As world leaders gather for the international climate talks in Glasgow, we face a moment of reckoning. The devastating, costly toll of floods, heat waves, wildfires, droughts, and storms is mounting globally. Yet fossil fuel production and use continues largely unabated, completely at odds with the sharp drop in heat-trapping emissions needed to meet science-based climate goals. Meanwhile, policy makers — including many in Congress — seem unwilling to do what’s necessary to safeguard people and the planet.
Underlying global climate trends is a stark and unjust reality: Those who’ve contributed the least to the problem are now suffering the worst of its harms. In 2020 alone, climate change exacerbated challenges in African countries, including food insecurity, poverty, and the displacement of people. Super Cyclonic Storm Amphan hit India and Bangladesh, and Typhoon Goni slammed into the Philippines. Record drought, heat waves, and wildfires affected Brazil. The international fossil-fuel-based energy system also imposes an outsize health and environmental burden on Black, brown, and Indigenous communities, and those who live in poverty everywhere.
The onus is squarely on those most responsible for the climate crisis: richer nations — like the United States, by far the largest historical contributor to heat-trapping emissions, and European nations — and fossil fuel companies, whose deception, misinformation, and lobbying against climate action in pursuit of their profits have held us back for too long.
Nations’ pledges to cut their heat-trapping emissions, called for under the Paris Agreement, don’t stack up to what the science shows is necessary. In Glasgow, major emitters must commit to doing more, and quickly. Having promised to cut its emissions 50-52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, the United States must now provide concrete details on how it intends to deliver on that goal. Securing the Build Back Better Act would be a significant advancement. China’s just-announced pledge, which offers little more than what it pledged last year, doesn’t go far enough. Laggard nations like Japan and Australia must do much more. Sharp emissions reductions by 2030 are critical, and aspirational faraway net zero goals are not sufficient.
Richer nations have also failed to meet their 2009 pledge to mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020 to help developing countries make a low-carbon transition and adapt to climate change. A just-announced climate finance delivery plan from the UK COP26 Presidency, on behalf of all developed countries, which aims to meet this goal by 2023, falls short. It delays the timetable, doesn’t compensate for the past deficit, and does not put enough emphasis on scaling up public grant funding particularly for adaptation. Meanwhile, as the climate crisis worsens, the needs have grown more acute. At COP26, richer nations must detail how they intend to make up the past funding shortfall and commit to raising significantly more for developing and climate-vulnerable nations going forward. On the latter, African nations have called for $1.3 trillion in climate finance by 2030.
The issue of loss and damage must also be addressed in a meaningful way: with robust funding and a human-rights-centered framework. Almost 30 years after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change came to be, the inaction of richer countries has locked in significant planetary changes — including accelerating sea level rise and increasingly dangerous weather conditions — whose impacts can no longer be entirely avoided through cutting emissions or initiating adaptation measures. Many people have been and will continue to be displaced from their homes, face hunger, and lose livelihoods and places dear to them. Furthermore, many species and ecosystems are already on a path to being severely damaged or lost altogether. Richer nations, including the United States, have long blocked action to address this loss and damage, fearing legal responsibility for reparations. That immoral, unjust stance must end.
Finally, the United States will be able to fully live up to its responsibilities on the world stage only if it roots out the toxic influence of the fossil fuel lobby on its politics. That dynamic has been on full display recently as crucial climate provisions in the Build Back Better Act came under opposition from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and no Republican member of Congress has supported the bill. It’s also evidenced by the Biden administration’s weak stance on new oil and gas leases on federal lands. There’s no path to serious climate action that doesn’t require turning down fossil fuels quickly, so let’s stop equivocating about that and simultaneously ensure we also invest in robust supports for dislocated fossil fuel workers and their communities.
If richer nations don’t step up at COP26, they’ll fail people in climate-vulnerable countries and risk leaving a much-diminished planet to our children and grandchildren. Scientists, young people, and climate justice advocates have done their part repeatedly. The question now is: Will our political leaders meet the moment with bold action or just incremental progress and more empty promises?