Threading the Needle at COP27

Almost nothing – but something real – changed at this year’s climate conference

There is something in the modern radical mind that wants the climate negotiations to fail. Such a failure, after all, would seem to prove that this wretched system cannot be reformed, that only a revolutionary break can re-open the human future.

COP27, the climate conference in Sharm El Sheik in Egypt, was not, however, a failure. I say this despite the fact that my inbox contains, among much else, an alert from an international organization I generally support (and will not name) that tells me that “For the 27th time in its history, COP, the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, has failed. The rapid degradation of our planet by our industrial economy will not be held in check.”

Alas, this email’s date stamp, November 18, places it two days before COP27 ended. During those two days, the rich countries that had blocked the establishment of the Loss and Damage fund folded under immense political pressure, thus allowing COP27 to finally create the fund.

The United States, the greatest of the miscreants, was the last to stand down. By some reports, it only did so after a last-minute threat by European negotiators to abandon the talks. But despite this win, the endless U.S. stalling did immense damage. In particular, it allowed the Egyptian presidency, no friend of humanity and nature, to play out an end-game gambit in which, finally, the core mitigation text—which is far too weak—couldn’t be challenged without putting the new fund at risk.

This was a failure, no doubt about it. But it was not a systemic failure. It wasn’t the fault of “the COP”—as in “COP27 is a COP out,” one of the least inspired of the recent headlines—unless this accusation extends to the UN system itself, which condemns the climate talks to consensus decision-making. This might be fair enough, save for one thing – blaming the UN lets the governments themselves off the hook, and this will not do, because the governments could yet change the rules.

Still, the Loss and Damage fund is a very big deal, or will be if we manage to provision it – to fund it adequately. As Mohamed Adow, the executive director of Power Shift Africa, put it, “What we have is an empty bucket. Now we need to fill it so that support can flow to the most impacted people who are suffering right now at the hands of the climate crisis.”

This is exactly right, and not just because a great deal of loss and damage finance is needed. So too is a great deal of mitigation finance. And adaptation finance. And just transition finance. But after COP27’s loss and damage finance battle, something very large has shifted. Back in the old days, when it was still possible to honestly imagine that mitigation alone would be sufficient, it was also possible to argue that the redirection of private capital flows would more or less suffice. But those days are over. Today, no one honestly believes that a meaningful flow of loss and damage finance will come through private channels, and this realization spills over to the transition portfolio as a whole.

The decision to create the loss and damage fund has thus queued up the real financing battle, in which international public finance takes center stage. Further, it did this even while it pushed the linked battle to phase out fossil fuels to a qualitatively new level. That battle was lost at COP27, but this was just an initial skirmish. Indeed, at COP27, the government of India, which will soon hold the G20 Presidency, came out, again and unambiguously, for the “phase down” (not “out”) of all fossil fuels, not just coal. The politics here are complex and fraught, and they promise to remain so, but this was unambiguously good news. The old days in which all major G77 politicians could be expected to reflexively argue that fossil energy is essential to development are, it seems, over.

Continue reading “Threading the Needle at COP27”

Fair Shares – Lessons from Practice, Thoughts on Strategy

The climate fair shares idea is no longer novel. But as the planetary crisis deepens, its profile is changing. Humanity is facing a civilizational emergency – a polycrisis with both climate and injustice at its core – and we need big ideas that can help guide us out of it.

This discussion paper, which was prepared by the Climate Equity Reference Project for the Climate Action Network International, is focused on one such idea: climate fair shares. Its purpose is to support analysis and campaigns for equitable climate action, including – quite explicitly – greatly increased international climate finance flows.

Note here a political premise — the equity challenge cannot be set aside while we concentrate on “implementation.” To be absolutely clear — we are in trouble, but a rapid global climate transition can still be achieved. We have (all) the money and (most of) the technology we need. But it is hard to see how any sufficiently rapid transition will be possible unless the benefits and promises and also the unavoidable pain and disruption are shared amongst the people of this world in a way that is widely accepted as being fair, or at least fair enough. We can not follow, yet again, the all too often repeated pattern in which most of the benefits are captured by those who are already wealthy and powerful, while most of the pain and suffering is born by those already marginalized and oppressed. 

