Even at their remote resort, walled off from climate protesters by an authoritarian government, the 40,000 delegates gathered at the COP27 climate conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, can’t ignore the rising tide of criticism surrounding their annual meetings.
Annual global greenhouse gas emissions have nearly doubled, from about 20 gigatons to nearly 40 gigatons per year since global climate talks started, with half of all cumulative emissions since the start of the fossil fuel era coming in just the past 30 years. And the seven years since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015 have been Earth’s warmest on record.
This week and next, the negotiators face the grim reality that the goal of limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius is further away than ever, and possibly already out of reach. Although nations at the summit are charged with increasing their climate ambitions, in a world increasingly stressed by climate extremes, armed conflicts, extreme nationalism and growing social tensions, the best-case outcome for COP27 might simply be avoiding any backsliding on all the climate promises already made.
That bar is set far too low for a growing number of scientists and climate activists, who say the United Nations global conferences and non-binding promises lack the urgency the crisis requires.
“It’s very hard to believe in this process,” said University of Maryland sociologist Dana R. Fisher, who is also a nonresident senior fellow with the governance studies program at The Brookings Institution. “I think that the activists who are paying attention are just fed up. And I think those folks who are focusing more on the domestic level are seeing all the ways that COP27 is a whole bunch of hot air.”
As the U.N. process loses credibility, Fisher sees climate activism far from the international climate summits growing more confrontational in pressuring governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as fast as possible at the national level.
“We’re not meeting the targets, we’re not meeting the timetables,” she said. “It’s big talk, greenwashing and not a lot of action. And I think that’s what’s driving a lot of the activism to potentially get much more confrontational.”
Fisher is far from alone. On Twitter, Oregon State University ecologist William Ripple reposted an image of hundreds of private jets flying toward Egypt and wrote “This is sickening, but it would not be so bad if they would at least make a plan to leave remaining fossil fuels in the ground.” Ripple is also co-founder of the Alliance of World Scientists, an independent group of researchers who released a stark movie about the climate crisis ahead of COP27 urging negotiators to take the threat seriously. He noted that, on top of the global conferences’ failures to deliver results, the behavior of the negotiators doesn’t inspire confidence in the process.
“I think it is important for world leaders to set an example and the use of private jets to get to a climate conference is sending the wrong message,” he said. “An additional insult is that there is beef on the menu, which has an extremely high greenhouse gas footprint. I feel frustrated that there is so little action while we are heading to climate hell with massive untold human suffering.”
Still, he said, the goal shouldn’t be to end the climate conferences.
“It is miraculous that they bring all nations together to make global decisions and have accomplished the Paris Agreement,” he said. Instead, the summit should focus on the most ambitious, concrete and immediate actions it can take.
“It will be important for COP to set the stage for a fossil fuel non-proliferation agreement” to speed up the required social changes, he said. “Many changes need to happen, but the energy transition is the low-hanging fruit. We must make good on this goal and we must act fast.”
Turning Away From Diplomacy and Toward Activism
The failure of the international process to address the climate crisis is especially frustrating for people who didn’t cause the problem, including the youngest generations who know their future is in jeopardy. That frustration was clearly expressed by Sophia Kianni, an American-Iranian student at Stanford University and the youngest U.N. adviser, in her Nov. 8 speech to COP27 delegates.
World leaders, she said, “are saying one thing but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. Those are not my words, or the words of another youth climate activist. No, those are the words of the U.N. Secretary General António Guterres. What language do we need to translate the climate data into for you to take action? We need leaders to stop lying,” she said, repeating the phrase in all six of the United Nations’ official languages.
The lack of progress makes it hard to see why the annual meetings should continue, said German scientist and climate activist Alexander Grevel, who recently participated in two traffic blockades to draw attention to the climate crisis. He said a system of regional conferences that don’t require jet travel, and smaller summits with fewer leaders, might be an alternative to the current structure, but acknowledged that the globally focused meetings also help elevate the concerns of countries in the Global South that don’t have many opportunities to make their case in the global media spotlight.
The soft-spoken chemist and biologist said he’s long been inspired by Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience and recently quit his job because it seemed pointless with the world headed for a climate catastrophe. He participated in two training sessions to learn how to keep the dialogue focused on the climate, he said, before joining the traffic blockade by the activist group Letzte Generation.
