All indications are that the COP26 climate conference has been a total failure, the result of what Greta Thunberg calls the politics of blah, blah, blah. As we reported last week, lobbyists for fossil fuel companies in Glasgow outnumbered the largest delegation from any nation in the world. That being the case, should we be surprised if little to no substantive progress was made toward keeping the Earth habitable for humans?
Part of this is understandable. There are over 200 nations represented in Glasgow and every one of them has veto power over the final language of any agreement. Unanimity is required, which is practically a guarantee that any final document will be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. I am on the board for my condo association, which has seven members. We couldn’t get a unanimous agreement that the sun rises in the East or that gravity makes apples fall from trees, so I can imagine how difficult it must be for 200 nations to agree on anything substantive.
According to the New York Times, Frans Timmermans, Vice President of the European Union, has urged the negotiators to accept a proposed third version of the final agreement, saying he fears “stumbling in this marathon a few meters short of the finish line.” He issues a plea for each country to set aside its particular concerns to focus on the larger crisis. “For heavens’ sake, don’t kill this moment by asking for more text, different text, deleting that and deleting this.” Instead, he urged the group to “act with the urgency that is essential for our survival. Please embrace this text so we can bring hope to the hearts of our children and grandchildren.”
But in the scheme of things, hope in the hearts of our children and grandchildren doesn’t stand a chance against the selfish interest of fossil fuel companies, which intend to extract and burn every molecule of coal, oil, or climate-killing methane on Earth in pursuit of profits. Once that task is complete, then they will be perfectly happy to talk about what comes next — assuming there is a next.
2.4° C — If We Are Lucky
The delegates to COP 26 are still engaging in happy talk about meeting the goal of the Paris climate accords, which is to limit global heating to 1.5º C above pre-industrial levels. But the latest report from Climate Action Tracker warns greenhouse gas emissions will be twice as high in 2030 than they should be to stay within 1.5° C, based on promises made in Glasgow these past two weeks.
Bill Hare, the chief executive of Climate Analytics, which is one of the organizations supporting Climate Action Tracker, told The Guardian, “We are concerned that some countries are trying to portray [Cop26] as if the 1.5 C limit is nearly in the bag. But it’s not, it’s very far from it, and they are downplaying the need to get short term targets for 2030 in line with 1.5 C.” Kick the can down the road. Make some nebulous promises. Then continue doing what they have been doing for the past century — extracting profits from burning fossil fuels.
If the world continues on its merry way into the future, CAT says average global temperatures will rise to 2.7° C — far beyond the point where cascading tipping points will kick in and doom humanity. The findings should serve as a “reality check” to the talks, Niklas Höhne, one of the authors of the CAT study, tells The Guardian. “Countries’ long term intentions are good but their short term implementation is inadequate,” he says.
Activism Is Key
Bill McKibben says he was heartened to see the number of climate activists in Glasgow. “It’s a fairy tale that world governments will fix our climate crisis. It’s up to us,” he tells The Guardian. Speaking of COP26 and the climate conferences that came before, he says, “Glasgow moves us down the track a little and boxes in national governments a little more, but it has changed not nearly enough. After 26 iterations, the truth about these COPs is pretty clear — the results are largely determined before they even begin (Emphasis added). [H]istory would suggest that the parties rarely go beyond what they’d intended to do before they arrived.”
McKibben notes that the ability to protest is being circumscribed in nations around the world.
“Even before Covid, the landscape for activists had begun to shrink. The rise of illiberal governments around the world — Trump’s America, but also Xi’s China (more restrictive even than its predecessors were on civil society), Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Erdoğan’s Turkey, Putin’s Russia. Much of the world is largely off limits to activism, especially the global kind exemplified by the climate movement.
“Most of the world’s biggest countries are now beyond the reach of protest and to a large degree unresponsive even to international pressure. China issued a joint statement with the US vaguely pledging future action, but it also made clear that it didn’t look forward to the annual revisions of its climate targets that activists — and scientists — have demanded. And no one really has an idea how to counter this, any more than they know how to counter the fact that American polling finds Republican voters even more resistant to the reality of climate change than they were a few years ago. Since there’s a very good chance that Republicans will control Congress by the time of next year’s Cop in Egypt, it’s hard to see what leverage there will be to move the process forward.”
Glimmers Of Hope
McKibben, though, never allows himself to be discouraged.
“The marches in Glasgow were as spirited as any I have ever seen, and Thunberg — with her superb gift for saying and doing the right thing at the right time — helped everyone understand the meaning of Glasgow with her “blah, blah, blah” framing. Yes, the other side is also better at its game: greenwashing has become steadily more complex, and taking apart claims like “net zero by 2050” has become a full-time occupation. But since these are lies, they will look steadily more shabby, exposed by each flood and hurricane.
“My guess is that movements will adapt to the blockages in the COP process, and powerfully. I think there’s going to be ever more attention on the financial industry, in part because it’s crucial to the fossil fuel machine — in part because it’s located in places like New York and London where protest of all kinds can still be carried out. And as Covid recedes, that rejuvenated activism will combine with the continuing horror of the climate crisis to produce more pressure for change. It had better — Glasgow’s finish makes clear that when activists aren’t able to push as hard as we need, inertia and vested interest remain powerful forces. The idea that the world’s governments will simply do what needs to be done is just a fairy tale.”
A few weeks ago, before the COP26 conference began, I told my colleagues here at CleanTechnica that I expected plenty of speechifying and posturing, but little in the way of substantive progress. Sadly, despite the fact that I am a cynical old bastard, I was right. Even as I am writing this, I am getting updates from Bloomberg telling of how China and India are demanding changes in the text of the final communiqué that will undercut the already limited promises they made previously. The games never end.
In his conclusion, Bill McKibben, ever the optimist, says “COP tells us not just what we’ve done in the past few years, but what we have to do in the ones ahead. The planet is out of its comfort zone; we had best be even further out of ours.” Because if we are not, greed and inertia will doom the human race to being wiped from the face of the Earth just as surely as the dinosaurs were. We have a choice and, so far, our choice is extinction. The Earth doesn’t much care whether we live or die and neither do we, apparently.
“Net zero by 2050” is the phrase heard most often in Glasgow this week, but it is a lie, just like carbon capture, clean coal, and geo-engineering. It gives nations space to distract us with flowery promises without doing anything now to make those promises realistic. In the final analysis, what we got from COP 26 is exactly what we expected — blah, blah, blah followed by more blah, blah, blah. History will judge us harshly for our failure to act.
Imagine you are on the highway when you see a moose in your path. Do you A.) slow down and take evasive action, or B.) maintain your speed and trust that the company that manufactured your car will come up with an over-the-air update that will allow your car to avoid the moose autonomously? Right now, the world is committed to Option B. This is not going to end well.
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