The COP 24 climate conference ended with the Polish minister in charge of the talks leaping from the podium into the crowd in gleeful celebration at all that had been accomplished. In truth, some progress was made. COP 24 was primarily designed to establish the technical rules that will allow the world community to accurately assess which nations are meeting the carbon reduction commitments they agreed to in Paris 3 years ago and which are not.
A Good Agreement
On that front, the conference can claim it had some success. “This is a good agreement,” the European commissioner Miguel Cañete told The Guardian. “We have more to do but we can move forward now.” Technical talks will continue as governments prepare for next year’s conference in Chile. That conference was supposed to take place in Brazil, but that country withdrew its offer. Its new president, Jair Bolsonaro, is a rabid climate change denier who intends to destroy large swaths of the Amazon rain forest to allow for more oil drilling and agriculture.
Brazil torpedoed any agreement on the formula for measuring carbon emissions by country when it insisted on a change in the process that would essentially give it double credit. So that important piece of the puzzle will remain on the table for another year with no realistic possibility that it will be resolved at the next conference either.
Brazil has previously acted as an important link between the world’s most powerful nations and the poorer nations. Emulating Donald Trump, Bolsinaro has stated he will withdraw Brazil from the Paris climate accords, effectively ending his country’s role as a link between rich and poor nations.
Strong Words, Weak Action
COP 24 was marked by strong words. David Attenborough, the noted naturalist and broadcaster, said “Right now, we are facing a man made disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”
António Guterres, the current secretary general of the UN, warned the delegates it would be “immoral and suicidal” to fail to take strong action. Perhaps the highlight of the conference was the speech given by 15 year old Greta Thunberg of Sweden who admonished the delegates, “You’re not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to your children.”
Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace, was disappointed by the results of this year’s conference. “A year of climate disasters and a dire warning from the world’s top scientists should have led to so much more. Instead, governments let the people down again as they ignored the science and the plight of the vulnerable. Adopting a set of rules for climate action is not nearly enough. Without immediate action, even the strongest rules will not get us anywhere.”
And that’s really the point. Although China and the EU were able to hammer out some agreements on issues that had divided them at previous conferences, the fossil fuel industry succeeded in getting some of the world’s most powerful nations — particularly the US and Russia — to keep kicking the can down the road. Joined by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, they blocked any serious discussion about the IPCC 6 climate assessment.
Australia managed to soil its diapers as well by joining with the US in a disgraceful sideshow designed to extol the virtues of fossil fuels, particularly coal. To pull such a stunt at a world climate summit was tantamount to giving every other nation a poke in the eye, diplomatically speaking.
The Take Away
In the end, some progress was made but the decision by the US to abrogate its commitments made in Paris in 2015 allowed other countries to also seek ways to slow walk their obligations as well. Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, told The Guardian, “In the climate emergency we’re now in, slow success is no success. [The rulebook] is decades too late. It should be clear that the UN consensus process can never produce the muscular agreement we need to meet the emergency.”
And that’s the takeaway. While the world leaders sit and talk about it, the Earth is getting hotter and the existential climate emergency that awaits humanity grows more threatening every day. Conclaves like COP 24 may allow some to feel important progress is being made — some progress is better than none — but anyone who things significant steps are being taken to keep the Earth from becoming a lifeless cinder are fooling themselves.
The reality is far worse than we are willing to admit and the prospects of dealing effectively with the causes of a warming planet are fading with each passing day. We have to stop dumping the effluent from our fossil fueled society into to the air, the oceans, and the land immediately — today — if we are to have any hope of leaving our children the gift of a sustainable world. Nothing said in Katowice, Poland in the last two weeks suggests that is going to happen. Instead, the world’s epitaph will be “We talked about it a lot but in the end we decided to do nothing.”