Draft Report on my COP26 experience to the AAG from Paul C. Sutton

It was an honor and a privilege to serve as an AAG observer to the COP26 United Nations Climate Summit in Glasgow this fall. I write this report primarily as a summary of my first-person observations, reflections, and opinions. These opinions are mine alone and do not represent the AAG or any other persons, organizations, or institutions. I provide this report in the hope that it is informative, interesting, and provocative. There are an abundance of summaries of the COP26 event and its related agreements. I provide a few links to these summaries but will not attempt to do this in my report.

New York Times: Negotiators Strike a Climate Deal, but World Remains Far From Limiting Warming

The Guardian: What happened at COP26 day 12 at a glance

The Ecologist: Informed by Nature

Big Picture Summary

The big picture with respect to what needs to happen with respect to emissions reduction is well summarized in this New York Times article : Latest National Climate Plans Still Fall Far Short, UN Report warns. Wealthy developed countries have caused the climate change that has already occurred and will likely cause most of future climate change. China is currently the number one emitter of CO2 (~30% of global emissions) followed by the United States (~14% of global emissions) and India (roughly ~7% of global emissions) (Source).


One of the major points of contention at COP26 was the question of the ‘phasing out’ or ‘phasing down’ of coal. China and India are two countries that insisted on the term ‘phasing down’ of coal. It is perhaps somewhat ironic that during the COP26, New Delhi was forced to shut down its schools and construction sites because of a worsening air pollution crisis. Ending subsidies to fossil fuels was another priority that appears to have resulted in a promise to ‘revisit and strengthen’ new plans by the end of 2022. Of course, simply defining ‘fossil fuel subsidy’ can be problematic. Are U.S. military expenditures in the middle east a ‘fossil fuel subsidy’ that provides security for big oil? In some respects, the real questions are: How do we tax things we want less of and subsidize what we want more of ? The 2019 Copenhagen COP resulted in a promise by the rich nations to provide $100 Billion in funds to help less wealthy nations adapt to climate change and mitigate further rises in temperature. That promise did not manifest significantly and renewed claims that the wealthy nations need to help the less wealthy nations was another point of contention at the COP in Glasgow.

Is failure an option?

One particularly interesting session I attended at the COP26 was presented by Tim Jackson and Ed Gemmell on a new paper titled: World Scientists Warning Into Action. The World Scientists Warning Into Action paper is still seeking signatures from qualified scientists. This paper is in press with the SAGE journal, Science Progress. The paper states that the time for empty commitments for the distant future of 2050 is over. The paper argues that we need large-scale, rapid, trans-formative changes in our economies, societies, cultures, and politics. The paper makes recommendations in the following areas: Energy, Atmospheric pollutants, Nature, Food Systems, Population Stabilization, and Economic Reforms. The sense of the message I got at this session 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.

Nonetheless, the urgency expressed by the authors of the World Scientists Warning into Action does not seem to be shared by all. I read an article in the Atlantic interviewing Brian O’Neill, the director of the Joint Global Change Research Institute who was one of the lead architects of the modeled scenarios known as the “Shared Socioeconomic Pathways” (SSPs). The SSPs were future scenarios of the economy used for informing the IPCC’s ‘Representative Concentration Pathways’ or RCPs (different scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions moving into the future). Brian Oneill’s assessment seemed strikingly less alarmed than the assessment of the Scientist’s Warning authors (Brian O’neill is quoted from the Atlantic article below):

“The path we seem to be on, at least for now, looks closer to SSP 2, which the authors call “Middle of the Road.” This is a world in which “social, economic, and technological trends do not shift markedly from historical patterns.” A world, in other words, in which we do not heroically rise to the occasion to fix things, but in which we also don’t get much worse than we already are. So what does this SSP 2 world feel like? It depends, O’Neill told me, on who you are. One thing he wants to make very clear is that all the paths, even the hottest ones, show improvements in human well-being on average. IPCC scientists expect that average life expectancy will continue to rise, that poverty and hunger rates will continue to decline, and that average incomes will go up in every single plausible future, simply because they always have. “There isn’t, you know, like a Mad Max scenario among the SSPs,” O’Neill said. Climate change will ruin individual lives and kill individual people, and it may even drag down rates of improvement     in human well-being, but on average, he said, “we’re generally in the climate-change field not talking about futures that are worse than today.”

I find it striking that ALL the SSP scenarios in the IPCC report result in increased average life expectancy, increased GDP, and increased average levels of human well-being. A layperson might ask: ‘What are we so concerned about?’. I asked several scientists about the fact that all the SSPs resulted in improved average human well-being, increased GDP, and longer life expectancy. Every scientist I spoke with at the COP told me the SSPs were either unrealistic fantasies or did not consider environmental feedbacks that would result in scenarios that were much less pleasant than where we are now. It appears to me failure is an option and we should be more honest and explicit about that. 