“We wanted to be prepared for all the things that might happen to us because sometimes, car drivers get really aggressive. They just hit us, they drag us away. It’s incredible that people just don’t want to see what we are facing right now,” he said. “I can’t do this lab work anymore if I know that we are now destroying this planet. Almost every day I see that happening out there and it really drives me crazy.”
That includes the climate impact of the huge annual conference itself. “This is the world climate conference and people go there by plane, and this is kind of insane,” he said.
“At the moment, we still have time to act, and I’m taking the time right now,” he said. “The place I want to be now is on the streets, mobilizing people and having a direct dialogue with passers-by. It makes a difference.”
Doomed From the Start?
For many activists and concerned citizens, the United Nations’ process to deal with climate change has clearly failed, said Jem Bendell, a sociologist at the University of Cumbria and founder of the Deep Adaptation movement, which is developing a framework to respond to a possible societal collapse from the stress of the climate crisis, based on values like nonviolence, compassion, curiosity and respect.
“If the UNFCCC was going to get us to where we needed, it would have happened in 2000,” he said. “That was first target year set for emissions reductions by industrialized countries when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was finalized in 1994.”
It was also the first year in which nations missed their emissions reductions goals.
“Since then, the annual climate talks have been about ever-more studious analyses of where to move the goalposts to next,” he said.
The scope of the failure wasn’t all that evident to most people until recently, he added.
“The problem is that, for many people like me, who spent a whole career in environmental work, we assumed that the IPCC was gospel and that the UNFCCC was making progress,” he said. “I didn’t even know until six years ago that targets for the year 2000, set by physics, had been massively missed. We see no evidence the planet is better with the UNFCCC. So I can’t argue it should continue.”
Nevertheless, Bendell is at COP27 this year because the media spotlight on the conference can amplify voices that are mostly unheard the rest of the year.
At a Nov. 8 panel in Sharm El-Sheikh, Bendell criticized the COP process from within. “The 30 years of COPs have been a great success in helping the elites pretend something is being done while not addressing the root causes of the problem,” he said.
The global climate agenda has been shaped by powerful institutions that have systematically marginalized discussions about alternatives to mainstream economic thought, he said. Now it’s important to talk more about adapting to global warming effects that the U.N. process has failed to avoid, he said. Those discussions are growing more critical as climate impacts intensify in the Global South while the Global North continues to control most of the world’s fossil fuel valves and has done little to slow their flow, he said.
In some ways, the COP process was doomed to failure from the start, said University of Vienna political scientist Reinhard Steurer, who studies the political dimensions of the climate crisis. When he first saw the text of the Paris Agreement, he said he thought, “You don’t know what you’re cheering about. This is not going to work.”
“Seven years later, it’s not working,” he said.
Many leaders have pushed aside the climate crisis to deal with other, more urgent crises, he said. Now he believes a positive outcome at COP27 would mean acknowledging that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is no longer possible.
“It’s really important to admit that goal is gone,” he said. “It’s an illusion, and that’s quite important to recognize because it’s the first step of acknowledging that now, we’re in trouble. As long as you keep the 1.5 illusion alive, you give the impression that we can still manage this just fine. But no, we’re not going to be able to do that.”
The U.N. climate summits are not primarily about solving the climate crisis, he said, but about managing the energy transition in a way that is not harmful to our societies or to our economies.
“The process is focused on keeping things as they are for as long as possible, and, as a byproduct, about solving the problem with techno-fixes only,” he said. “Unfortunately, this will not be enough. Thus, we are still on the fast lane toward climate catastrophe.”
Climate Crisis Threatens Democracy
Steurer described COP27 as part of a ritualized process that, at best, intensifies the media spotlight on climate issues for a couple of weeks.
“That’s probably the only really good part of all this,” he said. “It’s in the news, people talk about it, and I can say five times a week, ‘This is not gonna solve the problem, it’s part of the problem.’ Now, what do we do about it? We need to put pressure on governments. That’s the only way to get out of this.”
The lack of progress at the annual climate talks shows that the solution won’t come from the top down, but the wave of climate activism that emerged in 2019 starting with Greta Thunberg and the Fridays For Future school strikes and marches that suggested that grassroots engagement could be a more effective way of forcing governments to act.
