It happens now late every year at the two-week international U.N.-sponsored climate summit known as the “Conference of the Parties” - or “COP”, for short. Prominent figures in the climate movement pronounce the proceedings dead on arrival—a failure before negotiations have even come to completion. They insist that we’ve missed our “final chance” to address the climate crisis. Such reactions delight polluters and their enablers, who thrive on disengagement. And there is no greater path to disengagement than the belief on the part of erstwhile climate advocates that it’s too late to do anything.
Many evaluate climate policy progress on a pass/fail basis, as if it’s a COVID test. But that’s not the way it works. Let us consider what transpired at COP26 a year ago in Glasgow. Sure, climate advocates (including me) didn’t get everything we would have liked. There was no language to phase out fossil fuels, only the weaker language of “phasing down”. There was no agreement to end the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, despite the finding by the International Energy Agency that such infrastructure is incompatible with limiting warming below the dangerous 1.5C (3F) planetary warming level.
But we made substantial progress. The critical thing is that we remained in the fight. While we didn’t make the 1.5C exit ramp of the carbon emissions highway last year, we were able to get off (at least potentially) at the next available (2C) exit. A recent peer-reviewed study in the leading journal Nature shows that we can keep warming below 2C if the Glasgow pledges are kept and implemented on time. 2C is the level of planetary warming that the 2015 Paris agreement established as a safety limit, though it acknowledged that limiting warming to 1.5C is preferable given the risk of escalating damage from extreme weather events and, in particular, the threat posed to low-lying island nations already threatened with inundation from melting ice and rising sea level.
That lower limit has been embraced in subsequent policy discussions, and it’s clear that current pledges aren’t adequate to keep warming below that level. That would require 43% reduction in global carbon emissions by 2030 globally. We are not yet on that path. But we are, again, seeing meaningful progress.
The Australian election earlier this year threw out the fossil fuel-friendly conservative coalition government, replacing it with a labor government led that has committed to a 43% reduction in carbon emissions. Brazil voted out the Amazon-destroying Bolsonaro regime electing a new president, De Silva (“Lula”) who has committed to policies that will curb the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest that threatens to turn this critical carbon “sink” into a “source” of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
The greatest progress, arguably, is that the world’s largest cumulative carbon polluter—the United States—has now signed into law the most substantial climate legislation in its history: the Inflation Reduction Act, or “IRA”. While it’s far from perfect, it is arguably the best we could expect from a 50/50 Senate wherein Democrats had to rely on a coal baron for their swing vote. The $370 billion national investment in renewable energy infrastructure will help accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, yielding an estimated 40% reduction in U.S. carbon emissions by 2030 (relative to 2005 levels). While that is close to the U.S. commitment of a 50 percent emissions reduction, it still falls short.
As my colleague Susan Joy Hassol and I emphasized in an LA Times op-ed two weeks ago, we must “be able to wrap our minds around two seemingly opposing realities: We are making substantial progress, and yet it’s wholly insufficient to the scale of the challenge”.
What are the obstacles to achieving the needed action? At COP26, India—at the very last minute—objected to language that nations “phase out” fossil fuels, instead volunteering weaker “phase down” language. That development was seen as a critical shortcoming of the proceedings. But while it would be easy to blame India and other developing nations, the geopolitics are complicated. India and other developing countries feel entitled to the same sort of cheap access to energy that allowed the U.S., Europe and other western counties to grow their economies over the past two centuries. They were protesting the failure of wealthy countries to provide the $100 billion in promised financial assistance to help finance a “leapfrog” transition past fossil fuels to clean energy and to address the “loss and damage” they’ve suffered due to the impacts they are already suffering from warming that heretofore has been largely caused by the industrial world.
It is here where COP27 delivered a major breakthrough. Developing countries secured the commitment they had been demanding from the industrial nations of the world in the form of a global “loss and damage” fund that will assist poor nations in dealing with the often-devastating climate impacts they are already dealing with. Holdouts like the United States—who essentially viewed this measure as a handout lacking clear safeguards against misuse, eventually gave in.
This development paves the way for further progress by alleviating some of the inequity arising from the unequal historical responsibility of industrial vs, developing nations. However, there is a flipside to that coin. While industrial nations have had the greatest role in causing warming to date, how much future warming and associated impacts we experience will largely be determined by the fate of developing countries like India, who may become home to a billion more people living energy-intensive western lifestyles.
If the problem with COP26 was too much take and too little give on the part of industrial nations, one might well argue that the shoe was on the other foot this time round.
So where do we stand? First, we must fight the notion that it is too late to do anything or buy into the notion that it is time to abandon the only multilateral framework that exists for negotiating international climate action. It is ironically that flawed belief that most threatens meaningful climate progress. The COP process is the worst process in place to achieve these goals—except for all the others.
Just as last year, we will have an opportunity to revisit these negotiations a year from now. And again just as last year, we can expect that further progress will result from the next round of negotiations. Countries must return to the negotiating table and the onus will be on them to agree upon more stringent carbon emissions reductions. In the meantime, we should keep up the pressure, and continue, as with the youth climate movement, to speak truth to power
And so, to quote one famous novelist, “tomorrow we will…stretch out our arms farther”. We “beat on, boats against the current”, knowing that fighting on is the right thing to do, and that every bit of climate progress that we make reduces harm, suffering and damage for us, our children, and our grandchildren.
Michael E. Mann is Presidential Distinguished Professor of Earth and Environmental Science at The University of Pennsylvania. He is author of The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.