COP26 Closes Out: What Comes Next?
Brian Lehrer: It's the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC. Good morning again, everyone. Now that the COP26 climate change summit has wrapped up after two weeks in Glasgow, Scotland, over 200 countries have formalized an agreement hoping to mitigate the global impact of the climate crisis. How did it turn out? Well, they did some things and they didn't do some things. One extraordinary moment as the summit ended, came when COP26 President Alok Sharma who's a member of parliament in the UK, listed the accomplishments of the conference to the assembled delegates, but then also apologized to them.
Alok Sharma: May I just say to all delegates I apologize for the way this process has unfolded and I'm deeply, sorry. I also understand the deep disappointment, but I think as you have noted, it's also vital that we protect this package.
Brian Lehrer: Why an apology from the COP26 president wrapped in a plea to protect what they did agree to? One big reason is that while the Glasgow climate pack reinforces the international pledge to limit the warming of the planet, to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Some scientists, activists, and even world leaders say commitments in the deal aren't detailed enough to guarantee that goal. Remember 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 Fahrenheit, is the point at which the scientific consensus say the effects will become catastrophic.
One aspect causing deep disappointment and surprise among delegates is the language surrounding global use of coal. In the 11th hour of negotiations, representatives from China and India suggested an edit. This may sound small and technical, but they changed it from coal being phased out, to it being phased down. This is a key distinction. It loosens the need for countries, especially those whose developing economies rely more heavily on coal to effectively eliminate their fossil fuel production going forward. It comes as these parts of the world claim to lack the resources needed to cut carbon emissions without devastating their growing economies.
Hoping to solve that issue the agreement also includes a $100 billion pledge from wealthier nations, like the US, Canada and much of Western Europe to support the transition for developing economies new to this agreement. Part of that investment will also go to island nations and indigenous communities already hurt by climate change, or form of reparations. The term of the distribution of the $100 billion remains unclear how much will be in grants, or in loans, or in something else.
Let's talk about these aspects and more with climate activist writer and filmmaker, Julian Brave NoiseCat. He's currently a fellow at both New America and the Type Media Center, and it was working on a book tentatively titled, We Survive The Night. Thanks so much for coming on the show Julian, welcome back to WNYC.
Julian Brave NoiseCat: It's always a pleasure. Thanks for having me. I wish we were talking about something more hopeful, but here we are.
Brian Lehrer: Listeners, let me let you in right away. Have you followed COP26 from start to finish? We've done any number of segments on this show during the two weeks of the summit. What do you think about the agreements made at the conference? What are your hopes for actual outcomes? Any questions you have for Julian Brave NoiseCat who's been following it. 212-433-WNYC, 212-433-9692. Julian, to start it off, you just said you wish that we could have been talking at a time when we could be talking about something more hopeful. You are generally more disappointed than encouraged by the results of COP26?
Julian Brave NoiseCat: Well, so I think that the thing about this COP is that your perspective on whether it was a hopeful or dispiriting outcome really depends on the perspective that you're coming from, I guess the place where you sit. I guess from one vantage point as someone who lives in Washington D.C, and is connected to the broadly speaking American political project.
I think there are some in my broader network who think that the COP was a success. Of course they got some commitments to redouble efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Some verbiage was put down about helping developing countries do so, and there was also some agreements in addition to the climate agreement in particular between the US and China that point towards at least rhetorical ambition.
For some I think that that is a welcome departure, of course, from the last four years that were dominated by the Trump administration. A president who described global warming as a "hoax" invented by the Chinese. From another perspective though, there is a very strange, I have it as a little bit of a dysphoric experience of watching everybody increasingly talk about how much of a shame. We heard Alok Sharma, of course, the member of parliament who presided over the COP in a Glasgow, talk about how much threat he experienced of the shortcomings of that COP. That word regret comes up actually in the actual text of the agreement.
