Disappointed by COP27? You expected too much

Another COP has come and gone, and the best response to what transpired is a shrug. 

For starters, much of the conversation among delegates during the climate change conference hosted annually by the United Nations focused on staying within the limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels. Most scientists already agree 1.5C is unattainable, and we should admit as much.

The biggest outcome of conference is the vague agreement on a “loss and damage” fund to be set up for developing countries hit hardest by climate change. Developed nations agreed to create something, but it’s not clear what it will be or how it will be funded. In essence, an empty bank account has been created to maybe do something, someday. The devil will, of course, be in the details, but I am skeptical such a fund will in the end be raised. Consider that in 2010, developed nations pledged $100 billion a year to poorer countries by 2020 to help them adapt to climate change. That $100 billion threshold was not met in any year between 2010 to 2020. Why should we expect a “loss and damage fund” to be any different?

The cold reality remains that under current policies the world is on track for about 2.7C warming, with the promises behind yet-to-be-implemented Nationally Determined Contributions and all net-zero commitments getting us down to about 2.1C by the end of the century. Still catastrophic.

Unfortunately, COP events have become little more than noisy, expensive and polluting media events where much is said and only incremental progress happens. At this year’s COP, fossil fuel lobbyists outnumbered the delegates from almost every country. It’s hard not to roll one’s eyes and think of the gathering largely as a photo-op and a marketing opportunity for business and governments. There were about 40,000 people attending COP27 and related surrounding events. That is not a conference to save humanity. That is a festival. That is a college football game in America or a Premier League game in England. That is Burning Man.

We have had 27 COPs. Is the problem solved yet?

Lesson learned

Don’t expect a bunch of governments without a clear mandate to do anything revolutionary.

Politicians are many things. They are not courageous. They are not often leaders, though we call them that. They are primarily temperature takers. No pun intended.

If you put any large group of people in a room, it is hard to gain consensus on anything that is not obvious, easy to decide or desperately needed to mitigate an immediate disaster. We shouldn’t expect transformative leadership from COP or any other large gathering like it. Expect platitudes. Expect snappy soundbites meant to play well in the news cycle.

If you want something to change? Well, you have to do that yourself.

A meeting such as COP will only deliver a meaningful message that advances climate when the politicians attending that meeting know it is obvious what course they need to take.

A meeting such as COP will only deliver a meaningful message that advances climate when the politicians attending that meeting know it is obvious what course they need to take. What do these leaders need to make such bold decisions?

They need permission, they need cover. That’s where you come in.

They need their people at home demanding they not come back without a deal. Your consumer choices do that. Your votes do that.

Stop yelling at me, I’m just the messenger

I can hear some of you screaming at your computer, tablet, phone or piece of paper (if you are a monster and printed this out). “How could it be more obvious! We are in a climate crisis! The world is on fire!”

The average citizen in whatever country you are in now probably doesn’t share that sentiment. Sure, they know what climate change is, and that it’s bad. But it isn’t at the top of their list of concerns. The year 2100 is a long way away, so an abstract discussion about 2.7C of warming in 78 years just doesn’t move most people. Yes, there is flooding and fires and extreme weather from climate change now, but most of the rhetoric around impacts throws around dates such as 2050 or 2100. If a problem isn’t at someone’s front door today, it tends to be pushed back as an action item.

During the midterm elections that just happened in America, where I live, climate change came in a consistent sixth or seventh on the lists of concerns that were driving votes. A Gallup Poll from October saw climate change come in seventh on the list of voter concerns, with well under half of voters surveyed saying climate change was extremely important or very important. That is not an emergency to politicians. That is more a “we’ll get to it when we get to it” indicator for politicians. Younger voters do tend to put climate higher on their list of concerns. But the problem needs to be addressed before their generation takes the reins of power.

You have to put it at the top of the list.

Hoping that people in power will make a decision to radically change the status quo has a win-loss record of about 0 to 1 billion. Don’t hold your breath on the status quo changing tomorrow.

We have advanced the conversation around climate change a great deal in the past decade, in the past year, in the past week. Awareness of the problem and discussion of solutions is happening. But it is not happening fast enough and not going far enough. There is more work to be done. A COP conference will help highlight the issue in the public consciousness for a time, but nothing revolutionary is likely to come from future COP meetings.

COPs 28-100 will not solve this

We can no longer ask politely to do something about climate change. That request needs to turn into a demand. Progress on climate is made between the COPs. Yes, we can still have them. But don’t expect much from them; and maybe scale down their ostentatious nature and don’t allow more fossil fuel lobbyists than participants. Just a thought.

We also need to understand that all of these U.N.-sponsored climate meetings, while well-intentioned, might not really be about solving climate change.

After 27 years of meetings with progress that is not fast enough for humanity, I wouldn’t argue with you if you reached the conclusion that COP is not really about climate change. I would politely nod in recognition if you said COP seems to be about keeping the system we have in place as long as we can and ensuring the energy transition we are undertaking is as smooth as possible. You might conclude that all this theatre might be designed to allow for powerful vested interests to slowly steer the status quo to something new that they can control and profit from.

Yeah, that sounds about right.  

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