Articles Climate & Communication Climate Change

What Went Wrong With COP26

By: Nora Germain

The COP26 international climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland has almost completely ended, and it has been a failure. Has there been progress made at this COP? If promises are kept, potentially, yes. Does that potential progress address the urgency and scale of the emergency? No. There have been decades of COP conferences and the ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen every single year. That means two things; What needs to be done has not been done yet, and, in those lost decades, we have thrown away precious time we could have used to decarbonize more slowly. Now we don’t have that luxury.

I didn’t attend COP26 and I won’t pretend to understand the intricacies of international deal making and negotiation, especially on an issue as complex as this. However, a few things have become glaringly obvious not only to me, but to the millions of COP26 observers worldwide.

Firstly, the fossil fuel industry dominated COP26. They had over 500 delegates at the event, which is more delegates than any other single nation had.

It would be nice to believe that all of these people were there to help accelerate change, offer their connections and infrastructure for solutions and to listen to the people facing the worst of the climate crisis. But, I don’t believe that, and neither should you. There is no reason why an emergency climate meeting among nations should be dominated by people who historically did everything they could, including lie, to slow progress on this very issue. Their presence in those numbers was inappropriate.

The next issue centers around public opinion. Climate activists exempt, the broad public has not been educated correctly on what a warmer planet really means. I watched two mini-documentaries on YouTube that attempted to explain climate risk. Both touched on some important issues like risk of increased wet bulb conditions and exposure to banks and the housing market, but they failed to accurately convey what’s on track to happen. They mention that a certain city may be at risk of this, or a certain country may have more days of that. These explanations are just not hitting people, and that’s part of the problem.

With current plans and targets, we are on track now to warm this planet by 2.5 degrees Celsius. This is a catastrophe. At just 2 degrees of warming, crops will fail at accelerating rates everywhere and coral reefs will likely all die. 40% of the world’s ~ 8 billion people live in a tropical zone and those are on track to become uninhabitable.

We have now warmed the planet about 1.3 degrees Celsius (from pre-industrial levels). Life is already unstable in many places. There are new oil and gas drilling permits being issued constantly. Do you see the problem here? These are the terms that the climate crisis should be discussed with. 

When we talk about the climate crisis, I understand it’s important to be clear about the science and to be precise. It’s important to be nuanced, to tell the truth, and to not paint either a rosier or a more devastating picture than the science can reasonably predict. But we cannot communicate this emergency if we talk about one city “possibly facing” an “increase of” this or that. The fact that at 2 degrees, it’s a near certainty that coral reefs go extinct should be motivation enough. We are on track to surpass even that critical mark.

Many powerful people around the world are motivated principally by money. That’s why there has been so much in the press lately about the housing market, the banks’ exposure, climate risk, ESG and so forth from corporations. But the way that these firms and tv producers talk about climate seems to always assume that the natural structures, our life support systems like rivers, mangroves, forests, healthy oceans and so forth — will still be intact. That is not guaranteed. We don’t know if many of our crops can survive 1.5 degrees, much less 2, or 2.5. We don’t know if the Amazon can survive this. There are many ecosystems and animals that have already perished (gone extinct), and we are only now hitting ~1.3 degrees. Does the public know this? Do people understand the landscape and the math? I don’t think they do.

Another issue with COP26 is that some nations didn’t show up at all. While Brazil tried to do its best to advocate for its precious Amazon rainforest, its leader Bolsonaro was absent. He is notoriously unreliable and even an enemy when it comes to climate action. Leaders from Russia, China and Turkey also did not take part in the conference, which is both infuriating and unsurprising. I have no answers about how to get these leaders, especially dictators, to find courage or empathy when it comes to the climate. But surely their absence did not help these negotiations, China’s especially.

Then of course we have Senator Joe Manchin, “Democrat” from West Virginia. I won’t get too much into this, but his singular vote is crucial to President Biden passing climate action, be it penalties, subsidies, revoking or granting permits, protecting federal land and so forth. Biden can only do so much through executive action, but he could exercise that a lot more.

West Virginia is a state known for its coal industry, albeit a dying one. Instead of fighting hard for his state, protecting its beautiful land, finding his constituents new, clean jobs, and, minor detail, helping the entire United States and world progress on climate, Manchin has consistently obstructed progress. This not only has shown the incredible power that just one vote can have over the lives of millions and billions of people, but also took the wind out of President Biden’s sails when he went to COP26. It took the energy, but also a lot of the international coalition building power, out of the conference. This was a diplomatic failure.

Of course we can’t mention COP26 without mentioning greed and consumerism. There was a lot of criticism made in these past two weeks about the private jets, the idling, shiny Maybachs belonging to wealthy delegates, the huge advertisers and brand presence trying to benefit from the billions of dollars being spent on greenwashing. More products. More merchandise. More of everything. Then there is the greed, the short-term mad dash for every last fossil fuel subsidy, every lost dollar put into coal, every last dollar put into advertising fossil fuels and gas cars and all the connected industries. It makes me so sad that politicians receive these contributions (read: bribes) from these companies and they view this money as sufficient motivation to destroy the world, to destroy the coral reefs, to destroy our Earthly paradise.

It’s not as though these people couldn’t find a few hundred thousand or a few million dollars elsewhere. They could get jobs in the private sector. Many of them are lawyers. They could do that. They could write books or be consultants. They could even try to be honest politicians. It’s not a bad paying gig, especially if you’re in it for decades. But no, they decide to take the dirty blood money, and be loyal to it over their children. It’s a disgrace.

George Monbiot summarized the state of COP26 beautifully in this video when he explained that humanity has no lack of money or technology to solve these problems. It’s a lack of political will, of raw human courage. It’s, in my opinion, a fear of being temporarily disliked, a fear of inconveniencing someone rich or powerful, even if you have both the right and the obligation to do so. These executives can find other jobs. They could have retired decades ago. They will be fine. Why are we so, so terrified to offend or upset them, even if it means saving humanity? Why can’t politicians stand up to these people finally, and do what the public wants?

Lastly, when I was watching this aforementioned CNBC piece about the housing market and climate, something struck me about a couple who lived in a home in South Florida. One of them mentioned that, to paraphrase, climate could only be partly to blame for the chronic and worsening flooding they experience, because flooding was happening “all over Florida,” and “all over the East Coast, even New York!” I think the logic was that the flooding couldn’t totally be the fault of the climate crisis, because it was so widespread. Who wouldn’t be shocked by this ignorance? Have we still not connected the dots on this? That flooding or any aspect of climate change can have incredibly wide-reaching consequences? Why does anyone still think that climate breakdown can only be observed acutely? This is incredibly naive.

Sadly, as it relates to COP26​​, I fear that these delegates and world leaders, as well as much of the global public, believe that we will always have time to try again. There will always be more time, there will always be a coral reef, and there will always be another chance. We cannot negotiate with physics, and as much destruction as we have already seen from the climate crisis around the world, I believe much, much more will have to be suffered before we truly comprehend what we’ve gotten ourselves into. I don’t write this to make anyone sad or alarmed. I write it because it’s the truth. I leave you with a recent Tweet from climate scientist Peter Kalmus which reads, “No words exist that can hold the immensity, the stupidity, and the cosmic-scale tragedy of climate and ecological breakdown.”

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