Some highlights:

  • Lessons and Thoughts contains a careful executive summary, which is good, because the paper as a whole is pretty long.  By today’s standards. 
  • It contains a tidy chapter on planetary inequality – which is what you get when you have a world of nations, some of them wealthy and some of them not, and all of them internally stratified between rich and poor.
  • It contains a brief history of the equity debate within the international Climate Action Network, which is at this point a global network of more than 1,800 civil society organizations in over 130 countries.
  • It reviews the various fair shares projects that have been done over the past few years — in Norway, Canada, the US, the UK, Quebec, New Zealand, France and South Africa.  The lessons are both varied and interesting.
  • It contains a brief — if somewhat technical — explanation of why, when thinking about national fair shares in an emergency climate mobilization, it might help to lean into the Climate Equity Reference framework.  As opposed to some of the alternatives.
  • It lays out some preliminary — but not entirely preliminary — thoughts about “climate realism”, which is considerably different from the traditional variety.  Given the future we’re looking at, as we shoot far beyond the boundaries of a safe climate system, this conversation needs real attention.
  • It offers some advice on framing the financial costs of stabilizing the climate system, and why these costs – though certainly denominated in trillions – might be far more tractable than they appear.  Particularly given how much money we waste today, on the militaries and, of course, on the rich.
  • Finally, it asks a group of big strategic questions, and invites reflections on difficult equity challenges that go beyond even climate fair shares.

Tom Athanasiou, for the Climate Equity Reference Project.

Adam Tooze: “There Is a Fix for Climate Change. But Can We Afford It?”

In this interview from Global Reboot, the Foreign Policy podcast, its editor in chief Ravi Agrawal asks the economic historian & critic & polymath & general know-it-all Adam Tooze some key questions and then lets him run, which is basically all you can do with Tooze.

The key topics here are:

1) the financing demands of the global climate transition, which for the purposes of this discussion limited to mitigation. Hint: 2 to 4 trillion dollars a years in additional investment, about half of which is “inefficient”, which is to say that it is insufficiently profitable or risky or otherwise unwise to count on, at least in a business-as-usual world.

2) the political conditions under which this mitigation finance might be mobilized, and why, in Tooze’s view there are only two ways it might actually happen. The first is something like a global green new deal; the second is a massive public / private “derisking” enterprise of the kind that Blackrock’s Larry Fink dreams about.

The first, of course, is ruled out by the realism of the day, while the second would stink to high heaven.

In any case, this is short and focused — an interesting piece of the puzzle.

Solving the Climate Crisis with Nuclear Energy Won’t Work

Back before the pandemic, the Abalone Alliance — the West Coast anti-nuclear alliance I was active with back in the day — had a reunion, and I was asked to speak. I came prepared to explain to my assembled co-fogies that, while we absolutely didn’t need to build any more nukes, we shouldn’t rush to shut down Diablo Canyon either. What with the global climate emergency and all.

I was asked to restrain myself, and to my shame I did. I feared that that distinction between keeping existing nukes operating, subject of course to real safety procedures, and building new ones would strike most people as scholastic, and that in any case the pro-nuke ideologues would love nothing more than repeat, with all their requisite distortions, that the old anti-nuke crowd was walking back its defining opposition to nuclear power.

Anyway, if you spend any time fielding suggestions that the anti-nuke movement had been, say, wrong, take a few minutes to read Robert Pollin’s short and decisive Solving the Climate Crisis with Nuclear Energy Won’t Work. You’ll be glad you did.

Points of Comparison — Can we Afford a Fair Global Climate Transition?

 

“Anything we can actually do, we can afford”.

John Maynard Keynes

How to create the political backing for the international effort necessary to achieve a fair and rapid global climate transition, even though that support would be properly denominated not in billions of dollars but rather in trillions, or even as percentages of Gross World Product?

