It’s been six years since 196 countries agreed to limit global warming by cutting greenhouse gas pollution, yet emissions and atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, methane, and other heat-trapping gases are higher than ever. An October 26 report from the United Nations warned that the climate clock is ticking, with global heating to reach a “catastrophic” 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100 if we continue on this path.
A planetary temperature increase of 2.7 degrees Celsius would kill crops and make some parts of the global south unlivable, with temperatures crashing past thresholds for unprotected human survival, especially in parts of Asia and Africa. In other regions, the heating will fuel even more droughts, wildfires, intensified storms, and extreme floods.
What will it take to change course, as the next round of global climate talks, known as COP26, get underway? Some climate researchers say it’s less a question of policy, technology, and science than of power, justice, and equity. Only by tackling social issues head-on will the global community be able to avert the worst of the climate crisis.
Truth to power. The best thing the delegates could do at COP26 in Glasgow would to speak truth to power, said Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute and a member of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board who helps set the organization’s Doomsday Clock, which stands at 100 seconds to midnight right now, partly because of the escalating climate crisis.
Kartha discussed the upcoming COP26 talks during a Bulletin of Atomic Scientists webinar in October and also co-authored a recent paper in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources that tries to answer why, after 30 years of climate science reports, negotiations, and agreements, the world hasn’t managed to bend the emissions curve downward significantly.
It’s not always about developing the most effective policies, Kartha said, but about who supports them, and who has the power to implement them. A productive path for the negotiations might include talking about the “transformation of power, of how power is distributed among those who have a say,” he said.
Before writing off global climate talks as a failure, or characterizing COP26 as a “last chance” for climate, he said, it’s worth considering what the past 30 years of negotiations and other efforts have delivered.
First, he said that the annual spotlight of the climate talks has advanced high-level and widespread awareness about global warming threats.
“I think it’s fair to say that the negotiations themselves have affected the way people are thinking about climate change,” he said. “When heads of state show up, that level of attention gives legitimacy to scientific practices, and it gives research and development firms a direction to think about what sort of low-carbon products might be valuable in future markets.”
Second, he said, the annual talks have increasingly drawn media attention to climate issues the last 30 years, which, in turn, raises public awareness. And the goals of the COP-based Paris agreement are central to the messages coming from the rising tide of civic climate activism, from Fridays For Future climate strikes, to citizen climate councils and other civic expressions of climate concern. Without the past 30 years of climate discussions, it’s hard to imagine that those movements would have emerged, he said.
Still not enough. But all major recent climate reports, including the recent science assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, say the efforts to date are still not enough. So what could accelerate the transformation to low-carbon societies?
“I can imagine a few things, conspiring in their timing and scale, that could help us tip the scales,” he said, adding that those things aren’t necessarily directly related to the COP talks. For one thing, worsening climate impacts could push countries toward faster climate action.
“You can’t really have fires like we’ve been having without people starting to notice,” he said, after a summer during which fires in western North America and Siberia sent climate-harming pollutants billowing into the air and floods ravaged communities around the world.
Kartha said technological innovation is another factor that could speed the transition. As renewable energy production and storage becomes less expensive, “It lowers the stakes as far as revamping energy systems,” which can reduce the social resistance to change, he added.
In the big picture, he said, rapid change will come when the economic system learns that it can no longer externalize the cost of carbon, now expressed by the high and increasing costs of climate impacts. That is tricky because it requires people to reconsider some fundamental assumptions, including the focus on preserving and protecting “the economy.”
“How did we get to that point, where we applied that thinking to markets, and why are we so far from thinking that way about climate?” he asked.
Hope for the best, plan for the worst. Insufficient progress on cutting greenhouse gas emissions might relate to the dominant forms of thinking about the environment in the context of global climate talks—thinking that has mostly been shaped by Western developed countries, said Anju Sharma, a climate expert with the Stockholm Environment Institute, who also was a panelist in the recent Bulletin webinar. And so far, that thinking has hampered progress on climate justice, which is blocking overall progress on tackling climate change, she added.
“A lot of people say poverty is the greatest polluter, but it’s the lives of the rich and famous that cause a lot of the environmental degradation,” she said. “You can’t equate the emissions of a poor person in India with someone using two or three cars.”
Sharma has observed and participated in climate negotiations nearly every year since 1997 and said she doesn’t expect a silver-bullet climate solution from COP26 at Glasgow. But the upcoming talks are important nonetheless because UN climate governance, codified in the Paris agreement, does include mechanisms for climate justice. It would be simpler if it were simply a national issue, she added.
“If the world was a country, climate change would be a straightforward case of a polluter pays principle and of punitive justice,” she said. “If you have caused harm, you need to pay for it, right? Unfortunately, that’s not an avenue. I think it’s been called a justice paradox, where the countries that are literally threatened with going under, small island states, that there is no forum where they can push for claims or expect any sort of justice.”
“The only way to deal is with very painful negotiations about climate finance under UNFCCC,” she continued. Part of the reason the process is bogged down, she explained, stems from a credibility problem: Developed countries have lost credibility by not reducing emissions and by not living up to their commitment to helping poor countries pay for climate mitigation and adaptation.
“There have been promises made. In Copenhagen, when things were collapsing, developed countries made a promise of $100 billion per year, and that has not happened,” she said. A sign of success at COP26 would be if developed countries stepped up to take responsibility for the damage they’ve caused and live up to their obligations to fix it.
Pandemic adds to global climate woes. Sharma said the COVID-19 pandemic threw up more roadblocks to the timely policy action needed to reach the goals of the Paris agreement. The one-year delay in holding the means that the Glasgow session will be more like a restart after a loss of momentum, and the way the world grappled with the global waves of coronavirus infections holds some important lessons for the climate crisis.
“Under the Paris agreement, 2020 was supposed to be the start of serious implementation,” she said. Instead, the climate “rulebook” is still not done, and, facing serious economic impacts of the pandemic, many countries put climate on the back burner, so they haven’t updated their plans for increasingly ambitious cuts of greenhouse gas emissions.
The pandemic affected all economies, and that, in turn, slowed the flow of climate finance and made vulnerable countries even more vulnerable as they grappled with multiple crises. In some cases, delegates from developing countries in the global south are having problems accessing COVID-19 vaccines, which could prevent them from attending.
The challenges of the pandemic show clearly that, in some ways, the world is still not ready to tackle global problems cooperatively, which may not bode well for climate policy, she said.
“Countries and leaders are still thinking nationally, within their own borders,” she said. “That’s not the way we’re going to solve big global problems like climate change.”
The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent, nonprofit media organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.