At the Front Door: Lessons from Glasgow’s Climate Change Summit – a column on climate change in our lives
Did Glasgow’s COP26 conference make significant strides on climate change or stumble in its efforts, as several Bay Area climate reality activists say it did.
Seema Vaid, a Climate Reality activist from Santa Clara was disappointed in its outcome. “So much more could have been accomplished at COP26 if only the participating countries had the courage and foresight to take bolder actions for the future of planet earth.”
“No firm agreements were reached that would allow us to achieve the goal of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 celsius,” remarked Climate Reality leader Bill DeVincenzi.
Local Climate Reality Leader Erin Zimmerman agreed. “This was our best opportunity to address the root causes of climate change at a global scale and respond to the information in the most recent IPCC report, and it didn’t happen. Even if all of the non-binding commitments made at the COP26 are met, we will still not be able keep global warming below the aimed-for 1.5 degrees celsius. For the majority of activists, and I would think the majority of countries attending, the COP26 was a disappointment.”
Is the world still off track to beat back the climate crisis?
Ramon Cruz, President, Sierra Club Board of Directors, who attended the Glasgow summit, was more optimistic. “I’m much more positive than negative about COP 26,” he said at an Ethnic Media Services (EMS) briefing on November 19. “ It’s easy to dismiss COP26 as a failure. Criticism comes from people that don’t understand multi-laterialism or the complexities of such a process. Just the fact that the US had a delegation that was having adult conversations, made a huge difference.”
Cruz pointed out that COP26 made progress in a number of areas. Countries agreed that developed countries should provide financing and resources to help climate-vulnerable nations combat climate change and adapt to its consequences.
Significant commitments were made to reduce deforestation, curb methane emissions, end international financing of fossil fuels, and accelerate the phase out of coal.
“The days of coal are numbered,” said Cruz. With the UK backing a commitment to phase out coal, COP26 signalled the “start of the last chapter in the book of coal.” This added momentum to pledges from Bloomberg Philanthropies in the US, through its Beyond Coal campaign, to close or schedule to close more than half of the coal plants in the US.
“There were a few good outcomes, “ said DeVincenzi, referring to a pledge of $19 billion help to end deforestation, and the Global Methane Pledge, with $300K funding, to cut methane emissions. “Over 20 countries, including the US, promise to end financing for international fossil fuel projects.” DeVincenzi is hopeful because countries agreed to reopen the discussion on emission limitations next year in Egypt, COP 27.
Zimmerman acknowledged that the few highlights at COP26 came from coalitions of smaller groups of countries with similar interests. “For instance, 110 world leaders pledged to end or reverse deforestation by 2030. This is significant because the countries that agreed to this pledge possess 85% of the world’s forests and have previously been hesitant to commit (e.g. Brazil and Indonesia). There were also commitments made to reduce greenhouse gasses.”
But these commitments fell far short of what is needed to avert the climate crisis, said advocates.
“All of these promises are non-binding and given the history of broken promises from other global summits,” said Zimmerman. “I am not optimistic that the COP has done anything more than highlight that efforts at the international level only rarely result in solutions.”
“The COP26 fell short in a variety of ways. Delegates couldn’t even agree to a phase out of fossil fuels, even though there is a broad consensus that such a step is not only necessary but inevitable.” China (which did not attend COP26), and India, forced a phase down rather than a phase out of coal
“Unfortunately, the key polluters did not commit to this goal and failed to make significant pledges to go carbon neutral,” said Vaid. Rather than ‘phasing out’ coal, they committed only to ‘phasing down’ this key pollutant. While many countries pledged to end deforestation, no significant commitments were made to reducing the impacts of animal agriculture.”
“The sense of urgency was clearly missing, as evidenced by the menu at COP26 which included meat and dairy that have a high carbon footprint,” added Vaid, a keen advocate of veganism.
Cruz admitted that the US role as an influencer at COP2 was affected by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord, which harmed the multilateral process of collaboration and wellbeing. “It will take time for countries to go back to having trust in the system and in a dialogue with the US.”
