Part 2: In Glasgow
The US played a leadership role at the Paris conference, and was pivotal in encouraging, cajoling, persuading, convincing the 195 national delegations or Parties as they are called, to reach an accord. Of course, the US didn’t do it all by itself, but without its example, its personal discussions, and its soft power, there would be no Paris Agreement. For the US to play a similar role at COP26 in Glasgow, it’s important that the US lead from the front. Biden must be able to say and show that the US is fully committed to the cause, gully engaged, ready to dedicate significant political capital and funds to curbing carbon emissions. If Biden can do that, and can pledge to commit significant funds to enable poor countries to undertake their own transitions, COP26 will be a success. Most Parties then will be willing to commit to the ambitious targets needed to set the world on track to reach the 1.5-degree goal that would slow climate change to a manageable level.
If President Biden is unable to enact much or any of his climate agenda, he won’t be able to take the lead in Glasgow, and there is every possibility that COP26 will devolve into squabbles and contentious debates between rich nations and poor, large ones and small, oil and gas exporters vs. importers, coal-dependent nations loath to disrupt a large segment of their economies, island nations alarmed by rising sea levels, nationalistic nations jealous of their sovereignty vs. globalists who prioritize the general good over more parochial concerns. There could be acrimonious demands, even threatened walkouts. Many nations will be reluctant to set ambitious targets: They’ll say: ‘Why should we exert ourselves if the US, the second biggest emitter, isn’t serious about cutting carbon? The big, rich countries are responsible for most of the emissions and the crisis we’re in now. They need to clean up more than we do. Why take any political risks and hurt my economy when I need to boost my energy production to grow my economy so as to make a better life for my citizens.’
Biden needs to be able to say, ‘If I can do it, so can you’. If he can’t say that, COP26 will most likely be a disappointment. It will be a lost opportunity, perhaps the last, best one to prevent the Earth from becoming a hostile, inhospitable home. Almost all nations understand the existential nature of the climate crisis, that it threatens not only their own country but all nations. Therefore, no nation really wants COP26 to dissolve into discord. If the US doesn’t take the lead, other nations or blocs of nations may try to step in to avoid that outcome.,
The most likely candidate to step up to the podium if the US can’t credibly lead the orchestra is the European Union (EU), or more specifically, Germany and France, with varying degrees of support from other EU members; Spain and Italy will say they’re willing to push harder to green if financial aid is forthcoming; Poland and Hungary, heavily dependent on coal, will say higher commitments just aren’t possible. G7 members Great Britain and Canada would probably align with the EU bloc; Australia and Brazil probably would not.
If the US can’t lead, no one should be surprised if China were to jump at the chance to exert its growing influence internationally. It would be only too happy to usurp America’s place at the head of the table. However, a move by China to displace the US as chief influencer at COP26 would be resisted by many nations who remain skeptical of China’s intentions. Additional strikes against China include its world-leading carbon emissions, mostly from coal, and the number of coal-fired power plants it has financed overseas through its Belt and Road Initiative.
A final possible dynamic for COP26 if the US can’t credibly shepherd it is for a group of small nations, many of whom are or will be among the most affected by climate change, to form a bloc that insists that their financial needs be met in order to effect their energy transition and to adapt to worsening climate change. The rich nations will make commitments that to them seem munificent, but to the islands disappearing beneath the rising seas they will be deemed woefully insufficient. They will be right, but their objections alone won’t scupper the conference. There will be a concluding Glasgow Agreement, but it won’t be the resounding success of the Paris Accord. For one thing, Paris was a first, and even the participants were surprised and amazed at what they’d accomplished. The second time around is different, the expectations are higher, the bar more difficult to vault. The world has changed in the six years since Paris. It has suffered through a global pandemic. And climate change is no longer a notional looming shadow; it has arrived everywhere, shown itself to be a clear and present danger.
There’s no going back to the way we were before Covid-19, although many ardently wish that they could. Nations were understandably anxious to restart their economies. Few heeded the counsel of climate scientists and economists that the temporary halt to the economy was an opportunity to pursue a new path to development, comfort, and riches. Almost nobody listened. Within a few months, carbon emissions were not only back to pre-Covid levels, they were setting new records. An opportunity that could have been a glide path to green has become a rush to a hostile world of woe.
Still, the world that will watch how COP26 progresses, anxiously awaiting its outcome, Most people will be disappointed. The final statement will no doubt tout the rich countries’ increased commitments of funding, and poor countries’ commitments to larger and faster reductions in carbon emissions. Almost all the Parties will depart Glasgow feeling proud of their achievement. Climate activists, however, will be critical both on the funding side and the emission reduction side.
They will be right on both counts. Despite the growing awareness of the climate crisis by politicians and the general public, few comprehend how deeply entwined the fossil fuel industry is in the world’s economies, societies, and politics. Few realize just how sick the patient is. The Earth isn’t terminal yet, nor is the human race. Nevertheless, curing our addiction to fossil fuels will require major surgery and major therapy. It will be like being treated for cancer while having a heart transplant at the same time. We’re going to be in intensive care for a long time if we can survive all the interventions needed to cure us. The prognosis at the moment is guarded. However, the patient has a strong constitution and remarkable recuperative powers.
COP26 will be a good indicator of the patient’s chances of survival, and of recovery, but it is just a benchmark, neither a magical cure nor a death sentence. Ambitious commitments from rich nations and poor, big and small, exporters or importers, will release a rush of adrenaline in all the myriad efforts around the world dedicated to advancing the energy transition, fostering renewed fervor, greater ambitions, and new initiatives. Minimal commitments will have chilling negative impacts on the ongoing transition efforts, but they won’t cease. They’ll keep protesting government inaction, crusading for forever green, and making incremental but cumulative improvements to the health of the planet.
If US President Biden is able to overcome the hurdles impeding passage of his climate proposals and can go to COP26 with those victories in hand, the US can rally the troops and lead a charge to an outcome worthy of the Paris Accord. Glasgow could produce an enhanced successor agreement that builds on the global solidarity of a shared commitment to a common goal. Even if the impediments prove too great for the US to lead it, COP26 can still be a useful gathering of representatives from every country in the world, in person, talking about the climate, how it’s affecting each country, how each is attempting to slow its impact or adapt to them. As at most conferences, the real value is gleaned not during the formal sessions in the vast meeting halls, but in the informal interactions, the collegial conversations, the casual encounters in the hallways during breaks, at lunch, and in the bars after the day’s sessions have ended. The connections made and the friendships forged or renewed at COP26 will spur progress toward a sustainable future. This infusion of energy is why COP26 is of incalculable importance both to America’s future and to the long-term viability of the Earth as a habitat for humans.