Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a CNN contributor, National Geographic Explorer and MIT science journalism fellow. He is director of the forthcoming BASELINE documentary series, which is visiting four locations on the front lines of the climate crisis every five years until 2050. Visit the project’s website. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
The end of the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow — called COP26 — leaves many of those of us who care about the future of humanity both furious and searching for hope.
Still, it’s easier to lean in the direction of cynicism. The UN has been holding these annual meetings since the mid-1990s. For most of that time, the world’s diplomats have engaged in a morbid game of “oh, we’ll get to that next year.” It continued this year, with nearly 200 nations literally agreeing to get the gang back together in 2022 to re-up commitments to rein in the fossil fuel pollution scorching the planet and putting all of us in danger.
If this were the first global summit on the climate crisis: sure. Take your time, think on it a bit. As things stand, we’ve known for decades heat-trapping pollution poses an existential threat to humanity, and already is contributing to worsening heat waves, wildfires and hurricanes. We’ve endured years of pronouncements, as in Glasgow, that this is the “last, best” chance to save the Earth from the catastrophic and irreversible consequences of warming.
Doing anything “next year” shows numbness to the plight of future generations. Hence, activist Greta Thunberg’s rational assertion COP26 was a bunch of “blah, blah, blah.”
Add to that slow-moving train wreck the fact the diplomats this year couldn’t agree to a phasing out of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. The final language in the agreement at COP26 called for the world to “phase down” coal starting in 2026.
So, you know, five “next-years” from now.
The glacial pace of politics doesn’t match the urgency of what the atmosphere is telling us. Partway through the Glasgow summit, the non-partisan group Climate Action Tracker issued a report finding current global policies put the Earth on track for 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century. That would blow well past the global target set in the 2015 Paris Agreement of holding warming well short of 2 degrees, and hopefully to 1.5 Celsius.
Despite the grand pronouncements in Glasgow, “policy implementation on the ground is advancing at a snail’s pace,” according to the report. Nations continue to pledge the right thing — that they’ll reach “net-zero” emissions (meaning, basically: no fossil fuels) by 2050. Yet, “no single country that we analyze has sufficient short-term policies in place to put itself on track.”
Each fraction of a degree of warming destabilizes important planetary systems, making heatwaves and hurricanes more intense, raising sea levels and threatening biodiversity.
And we’ve already warmed the planet about 1.1 degrees, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
That’s a lot to take in, I know. And yet, it’s also untrue to say world leaders accomplished nothing with the Glasgow pact.
Revisiting plans to cut emissions next year is better than waiting until 2025, as was initially planned. The United States and China issued a joint statement calling for swifter action, which is not nothing considering the diplomatic tensions between them. Many countries agreed to cut methane emissions, which is a potent greenhouse gas, and to end deforestation by 2030, which – if it happens – would be a major win for the atmosphere, given that tropical forests pluck CO2 from the atmosphere, and for biodiversity, given the global extinction crisis.
Young people showed up in Scotland in droves and they demanded a livable future. You can’t say anymore that the world is unaware of this crisis; outrage is becoming widespread.
Lastly, you could argue any name-drop of coal in the agreement text is progress given that fossil fuels have been omitted from all previous iterations of these climate accords.
It’s a yes-and situation — infuriatingly so.
Yes, the world is still speeding down an apocalyptic highway — a “code red” situation, as the UN’s secretary general put it. Yes, as Nicholas Kusnetz from Inside Climate News argued, the oil and gas industry “still holds its grip on the world’s economic and political systems.” Yes, this is the ultimate example of a global-commons problem: Delegates continue to represent their own short-term national interests, and no one votes on behalf of the future of humanity.
Yet, this clumsy system remains our best hope for survival. The process is moving far, far too slowly, but it is moving. And it would be disastrous to give up hope.
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Ahead of the meeting in Scotland, the artist Jenny Holzer projected the words “IF NOT NOW THEN WHEN” on a tower at the Tate Modern in London. The letters scrolled upward, toward the clouds, and vanished just as they appeared to connect with the sky. That’s perhaps the key question for global action on the climate crisis.
If not now, then when? The answer, sadly, as always, appears to be next year.