Climate and Environment
Climate talks march past deadline
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Climate politics have shifted, and that gives scientists and activists hope

Glasgow is ready to play host to the COP26 climate summit. (Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

GLASGOW, Scotland — An aura of failure hung over the first United Nations climate status conference in Berlin in 1995. Not only were countries falling short of their commitments to curb emissions, but advocates were struggling to get climate change any attention at all on the international political agenda. Most of the world didn’t feel the urgency — and the fossil fuel industry was campaigning hard to encourage doubt.

A sense of failure is similarly clouding the 26th edition of that meeting, COP26 in Glasgow. Most countries are far from fulfilling their pledges. Earth has continued to warm, with disastrous consequences. And tensions between some of the central players, including the United States and China, have diminished expectations of what can be accomplished.

But there is a key difference between 1995 and now — a difference that gives some climate scientists and activists hope. In many countries, there has been a shift in the politics of climate change. Green parties, once written off as fringe activists, are winning over larger shares of the electorate. Green ideas have also gone mainstream, with candidates from across the political spectrum portraying themselves as friends of the climate. And citizens have begun to vote with climate on their minds.

“No one is questioning the science, no one is questioning that the crisis is happening,” said Annika Hedberg, who leads sustainability research at the European Policy Center. “The debate is around what can be done and at what speed. This is a positive thing — we’re not questioning the science but the measures.”

Floods, flames and heat: Images of this year’s extreme weather offer a stark backdrop for COP26 climate summit

The 2015 U.N. climate summit in Paris was an inflection point for global, and especially European, climate politics, Hedberg said — even if the loftiest promises haven’t been implemented six years later.

“That was the start of a transition,” she said. “It was a huge moment, with all these countries coming together and agreeing on a direction of travel.”

In Berlin, the commitments only applied to rich countries. In Paris, wealthy and developing nations submitted their goals for benchmarking.

Since then, a string of natural disasters has accelerated demands for action. This summer was especially grueling: Wildfires, floods and record heat waves made clear that even the world’s wealthiest countries won’t escape the devastation of extreme weather. Then came a blunt U.N. report warning that humans have altered the environment at an “unprecedented” pace and forecasting the catastrophic impacts that await, unless serious measures are adopted to cut greenhouse gas emissions — and soon.

Humans have pushed the climate into ‘unprecedented’ territory, landmark U.N. report finds

The Pew Research Center found that public concern about climate change has risen significantly in many countries. France and Mexico have seen some of the most dramatic increases: More than 8 in 10 people in those countries say climate change is a major threat, up nearly 30 points from 2013. In the United States, nearly 60 percent of people say the same, up 19 points over that same time period.

Jennifer Morgan, the executive director of Greenpeace International, has attended every COP — short for Conference of the Parties — going back to 1995 and said the shift in public attention has been clearly reflected there.

The Berlin conference, she recalled, saw hundreds of government officials gather for negotiations and a few side events. Interest from the world’s media was minimal. Those who went were climate science experts and environmental groups from North America and Europe. When people wanted to arrange meetings, they passed paper notes to each other. She recalled a small protest with demonstrators on bicycles.

Today, she said, the negotiations have “almost like a trade show around it . . . it’s a networking event.” About 30,000 delegates are expected to attend in Glasgow. Some groups, such as Climate Action Network, have been there since the start, but COP26 will also attract groups advocating for human rights, labor rights and Black Lives Matter. Massive protests are being planned via social media. The world’s media will cover the event.

“The level of public engagement is massively different,” Morgan said.

She added that some things have changed less than she would have liked. There’s still an effort by the fossil fuel industry to “slow down progress,” she said. It’s not as overt as it used to be, when there was an international association lobbying against emissions cuts and challenging the science of climate change. “Today, it’s done in a different way, it’s not as full on, it’s the oil industry announcing net-zero targets, but then opposing legislation,” she said.

