I remember well the vibrancy that December evening in 2015 when word spread on the last day of the 21st UN climate summit that there would be an agreement — the Paris Agreement.
After two decades of staring at a known and worsening global crisis of epic proportions, leaders of 196 nations, pushed mercilessly by UN, French, and US negotiators, finally decided to not allow the earth to burn up by 2100. The Eiffel Tower glowed with triumphant messages against a starry Paris sky.
For the first time, nations voluntarily agreed to reduce their carbon emissions and slow the rate of deforestation. That moment in Paris felt historic, hopeful, perhaps the most significant agreement among world leaders for the greater good of this earth since World War II.
Just two years later, as I stayed late on the last night of the 23rd UN climate summit in Bonn, Germany, I felt no such vibrancy and certainly no such history-making optimism. There was little. COP23 wasn’t designed for major breakthroughs. Everyone conceded that.
But why not?
Bad and getting worse
Once again, 2017 promises to be another of the hottest years in the historical record. After three years of stable global greenhouse gas emissions, 2017 will see a spike in emissions to record highs.
How many hurricanes the ferocity of Harvey, Irma, and Maria must be experienced in the US alone to stoke a greater sense of urgency? How many climate refugees need to be pushed from sub-Saharan Africa and Syria because of unrelenting drought? How much more Arctic ice needs to melt? How much sea-level rise can be tolerated in low-lying island nations — and Miami Beach, for goodness sake — before COP participants stop delaying greater ambitions prior to 2020, when a stronger Paris Agreement is to take effect?
Despite Trump’s climate denial, the U.S. military labels the destabilizing impact of global climate change as the most serious national security threat facing the nation. Not immigration. Not terrorism. Not economic calamity. Climate change.
So where’s the incitement, now, to reduce carbon emissions beyond the modest Paris pledges, an absolute necessity if we are to contain temperature rise to 1.5 degree C by 2100, the Paris goal? Where are the billions in promised funding to help the victims of climate impacts adapt and recover their losses and damages?
Nowhere yet in sight.
COP23 was not without incremental accomplishments. There were many, most boldly a coalition of US cities, states, and businesses pledging to do for climate mitigation what the Trump administration won’t. Would a Hillary Clinton administration have done more? Hard to say. Trump’s low-level State Department staffers pressed the common US goal of greater transparency and accountability in reporting climate action. Mostly, they provided cover for other developed nations to block progress on defining pathways to billions in financing adaptation and loss-and-damage funds.
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Under Obama, the wealthiest nation on earth committed just $3 billion to global climate-related funds and paid only $1 billion before Trump’s election. Last month, the U.S. House approved $36.5 billion in recovery funds to Florida and Texas alone, far less than half of what’s needed. So it’s not likely that Clinton negotiators would have been more forthcoming on finance in Bonn.
No one’s top priority
It doesn’t help that the de facto leader of the free world, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, can’t form the coalition government she needs to lead her country and the EU. She told delegates at COP23 that Germany — despite its massive investment in wind energy — would not phase out coal by 2030 as promised, nor would it meet its carbon-reduction goals in the Paris agreement.
Meanwhile, China is building more solar panels than the rest of the world combined. But it is paying billions in Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to level carbon-sequestering rainforests for ranching and natural-resource extraction to help feed its population and manufacture the world’s products.
Nineteen nations agreed to phase out coal by 2030, including Canada and the UK. But most were already close to doing so, and besides, they represent just three percent of the global coal burned for energy. Meanwhile, 1,600 coal-fired plants are planned or under construction in 62 countries.
When I interviewed Anote Tong, the former president of Kiribati, a Pacific island country threatened by sea-level rise, his comment, “How can I tell my grandchildren that they may not have a country in 25 years,” nearly brought me to tears. Tong is at the mercy of G-20 leaders. He pleaded with them to act morally and humanely, not just geopolitically. Is that even possible?
If I’ve learned anything from covering four consecutive climate summits, it’s that Paris was something of an anomaly. Most COPs, like COP23, produce progress around the edges of climate mitigation and promises to talk again next year. Always next year.
Nearly everyone in Bonn believes that climate change represents an existential threat to human life on earth. But it’s clear that, for political reasons both complex and expedient, taking broad, immediate climate action is not a top priority for any of the world’s largest polluters — China, the US, India, the EU, Japan, Canada, Australia. Not even close.
Until it is, another year passes as nature responds ever-more furiously to the lack of progress.
Maybe next year, at COP24 in Poland, things will be different. Expectations are certainly different. The rulebook to govern the Paris Agreement must be completed. Nations must report how much more they will reduce carbon emissions. Billions in finance are expected to materialize or at least be identified.
Scientists say the window for climate action to curb global warming is still open. Let’s hope so. We are rapidly running out of next years.