From that perspective where you have people sad and disappointed with what's happened, at the same time saying we need to up our ambition. When the reality is that we are now actually seeing emissions rise after 2020 and the pandemic. It looks like there's this growing gap, a gap of hypocrisy in a way between world leaders who know in a broad sense, the direction we need to go to rein in emissions and adapt our society to climate change, and the enormous Delta between that vision and where we actually are. I think that that is the perspective that I primarily come from. The perspective that's like it's very nice to hear that these world leaders care about climate change, that they want to take action.
I think that the much harder thing though, is going to be implementing some of those actions and moving us towards the kinds of social transformations that are going to be required to mitigate warming. Limit warming to 1.5 or two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which is not what we're on track to do, we should say. There was actually an analysis that came out during the COP from this group called Carbon Action Tracker that showed that on current pathways. We are probably headed towards 2.4 to 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming, which is a whole heck of a lot warmer than what we were supposed to be aiming for in the Paris Agreement.
Brian Lehrer: That's by 2050, that soon, that that would take place? Because that's supposed to be the 1.5 Celsius goal, is to hold it to that by 2050.
Julian Brave NoiseCat: Yes, which would require net-zero emissions by 2050. Actually, sorry, the 1.5 is by the end of the century. The net zero is by mid-century.
Brian Lehrer: Got it. How important is it in your opinion the distinction that I mentioned earlier, the language changing from coal being phased out to it being phased down. Which apparently China and India were responsible for, that is that watering down of the language.
Julian Brave NoiseCat: Well, so I think the difference between a phase out and a phase down which might sound incredibly minor to anybody listening, or maybe reading about this in the news, is actually quite significant. Because a phase out would imply that we are going to actually move beyond coal. There will be no more coal used for energy in the global economy. That's what a phase out would suggest.
A phase down meanwhile, would leave a potentially not insignificant amount of wiggle room for nations and economies that are still burning coal to continue doing so. Maybe shuttering some coal power plants here and there and,/or using largely unproven technologies to capture the emissions from those power plants to make those power plants remain online. Essentially the real debate here, which is hidden in some slick language is about whether or not we're really going to end the era of coal power in the global energy system or not.
At Glasgow, we decided, well, we're probably not ready for that quite yet, which is a real shame because coal is not cost-competitive actually with rising, renewable and clean energy. It's something that is the most dirty form of energy that we can possibly be powering our economies with today. If it's not cost competitive then it's quite dirty. You have to wonder in the context of global warming why we are still as a global community not willing to commit to ending that power source.
Brian Lehrer: For you Julian as an activist who's concerned with wealth inequality around the world, and with the fate of indigenous peoples around the world. Do you experience any tension over this particular provision. Because the goal at least if we take it earnestly from those who want to phase out coal and other fossil fuels more slowly. Is that the poor nations of the world need some leeway here to build their economy. While the United States and other wealthier nations have had that leeway before the world started to get it all serious about global warming for all these decades, and look at the wealth disparities that have come as a result. Do you have any sympathy for more leeway on fossil fuels for developing countries so that they can get their standards of living up higher more quickly?
Julian Brave NoiseCat: Yes and I think this is one of the biggest challenges of the clean energy transition. Which is the fact that in the broadest climate atmospheric future of our species sense, we must do everything in our power to transition to a future that produces less and less emissions over time. Transitioning away from coal is one of the best ways to do that. On the other hand coal power is in particular a very labor intensive energy source, and it has been in many parts of the world. The foundation here in the United States in West Virginia, in not that far from Glasgow, actually parts of Northern England and all around the world, it's a life blood in a sense of a certain era of industrial capitalism. Coal miners were a major force and are a major force in many different parts of the world.
The challenge here to me is more about how do we ensure that in the transition to a future that runs on a lot less and maybe no coal, that the workers in those industries and economies around them get the economic support that you need. When you're in a situation where the commitments made at the Copenhagen Summit 12 years ago of the developed nations, the wealthy nations of the world to finance to the tune of $100 billion. The transition to clean energy in adaptation to global warming in developing nations and island nations. The reality that that money has not materialized 12 years later, I do very much sympathize with the perspective of say India and for that matter the perspective of a coal miner in a place like West Virginia.