One eye-opening approach is to proceed by way of comparison – to show that the likely costs of the climate transition, great though they may be, are small when considered against the alternatives, and entirely affordable when considered against other, even larger expenditures, which we routinely accept as inevitable, even though they are often ill-conceived and sometimes criminally frivolous, and tend increasingly to be self-destructive on a monumental scale.

In a way, we all already know this, for we never tire of pointing out that the damage costs of inaction will far exceed the costs of any plausible mobilization. But other comparisons are also helpful, comparisons against the sums mobilized for other purposes, and also against the trillions that are wasted, on every front, when luxury consumption sets the terms by which expense is justified.

The good news here is that such comparisons are now routinely being made. Since the 2009 global financial crisis, and especially since the COVID pandemic, large governmental and inter-governmental financial interventions have, in the face of cascading emergencies, become almost routine. In both cases, very large numbers of people, and even significant fractions among the political elites, have been jolted into understanding that major mobilizations of public finance are sometimes absolutely, indisputably, necessary.

However, it’s still not possible to talk honestly and openly about the scale of the climate finance that’s actually necessary, or to keep the formal climate finance conversation from devolving into one in which private investment gets all the airtime. To be sure, there are many people who believe that transformational levels of public finance will be necessary to stabilize the climate system. But many of them also accommodate themselves to a policy world in which, so the thinking goes, the challenges of public finance can be safely set aside. In fact, public finance, and public planning and coordination more generally, will be absolutely necessary to the economy-wide transformations the climate crisis requires. Major debates remain before this point is so clearly established that it can no longer be reasonably contested, but at the same time, the conversation has clearly shifted. “Trillion is the new billion,” and this helps a great deal.

The key point here is that money is not the real problem. Keynes’ declaration made during World War II, “anything we can actually do, we can afford”, applies here as well. That said, the institutional and political challenges of providing the public finance and technology support necessary to achieve 1.5°C would be immense. The issues here sprawl, but I think it’s fair to say that Keynes would also have considered them to be entirely solvable. 

For the moment, here are a few useful points of comparison:

Environmentally destructive subsidies. Every day, governments spend massive amounts of money to subsidize the destruction of our world. How much money? If you count not only fossil subsidies but a variety of subsidies for environmentally destructive activities, across a range of sectors including agriculture, forestry, water management, and fisheries, activities leading not only to climate destabilization but also biodiversity loss, land degradation and global inequality, the latest expert estimate appears to lie north of $1.8 trillion a year, or about 2% of Gross World Product (GWP), all of which goes into directly supporting unsustainable production and consumption.

Of this $1.8 trillion, about $640 billion comes as explicit subsidies to the global fossil industry. Actual cash. But there’s more to this story, as far as fossil fuel subsidies are concerned, in part because some of it comes as consumption subsides designed to protect the poor (a fact the fossil cartel takes full advantage of, in its endless claims to be a great benefactor of humanity) and in part because there is another, truer way, to estimate fossil subsidies. This time it’s the IMF that has run the numbers, and despite criticism, stuck to its insistence that hidden damage costs must be counted as subsidies, and in 2020 calculated the real fossil subsidy was about $5.9 trillion, almost 7% of global GDP. Which comes to about $11 million a minute.

COVID Recovery spending. According to the International Energy Agency, pandemic recovery spending, as of October of 2021, had reached $16.9 trillion. Of that, about $2.3 trillion went into long-term investments, of which only about $470 billion was for clean energy and sustainable recovery – about 3% of the total. Much of this was a one-time outlay that will not be repeated, so it’s notable that fossil energy subsidies significantly outpaced clean energy subsidies. It’s also notable that the overall economic recovery was fantastically inequitable. According to the World Inequality Lab, the richest 1% of the global population have, since the beginning of the pandemic, captured 19 times more of global wealth growth than the whole of the bottom 50%. The extremity here is frankly amazing – Oxfam, in its Inequality Kills report, notes that “The increase in Bezos’ fortune alone during the pandemic could pay for everyone on earth to be safely vaccinated”.

