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Did COP27 Accomplish Anything?

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Basically, no.

The United Nations climate conference that concluded last weekend in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, did not appear, at the outset, poised to deliver a major breakthrough. Unlike last year’s meeting in Glasgow, this year’s was not designed to produce new emissions pledges, and so the countries that pollute the most weren’t under particular pressure to offer any new promises.

Beyond Secretary General António Guterres’s fiery opening remarks, there were few high-profile rhetorical performances at COP27 by world leaders like those last year by Boris Johnson and then-Prince Charles of England, who engaged in a sort of Olympics of climate hyperbole. Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados brought to this year’s conference an exciting set of proposals to reshape the institutions of development and climate finance, at a time when the global community had been moved especially by the monsoon flooding in Pakistan to consider the injustices of warming and the need for “loss and damage” payments to vulnerable countries. But it did not seem all that likely that the familiar dam of resistance among the wealthiest countries would actually break — indeed, in the run-up to the conference, the U.S. climate envoy, John Kerry, had dismissed the goal as unrealistic.

Instead, the actual outcome of COP27 wasn’t just notable; it was surprising, delivering a landmark agreement on “loss and damage” without really moving the needle on emissions pledges — producing no gains on those cheap promises that have traditionally been the bread and butter of these conferences and a serious leap forward on what had always looked like perhaps their central and intractable geopolitical stalemate.

But even this effective meaninglessness is still a step forward compared to what the Trump/BoJo years brought. Just vague agreements is better than we were doing. Of course, the Earth continues to burn while conservatives yell and scream about freedom to burn coal or whatever. Not that the British are going to do anything meaningful about climate ever anyway. But still…

The most obvious narrative was that encouraging global momentum was finally pushing the project of decarbonization somewhat rapidly forward, but not rapidly enough to avoid hard distributional questions about who would face the most intense climate impacts and what other countries might do to help those on the front lines survive them. And if you had asked me what that implied about the prospects for COP27, I would probably have predicted a simple extension of both narratives: some amount of limited but insufficient good news on emissions and some conspicuous and maddening lack of action of climate justice, climate finance and loss and damage.

Instead, we got, basically, the opposite.

The U.N. conferences no longer represent the full scope of climate geopolitics — indeed, they seem less critical in a new age of self-interested decarbonization than in those years when the job of cutting emissions was understood as a burdensome collective-action problem. But they are still the place where much of our climate framing is hashed out. And the text of this agreement, at least, is a sign that the world’s powers are beginning to look beyond the project of decarbonization, upon the hard challenge of what lies beyond it — and even harder, what is owed to those who will suffer.

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