I’m sure many of you appreciated the opportunity to skip work and fly across the Atlantic in an effort to join some of the very few global policymakers getting a first-hand look at the rapidly changing world they will inherit in 2050. The New York Times recently dubbed COP26 “Copenhagen, 40 years in the making.” The real “Copenhagen, 40 years in the making” was COP25, which was held in Lima, Peru in 2015. And the awkward prospect that COP26 will not be held again until the late 2020s or 2021, even after nations and the international community agreed, at COP23, to continue to meet their commitments to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, is part of what brought so many of us to the tarmac in Glasgow, Scotland, this past week.
As we watched news coverage after returning home from the climate talks, it became clear that we Americans weren’t the only ones failing to take the issue of climate change seriously. Germany, whose decades-long leadership on climate issues is now in jeopardy, was also late to the party. Germany has among the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita among the Group of 20 nations. Three of the G20 members had never ratified the Paris agreement. Half of our countries that did not ratify had not even come close to meeting their commitments to reduce emissions. In Canada, where I’m from, Alberta is where the tar sands — the dirty oil that is draining the Athabasca River, threatening the wildlife and home towns of native Canadians — are located. Yes, Alberta. Canada, the developed country that benefited the most from fossil fuels, is now the source of as much emissions as large developing countries China and India. And India, the third largest economy on the planet, last week announced its highest ever greenhouse gas emissions of 31.54 gigatons in 2017, surpassing Canada’s.
It was therefore imperative that the world leaders take climate change seriously this week. But they did not. The Trump administration steadfastly refused to back the Paris agreement, marking its first full year of resistance on the issue. The U.S. has retreated from international commitments and slowed progress on climate change. The State Department recently said climate change is not a “threat” to American security. Last month, the Trump administration downgraded its climate change presence and engagement on the state department web page. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has recently said that the U.S. is “ready to jump back into the international discussion” on climate change. While clearly trying to cast doubt on the past eight years of American leadership on climate change, Pompeo has also said the U.S. will remain a leader “regardless of what other nations do.”
Even the response of European leaders and the 195 countries that did officially recognize the Paris Agreement last week came with an implicit caveat that is bound to frustrate many. In order to recommit to the global climate change accord, the world’s largest emitters needed to first ratify it. So, if the U.S. isn’t going to join the Paris agreement, how are we supposed to uphold our commitments? (The U.S. has always been considered a G20 country that meets the G20 framework) In other words, if we aren’t going to accept responsibility for our contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, then what responsibility do we owe to the environment?
It is important to note that foreign leaders did not mention the United States during the conference. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both spoke about the importance of the Paris agreement. European foreign ministers didn’t hold a press conference demanding more of the United States. It was clear what was asked of countries attending the talks: Return to the U.N. and ratify the agreement as soon as possible. But with the new climate reality, how much more can they ask of their U.S. partners?
Back in Boston in late 2014, President Barack Obama said, “Inaction is not an option.” This week, we saw that failure reared its ugly head again. And so, we head into summer 2019 with the ironic sense that “Action is just around the corner.” At some point next year, we’ll be back at COP25 — or maybe in COP26 — and at that point, we have a responsibility to continue to build on our experience in working toward a brighter future for all humanity.
Let’s stay the course, folks.