Military spending. Military spending is the gold standard of wasted economic potential, so it’s notable that, in early 2021, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated the world military spending had risen to almost $2 trillion in 2020. And this figure is growing fast. The US military budget is the largest in the world (it recently came to about 40% of the global total) and“ according to a projection by the Congressional Budget Office, Congress is projected to spend about $8.5 trillion for the military over the next decade – about half a trillion more than is budgeted for all nonmilitary discretionary programs combined (a category that includes federal spending on education, public health, scientific research, infrastructure, national parks and forests, environmental protection, law enforcement, courts, tax collection, foreign aid, homeland security and health care for veterans)”. But rapid growth is also taking place in China, where the military budget is about $229 billion and “modernization” programs are driving its growth up by an estimated 7.1 percent per year, and of course in Europe, where the Ukraine war has led a new prioritization for all things military.

Odious Debt. The poor are in all ways disadvantaged, and this of course means adequate climate action is often beyond their grasp, as is sustainable development itself. For some key current details, see the 2022 Financing for Sustainable Development Report, which begins not with the COVID pandemic but with the “legacy of inequality” that already hung over the poor countries when it arrived, a legacy that only deepened as the COVID crisis cascaded into broader economic instability (supply chains, inflation, higher interest rates) and then into the instabilities and economic dislocations of the Ukraine war. The chief point here, to be undiplomatic, is the billions in debt interest that the developing countries must every year pay to their creditors in the wealthy world, a burden that is sometimes so odious that the term “debt slavery”  seems more a simple honest description than any kind of hyperbole.

How large is the developing world’s external debt? Estimates vary, as does the legitimacy of the debt – how valid was it, really, to transfer South Africa’s apartheid debt to its inheritors, most of whom never had any part in negotiating it, or benefiting from it?  What is clear is that the total external debt of the developing countries reached $10.6 trillion in the wake of the pandemic, and that the servicing of this debt consumes resources that are now desperately needed for both development and the climate transition. In the low-income countries alone, external debt sharply increased during that pandemic, reaching $860 billion in 2020. No wonder a new wave of defaults has begin, and that widespread debt distress appears to be on the horizon.

Dynastic wealth. This brief list would not be complete without a mention of dynastic wealth, which is passed down from generation to generation within families, and of course within castes and classes. The numbers vary tremendously from country to country, but the US figures alone are boggling enough. Wealth managers estimate that “nearly 45 million U.S. households will transfer a total of $68.4 trillion in wealth to heirs and charity over the course of the next 25 years”. And of course, much of these transfers will be protected from taxation – according to one keystone study, “these wealthy families will avoid as much as $8.4 trillion in estate and generation-skipping taxes between now and 2024, by using dynasty trusts and other currently legal loopholes”.

Tax Avoidance. Speaking of the rich, we should mention hidden wealth, which is shielded by tax havens and secrecy laws, and has now been estimated to be about 8% of the world’s household financial wealth, or 10% of GWP . In 2007, this came to about $5.7 trillion. More generally, and this is probably the best bottom-line figure for this brief summary, taxing the world’s richest could raise about $2.52 trillion a year. It’s not enough to support all the ongoing social services associated with a just and sustainable global society, but it would definitely help. It would certainly cover the core of the climate transition. And if we may add a country specific data point, note that the wealth of the US billionaire class increased by an estimated $1.7 trillion since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, and that, under current laws, almost none of this new wealth will ever be taxed.

Blood Fossils. Finally, given Russia’s war on Ukraine, it seems appropriate to note that a good fraction of the untold billions that are spent on fossil fuels are diverted, sometimes immediately, to support the worst kinds of infamy. The exact figure varies with the price of gas and oil, but as of this writing, good estimates held that “Europe’s ongoing energy purchases send as much as $850 million each day into Russia’s coffers” (estimates vary, but see the citation to the Bruegal think tank’s numbers here). This, of course, is clear evidence of an intolerable dependence, and voices everywhere have risen to denounce it. What is not clear is how many of them will denounce the larger dependence, which hems us in on every side, with anything like equal vigour. Russian oil and gas, after all, is only the tip of the fossil iceberg.

 

 

The Climate Fair Shares approach as a foundation of Emergency Global Climate Mobilization

Given the shout out that Bill McKibben just gave our work in the New Yorker, I’d thought I’d quickly post a brief direction finder — this post — for people who’ve come here looking for more information.