In the United States, while the ranks of climate-change skeptics have dwindled, the latest congressional wrangling underscores that a sizable group of lawmakers remains resistant to measures that would cut back the burning of fossil fuels.

And in Europe, an ongoing energy crisis has raised doubts about whether the world is ready to wean itself off coal, oil and gas.

An energy crisis is gripping the world, with potentially grave consequences

Still, British and European Union leaders head to COP26 this week with some of the world’s most ambitious climate goals.

The European Green Deal aims to make Europe the first carbon neutral continent by 2050. The E.U.’s pandemic recovery package also requires member states to spend at least 37 percent of funds in support of the “green transition.” And the bloc is trying to become the world’s largest issuer of “green bonds,” which will fund environmentally friendly projects.

The turning tides of opinion helped Green parties win about 10 percent of seats in the most recent European Parliament elections, their most widespread gains to date.

European Greens surge as voters abandon old parties over climate

“People will have two or three issues in their mind when they go to the ballot box,” and increasingly, climate is one of those, said James Dennison, a professor at the European University Institute in Italy.

European Greens acknowledge that they are still a relatively minor political group at the E.U. level. “But against that backdrop, we have been successful in shaping important conversations,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, a longtime Green lawmaker from Germany.

“Our agenda has gone mainstream, and that is, of course, a great advantage,” Bütikofer added. “If you want to be successful in politics, you have to share your ideas with others and allow them to join the bandwagon.”

The bandwagon is getting crowded, as parties from across Europe and across the political spectrum have climbed aboard in recent years.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, leader of the center-right Conservative Party, has taken on the role of chief climate champion, a remarkable transformation for a man who once made fun of “eco-doomsters.”

In his role as host of COP26 in Glasgow, Johnson has been lobbying other world leaders, urging them to “grow up” and stop treating Earth like “some bouncy plastic romper room against which we can hurl ourselves to our heart’s content.”

Boris Johnson tells world leaders to ‘grow up’ on climate change, takes aim at Kermit the Frog

Vanessa Jérome, an expert on the French Greens and a political scientist at Canada’s University of Victoria, has observed that all major parties in the country now claim to be green, including the far-right National Rally. The question heading into next year’s presidential election, she said, is: Which shade?

“It’s a battle of legitimacy,” Jérome said.

Members of the Green Party itself have credibility, because “they’ve never changed their minds,” she said, but they don’t have a successful track record in national elections and they “never find a way to win the political battle” in France.

Europe’s Green parties have risen to power in a handful of countries.

Germany’s Greens have a decades-long history as serious political players, serving as the junior partner in a coalition government for seven years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. More than their counterparts in other countries, the party’s German branch has adopted centrist positions, courting business leaders and taking hawkish foreign policy stances.

In the country’s national elections in September, the Greens captured nearly 15 percent of the vote, posting their best-ever result but falling short of earlier polls and well below the clear majority who see climate change as a major threat and support more investment in the green economy. The result is probably good enough to return the Greens to government as the second-most powerful member of a three-party coalition.

Green parties are also part of coalition governments in Austria, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg and Sweden.

“It gives you a lot of responsibility,” said Meris Šehović, party leader of the Luxembourgish Greens. “Now that we have this public sense of urgency, and now we have managed to put in place a framework for climate action, it’s now about taking action. In the end, that’s all that matters.”

Pekka Haavisto made history in 1995 when he became the first Green to enter a national cabinet, assuming Finland’s environment minister post. His colleagues dismissed his party as a fad then, but the Greens have since captured more high-profile cabinet spots, such as the minister of foreign affairs, Haavisto’s current position.

“If somebody would be saying in ’95, when I entered, that we would have a government program where climate issues and protection of biodiversity are key elements, that sounds like a dream,” Haavisto said. “We tried to discuss these issues at that time, but it was not so successful. Now, these topics are very often number one on the list.”

Thebault reported from Brussels. Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.