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But the Covid-19 pandemic slowed climate activism. Now, the latest round of global climate talks is being held in an authoritarian country with a record of human rights violations, including jailing activists, and other countries have also moved to quash demonstrations. In Germany, several young climate activists were recently jailed preemptively for 30 days under a law aimed at preventing radical Islamic terrorism, while a leader of a populist conservative party called for even harsher penalties to prevent societal disruptions.
“This is the kind of polarization that you can expect,” Steurer said. With activists taking more aggressive actions to draw attention to the crisis, governments and many citizens will grow increasingly angry with them. “The more disturbing it gets, the more they will crack down,” he said.
Along with more civic pressure on national governments to act, Steurer said climate litigation may ultimately result in more climate action than the international climate talks. In several countries, including Germany, courts have already ruled that governments must do more to meet climate targets. But that doesn’t mean they follow through, he said.
“In Germany, where the high court ruled that the government is not doing enough, the government improved its targets,” he said. “But it still does not deliver. In particular, the minister for transportation doesn’t care. And the high court cannot come and arrest him.”
One government institution ignoring the standards or mandates of another probably also contributes to polarization of society, he added.
“It’s probably the first sign of deteriorating democracies,” he said. “This is part of the climate crisis, that democracies increasingly get under pressure.”
He sees the rise of autocratic, polarizing leaders on promises to protect the fossil fuel-based status quo as another impact of the climate crisis on democracy.
“That’s what you get when your illusions are no longer compatible with reality,” he said. “We’re in that state right now already. It’s really a dangerous time for democracies.”
Could Staying Home and Taking Action There Be More Effective?
It’s not that people want to be confrontational, said Fisher, the University of Maryland sociologist who has been studying climate activism for several decades. “It’s just that people are just so frustrated,” she said. “Every time it looks like there’s reason to celebrate, it doesn’t happen.”
The biggest celebrations were after the 2015 Paris Agreement in which countries agreed to deliver national targets to reduce climate warming emissions that would be ratcheted upward toward more ambitious goals every five years and subject to international scrutiny. But most of the actions nations must take to implement even their original plans have not occurred.
“They’re not doing it, not to the degree where they actually achieve the emissions reductions that they’re committing to,” Fisher said.” So what’s the point of meeting again?”
The best thing for the climate might be for everyone attending the COP to stay at home and work on implementing the national plans they’ve already committed to, she added.
“There is really nothing that I see that could come out of this COP that will be anything but incremental efforts to try to get countries to do the work that they should have already done inside their borders,” she said.
At best, the negotiators at COP27 might find a way to make more money available for adaptation and to pay for some of the damages already caused by global warming, she said. But even that is “basically guilty countries following through on commitments they already made, but that they just have not followed through on.” And it shouldn’t require flying 40,000 people to the desert in Egypt to do that, she said.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m not there,” she said. “I just feel like it seems like a terrible waste of resources.”
In the end it can become a cheerleading session, she cautioned. The United States, for example, is in Egypt holding up the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, saying “rah, rah, rah, rah, bipartisan deal,” she noted, while ignoring the imminent threat the results of the midterm elections in the U.S. could pose to the nation’s climate policy.
“We have these bills that have been passed and finally signed by the president, so let’s implement them,” she said. “Let’s focus on that. We still haven’t even met our Paris Agreement pledge. It’s just a bunch of hot air if it’s not implemented.”
Swiss climate activist Guillermo Fernandez, who protested his country’s lack of climate action with a hunger strike last December, also said that COP27 can’t deliver anything beyond what national governments bring to the table. He’s also glued himself to a road to block traffic a few times recently, and balances what he calls climate militancy with working on a program to make existing houses much more energy efficient.
“Nothing that happens at the COP is beyond what the nations do by themselves,” he said. “And if I look at my country, I know that our actions and commitments are drivers to heating the world beyond 3 degrees Celsius.” Since Switzerland’s current policies lead to dangerous warming, he doesn’t expect the country to be able to negotiate anything new that’s meaningful.
“The only way forward is to push within countries to adopt the right policies, and that means that we need to have a political class which has the courage to do it,” he said. ”Someone told me one day, ‘There’s no government that’s going to have more courage than its own citizens.’”
Consequently, he hopes that climate activists will continue to take more aggressive and frequent actions.
“Militancy is so important,” he said. “We need to push the discourse of courage within our own citizenships, of ‘We want it, we want to save our kids,’ because if we don’t, COP will just register that no one cares.”