November 9, 2021 Week Two of COP: How Much Compromise Is OK?

Welcome back to Today’s Climate, a newsletter that examines the most pressing news about our rapidly warming world every Tuesday and Friday afternoon. It’s the second and final week of COP26 and world leaders are asking outraged youth to accept compromise on climate action.

In a speech at COP on Monday, former U.S. President Barack Obama—who helped to seal the original Paris Agreement in 2015—told young activists to “stay angry,” acknowledging that the international agreement has failed to keep warming within safe margins and that far more needs to be done.

The two-term Democratic president also urged youth to accept a certain amount of compromise in their fight, echoing a similar statement from President Joe Biden to his own political party late last month. “I guarantee you, every victory will be incomplete,” Obama said during his COP speech. “Sometimes we will be forced to settle for imperfect compromises, because even if they don’t achieve everything that we want, at least they advance the cause.”

But climate activists are already calling the global talks a failure. And over the weekend, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched through Glasgow, condemning world leaders for failing to produce the fast action they say is needed to prevent catastrophic global warming. In a speech just before the march, prominent climate activist Greta Thunberg equated the summit to greenwashing—when someone claims to be more environmentally friendly than they actually are.

“It is not a secret that COP26 is a failure,” Thunberg said. “The COP has turned into a PR event, where leaders are giving beautiful speeches and announcing fancy commitments and targets, while behind the curtains governments of the Global North countries are still refusing to take any drastic climate action.” 

How much compromise climate campaigners should accept, however, remains a difficult question to answer. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed that the world is still on track to warm by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius by 2100, an increase that scientists say will devastate global ecosystems, wash away coastal cities and drive a steep increase in weather-related disasters. That finding was reaffirmed by a UN report released today, which found that the short-term plans from countries involved in the Paris Agreement make it impossible for them to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, likely leading to warming of about 2.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Among those short-term plans that are complicating the efforts to slow climate change is the fact that global carbon emissions are surging as many developing countries increase their use of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, which has long been considered on the decline. And even as countries increase their commitments under the Paris Agreement to reduce their emissions, those pledges have been crafted using data that significantly underestimates the amount of greenhouse gases most countries produce, according to a groundbreaking report from The Washington Post this week.

The Post’s ambitious investigation analyzed the emissions reports from the 196 countries originally signed onto the Paris accord and found that there’s a giant gap between the emissions the countries are reporting and what they’re actually releasing into the atmosphere.

“At the low end, the gap is larger than the yearly emissions of the United States. At the high end, it approaches the emissions of China and comprises 23 percent of humanity’s total contribution to the planet’s warming,” the report said.

But, away from Glasgow, compromise has brought about at least one positive development so far. Late on Friday, the U.S. House passed the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill after progressive Democrats struck a deal with party moderates. That bill contains $47 billion to help communities prepare for the worsening effects of climate change, including wildfires and floods.

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll see you again Friday.

Today’s Indicator

99,614

That’s the square mileage of forests the world lost in 2020 alone, according to the latest data from Global Forest Watch, raising serious concerns over a recent international pledge to rein in deforestation.