I think that that is a very legitimate perspective. A perspective that comes from the need for good work and the economic growth and benefits that come from it. A lot of people have gotten very wealthy during this pandemic, it's not like there's not enough capital sloshing around the more well off portions of our economic system. The challenge it seems to me has to do more with the willingness to redistribute some of that capital and apply some of that capital in areas where it might create new economic benefits. Around things like solar energy and wind power. Wind power in particular can be the bedrock of a new industrial capitalism that involves organized labor and creates the same good, paying union jobs that we saw in the era of coal power.
Brian Lehrer: I'll throw in as an aside, as I watch all these stories about inflation in the United States that are going around right now and the analysis that the inflation is mostly because of energy prices. It strikes me that it would be an opportunity for a quicker transition to non fossil fuel energy because that's what's going up, it's fossil fuels. I know you can't do this in a month, but it would seem at least politically to be an opportunity to say we don't want to besides the climate damage that fossil fuels do, we don't want to be dependent on the fluctuating price of oil. Especially oil and other fossil fuels for the rest of time, so let's take this opportunity of high inflation that has everybody shocked to really launch this transition more intensively to renewables, but so far they're not doing that.
Bareish in Clifton you're on WNYC, you want to follow up on what we were just talking about regarding India's right to develop with coal, right?
Baresh: Yesterday I hear BBC news and they says that like [unintelligible 00:15:41] is a bad guy, for a watered down language for the school. Actually the US is behind that language too, and whole draft only include the coal, did not include the natural gas and the petroleum because it's a wealthy nation use for the energy, so it doesn't make any sense.
Brian Lehrer: Interesting Baresh, thank you very much. I guess he's making a distinction there between all the focus on phasing down coal without as much on natural gas which India doesn't use as much, but the wealthier nations do. Is that a distinction you're familiar with, Julian?
Julian Brave NoiseCat: Yes to a certain extent. The focus I think at the beginning of the energy transition has largely though not entirely, been on coal. A bout a decade ago there was a belief that natural could be a "bridge fuel." This came from what has since been disproven, the idea that natural gas produce lower emissions than other forms of fossil fuels. It turns out actually that when you look at the full production and transportation process involved in natural gas that there's actually quite a bit of methane emissions. Methane is a greenhouse gas that, depending on the time table that you're looking at in terms of its warming potential, can bring as much as like 20 to 40 to 80 times as much warming as CO2.
This idea has since at least in very climate focused communities, the idea being that natural gas could be a bridge fuel and that we could transition to that in place of coal is not as supported as it used to be and is dying as a policy and technology preference and idea. It is one that I'm familiar with, and I think it's also worth saying that there was some discussion of methane emissions which relates to natural gas at the COP. That discussion of facing out natural gas globally is it appears well on the horizon so we're there with coal yet and we're probably not going to be there for a little while longer with natural gas.
Brian Lehrer: We're talking about the mixed results of the COP26 Climate Summit now that the two week conference has ended with Julian Brave NoiseCat activist, writer, filmmaker. He's a fellow at the New America Foundation and the Tight Media Center. Tanya, in Mount Kisco you're on WNYC. Hi Tanya.
Tanya: Hi. I just want to say I work in the environmental field, I work for New York City Environmental Protection and I'm a long term climate advocate. I think one important thing people need to hold onto is hope, that's just a human sentiment that we all need. I would just encourage people to consider putting pressure on smaller level governments. There's a lot of conversation about big countries and what we can do at a personal level. We can also push our municipalities to institute a remote work policy, modernize their fleet so they're not emitting CO2. Leaf blower laws, and lawn mower laws. Try and get people to put pressure on still at a significant level that has an impact but not necessarily.
We feel frustrated when we can't have national policy. Honestly this country we've lacked high level leadership to trickle down to municipal agencies that don't really know what to do. You can volunteer for example, I'm a member of my local environmental advisory board and we together created a wetlands law. We are trying to get our municipality to have remote work policy. I think this is an important conversation that people can sort of push and still feel like they're having an impact.