Furthermore, in an unfortunate twist of timing during the COP26 summit, Biden’s Build Back Better agenda was “hijacked by moderates” in the House. “That affects US credibility abroad in terms of delivering on an international agenda, “ said Cruz. “How can the US be trusted on climate change when it struggles with its own domestic agenda?”
Loss and Damage
Another major roadblock was the refusal by developed countries to create funding mechanisms to pay for loss and damage experienced by climate-vulnerable countries.
Alex de Sherbinin, a climate migration expert from Columbia University Earth Institute (CIESIN), explained that the disruption to social and economic systems from global warming was substantial, and created ‘climate refugees’ as people lost lands and livelihoods. He reported that ‘climate driven migration’ was devastating affected areas “mostly in the global south” – refugee hosting countries in parts of Africa and Asia – but not in Europe and North America.
Climate change-induced natural disasters (floods, droughts, fires) were increasing, said de Sherbinin, along with disruption to food production, natural ecosystems, and the global economy.
By the end of the century, warned de Sherbinan,“consequences will be catastrophic.”
Developing nations cannot comply with their obligation to reduce greenhouse gases – recover from coal industry loss or build climate resilient livelihoods – without the financial support from developed nations, said Cruz. But developed nations pushed back against any new financial mechanisms on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Cruz said the US would not commit to specific financial mechanisms for loss and damage in developing nations, in case promises made at COP26 “were subject to being rolled back” if Congress switched to the Republicans in the midterms.
When the Trump Administration reallocated its funds, FEMA deployment “was a disaster after Hurricane Maria for a federal agency,” said Cruz. “Imagine what that would be setting up a financial mechanism for the whole world to cover for loss and damage.”
Dana Johnson, Senior Director of Strategy and Federal Policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, told the briefing that COP26 lacked focus on environmental justice and equity. “We felt like the conversation was missing the justice part of it.” It missed addressing “the legacy of environmental racism we see…. in the global south. People talk about India and Africa, places where people of color and people of low means live – become the sacrifice zones for other people’s consumerism. We have our AC on blast, but other people are being asked to ration and be smart about how they use energy in terms of cooling their homes.”
“Environmentalists argue that climate change will only accelerate unless and until we address the climate gap,” said Sandy Close, EMS Director.
Is there time to change course?
In the US, Zimmerman thinks that if the Build Back Better Act passed the Senate it would invest 20 billion into the Civilian Climate Corp (by basically expanding Americorps). “To me the creation of the Civilian Climate Corp is fulfilling the potential that addressing climate change can have positive side effects such as addressing previous social justice issues, investing in vulnerable lands and peoples, and supporting adaptation efforts to protect frontline communities from the inevitable consequences of climate change.”
Kaushik Tota, a Caltech freshman and dedicated Climate Change activist said, “One big change moving forward will be the increased level of accountability that nations will face regarding their GHG emissions and environmental impact. Negotiators at COP26 agreed to have all countries report this information in a standardized and accessible format, meaning that advocacy groups and other relevant parties will now be able to track and question countries far more easily than before.”
In California, said Tota, he “was happy to see the state reinforcing its goal of ending the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035 by signing on to the COP26 Declaration on Zero-Emission Cars and Vans. “
There are some reasons for cautious optimism, said Cruz.
“The reality is that a lot of this information is not new. It’s just confirming what the scientific community has been saying for a long time. Does that mean doom is here and it’s not worth working on it? Of course not. For some people doom was already here. For the climate migrants, losing everything, the world was not very good for them”
“We want to deal with that as a global community, together, being led by the best kind of information we have. The scientific community has been clear. We are already seeing the effects. Some of it might not be reversible. Some of it will. Ultimately with adaptation, it’s how we will equip ourselves to live in a new reality. A lot of humans will see a very different world from the one that we are used to. As a global community we want to reduce the amount of change.”
“The countries that caused the problem should pay for more of that.”
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents and a producer at DesiCollective.
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a producer at DesiCollective. She is interested in strengthening communities by exploring the intersection of politics, science & technology, gender equality, social justice and health.