Here’s the shout out:

Tom Athanasiou’s Berkeley-based organization EcoEquity, as part of the Climate Equity Reference Project, has done the most detailed analyses of who owes what in the climate fight. He found that the U.S. would have to cut its emissions a hundred and seventy-five per cent to make up for the damage it’s already caused—a statistical impossibility. Therefore, the only way it can meet that burden is to help the rest of the world transition to clean energy, and to help bear the costs that global warming has already produced. As Athanasiou put it, “The pressing work of decarbonization is only going to be embraced by the people of the Global South if it comes as part of a package that includes adaptation aid and disaster relief.”

First, I want to stress that EcoEquity does not do this work alone, but rather as part of the Climate Equity Reference Project, or CERP. Further, CERP itself does not work alone, but rather as part of a large and expanding set of networks and collaboratives, in the US and around the world.

Second, if you want the details — some of them quite technical — on how the Climate Equity Reference framework works, it’s the Climate Equity Reference Project site you should rummage around on. See in particular the Climate Equity Reference Calculator, which is totally worth a bit of your time.

Third, if you’re interested in the specific details behind the United States’ fair share in a global emergency climate transition, you should check out the US Climate Fair Share site. The fair share position reflected herein is that of the US Climate Action Network — which chose the “equity settings” — which is itself kind of a big deal.

If you’re just coming to the climate fair shares idea, keep in mind that the exact numbers are not the point. The point is rather that national fair shares are calculated relative to three high level equity principles: historical responsibility, national capacity and, well, need. Which just so happen to be the equity principles behind the UN’S Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The nuances here are many and interesting, but the essential takeaway — at least for a high-capacity, high-responsibility country like the US — is that a nation’s climate fair share can be a lot higher than 100%. The US, bluntly, has to do a lot more than just reduce its emissions to zero if it wants to do its fair share in a global mobilization that is actually scaled to achieve the temperature goals laid down in the Paris Agreement. To read some details on this, and in particular on the equity choices USCAN chose when making its calculations, see this briefing.

Also note that the fair shares idea is extremely relevant to the challenge of rapidly phasing out fossil energy. On this front, check out to the Civil Society Equity Review, which has been putting out fair-shares inflected annual reports since the Paris meeting in 2015, reports with hundreds of organizational supports from around the world. Note especially the 2021 report, which is called A Fair-Shares Phase Out. It has to be counted as a foundational contribution to the nascent debate about how to approach the huge, though barely acknowledged, equity challenges of a very rapid and equitable transition away from fossil fuels.

To close, I’ll just ask you one of my favorite questions — what kind of a climate transition would be fair enough to actually work?

Targeting the emissions of the super-rich is essential if we actually want to stabilize the climate system

Energy Monitor just ran a lovely little piece based on the research of Lucas Chancel, which in turn draws on the World Inequality database. It reiterates the by now hopefully familiar fact that the wealthiest 10% of the global population is responsible for almost half of carbon emissions, but then connects a few dots that are, alas, generally allowed to float free, and tells us that targeting the “super-rich” could help define a fair path to a global net-zero world.

Here. for quick reference, from this study, are the latest numbers:

“the top 10% wealthiest people are responsible for almost half of individual CO2 emissions globally, with the top 1% contributing close to 17%. In contrast, the bottom half of people are responsible for just 12% of individual carbon emissions. Based on an input-output framework that represents the interdependencies between different economy-environmental sectors, the same study estimates that 60–70% of the global carbon footprint can be traced to individual consumption”

https://wid.world/document/global-carbon-inequality-1990-2019-wid-world-working-paper-2021-22/

And here’s some news, and the key takeaway:

“While two-thirds of the inequality in individual emissions was due to emissions inequalities between countries in 1990, the situation almost entirely reversed in 2019: 63% of the global inequality in individual emissions is now due to gaps between low and high emitters within countries,” said researcher Lucas Chancel in the WID study.