This lack of consilience regarding the impact of climate change on the economy and society going into the future is disturbing. It is said that truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; and Third, it is accepted as having always been true. The reality of climate change as measured by rising average global temperatures seems to have passed through these three phases; however, there seems to be little agreement as to what impact climate change will have on our economy and society. One thing that does seem to be certain is that just as there are significant geographic differences as to the responsibility for climate change there are significant geographic differences with respect to the impacts and consequences of climate change. Climate change has likely exacerbated the economic inequality associated with historical disparities in energy consumption (Source). The poorer, hotter countries of the global south have experienced more negative consequences from climate change; and, anticipated future climate change will continue to impact them disproportionately.

Scenarios of possible futures: Envisioning a Just, Sustainable, and Desirable Future
Scientists are increasingly engaged in the development of plausible scenarios of future social, economic, and environmental realities. Capturing the interactions between these phenomena is one of the trickier elements of scenario modeling. It is believed that the presentation of scenarios will inform decision making to produce better outcomes. The IPCC report has scenarios of 'socioeconomic pathways' projecting changes to the global population and economy; and, RCPs projecting future levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  It is not clear how these models capture interactions between changing environmental circumstances and population and economic realities. All of these scenarios envision a growing global population with increased average levels of well-being. Of course averages can hide the nature of distributions. Occupy Wall Street has raised awareness of how important distributions are. I would argue that Occupy Wall Street's greatest success was getting the idea of the 1% and the 99% into our collective consciousness. Painting rosy scenarios of current scenarios and future trajectories can be a dangerous and deceptive enterprise. Bill Gates is quite optimistic about the trajectory of our society as demonstrated in this tweet of his:

Numbers matter. Choosing silly numbers can be very deceptive. The infographic above defines 'Extreme poverty' is as $1.90 a day or less. If the entire population of people living in extreme poverty had their average incomes increase to $2.25 a day we'd have an increase in well-being for all of them. Jason Hickel makes some very cogent points as to why this is a dangerous and deceptive way to understand what is happening. It turns out that $7.40 per day is needed to achieve basic nutrition and normal human life expectancy. Hickel argues that the absolute number of people living on $7.40 per day or less has been increasing since 1981. The question: Has global poverty declined dramatically? has sparked an enormous debate involving Bill Gates, Stephen Pinker, Jason Hickel, Max Roser (Our World In Data), and others. It seems it would be a relatively easy question to answer but it is not. An excellent summary of this debate has been written up by Dylan Matthews (Vox). My sense is that a big unspoken element of these debates is the population taboo. What role does population growth have with respect to the interactions of economic development, population growth, and environmental degradation? George Monbiot's position can perhaps be summarized as, 'Don't worry about fertility rates. They are not the real problem and it's racist to say they are'. Monbiot's position was the most prevalent at the COP26. Nonetheless there are those who fundamentally believe that our long term end game seeking a sustainable, desirable, and just future will necessarily have a significantly smaller human population than the current 7.9 billion (https://www.realgnd.org/). A rebuttal to Monbiot's position has been prepared by Max Kummerow. My position on this question is essentially based on 'The Limits to Growth'. Our failure to discuss the population component of a just, sustainable, and desirable future essentially dooms us to the Yogi Berra maxim: 'If you don't know where you are going you'll end up someplace else.". I published a piece in The Hill with that very title.

Is the Developed World saying to the Developing World: It sucks to be you?

David Attenborough is a beloved figure who featured prominently at the entrance to the COP26 (image below). Attenborough describes the problem as primarily a political and communications challenge. The sense I got in my communications with people inside the Blue Zone of the COP and at the street protests was that this is simply a political challenge at this point. Governments need to lead by engaging in serious monitoring and enforcement of greenhouse gas emissions, cease fossil fuel subsidies, and provide assistance to the developing world in meeting current challenges and mitigating future impacts. No-one I spoke to was confident that billionaires, corporations, venture capitalists, or market forces were going address our climate challenges. In fact, there was a significant sense both inside the COP and on the street that unfettered capitalism had to be reigned in and the governments of the world were the only institutions with the capacity to do so.

There was a lot of pushback on the idea that the wealthy countries should provide significant financial support to the less wealthy countries to help them deal with current challenges and mitigate future change. Warnings about the impacts of climate change have been going on for decades. The corporate response has been one dominated by denial of the science and refusal to take significant action. This satirical video  describing the ‘Fuck You’ policy of an apocryphal ‘Australian Coal Mining Company’ describes what many would say has been the unstated subtext of the corporate response to calls for corporate social responsibility with respect to climate change.

I am a big fan of Mathis Wackernagel and the idea of an ‘Ecological Footprint’ he developed with William Rees. His Global Footprint Network e-mail titled: COP-out: From MAD to SAD captures my sentiments pretty well. Wackernagel states:

There is a misconception that COP26 in Glasgow did not produce concrete decisions. But it did. World leaders decided that it is not worth saving the Maldives. No wonder the youth ambassadors from around the world participating at COP26 are livid.

In the Cold War, there was a grim strategy that kept the world from complete catastrophe. It was MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction. Arguably, this strategy contributed to no nuclear bombs being dropped on people since Nagasaki. Now, by stark contrast, we are defaulting to SAD: Self-Assured Destruction.

