So close—and yet so, so far. That about sums up COP26, the United Nations climate conference that just wrapped up in Glasgow. And of all the emotional responses I have, the most acute is sadness. Sadness that, to the extent that we can allocate blame to individual nations, my own, the United States, deserves so much of it.
Make no mistake, there is plenty in the final agreement to feel good about. The negotiators, activists, and others who worked so hard for new pledges, stronger language, and processes that should continue to build momentum deserve our gratitude. But the world collectively needs to bring greenhouse gas emissions to zero soon enough to avert catastrophic global consequences. And by that ruthless metric, it’s hard to see the whole thing as anything other than a failure—if one that was preordained by countries’ domestic political constraints. While many nations bear some responsibility for this, the United States bears a disproportionate fraction.
The history of the international climate negotiations under UN auspices is mostly a story of going nowhere, unless it’s towards a hotter planet, fast. This is in large part because of American intransigence, which in turn is a consequence of the death grip the fossil fuel industry has on political power in this country.
The Kyoto Protocol, negotiated in 1997, set binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions cuts. It never came into force because neither the United States (under a Democratic president but a Republican-controlled Congress) nor China ratified it. A decade later, there was hope that a new binding agreement would emerge from COP15, in Copenhagen in 2009, but the United States and China again decided that they would not sign a binding agreement, resulting in another bitter failure.
President Barack Obama spent most of his two terms focused on health care and other issues. During his second term, though, he began to prioritize climate, to a degree no US president had before. He negotiated a bilateral agreement with China, and then, at COP21 in 2015, the broader Paris Agreement. It was non-binding, because a binding agreement would have required congressional ratification, and Obama couldn’t get that from the Republican Congress. But it was far better than anything before, and it showed how important American commitment is.
Global warming is determined by total historical emissions, rather than present emissions. While China passed us some time ago as the top global emitter in the present, the United States is responsible for the largest share of total historical emissions—and that’s what determines the total global warming the planet experiences. Any reasonable moral accounting still should give us Americans the most responsibility.
Whether because of that responsibility, or because of the United States’ great status and power, Obama’s achievements demonstrated that other nations will follow if we lead—or at least cooperate. We simply haven’t done so, most of the time. And for the four years leading up to this one, we had a president who spitefully opposed even participating in the process.
Now, the United States has a Democratic president, House, and Senate, all of whom have made climate a higher priority than any of their predecessors ever did. And COP26 was meant to be the one where countries would fill in the blanks in the Paris Agreement and specify exactly how and by how much they would cut emissions. And in the United States, the early drafts of the Build Back Better bill contained by far the most ambitious climate measures ever to stand a decent chance of becoming law in this country.
But Senator Joe Manchin, who profits personally from the coal industry, single-handedly eliminated the most important one, the Clean Energy Performance Program. The climate measures that remain in the bill are much, much better than nothing; but still, Manchin has not, even now, indicated he will sign on to it. So US climate envoy John Kerry, Biden, and the other American negotiators went to Glasgow with little of substance. During the COP, the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed; but the climate mitigation measures are small potatoes compared even to what remains in Build Back Better, let alone what was in there before Manchin got to it.
Worse, the teams from other nations could rightfully wonder whether they can take anything that Biden promises seriously, given the possibilities that he may lose his congressional majority just a year from now, and that Trump or someone like him will take power again in 2024. Even sooner than that, the Supreme Court is threatening anunprecedented activist attack on Biden’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases through the EPA, the most important avenue available to him if climate legislation fails in Congress.
It’s an infuriating, depressing, miserable situation.
Solar power is now, in many places, the cheapest source of electricity that exists or has existed. Almost $40 trillion in investment capital has been committed to full or partial divestment from fossil fuel stocks. In one piece of actual good news from COP26 itself, the United States, along with 19 other nations committed to stop funding fossil fuel development projects outside (but not inside) their own borders. The youth climate movement is an impressive, global political force. I believe history will show that the protests that went on all around the COP made the outcome better than it would have been.
In other words, if one looks for positive signs on climate, there are plenty of them, in the United States and worldwide. Some of them were hard to imagine even a few years ago. So who knows what could happen a few years from now? So many social movements seem to be losing until they win; maybe climate will look like one of those soon.
But at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is total emissions of carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases, added up over time. Global carbon dioxide emissions have, in fact, flattened over the last decade or so. But apart from a modest dip in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they aren’t yet coming down. Flat emissions means the rate of global warming stays constant, not that warming stops.
To keep the net warming below levels that will ultimately be catastrophic, we need emissions to drop quickly towards zero, starting now. All the new pledges and commitments of various kinds from COP26 are projected to limit net warming to somewhere between 2.4 degrees Celsius and 1.8 degrees Celsius. This is a substantial improvement over the current policies and actions, but not enough—especially if one is skeptical about whether the pledges will be fulfilled, so the result ends up on the high side of that range, or blows past it completely. The goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius remains in reach theoretically, but it’s hard to see that happening, given history and present political reality.
But every tenth of a degree matters, and everyone concerned about the future of our species (and many others) should be fighting for a fossil fuel-free future. Americans, collectively, bear more responsibility for the current situation than most others in the world, and it’s on us to push as hard as we can, at whatever levels we can—federal, state, and local government; private sector; individual actions; you name it—to try to bring that future here ASAP.
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