Need for doable climate strategy

Imagine that your house is ablaze, and the fire brigade’s response is to hold an occasional meeting to discuss progress in extinguishing it before deciding to let it carry on burning.

That is how many ordinary people have come to regard the prospects for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, or COP26, billed as the last, best chance to save the planet.

It is a tribute to the efforts of climate campaigners that they have succeeded in pushing the issue to the top of the global agenda with their apocalyptic warnings of what will happen. A year of forest fires, record heat waves and devastating floods in various parts of the world has further fostered the fear that doomsday is already here and that the best hope now is to try to limit further damage.

The formal aim of the Glasgow summit is to receive updated plans from national governments on cutting emissions and to agree on how to implement the terms of the Paris climate accords that were agreed upon six years ago.

The ultimate objective is to hold the global temperature rise to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, a target that may already be beyond reach.

The pre-summit tactic of some participants has been to talk up the existential cost of failure at Glasgow while talking down the prospects of success. 

Summit host Boris Johnson, the United Kingdom’s prime minister, has warned that lack of action on climate change could mean the end of civilization, while also warning that the chances for progress at COP26 are “touch and go”.

It is a potentially perilous approach in the face of an often confused public desperately looking for rational and unified international responses to a global problem.

Queen Elizabeth II, who might seem to be a rather unlikely spokeswoman for the average man or woman in the street, summed up the view of many when she was recorded in a private conversation criticizing those in charge for being “irritating” when “they talk, but they don’t do”.

Perhaps she was reflecting the widespread public desire for implementation of a coherent, science-based plan in which empty rhetoric is translated into action.

There has been progress in tackling the climate crisis in recent decades, including a gradual switch to cleaner fuels, even if most agree that it has not been enough.

Climate scientists and activists have, at the same time, succeeded in raising public consciousness about the scale of the crisis while pushing the dwindling cohort of so-called climate deniers and climate skeptics to the margins.

However, to get their message across, the most vociferous climate campaigners have sometimes presented the crisis in black and white terms that do not always reflect the complexity of the crisis and its resolution. Some of their proposals, such as an immediate shutdown of investment in fossil fuels, might create more short-term problems, particularly in the developing world, than they would solve.

Similarly, exhortations about flying less and cutting back on meat are scarcely relevant to people already on the margins in regions of the poorer Southern Hemisphere.

Sadly, the reality of past procrastination in pushing ahead with climate adaptation does not mean that “magic bullet” solutions can now be instituted overnight.

The switch to cleaner energy must certainly be sped up in accordance with an agreed-upon plan, but not in such a way as to generate further economic and societal breakdowns in the impoverished south, which is already feeling the harshest impacts of climate change.

What people around the world demand of COP26 is that it should come up with a sober and doable strategy that also spells out the inevitable costs and sacrifices involved in reaching net-zero carbon emissions, as well as a commitment to the burden being equally shared.

Already, the pre-summit rhetoric has included the all too familiar name-calling among national political leaders failing to play their part in the war on global warming. 

There has also been unconstructive speculation about which global leaders would be personally attending the Glasgow summit when COVID-19 concerns might be legitimately keeping them at home.

For the summit to succeed, and for a climate road map to proceed with any prospect of success, politicians may have to go against their natural instincts and ring-fence the climate issue from all the other political issues that divide them.

They should agree that any other political conflict, whether ideological, economic or territorial, should not be allowed to disrupt a jointly approved program of action.

States inevitably have differences that can hopefully be resolved over time. But these cannot be used as an excuse for politicians to falter in their response to an existential threat that confronts everyone. 

If they fail, present and future generations will not forgive them.

The author is a senior media consultant for China Daily UK. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.