Reminder from COP26: We are the climate heroes we’ve been waiting for

After international negotiations ended at the COP26 UN climate summit, the fate of the planet may seem like it’s out of our hands. One recent headline from the New York Times put it this way, “Climate Promises Made in Glasgow Now Rest With a Handful of Powerful Leaders.” 

But that’s not the case.

Maintaining a livable planet by hitting climate targets and changing the way we as a species tread upon the land is squarely on our shoulders — the collective citizenry of Earth. The “handful of powerful leaders” it seems, may actually be more concerned with staying in power. This is supported by constant appeasing of the powerful fossil fuel lobby, while giving lip service to maintaining a livable planet. Remember, this is not the first or second round of the UN’s Conference of the Parties meeting to address climate change — this was COP26. These powerful leaders have been performing this dance for over a quarter-century.

The reporting coming out of COP26 is that it was a mixed bag. On the one hand, there was a lot of drama about the language in the agreement reached, changing the goal of “phasing out coal” to “phasing down coal.” While not a great development, I’m pretty sure the numbers are more important than the words. 

Updated collective commitments leave us on track for 2.4 degrees Celsius of warming, which would be cataclysmic, worlds away from the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees. And that’s if every country hits their targets, which they’ve never been able to do. Another important number is 503 — the number of delegates at COP 26 representing fossil fuel interests, boasting more representatives than any country. 

On the other hand, there were a lot of positive developments around climate finance, methane, deforestation and biodiversity, as outlined by journalist David Roberts and the architect of the Paris Agreement, Christiana Figueres.

Of course, if the Democrats had gotten their act together and passed both halves of Biden’s climate agenda — the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (signed into law this week) as well as the Build Back Better Act, COP26 may have had a completely different trajectory. But alas, we see largely the same dynamics at play: a lot of talk, a lot less action.

As in previous meetings, poorer countries with the least historical responsibility, and the least means to adapt, made passionate pleas for their survival. A handful of powerful countries ran the show. And generally, promises made at the COP stay at the COP — unless of course, the lawmakers back home decide in parallel to adopt the promises their delegates proclaimed on the world stage. Oh, and of course there are promises of greater cooperation, this time in the form of the U.S. and China announcing how they’re going to start working together more on climate.

It may sound like I’m being cynical, but I’m not. I don’t get upset when these climate summits fall far short of expectations. Because while I’m rooting for a different outcome, I’m not betting on it.

With the U.S. failing to pass any domestic climate legislation beforehand, did anyone really think that world leaders would solve the climate crisis over two weeks of powerpoints, press conferences and room service?

As Figueres points out, whether we realize it or not, we are already in the midst of a global, economy-wide transformation that is building momentum. “It is a deliberate metamorphosis that is more complex and far-reaching than any transformation we have ever attempted,” she notes.

Like a butterfly’s metamorphosis, the caterpillar’s imaginal cells start binding together, and eventually will take over the entire organism and transform it into a butterfly. At first it seems like the sporadic isolated imaginal cells are too insignificant to change the makeup of the caterpillar. But when the imaginal cells start clustering together, and quickly outnumber the caterpillar cells, we witness one of the most beautiful transformations in nature. 

To translate that from biology to politics, I think David Roberts sums it up well. “National governments are often going to be in the caboose of this train — civic groups, the private sector and subnational governments are leading the way,” he said. “That’s distributed all over the world, less easy to see and sum up, but it shows that the caution and intransigence of national governments are not the whole story.”

Who is he referring to as leading the way, exactly? All of us. The citizens. The ones who know that we can’t keep crossing our fingers and praying for the next Congress or the next COP to awaken from hibernation. No, the hard work needs to be done by us. Through our community action plans, our town-hall meetings and our company-wide goals. Our fossil fuel divestments and our clean energy investments. Our community solar projects. Our community gardens. Our plant-laden diets. Our “get out the vote” campaigns. Our grassroots efforts to fight corporate utilities trying to block renewable energy development. Our climate resiliency efforts. Our new cultural narratives. Our bike lanes, our bus lines and our climate grief circles. 

As COP26 conference President Alok Sharma said, “Everyone who knows about these talks know that this is not about one big bang solution to climate change. It’s a building block.” And what’s underreported is that for the past quarter-century, all the progress made at the COPs, each building block, has been made possible not by the wordsmithing skills of the agreements’ authors — but by the economic, social, technological and cultural trends already brought into existence by the billions of people on the planet making bet

ter decisions, smarter investments and implementing more creative climate solutions. We are the ones driving the greatest economic paradigm shift in history. And we are the ones who ultimately control its pace. And these next few years, well, they are our last best chance to build unstoppable momentum toward a sustainable, equitable, clean-energy powered world. 

Andreas Karelas is author of the book “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America” published by Beacon Press. He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas

This piece has been updated to reflect the proper spelling of Christiana Figueres’ name.

Tags Andreas Karelas Climate change COP26 Fossil fuels Global warming Renewable energy
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