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Climate change: rhetoric v. reality

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David Wallace-Wells highlights what seems to have happened at the big climate change conference in Glasgow, which is a lot of inspired speechifying (Boris Johnson has sounded quite a bit like Greta Thunberg), and not much in terms of concrete political action:

There have been some bits of good news in Glasgow: a net-zero pledge from India, a commitment from the U.S. and China to work together, a toothless but still significant global agreement to reduce methane emissions. And more negotiating remains to be done, particularly over the text of the conference resolution, an early version of which was released Wednesday. But a preliminary analysis published by Carbon Brief suggests that, all told, the agreements coming out of COP26 may shave just 0.1 degree Celsius off of future warming.

Which means that, even if you set aside for a moment the much more urgent demands of climate activists and some scientists, and merely take seriously the existential language of those typically cautious and pragmatic world leaders, the conference has been an inarguable failure. Forget Greta Thunberg or Vanessa Nakate or the now-familiar rhetoric of climate-vulnerable nations (“Two degrees is a death sentence,” warned Mia Mottley of Barbados) or the 100,000 outraged and frustrated protesters who rallied in Glasgow this week (among other things, they referred to COP as “the conference of polluters”). The conference is a failure by the standards set by the very faces of the meliorist, technocratic global political Establishment — the American climate envoy, British prime minister, COP conference chairman, and U.N. secretary-general — barely more than one week ago. If we’re really one minute to midnight on the doomsday clock, no one in Glasgow is acting like it.

The yawning chasm between rhetoric and reality has several possible explanations, but Occam’s Razor suggests it can be explained best by three simple words: talk is cheap.

Which makes it all the more striking just how vividly and full-throatedly the world’s leaders embraced and underlined that 1.5-degree goal in the run-up to Glasgow, and how dramatically they described the consequences of failing to meet it. They must’ve known how hard that would be, and must have known how out of line their rhetoric was with the policy it implied. They must’ve known, well ahead of time, what progress was likely, or even possible, at Glasgow, and what kind was not at all on the table. So what were they doing? What were they thinking?

One generous interpretation is that, however disconnected the rhetoric was from any actual policy they were willing to consider, they believed it anyway — that this rhetoric was, among other things, a self-indictment. For instance, when Barack Obama, in a speech later in the conference’s first week, invited the world’s youth to continue to burn with climate rage, he might have been implicitly expressing his regret that he bragged in 2018 about making the U.S. the world’s top oil producer.

A second related interpretation is that they were trying to rally the troops. These climate conferences are large, messy, and contentious, and nobody wants a replay of the 2009 Copenhagen conference, which began with high expectations and ended with, practically speaking, nothing to show for it.

A third possibility — intriguing and possibly encouraging for those who admire and applaud the moral clarity of the next generation of activists — is that they were basically bullied into playing the part of genuinely concerned, conscientious leaders by those activists, who intimidated them even before they began their protests in Glasgow, though apparently not enough to put more aggressive action on the table. This is the perspective offered by the Davos whisperer Tom Friedman: “For the first time, it felt to me that the adult delegates inside the conference halls were more afraid of the kids outside than they were of one another or the press,” he wrote on Tuesday. And it echoes a remark made by Jason Bordoff, a former adviser to Obama and now the head of Columbia University’s new climate school, in an interview from Glasgow with the London Review of Books podcast Talking Politics. When asked by David Runciman what factors seemed to be most responsible for shifts in corporate and investor attitudes around climate issues recently, Bordoff answered bluntly that, more than warming itself or the financial risks it brings, it was fear of social mobilization and public pressure changing the landscape of private power.

But a final and cynical interpretation connects many of these dots: that these leaders viewed rhetoric as a substitute for real action; preferred the existential theater of climate speechifying to the hard work of enacting global transformation; believed that enough of those watching around the world would accept, in place of real policy commitment, a rhetoric of recognition, which described the urgency of the moment and the global stakes in roughly the “right” terms; and did not worry that they would pay any price for the widening gap between what they were doing and what they were saying. Or, perhaps, that anyone would even notice, amid all the canned self-congratulatory applause.

As Wallace-Wells points out, not all the recent climate change science news is bad: the probabilities of the worst-case scenarios seem to be falling quite a bit. The flip side of this is that, at present, the probability of the best-case scenarios (holding global warming to 1.5 degrees C. above the pre-industrial baseline) also seem to be fading, and the medium-range outcomes remain pretty terrible.

Politicians today have every incentive to demand radical action to fight climate change, starting not now but soon, very soon, So that’s pretty much what they do, although of course you have outliers like the USA’s Republican party, who aren’t even willing to do that, since climate change is a hoax and there are still petro-dollars to hoover up.

Basically, we probably need some as yet nascent or purely theoretical technologies to save our free-range bacon yet again.

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