Our climate demands we change the world right now. The good news? We can
Glasgow has to be a turning point. There is no other option
Nothing and everything and not nearly enough has changed in the six years since the Paris climate summit and agreement. The four players in our climate future – climate chaos, climate activism, climate solutions and climate finance – are still on a playing field filled with floods, flames and false solutions. Two of them are racing away from catastrophe, one is rushing toward it, and the fourth is undecided.
Runaway climate change itself has gotten far worse: we’re seeing chaos and destruction, ice melt and early signs of systemic collapse of ocean currents, ice sheets and much else. Both the climate movement and the practical solutions have gotten far stronger, more ambitious, more capable, more diverse. Climate finance has run in both directions: far too much money is still pumped into the fossil fuel industry, but there have been significant successes getting governments, development banks, and private investors to cut financing and reframe the industry as fundamentally criminal.
Today, 2015 seems an age ago, before the climate monsters Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro became heads of government, before the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg’s public protests, before so many floods, so many fires, so many broken heat records. We stopped talking about climate chaos as the future and acknowledged it as the present.
And yet so little has happened since then, in that the Paris treaty is a commitment to “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels” and “making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development”. Nations are not meeting their commitments, though they are making new ones, and the Glasgow summit may be and must be an occasion to set stronger goals and commitments to really mean them this time. We are still on a superhighway past 2C.
There have been a lot of specific victories of late. In September, China committed to stop building coal-power plants abroad. That month, the US, EU and eight other nations launched a methane-reduction treaty that will probably gain new signatories before or at the Glasgow summit. A lot of fossil fuel projects have been cancelled, and the industry is in turmoil, with coal corporations going bankrupt, huge oil companies losing share value and standing, and fossil fuel generally regarded as an industry in decline.
In May the usually stodgy International Energy Agency called for “a complete transformation of how we produce, transport and consume energy” to keep temperature rise to 1.5C or less (six years ago the Paris agreement was originally aiming at two degrees; it was protests from the Climate Vulnerable Forum nations that shifted the goalposts). Its just-released World Energy Outlook 2021 report furthers those goals, calling for a plan in which “no new oil and gas fields are approved for development, and no new coal mines or mine extensions are required” thanks to “a massive transition in the way we produce and consume energy”. The optimistic version would be that that transition needs to grow in speed and scale; the pessimistic one is that it needs to begin in earnest.
Six years ago, I met Steve Kretzmann, a fossil fuel policy expert and the founder of Oil Change International, inside the Cop21 press area in Paris. When I reached him the other day he reiterated the urgent necessity of stopping fossil fuel extraction and use: “We have got to turn the dial down on fossil fuels and we’re not doing it yet. While we’re watching impacts and awareness accelerate, we’re not denting fossil fuel’s share of total energy. We have to accept that winning on climate means phasing out the fossil fuel industry.” Renewables, he points out, have grown, but the addition of a new energy source is not automatically the subtraction of an old one. That subtraction is crucial.
Varshini Prakash, executive director and co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, launched in earnest in 2018, now with 400 hubs across the US, agreed that we need to escalate: “For decades people have been ignoring the climate crisis and we watched our communities suffer as a result. Just two or three years ago, the climate crisis and climate justice was thought of as a political loser, no one wanted to touch it with a 100ft pole. That isn’t true any more and it’s because we agitated and we organized and we bird-dogged these politicians every place they were … We’ve come a long way, but let’s be clear – the climate crisis doesn’t grade on the curve and neither can we. We’ve got to go much faster, much further if we want to prevent catastrophic harm.”
I also talked to the 350.org co-founder and executive director May Boeve, who offered a more sanguine view, telling me that “activists maintaining hope always is so important, because making sense of our success and impact is so difficult measured against these summits. The COP is the scoreboard and not the game; it’s the moment when there’s collective attention turned toward climate and it’s a way to take stock.” And then she speculated about the unknowns of what will happen in Glasgow – who will disrupt the status quo, who will take risks that will push others to expand their commitments. And of the dangers, now that the battle over whether climate change is real is over, of “phony commitments that don’t stop fossil fuel from being burned”.
Glasgow has to be a turning point, a point at which nations shift into high gear (a metaphor that still works with electric vehicles). The call is to change the world, and the job is entirely possible. But the longer we wait, the harder it becomes, the more doors slam shut, the more devastation overtakes us, the more it becomes too late for some places, species, systems. Looking back at 2015, it’s dismaying to see that we’re still so close to the starting line of the race.
Rebecca Solnit is a Guardian US columnist. Her most recent books are Recollections of My Nonexistence and Orwell’s Roses