Brian Lehrer: Yes, really important Tanya. Let me follow up on two of the things that you brought up. One, just so people know, with the leaf blowers and the lawn mowers, I think the issue is to ban natural gas as a power supply for those, right?
Tanya: Correct. There's electric options and there is currently a bill coming up in New York state that's going to offer landscapers rebates to electrify their fleets and that's awesome. We definitely need to do that, at a state level it's important to advocate for the environment. It's also important to advocate at your hyper local level. A lot of these boards are empty and people aren't volunteering to join. Yes, it's a labor of love, but I think there's a lot of love out there.
Brian Lehrer: Interesting that you brought up remote work in relation to the climate. I bet a lot of people haven't heard those two things mentioned in the same breath before. Usually when we talk about license to work at home, it's for COVID safety, or because, "Hey, why not? I'm being just as productive from home as before the pandemic." Those are the two things we usually hear, you're saying it's related to climate as well?
Tanya: Oh, 100%. When people are not driving their cars to work, they're not burning fossil fuels. Not everybody can afford a Tesla. People are still using their cars to drive to work. I would also say as a parent, for me when I was working from home, I was able to prepare foods with less of a climate footprint. I didn't have to rely on processed, quick and easy foods that come in plastic packaging that have a higher carbon footprint. We're not even always thinking about the entirety of the ramifications of remote work.
I think for me, it really struck home how much better we could be doing if we allowed people to remote work. I think the private sector certainly has appreciated that people can do it. It was successful, it was great, but I think municipalities are lagging behind. I certainly wish New York City would consider that option. I think a lot of my colleagues at environmental protection, we were like, this is so great for the environment and now we're forced to go back to work.
Brian Lehrer: The city workers in particular, at a much higher rate than the private sector workers in the business districts and Manhattan. Tanya, thank you for so much food for thought in that call. Julian really interesting stuff there, that the kind of big picture question that I think she's bringing up is can we have an impact on the climate if we think 1.5 degrees Celsius has to be a real goal to prevent catastrophic effects from warming.
Is it futile to try to have an impact through your personal behavior and your personal life, or to affect things more locally? She was emphasizing at the municipal level, city by city, town by town. Because unless the countries come to these big agreements and really force energy change at the level of national policy, it's not really going to make a difference anyway, do you think about this question?
Julian Brave NoiseCat: Yes, absolutely. I think that climate change and climate action are collective problems. They have to do with the collective actions and history of humans going back to the industrial revolution and also have to do with our collective actions now and moving into the future. That does not mean that we need to look at it as something that's too big for any of us to have any sort of influence on. In fact, actually here in the United States the actions taken by subnational governments by in particular state governments, as well as city and local governments. Are going to be really crucial over the next decade to make sure that we get on a path to cut our emissions in half as President Biden has set a goal for the United States by 2030.
In New York, New York State is a member of the US Climate Alliance. It's a bipartisan coalition of 25 governors across the United States who are committed to taking action on climate change. There was actually a very influential model that was released by a consultancy called the Rhodium Group just about a month ago that showed that the actions of not just the federal government, but also state governments in implementing clean energy policies. Of transitioning the way that we run our transportation systems from combustion engines to electric vehicles. As well as a suite of other very important policies related to agriculture are all going to be essential to helping the United States meet that 50% of emissions cut by 2030 mark.
At that level I think that we can all talk to our city council members, our governors, our mayors and that those kinds of our grassroots lobbying and advocacy and organizing really can make a difference at those levels of government. I would definitely encourage people to get involved, be paying attention to not just what's happening in Washington D.C, but also at the state legislature, at the city council, and at all those levels of government. Because they really do add up and are going to be important to the broader collective fight.
Brian Lehrer: Do you think Biden promised anything really meaningful in terms of the reductions that he articulated as a goal in this decade by 2030? It was that promise I think that got the hunger strikers for the climate in DC to give up their hunger strike because Biden said that.
Julian Brave NoiseCat: I'm not sure that that was the causation for the end of the hunger strike. I think that there was medical concerns actually that the hunger stickers were reaching a point where it was becoming actually potentially existential for them. Which was, I should say, I think that that was a very, very brave action and directed pressure on the President, the White House, and Congress at a moment where they needed that sort of pressure.