This trend deserves a lot more attention. While once the defining inequality was between rich and poor countries, the balance has shifted. Global inequality is today defined more by the divide between rich and poor people, and this is true in all parts of the world. Stare at this for a while . . .

A Fair Shares Fossil Phase Out

The Civil Society Equity Review – a loose international federation of civil society activists from social movements, environmental and development NGOs, trade unions and faith groups – has since 2015, the year of the Paris Agreement, been issuing annual reports at the UN climate negotiations. These reports have had a gradually increasing political salience, which isn’t too surprising, given that the decisive nature of the equity challenge has itself become too obvious to deny. But this year’s report takes the project to a whole another level.

It’s called A Fair Shares Phase Out: A Civil Society Equity Review of an Equitable Global Phase Out of Fossil Fuels, and it’s the first real attempt to meld the fair shares perspective with the challenge of “supply side equity,” and with the campaign for a very rapid fossil energy phaseout.  As per the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. The resulting report is, as one battle-scared climate journalist told me, “useful,” the highest praise that, at this point, any climate report can hope to earn. 

A Fair Shares Phase Out features thirteen country profiles, which together demonstrate the diversity of real world challenges and opportunities we’re now facing, as we confront the necessity of very rapidly eliminating fossil energy production and use, in both a variety of national contexts and at the international level.  In part because of these country profiles, the report is quite long, but don’t let this length dissuade you. The Executive Summary is not a mere afterthought — it got a lot of attention from the drafting team, and its only six pages long. You really should read them. 

The Upcoming UN Climate Talks in Glasgow Are a Make-or-Break Moment

Failure to halt greenhouse gas emissions is not an option—though it’s frighteningly likely

Originally published in Sierra Magazine, here.

In early November, government leaders from around the world will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, for the latest round of United Nations–sponsored climate change negotiations. This year’s climate summit—COP26, in UN-speak—will be the most important since the 2015 talks in Paris, and this will be true however the meeting unfolds. If Glasgow is a “success,” this will be taken as a sign that our faltering international institutions might actually, if just barely, be able to spur the planetary mobilization we now desperately need. If it’s a “failure,” well, no such luck—it will become even more difficult to imagine cooperative planetary action, at scale and in time to avoid a truly catastrophic shift in the climate system.

How will we tell if Glasgow is a success? This is a tough question, one that involves judgments about both the geophysical realities of a destabilized Earth and the “realities” of our political systems, which are clearly not up to the challenge. The storms and the firestorms are looming large, and so too is the catastrophe of “vaccine apartheid,” which under Boris Johnson’s government has queued up a summit that does not promise to be either safe or inclusive. Even in the best case, the Glasgow COP is not going to yield anything like a world historic breakthrough. Given that a breakthrough is exactly what we need, how can we ever hope to judge the UN talks as even a measured success? By attending to key details. Keep in mind that, six years after Paris, plenty of people in the climate movement still can’t say “Paris” without saying “failure,” and this despite the obvious fact that, had the Paris Agreement not been completed before Donald Trump’s election, we would now be in even more terrifying straits.

But what if, when we say “Glasgow success,” we mean not a historic breakthrough but just a proper reboot of the climate negotiations? Such a reboot would include meaningful new pledges of national action, some sort of significant leap forward on international climate finance, and a negotiations plan that explicitly sets the stage for further progress at COP27, the African COP that will take place in 2022, and the “Global Stocktake” that will follow in 2023. 

Such a reboot could actually happen. The Chinese government has already announced an end to international coal financing, and other large announcements could drop soon. It’s not impossible to imagine a future in which “Glasgow” comes to connote a new seriousness and a pivot to a new round of international negotiations that can actually be taken seriously. 

Is such a new seriousness possible? It is, and though this may sound odd, this may be because these last few years have been so challenging. In them we have seen the rise, almost everywhere, of anti-democratic movements of sometimes astonishing venality—and we’ve also seen illusions falling away. We have experienced the pandemic and also the catastrophically botched vaccine rollout, but also the widespread realization that international cooperation is becoming an existential imperative. We have seen the new IPCC report, which told us exactly what time it is. And all of this has crystalized the awareness, now clear and widespread, that despite all the possibilities of the renewables revolution, renewables alone won’t save us, not unless they are joined with a well-planned, justice-forward push for a global transformation that, as the IPCC clearly told us back in 2018, would have “no historical precedent.” 

