Words, Words, Words
Yesterday’s post — “The Name of Action” — took its title from Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. The title of today’s post comes from the same play. Hamlet knows that he needs to take action but fails to do so (until the very end). He talks and talks and talks, but does not act. So, when Polonius asks Hamlet, “What do you read, my lord?” Hamlet replies, “Words, words, words”. He is suggesting that the written word is merely a medium for thought, it is not the same as action.
It is strange to think that what Shakespeare wrote over 400 years ago can have any relevance to the climate crisis, but it does. Consider the transition between COP21 and COP26.
Conference of the Parties
The letters ‘COP’ stand for ‘Conference of the Parties’. A COP is the governing body to do with international law. There are many COPs covering a range of topics. The one that is best known is to do with climate change.
Every year the United Nations organizes a climate change COP. These COPs are attended by government leaders from around the world. They are important; they matter.
COP21 — The Paris Agreement
COP21 was held in Paris in the year 2015. National leaders from all over the world created a unified policy and a legally binding treaty that is often referred to as the Paris Agreement. It called for countries to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above the pre-industrial baseline and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C by the year 2020.
The mood at COP21 was optimistic. There was a sense that this was a breakthrough meeting. Nevertheless, the signatories to the Agreement recognized that they were not likely to meet the targets that they had set, so, following the conference, they asked the IPCC to determine what actions would be needed to keep the temperature increase below 1.5°C by the year 2030. The delegates were optimistic but nervous.
Response to Paris
The reason for the nervousness was summarized by David Wallace-Wells in his book The Uninhabitable Earth. Here is what he said about the response of governments to the recommendations and commitments of the Paris Agreement.
At Paris in 2015 world leaders agreed to ‘pursue efforts’ to keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5°C. After signing the agreement with great fanfare, they returned home and quietly continued with business as usual: growing the economy, building more fossil-fuelled power plants, expanding road networks for ever more oil-guzzling cars and SUVs, and drilling or fracking over larger and larger area. Never mind all the warm words at the UN meetings, all the tearful waffle about ‘future generations looking us in the eyes’, the pats on the head for teenage climate activists and the like. It is the hard stuff in the real world that matters: tarmac, pipelines, refineries, gas turbines, petrol engines and coal boilers. This is where the carbon hits the atmosphere. This is where the future is decided.
Wallace-Wells and others had reason to skeptical. The following chart shows the rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations that has taken place since the 1960s. Superimposed on the chart are key climate change conferences and report dates, dating back to the mid 1980s. These conferences and associated IPCC reports appear to have made little difference. They have not come close to “bending the curve”.
COP26 — Glasgow
The next major meeting was COP26, held in Glasgow in the year 2021. Six years had elapsed since COP21 (one year was skipped due to the COVID pandemic). It was evident that few countries had met the targets to which they had agreed. Hence the mood at COP26 was somber. Not only had nations not lived up to their promises. One reason was that the short-term problems posed by the COVID pandemic were the primary focus of attention. There seemed to be an overall lack of energy — even the demonstrators in the streets seemed to be going through the motions without having much faith that their actions would change anything.
The somber mood and recognition of reality was evident in what the delegates said about the 1.5°C goal. The organizers of COP26 set four goals, of which the first and most important was,
Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach.
Atmospheric temperatures were already 1.2°C above the industrial baseline, and they continue to climb inexorably. The target of 1.5°C is not within reach unless nations throughout the world accept the need to make drastic, sudden and wrenching changes to their economies. There were no indications at the conference that any of the larger nations were prepared to make such a change. Indeed, the very fact that this was the 26th conference of its type shows that the many resolutions and statements of good intent that have been issued over the years appear to have had little impact on our actual use of fossil fuels and the resulting CO2 emissions.
A commenter on Reddit said,
Each leader in turn seemed to give ever greater doom-laden speeches, as if they were trying to one up each other as to who could be the darkest and most existential.
But so devoid of optimism were those speeches, and when matched with the grand promises of complete inaction by our world leaders, you would think that it all would've been met with panic and frenzy all over the world. But it wasn't. It was mostly met with a deafening silence.
Low opinions of the COP26 process came not just from climate activists. The following quotation is from a Financial Times article entitled Technology will not solve the problem of climate change.
In order to reach zero emissions by 2050, all of < today’s aeroplanes > have to stop flying. Same story for ships. Ruminants burp methane regardless of what they’re fed, so we have to stop farming them. There are currently no options to produce cement with no emissions, so we have 28 years to reconfigure the world’s construction industry to function without any concrete . . . in the short and medium term, specific restraints are essential. The first requirement for living well within the restraints, is to acknowledge their reality. No such reality occurred at COP26.
The disconnect between words and actions could be seen at the highest levels. For example, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, said,
. . . our fragile planet is hanging by a thread
We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe. It is time to go into emergency mode — or our chance of reaching net zero will itself be zero.
Yet few people at the conference seemed to be acting as if in emergency mode.
President Biden said prior to the summit,
The existential threat to humanity is climate change . . . if we reach beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius increase in temperature, we’re gone. Not a joke. Not a joke.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is educated in the classics, went so far as to stand in front of the Roman Coliseum and reminded us that “civilization can go backwards”.
It seemed as if these leaders had lost interest in even bothering to relate actions to words. It’s as if they don’t care any more.
Words, words, words.
New Leadership Required
This disconnect between what is being said and what is (not) being done tells us in no uncertain terms that new leadership is required. It reinforces the premise of the post The Name of Action that effective is more likely to come from business and industry than from governments.