COP Out

“Bold Climate Action” does not mean what you think it means

Another COP, another fleet of climate bromides launched down my Twitter feed by well-meaning environmental ministers and corporate sustainability programs. “Ambitious action,” “time for action,” “bold climate action to fight climate change”—this sort of language is put in heavy rotation every year when delegates from almost every nation meet for the COP. “COP” stands for “Conference of the Parties.” According to the website of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (known by the deeply uncharismatic acronym of UNFCCC), the COP is “the supreme decision-making body of the Convention” and is tasked with achieving the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Its framework is based on the one that produced the Montreal Protocol, the agreement put together to address the growing hole in the ozone layer. But unlike the Montreal Protocol, which was ultimately successful, the results of the COP have been a bust. Why do those who convene and underwrite it keep promoting it as a platform for “ambitious climate action”? 

The COP has officially been talking since March, 1995, when it met in Berlin. For the first half of this month, it was talking—for the twenty-fifth time—in Madrid. (What is the definition of insanity again?) Famous COPs have included: Kyoto (number 3), which the US refused to ratify and from which then President George W. Bush withdrew in 2001; Copenhagen (number 15), which tanked when the US and other large economies failed to hammer out a deal; and of course Paris (number 21), where, in a show of audacious optimism, world leaders set the goal of keeping warming “well below” a 2 degree Celsius threshold, the widely received baseline; this after twenty years of failed negotiations. 

At the time, there was reason to be hopeful about Paris. It helped that the US President was then a person who accepted the reality of global warming, but it wasn’t only about politics—red states versus blue, or increased trust in climate scientists. It was also about advances in clean energy technologies. Renewable generation like wind and solar had, in many regions, reached price parity with fossil fuels—a development that seemed to promise a dramatic market tipping point. Bankers were eager to expand into new markets—ones that wouldn’t contribute to the heating of the earth. The concept of “stranded assets”—fossil fuel assets that would be rendered nearly worthless by global action to fight climate change—had been widely taken up. If politics and diplomacy had been unable to address climate change for over twenty years, then perhaps market disruption finally would.

But as the markets for low-carbon technology and energy efficiency have grown, fossil fuel interests have come over the top. Last year, for the first time, the United States became the world’s largest global oil and gas producer—bigger than Saudi Arabia, bigger than Russia. Under the aegis of a policy of “energy dominance,” the Trump administration has been dismantling Obama-era climate safeguards and pushing the aggressive exportation of American fossil fuels. Responding to testimony from four youth climate activists from across the political spectrum earlier this year, Garret Graves, representative of Louisiana and ranking member of the Select Committee for the Climate Crisis, argued that other major oil producers did not share “American values” and produced “dirtier energy,” implying—stunningly—that extracting American fossil fuels could therefore be a form of climate action.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s Aramco IPO last month was the biggest in world history. Valued at nearly two trillion dollars, it is worth over 50 percent more than Apple or Microsoft. Even American billionaires like Warren Buffet and Sam Zell have gone long on continuing extraction. According to a recent piece in the Financial Times, they have been quietly buying up fossil fuel assets. “If Mr. Buffet and others are correct . . . that companies have been oversold, and are now trading at prices that imply a calamity that will not come,” the piece explains, “then the energy sector could be one of the big winners in 2020 and in the years to come.” The “calamity” the piece references is the possibility that global demand for oil and gas falls off.”

On Sunday, December 15, after the Madrid COP finally came to a close, António Guterres, the Secretary General of the U.N., openly expressed his disappointment on Twitter. “The international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation & finance to tackle the climate crisis,” he wrote. According to the New York Times, the United States in particular had stalled an agreement to compensate developing countries for climate-related economic losses, obstructing progress on agreements reached in Paris despite having formally withdrawn from the accords. How could it have been otherwise? In a new regime of US “energy dominance,” in which fossil fuel industries have been picked as the so-called “winners,” “market disruption” in the energy sector now means pressuring embattled, poorer countries to keep buying fossil fuels from the world’s major carbon emitters.

In spite of this destructive doubling or tripling down on fossil fuels, it remains received wisdom among diplomats, pollsters, and academics who study climate change communication that positive messaging around the issue is crucial. Words like “tackle” and “ambition” and phrases like “bold climate action” are deployed with the hope they will shield the listener from despair. And, of course there is some truth to this. I have on many occasions found myself reading articles or watching videos that depict a better world—a greener, more abundant world of clear blue skies, chic solar buildings, and content citizens walking in a park—and feeling hopeful and excited for the world to finally tackle climate change! But pretending that an international convention that has been repeatedly sabotaged by its most powerful members might produce a “bold” or “ambitious” result is not a hopeful thing. In fact, it’s just the opposite, undermining the positive impact of all the other climate messaging, some of it—like the passionate youth climate movement or the accelerating pressure on institutions to divest from climate-wrecking assets at odds with their stated missions—truly bold and truly ambitious.

Now, in the days after the failure of COP Madrid, I see a tiny UK flag descending down my Twitter feed. COP26 is scheduled to convene in Glasgow—soon after the next US presidential election. What will be different about this twenty-sixth convening? A different set of politicians? Some new green energy technologies? Maybe, as so many euphemistically call it, an increase in international “political will”? Why not just tell it like it is? That fossil fuel interests still dominate our global politics, and that all of this vague language functions—surely unintentionally; I have no doubt the motive to convene is in good faith—as a distraction from continuing fossil fuel extraction. 

The science does not tell us to “act on” or “tackle” climate change—this is the language of psychological displacement. Rather, it tells us with great precision that we must lower our emissions, which means, in the absence of magical carbon capture or energy efficiency technology, a quick and aggressive turn away from fossil fuels. Until those officially tasked with negotiating for our futures and the future of humanity become more accurate and rigorous with both their language and the global politics that language ultimately implies, it will be, like the proverbial turtles, “bold climate action” all the way down—or up, as the case would seem to be, at least when it comes to the inexorably rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. 

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