A Post-Mortem on Glasgow and COP26

Is There Hope to Mitigate the Climate Crisis?

Last November, representatives from more than 100 countries gathered in Glasgow, Scotland for a much-anticipated United Nations-sponsored climate conference. The goal was to try to forge international agreements to keep the earth’s temperature from rising more than 1.50 Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The stakes were and remain high: climate scientists consider 1.50 C to be a tipping point: exceeding that will bring us more severe flooding, wildfires, heatwaves, species extinctions, zoonotic diseases, and human displacement.

         An article in the November 19 edition of Science by Cathleen O’Grady laid out the Glasgow conference’s success and failures. To be sure, many things were accomplished, giving us some reason for hope that countries are finally taking the climate crisis seriously and are prepared to take meaningful action. More than 100 countries present at COP26 pledged to adopt new curbs on greenhouse gas emissions and the conference concluded with a call for “phasing down” burning coal and other fossil fuels.

         Other notable accomplishments included:

·  Hundreds of companies and investors made voluntary pledges to phase out gasoline powered cars, decarbonize air travel, protect forests, and ensure more sustainable investing.

·  There were agreements to halt and reverse deforestation

·  An agreement to cut methane gas emissions, which are more potent at warming the planet than carbon dioxide emissions, by 30% by 2030 gained international media attention

·  Countries decided to review their goals annually instead of every five years, with next year’s conference slated to take place in Egypt.

Representatives from nearly 200 countries gathered last November in Glasgow, Scotland for the U.N.-sponsored COP26 conference on climate change. While there were hopeful signs, many were disappointed by the conference’s ultimate outputs (image: Shutterstock).

A great deal of attention was placed at the conference on how high-income countries would deal with their responsibilities to the low-income countries that have contributed the least to global warming but suffered its devastating effects the most. There were some new commitments made for funds to flow from the wealthy nations to help poor countries cut greenhouse gas emissions and build the infrastructure that they will need to adapt to the inevitable ravages that climate change will bring to them in the future. It was also decided to begin a discussion to create a fund to compensate low-income countries for the damage already done to them by the relentless burning of fossil fuels by high-income countries.

Another development that garnered a great deal of attention was a joint announcement by the U.S. and China to increase their cooperation on combating climate change. The two countries are at odds on many issues and thus their decision to cooperate on perhaps the most pressing issue of all—saving human civilization from climate change—struck many as highly significant.

Many Shortcomings, Disappointments

Yet despite what seems to be some signs of progress, the presence of hundreds of thousands of protestors in Glasgow during the conference signaled the many shortcomings and disappointments that attended COP26.  “By the end of the meeting,” O’Grady wrote, “…it was clear that the international effort to limit global warming to 1.50C above preindustrial levels…is on life support.”

None of the commitments or agreements made during the Glasgow conference will actually get the world to stay under the 1.50C increase tipping point; in fact, we are now on a course to exceed that limit, with expectations that if we do not see dramatic decreases in greenhouse gas emissions soon, temperatures will rise by more than 2.00C by the end of this century. That will bring us all the devastations noted above, with some small island nations disappearing totally as sea levels rise and parts of the world becoming virtually uninhabitable. At times it seems as if some world leaders at the conference were more concerned with protecting the fossil industry, which had ample representation of its own in Glasgow, than about the droughts and food shortages that the climate crisis is already bringing to many parts of the world. A major source of controversy are the subsidies that some wealthy nations provide to fossil fuel companies. The conference concluded with a call to phase them “down” instead of the hoped for language of “phase out.”

On the critical subject of helping poor countries cope with the climate crisis, much of the conference’s concluding language is vague. “Developing nations did not get one big thing they wanted in Glasgow: a new “loss and damage” fund,” O’Grady explained. “Fund advocates argued that developed nations, having produced the vast majority of historic emissions, should help developing countries cope with the costs of climate-related extreme events…In the end, the pact promised only a ‘dialogue’ on loss and damage.”

From a political point of view, perhaps our expectations for what might be accomplished at COP26 were too high all along. It is clearly going to be incredibly complicated to get nearly 200 countries to agree on plans of action that will cost billions of dollars and disrupt business in so many ways. From such a vantage point, what got done in Glasgow was impressive in the tone it set: country leaders are now seemingly united in recognizing that the climate crisis real, ongoing, and threatening. They seem resigned now to taking it seriously and to trying to find meaningful solutions. There was a sense of urgency palpable to many in Glasgow that had not been felt at previous meetings.

More Climate Disasters Looming

At the same time, however, the results of the conference leave us feeling that we remain on the same collision course with disaster as we did before the Glasgow conference began. For instance, in December we learned that giant cracks in one of Antarctica’s hugest glaciers, the Thwaites Glacier, is bringing it closer to collapse than experts had previously predicted.  The melting of this massive glacier, which has been called an “icon of climate change,” will further contribute to the already perilous rise in sea levels.  It “already loses around 50 billion tons of ice each year and causes 4% of global sea-level rise,” according to an article in the journal Nature.  Now, new fractures in the Thwaites Glacier mean things will get even worse. It seems all around us there is one piece of evidence after another that the climate crisis is imperiling civilization and so far, the countries most responsible for what is happening and with the most power to do something about it have been unable or unwilling to take the decisive action needed.

Melting glaciers, like the Antarctic’s Thwaite Glacier, are contributing to sea level rises at a pace even faster than experts originally warned. The effects will be devastating, especially for small island nations (image: Shutterstock).

This makes the announcement last month that the Build Back Better legislation, which passed in the U.S. House of Representatives is stalled in the Senate and may never see the light of day, especially troubling. About a fourth of the money allocated by the bill–$500 billion—would be earmarked for climate investments. Now, at least at the time of this writing, the bill is imperiled, and some doubt its ultimate passage. If even one major high-income country cannot rouse itself to make the necessary investment in combating climate change, how can we expect 200 countries to agree to anything strong enough to have an impact on things like the melting of the world’s widest glacier?

This is not the time for despair but rather for bold political action. While it is important that individuals take actions in their own lives that reduce their carbon footprints, like switching to electric cars and eating less meat, the climate crisis can only be seriously approached by actions at national and international levels. The most important thing, then, that individuals can do is to support efforts, campaigns, and organizations that promote national climate legislation and international agreements aimed at significantly curbing greenhouse gas emissions. It is imperative that we all become involved in the political process if we are going to address the climate crisis.

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