The thing that's been very curious to me about the Biden administration is that they clearly want to get something done here on climate change. Climate spending, for example was the least impact it by the sort of cuts made by Centris senators in the congressional negotiations the last couple of weeks. Climate spending was targeted at a round $600 billion in the original form of a Build Back Better agenda put out by the President, and it's now only been cut to about $550 billion. It's clearly a high priority and one that the Democratic Party wants to get done.
Yet we are in this very curious circumstance where the president jetted off to Glasgow without any policies having been passed by Congress. He did this weird thing where he put out a new framework that was opposed to get all of the 50 Democratic senators support before he went and negotiated with world leaders over in the United Kingdom. Actually it turned out that he did not have those votes and that in particular Senator Manchin, the moderate Democrat from West Virginia, a coal state, was very reluctant still to move forward with the President's agenda.
There's this very curious thing happening where, again, I think that the president and his party are largely very sincere in their desire to take action on climate change. The devil just happens to be in the details of how you get all the votes to do so. Then in the second step of how do you actually turn these words into laws and actions, which is going to be much harder.
Brian Lehrer: Just to give Biden some credit, the Post reported on November 2nd, young climate activist end hunger strike after 14 days after Biden pledged again, to cut emissions in half by 2030. The activist planned to turn their fire towards Senator Joe Manchin. Maybe Biden's statement had something to do with it. Last thing that I want to get your take on, article six of the Glasgow climate pact, which centers global communities already hurt by climate change.
I want to read the beginning of article six for our listeners because they probably haven't heard it anywhere else. It says that the pact "acknowledges that climate change has already caused and will increasingly cause law loss and damage. And that as temperatures rise impacts from climate and weather extremes, as well as slow onset events will pose an ever greater social economic and environmental threat." It also directly references indigenous people's and local communities. How significant is the acknowledgement and the whatever reparations go with that.
Julian Brave NoiseCat: I think it's very significant, because article six generally has to do with the creation of emissions trading markets. These are cap and trade markets where economies and countries that are able to take faster action on climate change get a certain number of tradeable emissions credits. Then can sell those credits to economies and countries and corporations that perhaps are not able to take action so quickly. Often this has to do with actually real trees and real things that are helping keep that carbon in the ground rather than up in the sky.
The places where that's happening is most often actually in the homelands of native peoples throughout the Americas and in other parts of the world. The complexity around those sorts of regimes cannot be overstated. In some instances these kinds of carbon trading markets have been used by indigenous communities to actually bring real revenue into their communities and to preserve some of their homelands. In parts of Canada there are First Nations who really support these kinds of policy systems, and I've gone to some of them and reported on some of those situations.
In other parts of the world however, there has been a very troubling track record of these sorts of emissions trading's schemes, that call on the protection of particular patches of forests that belong to indigenous communities, or are used by indigenous. To then actually keep those areas from being used by native peoples in their traditional, perhaps cultural or harvesting practices that they have been used in for millennia. There is this real concern that in one of the key solutions that's being put forward to the climate crisis, there might actually be a financial land grab that's happening once again in parts of the Amazon and in native communities around the world.
I think that that language acknowledging indigenous peoples is really important, because there are very real concerns that have actually been proven in some instances particularly in Brazil. Where these kinds of carbon credit type systems have actually dispossessed people of their lands. Of course that's not something that we want to see happening in the fight against climate change.
Brian Lehrer: Filmmaker and climate activist Julian Brave NoiseCat. He's a fellow at both New America and the Type Media Center and is currently working on a book tentatively titled We Survive the Night. Julian thanks for coming on and talking through the end results of COP26 with us. We really appreciate it.
Julian Brave NoiseCat: Thanks so much for having me. I hope it wasn't too complicated. This stuff can get pretty wonky pretty quickly.
Brian Lehrer: Pretty wonky but it's important to go through it. I'm glad we did. I think our listeners got a lot out of it. Thanks.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.