidable. The United Nations climate summit now underway in Glasgow will indicate whether political efforts to achieve this goal are likely to heat up as fast as scientists tell us the planet is.

Kenneth Rogoff

CAMBRIDGE – As world leaders gather at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, there is tremendous ebullience about the potential of green energy sources. 

But the hard fact is that fossil fuels still account for 80% of global energy, as they did when governments signed the Paris climate agreement to much fanfare at COP21 six years ago. 

And even though many economies have not yet returned to their pre-pandemic GDP level, the world is on track in 2021 to post its second-largest annual increase in carbon dioxide emissions on record.

True, the International Energy Agency’s recent flagship World Energy Outlook report, which remains the gold standard of energy analysis, strikes an optimistic note by placing greater emphasis on what can be done to limit global warming. 

But at the same time, “keeping the door to 1.5°C open” seems to involve so many moving parts, innovations, adaptations, and, yes, sacrifices, that it is hard to see how it will work without the global carbon price most economists regard as necessary. 

In particular, a carbon tax simultaneously incentivizes and coordinates emissions-reduction efforts, and allocates resources accordingly, in ways that state planners simply cannot achieve.

The idea of a carbon tax remains political anathema in the United States; it briefly came to the fore in the recent budget negotiations but was dropped like a hot potato. 

Instead, President Joe Biden will promote a mélange of measures – such as a shift to electric cars and an end to fossil-fuel development – that are mostly good ideas, but together are vastly more expensive and less efficient than a carbon tax.

The European Union, with its Emissions Trading System (a cap-and-trade alternative to a carbon tax), has made more progress on carbon pricing. 

Even so, the scheme currently covers only about 50% of the EU’s greenhouse-gas emissions and gives many allowances for free. 

No wonder, then, that policymakers in emerging and low-income economies react so cynically when they are asked to risk slowing down their countries’ economic development in order to help combat climate change. 

Many of them instead ask why global climate accords do not push all countries to achieve similar levels of per capita emissions.

Even if a global carbon tax magically came to pass, the world would still need a mechanism for transferring resources and know-how to developing economies to prevent them from becoming the major emitters of the future. 

I have promoted the idea of establishing a dedicated World Carbon Bank that would house technical expertise, facilitate the exchange of best practices, and help channel hundreds of billions of dollars in grants and loans to lower-income countries.

Buy-in from developing countries is essential. Coal, which accounts for 30% of global CO2 emissions, is cheap and plentiful in countries such as India and China. 

Although 21 countries have pledged to phase out coal-fired power, nearly all of them are in Europe, and they account for only about 5% of the world’s coal-fired power stations. 

China’s recent pledge to stop building new coal plants abroad is a good start. 

But China itself produces more than half of the world’s coal-fired power, and many other countries, such as Vietnam, will presumably now build more coal plants on their own.

Moreover, even with a carbon tax, regulators will still have to tackle myriad issues, such as deciding where wind turbines can be built, how legacy coal-powered electricity plants can be phased out, and to what extent natural gas can be used as a transitional energy source. 

Because wind and solar are intermittent energy sources, there is a strong case for a renewed push to ramp up nuclear power. 

This would involve using much safer modern technologies to build both large-scale power plants and the kind of small-scale generators used in nuclear submarines.

Green political parties may cringe at such an idea, but climate literacy needs to be married with energy literacy. 

Achieving “net-zero” CO2 emissions by 2050, by which time the world may have two billion more people than it does now, requires some hard choices.

Convincing policymakers and the public to confront those choices is not easy. 

A lack of wind this past summer has contributed to the current energy crisis in Europe, where leaders are now hoping that Russian President Vladimir Putin will provide the region with more natural gas. 

Likewise, with energy prices set to soar this winter, Biden has implored OPEC countries to produce more oil, even as his administration attempts to reduce domestic fossil-fuel production.

Environmental, social, and governance investing, whose proponents aim to choke off capital for fossil-fuel investment, has been all the rage, and for a while even seemed to offer handsome returns. 

But with energy prices surging again, that may no longer be the case. 

In any event, even if advanced economies – perhaps including the US and recalcitrant Australia – ban fossil-fuel exploration, less developed economies will still have powerful incentives to expand the exploitation of their own CO2-emitting resources.

It is encouraging that the IEA still sees limiting global warming to 1.5°C as an attainable target, even if the path is formidable. 

Unfortunately, it remains very much in question whether political efforts to achieve this goal will heat up as fast as scientists tell us the planet is. 

When it comes to climate summits, therefore, one can only hope that the 26th time is the charm.

Kenneth Rogoff, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University and recipient of the 2011 Deutsche Bank Prize in Financial Economics, was the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund from 2001 to 2003. He is co-author of This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly and author of The Curse of Cash.