COP26 is over, but the results of the climate summit will be with us today as well as tomorrow.
Despite the consensus that climate change is occurring, there is no doubt that there is some agreement about its severity. However, my experience at the summit in Glasgow, Scotland last month shows two very different perspectives regarding the economic and social impacts.
One group, the naive optimists believes that climate change’s impacts are exaggerated and will not stop economic growth or improve human well-being. This view was supported by the financial support and vested interests of the fossil fuel industry. slowing the achievement of climate change consensus, has taken a strategic turn from denial of climate change to minimising its consequences.
The second group, the realist pessimists, comprised of many of the scientists and most of the street protesters, sees the impacts of climate change as far beyond a mere nuisance, a veritable “existential crisis” that will topple life as we know it and possibly cause the extinction of human life.
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The optimists were most government officials, venture capitalists and businesspeople who saw growing concern over climate change as a business opportunity in a future moderately affected by it. President Joe Biden is an example. stated, “When I think of climate change, I think of — and the answers to it — I think of jobs.” In this scenario, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects that average life expectancy will continue to rise, poverty and hunger rates will continue to decline, and average incomes will go up simply because they always have. While climate change will slow down the rate of improvement in human well being, on average, this thinking suggests that our futures are not going to be any worse than today.
My take is that while climate change is not likely to cause Homo sapiens to go extinct, it will make most of our lives and most of our descendants’ lives more nasty, brutish and short.
The sense I got at COP26 was that the protesters on the street had a more realistic understanding of the urgency of the climate crisis than the politicians and negotiators within the COP. They, and most scientists, are concerned not only about climate change but, moreover, many other human impacts on our environment that interact with the climate and one another in complex ways, many of which do not bode well. To wit, we are experiencing the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history. Since 1950 we have caused the loss of half of the world’s coral reefs, and changes to Earth’s land surface (including the loss of roughly half of the world’s coastal wetlands) have resulted in annual losses of ecosystem services valued at over $22 trillion.
My conclusion is that although climate change is unlikely to make Homo sapiens extinct, it will make most our lives and most our descendants more unpleasant, brutish, and shorter.
I learned a lot from the many interactions I had at the protests and in the negotiations that climate change management is largely a political issue. The only institution capable of making the necessary changes to mitigate the negative effects of climate change are governments. They provide incentives for corporations and venture capitalists by enforcing regulations and policies. Voluntary individual efforts, such avoiding plastic straws and driving an electric car, conserving energy, putting solar cells on your house, and composting your food will have little impact.
Unfortunately, I saw at COP26 that governments are not willing to step up to the plate. They don’t take climate change seriously enough, and they don’t want to spend money helping developing countries. India and China are keen to continue using coal, which doesn’t bode well for keeping below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Our best hope lies with the people on the streets, who are driven more by love for people than their positions. That was my biggest takeaway at COP26. It was a growing sense that it will not be the highly engaged and very informed people I met in Glasgow, or others like them on Colorado campuses and cities, that will make the commitment necessary to enact more aggressive climate change policies.
May it be so.