*

To know if Glasgow is even a measured success, start with the realization that there is virtually no functioning global governance on this planet. The startlingly inadequacy of the Paris Agreement reflects this dismal reality. But the Paris Agreement wasn’t crafted by fools. It was designed to be adopted, and it was. It was also designed to be strengthened, and strengthened again, in periodic five-year intervals defined by endless, dispiriting political maneuvers, citizen-movement outrage, weary cynicism, exhausted cooperation, and, always, hope. The reason COP26 is a “make or break” moment is that it’s time now to attend to the strengthening. It’s time to turn the ambition ratchet. 

Here’s what that means: 

We need much stronger national pledges of action, and they will have to be honest ones. 

I’ve long thought that, when it finally became obvious we’re not going to avoid overshooting a 2.7°F rise in global temperatures (or 1.5°C), there would be a political crisis. We’ll find out soon enough. The IPCC says that “in almost all” its emissions scenarios we’re going to cross the 1.5°C line “in the early 2030s.” Only in the very best case—50 percent cuts in global emissions by 2030, then on to what I call “honest net zero” by the 2050s—will the warming then come to a relatively rapid halt. 

The good news, such as it is, is that if and when we reach honest net zero, the warming will actually plateau. This is a pretty amazing fact, and while it’s gotten a bit of press, it deserves much more. There may indeed be “tipping cascades” on the horizon, but it’s still physically possible to eddy out before we reach them. The question is if it’s also politically possible. 

The opening round of national pledges, tabled in Paris in 2015, don’t take us anywhere near 50 percent cuts by 2050. In fact, they imply a planetary warming of about 5.4°F (or 3°C) by the end of this century, which would be entirely catastrophic. According to the UN’s September “synthesis report,” the current pledges have us on a trajectory that’s only marginally better: a global temperature increase of 4.9°F (or 2.7°C) by 2100. This is why it’s crucial that the Glasgow pledges be strong enough to support an honest net zero 2050 emissions pathway, and that those pledges be believable.  

John Kerry, America’s international climate envoy, was absolutely right to say that the stakes are “unfathomable,” and equally right to say that success cannot come without real action from China, Russia, India, South Africa, Brazil, and “a host of countries.” Alas, such success also demands far more international climate finance, and here the US has not stepped so eagerly to the plate. To be fair, President Biden has vowed to increase the US climate finance pledge to $11.4 billion annually, but this number was calculated within the cramped equations of American domestic politics and has no relation whatsoever with either the global need or the US fair share. The new pledge from the Philippines well exemplifies the problem. The Philippines aims to sharply reduce national emissions, but only about 3 percent of this reduction is “unconditional.” The rest—in sectors from farming to energy to industry to transport—will require financial support from wealthier countries. 

There’s still time to avoid an unmanageable future. This won’t be true forever, but it’s still true today, and this counts for a great deal. So keep your eyes open. Attend to the finance pledges of the rich countries and the “conditional” pledges of the poor ones. Attend, in particular, to the implied collective ambition—what will global emissions be in 2030? Focus, too, on the claims countries make for the fairness of their pledges. They all know, at this point, that they have to say something about fairness, though most countries are still trying to avoid honest reckonings with their fair shares

There is no path to climate stabilization without international public climate finance, and lots of it. 

Climate stabilization has everything to do with economic justice. Why? Because the majority of the world’s emissions now come from the so-called Global South, and thus, by definition, most of the work of planetary decarbonization must happen there as well. The problem is that, in sharp contrast to its emissions, most of the world’s wealth is still in the Global North. This is the key thing, and it means that the great decarbonization is simply not going to happen in time unless the rich world helps the poor one along by providing a great deal of financial and technological support. 

