The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An upcoming climate summit is supposed to save the planet. But pessimism is building.

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“It is adapt or die,” Emma Howard Boyd, the head of England’s Environment Agency, said in a statement earlier this week, as her government department released a study that warned the country would face devastating floods related to climate change if it fails to protect itself.

As my colleague Erin Cunningham reported, the study pointed to rising sea levels, increased river flows and significant strains on England’s public water supply amid soaring global temperatures associated with the changing climate and urged the government, businesses and broader society to engage in adaptation and mitigation strategies, “rather than living with the costs of inaction.”

“Significant climate impacts are inevitable,” Boyd said. “But we are running out of time to implement effective adaptation measures. Our thinking must change faster than the climate.”

Her appeal for urgency is yet another call for action as global leaders ready for a major U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, set to take place in a couple of weeks. Referred to often by its shorthand COP26, the conference will convene dozens of heads of state and government, business leaders, activists and even a string of glitzy celebrities. In a statement of intent, President Biden is expected to bring a large delegation of 13 cabinet and high-ranking administration officials to the conference.

But for all the efforts underway, a kind of advance pessimism is taking shape ahead of the summit. The International Energy Agency released a report Wednesday declaring that “clean energy progress is still far too slow to put global emissions into sustained decline towards net zero” and that a dramatic escalation needs to come about. “Reaching that path requires investment in clean energy projects and infrastructure to more than triple over the next decade,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, the energy watchdog for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has lamented what he sees as a lack of momentum and solidarity among the world’s governments, which are all expected to make and adhere to significant commitments to slash their carbon emissions. “I believe that we are at risk of not having a success in COP26,” Guterres told Reuters last month. “There is still a level of mistrust, between north and south, developed and developing countries, that needs to be overcome.”

The upcoming meeting in Glasgow, Guterres insisted, presents a possible turning point in the face of looming calamity. “We are on the verge of the abyss and when you are on the verge of the abyss, you need to be very careful about what the next step is,” he said. “And the next step is COP26 in Glasgow.”

Earlier this year, John F. Kerry, the United States’ climate envoy, described the summit as the “last, best chance” to get more pledges of emissions cuts, aid to less-wealthy countries vulnerable to climate change and investments in renewable energies to wean the world off fossil fuels. As it is, unless mammoth reforms are implemented across the world in the coming years, it looks unlikely that governments will be able to ward against the 1.5 degree Celsius rise in preindustrial global temperatures that scientists believe marks a kind of red line — a rate of planetary warming that would lead to catastrophic climate effects, the disruption of economic life and the destabilization of whole communities.

Now, Kerry appears to be offering a more limited vision for what may be accomplished at COP26. “By the time Glasgow’s over, we’re going to know who is doing their fair share, and who isn’t,” he told the Associated Press in an interview Wednesday, acknowledging that many countries may struggle to make good on commitments they’ve already made, let alone those they have not. Kerry said “there will be a gap” between emissions cuts countries have promised and those that are needed. “We’ve got to be honest about the gap, and we have to use the gap as further motivation to continue to accelerate as fast as we can,” he said.

Kerry has spent much of the year traveling to the capitals of major emitters and coaxing them toward new pledges of emissions cuts. Visits by Kerry to Saudi Arabia and Mexico before Glasgow could prefigure new commitments from both those countries.

But the United States is as much a guilty party as others. Kerry pointed to the frustrated negotiations in Congress over infrastructure bills that are essential to Biden’s plan to cut U.S. emissions to half of the 2005 level by 2030. If such legislation fails to pass, Kerry admitted, it would mark a grievous blow to American climate leadership. “It would be like President Trump pulling out of the Paris agreement, again,” Kerry told AP.

Climate activists, meanwhile, argue that governments, including the United States', are moving too slowly or even in the wrong direction when it comes to reckoning with giant fossil fuel companies and phasing out subsidies for the use of oil, gas and coal.

Climate change is already exacting a significant price on the American economy. In the first nine months of this year alone, my colleagues reported, the United States experienced 18 separate extreme weather and climate-related disasters that each cost at least $1 billion in damages.

“What we are seeing now with these increasing disasters is with just one degree of warming on our planet,” Camilo Mora, a professor at the University of Hawaii, told my colleagues. “Looking into the future, our best-case scenario is 1.5 degrees of warming, and the worst case is 5 degrees. We have to choose now between bad or terrible outcomes.”

And then there’s the rest of the world. Research published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change found that 85 percent of the world’s population has experienced weather events made worse by climate change. But the effects are vastly disproportionate, with many countries that pumped comparatively few greenhouse gases into the atmosphere on the front lines of a planetary crisis.

The report’s authors also pointed out a gap in our understanding about how climate change affects different societies. “The researchers identified fewer than 10,000 studies looking at climate change’s effect on Africa, and about half as many focused on South America,” my colleagues noted. “By contrast, roughly 30,000 published papers examined climate impacts in North America.”

“The poorest countries in the world are the ones that we know the least about,” Mora told my colleagues. “So if it is already bad in the countries that have the money to study, you can just imagine what is happening in the developing countries.”

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