As climate change finally grabs the global spotlight at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, two diametrically opposing narratives have emerged — that week one of the summit brought either significant progress or just more hot air. So where does the truth lie?
None of us who have been in the trenches on climate action for decades are satisfied with the progress to date. We’ve shouted from the rooftops and the heat domes about the dangers of human-induced climate change, which has, due to decades of disinformation and inaction, grown into a full-blown crisis. We’re appalled at the continued fossil fuel expansion taking place around the world, when even the International Energy Agency has concluded that no further fossil fuel development is consistent with meeting international climate targets.
We must wrap our minds around two seemingly opposing realities: We are making substantial progress, and it’s wholly insufficient to the scale of the challenge. Solid accomplishments have emerged from week one of the COP on methane, forests, finance, coal, and more. Are they enough? Of course not. Do they represent progress? Absolutely. Like anything we fight for that matters, we don’t get it all, and there’s always more left to do. We need to come out of COP26 still in the fight. And we can, if we make sufficient progress in the days ahead.
Let’s take stock of some of what has been achieved so far.
Methane: The other greenhouse gas. And though there’s far less of it, it’s about 80 times as heat-trapping as carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame. As such, reducing its emission is one of the best ways of avoiding near-term warming as well as reaping immediate health benefits. The oil and gas industry can reduce its emissions by three quarters with existing technology, most of that at no net cost. The methane pledge began with the United States and European Union announcing a pact in September. In the opening days of COP26, more than 100 nations representing 70 percent of the global economy joined the task of collectively cutting methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030. This would shave at least .2 degrees Celsius (.36 Fahrenheit) off warming by 2050. Philanthropies committed $328 million to assist signatories in making it happen. That’s progress.
Deforestation: The 133-country agreement negotiated at COP26 will help protect 90 percent of the world’s forests. New financial commitments aim to change the economics, making forests worth more alive than dead. It is frustrating that the countries couldn’t agree to end deforestation before 2030, but the agreement is a clear improvement over the status quo.
CO2 emissions: For the first time, nations’ pledges are projected to bring total warming below 2 C (3.6 F), with each day’s pledges ratcheting that number down further tenths of a degree so it’s now nearly a full degree Celsius lower than it was when COP26 started. And every tenth of a degree matters for the amount of self-inflicted suffering we will have to endure. A decade ago, we were heading for a 4 C (7.2 F) world, and it’s now perhaps half that.
There is too much at stake to give in to division and nihilism. COP26 is the only multilateral process there is. Giving up on it is not an option. The climate movement must not splinter and fight among ourselves, divided by issues of class, race, gender, and age. Let us instead channel our energy productively toward accomplishing all we can at COP26 and beyond.
The climate movement must reject the media’s framing of a generational divide, and refuse to allow that wedge to pry us apart. The movement includes everyone from bold teenage leaders like Greta Thunberg and Jerome Foster to honored elders like David Attenborough and Jane Goodall. We understand and empathize with the depth of anxiety and despair and righteous anger many young people feel about the insufficiency of progress made thus far. We feel it too. The pressure exerted by youth activism has helped create this moment of climate opportunity. We must take this moment to support the progress and, at the same time, keep fighting for more.
We agree that complacency is the enemy. And yes, there are some bad state actors — such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Australia — and we need to call them out. But many of the people negotiating at COP26 are not complacent; they are doing everything they can, despite obstacles both international and domestic, to move nations forward. We must keep up the pressure, in the streets, courts, media, and legislatures.
As we reach for every arrow in the quiver, let us not seek to burn down the only existing structure we have for negotiating global cooperation in addressing the climate crisis.
Susan Joy Hassol is the director of Climate Communication. Michael E. Mann is a professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. His latest book is “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.”