This is going to be a long story, one that will extend far beyond the $100 billion in annual climate transition support that was first promised back in Copenhagen in 2009. But its simplest takeaway is that wealthy countries like the United States cannot do their fair share solely within their own borders. Rather, their domestic actions must be supplemented by support for even more action in poorer countries. Unless that happens, the net zero 2050 push is doomed

This isn’t exactly a secret. The elites know full well that a great deal of capital will have to be reallocated if the climate is to be stabilized, but for the most part, they plan to attack the problem by redirecting private capital flows—as opposed to government monies. Within the negotiations, this comes down as a tension between the partisans of Paris’s Article 9.3 (in which developing countries “take the lead in mobilizing climate finance from a wide variety of sources, instruments, and channels”) and Article 2.1(c) (in which the spotlight is on “making financial flows consistent” with the demands of the larger transition).

That’s all very technical. The plain English issue here is international public “climate finance,” and how much of it will be provided, and by whom, and how. Not that redirecting private “financial flows” isn’t also going to be fundamental. We live within capitalism, after all. But we have to stop pretending that public finance deserves only a small, secondary role. Especially today in 2021, the need here should be obvious, given the vast public funds that had to be mobilized to stabilize our COVID-shattered economy. 

We have to face the Loss and Damage challenge that lies beyond the limits of “adaptation.”

In the beginning—meaning, oh, a scant 30 years ago—there was the dream of easy “mitigation”: If only we could get the prices right, technological revolution would bring down greenhouse gas emissions and solve the climate problem. Then came the recognition that “adaptation”—building sea walls, embracing agroecology, abandoning consumerism—would be necessary as well. Today, it’s generally agreed that half of all public climate finance—like that disbursed by the UN’s Green Climate Fund—should go to adaptation. 

But what happens when your whole island goes under? Or if, year upon year, the encroaching sand from desertification takes your crops? What happens when you and your family can no longer survive at home and are compelled, with hope or without, to set out across the borders? The issue here, officially known as “Loss and Damage,” is the one you face when adaptation is no longer possible. Loss and Damage puts a name to an almost boundless challenge (huge regions of the planet will at some point be virtually uninhabitable) and poses questions of liability and compensation that point far beyond the capacities of governance as usual

This, too, is a long story. The United States, in particular, lobbied hard to include a Loss and Damage liability waiver in the Paris decision text, though this hardly settled the matter. A long and deeply committed campaign led by the Global South (both diplomats and activists) managed to keep Loss and Damage on the UN negotiating agenda, and indeed to establish it as a defining issue, crucial to the legitimacy of the entire negotiating process. 

The real issue here is life and death. This is true in America, a rich country that is being harrowed by climate-amplified disasters, but it is even more true in poor and relatively innocent parts of the world, where such disasters threaten to overwhelm and destroy entire societies. It’s no surprise, then, to find that action on Loss and Damage has become a planetary litmus test, one that clearly identifies the people who are willing to face the moral realities of the coming world and to struggle with their consequences.  

Obviously, I don’t know how this story ends. I do know that, without robust and sustained international cooperation, it will not be possible to stabilize the climate system. Such cooperation will not be possible unless we face the Loss and Damage challenge, and I would like to believe that we will. 

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With the American West on fire, the East being battered by new kinds of storms, and the expanses of our country being torn asunder by the new Right, it would be insane to argue that the international crisis should, or even could, trump the domestic one. Still. International solidarity is a non-negotiable presupposition of any realist path forward, and when it comes time to discuss the climate negotiations, it can no longer be set aside for later consideration. It’s far too late to think solely in national terms. 

As for these three issues, I don’t pretend that they capture the entire Glasgow agenda. When taken together, however, they spotlight the equity challenge that is and has always been at the heart of the international climate reckoning. The pandemic, perhaps oddly, has made this easier to understand. Climate mobilization means effort sharing and technology cooperation on an unprecedented scale, but so does international public health in the face of a deadly, rapidly mutating viral adversary. 

Many of the diplomats now fighting to animate the climate negotiations are fully aware of the stakes. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, called the IPCC’s new assessment report “Code Red for mankind.” This was not empty rhetoric. Nor is it a surprise. Our conditions of existence are now well known. The question is what are we going to do about them.