The recent COP26 meetup in Glasgow was supposedly our last best chance to take real climate action and avert disaster, but then: more blah, blah, blah.
COP26, the 26th “Conference of Parties” who signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1994, is in the can. After watching the reports come out of this year’s conference and seeing how much progress was (not) made, it’s hard to believe that our world leaders are ever going to do much towards mitigating the worst effects of climate change.
The mix of COP26 attendees gave some small reason for hope. A handful of young, Indigenous women came from places as far apart as Alaska, New Zealand, Uganda and Samoa. They came not to add an obligatory show of trauma on behalf of their beleaguered nations, bearing the brunt of climate damage that they did not cause. No, they came to show that they were ready to fight. Young people and people from economically disadvantaged and Indigenous nations have the most to lose from the coming changes, and they’re not ready to give up.
Simon Kofe, the foreign minister from Tuvalu, an island nation lying halfway between Hawaii and Australia, appeared via video. He spoke while standing in knee-deep seawater, at a coastal spot which had been dry land. “We cannot wait for speeches while the sea is rising around us all the time,” he said. “We are sinking, but so is everyone else.”
Another young person sick of the speechifying is Greta Thunberg. Catching a train from London to make herself heard at COP26, she spoke during days of protests held outside the conference by everyday people hoping to be heard. “This is a Global North greenwash festival,” she said. “A two week long celebration of business as usual and blah, blah, blah!” While critics fault her for both being a teenager and for idealism in the absence of vast real-world knowledge (again, a teenager), she’s not wrong.
Inside the conference, those who swooped in on carbon-fueled jets were rubbing shoulders with fossil fuel-backed attendees. The moment we saw assembled G20 leaders literally throwing coins in a fountain just prior to the COP26 opening ceremonies, we should have known that we’re toast. The existential threat felt by people like Simon Kofe, the Indigenous women crowded into a rental unit an hour away so they could represent their people, and yes, even Greta Thunberg, doesn’t seem to seriously touch the COP26 leaders gathered to hammer out agreements in the interests of everyone’s future.
The biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis are intimately connected, part of a growing suite of human-caused problems threatening to cascade if we don’t take real, measurable action. And yet, “nature-based solutions” were a contentious topic at COP26. While replanting mangrove forests and setting aside conservation zones are worthwhile restorative actions towards climate goals, such actions shouldn’t be taken in a mechanistic way that treats nature like a mere commodity. What good is a conservation area that tosses out the Indigenous people who may well be the reason the area has any life left? If anything, we should be handing #landback.
Late in the conference, the United States and China announced a surprise agreement to work together to limit carbon dioxide and methane emissions. The industrialized world, and especially these two powers, have the responsibility of leading the rest in climate action (and sacrifices). Unfortunately, the agreement was noticeably lacking specificity. Intending to one day take action is not the same as taking action, and promising to “make best efforts” may not be good enough. As Thunberg would say, “blah blah blah.”
Another 200 nations signed on to a compromise agreement that nobody thought was enough but which was “better than nothing.” At the last minute, India intervened to change language in the agreement from “phase out” coal-based power to “phase down.” While delegates from Mexico and Switzerland objected to the late change, perhaps it was a miracle that anyone agreed to phase coal power anything but “up.”
That’s because the fossil fuel industry had more delegates and lobbyists present at COP26 than any individual country, and outnumbered official Indigenous attendees 2-to-1. It’s not only those who live on tiny Pacific atolls or coastal areas feeling existentially threatened. The fossil fuel industry fears for its life, too. Like tobacco industry lobbyists at a World Health Organization conference, they came to deal in watered down half- (or quarter-) measures, the better to keep their shareholders afloat, even if that means the rest of us are underwater. One must have a sense of priorities, after all.
Priorities, however, are mighty individualized. As COP26 wound down in Glasgow, The Guardian reported the results of a 10 country survey undertaken in September, regarding attitudes about climate change and what people are willing to do to avert it. Turns out, the answer is “not very much.” While 62% of those polled perceived the climate crisis as the definitive environmental problem of our time, 36% self-identified as “highly committed to preserving the planet,” and 76% “would accept stricter environmental rules and regulations,” nearly half of respondents (46%) already felt like they were doing enough and that there was no real need to make personal changes or take further action in their own lives to further the cause of climate stability. Why not do more? 76% said they “were proud of what they’re already doing.” They want other people to go first.
Somebody had better go first. While the movers and shakers at COP26 are more than willing to toss around ideas like carbon pricing, diverting funds from future fossil fuel projects (never current ones) to green energy, and dreams of technology we don’t have yet and maybe never will, these aren’t going to save the shoreline of Tuvalu or Wales. The actions that will are the ones we’re unwilling to discuss. We’d better discuss them before too long, though, or we oughtn’t bother with COP27 (to be held in Egypt). We’ve known this was a serious problem since the 1970s at the very least. Frankly, we shouldn’t have needed more than COP1.
That’s too many years of blah, blah, blah.