It may not be surprising that nation states do not want to save others from the effects of climate change and resource constraints. But it is utter madness that they do not even seem to want to save themselves. Why? Because sustainability action is not about "enlightened self-interest." It is simply practical. If your country is not preparing itself for the predictable future of climate change and resource constraints, your country will not be prepared. It seems obvious. So, what part of zero emissions are nations negotiating about?

It’s like we are standing on a train track with a train coming at high speed, and it is getting uncomfortably close. Why are we spending time convincing others to throw in another $5 of incentives to step off the track? SAD!

All nations continue to be woefully underprepared for this predictable future. As if the train will not (or hasn’t already) hit them, because they are exceptional. But guess what: we all think we are exceptional. It’s universal. Luckily, some cities and companies are starting to recognize what is coming and are shifting their trajectories. What are all the others waiting for?

As the world community and its national governments fail to lead the way, the climate and resource context is becoming ever more difficult for all. Without national support, each city or community, region or company, has to prepare itself even more vigorously to persist.

International agreements with teeth would be great. But waiting for them is self-defeating. What would COP26 have looked like if it were driven by the love for people rather than positions?

Without meaningful agreements, your action to address your own overshoot becomes even more important for your own future. It is also strategic: Like with COVID, protecting yourself also protects the larger community. If you love yourself and your community, just do it.

It appears to me that the developed world is betting that they will survive climate change while the developing world will suffer the most consequences. Events like COP26 seem to be brief embarrassing moments when the developed world's disregard for the developing world comes into clearer focus. So, in answer to the question: Is the developed world saying to the developing world: It sucks to be you? It looks to me like the answer is yes.

A message of Hope?

As an academic I often wonder if my work makes any difference at all. What I found most inspiring at the COP26 were the street protests. For the most part, the people I spoke with at the street protests were highly engaged and very informed. Many told me they were informed by their teachers and there were many teachers and students in the crowd. In this world of misinformation, disinformation, and fake news I am coming to believe that teachers do make a difference and are trusted to a great extent. I think those of us teaching geography and environmental science can take pride in what we do and believe we are making a difference. I am increasingly convinced that it will be pressure from the people on the street that will bring about serious commitment to policy to address climate change. This will be very challenging because I agree with the tenets of the Scientist's Warning that this must involve large-scale, rapid, trans-formative changes in our economies, societies, cultures, and politics.

Photo Gallery from COP26

The following are photographs I took while in Glasgow. I provide brief comments below each one. Pictures are worth a thousand words.

A wonderful sentiment on the Street: All you need is love.

Big sign on building near the Glasgow Central Train Station

Street Poster: Age of Catastrophe

ID card provided to visitors by the Eden Project

Street Protester with Greta Thunberg quote

These protesters were singing a song to the tune of Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody'

Street Protester lamenting loss of biodiversity

Wonderful women I met at the Train Station. They handed me a flyer that said:
"War Causes Climate Change and Climate Change Causes War"

I met this gentleman in the 'Green Zone'. He was promoting a game to help
people understand the linkages, feedbacks, and interdependencies of
Climate, Society, Biodiversity, and the Economy.
I hope to download this game and use it in one of my classes.

Street Poster by Extinction Rebellion

Street Protester: Do not colonize Mars

Another Street Protester. She said she was thinking of using-  COP: Corporate Owned Policy

COP certainly was funded by many corporations

All of these people Tweeting their brains out.

Very common sentiment expressed in many ways on the streets.

Strange to see such an empty room in a way crowded event.

Sad to see those empty rooms (above), particularly when participants who actually showed up in Scotland were asked to
participate remotely. Not a good look. On my first day I spent hours in line getting my credentials for the event.

These two men were very pessimistic about the future.
They felt they had to show up in solidarity for their children and grandchildren.

Extinction Rebellion had a big presence at the street protests

The sense of urgency expressed in this flyer was matched by many of the scientists in the Blue Zone.

Another Extinction Rebellion Street Poster

The eyes of the world are on us

Food Waste as a greenhouse gas source

Strike Friday Street March was for the youth and their future.

Umbrella says: G7 drowning in problems

Is this what it will take?

George Square - Greta Thunberg spoke here on the Friday Strike March

Chatted with a very seemingly sincere and nice guy from Glaxo Smith Kline at the GSK site in the Green Zone.
I expressed suspicion of 'Greenwashing' and he said the GSK employees were forcing change from the bottom up.
I'd love to know what the truth is within these corporate entities. We do need corporate change.
Will it come from government regulation or from enlightened self interest?

The 'Green Zone' used a science museum as a publicly available demonstration zone for many corporate participants

Inside the Green Zone (very circuitous route to access - perhaps why not crowded)

Microsoft's booth in the Green Zone

Whole lotta photo ops in the Green Zone

The helicopters were always hovering over the street protests.

Survival Manifesto

Street Protest: Mother of Mercy

Lot's of hostility to space colonization for the 1%

Street Protest

What are we saying to this child?

Panorama shot. Crowds estimated to be 100,000?
Took over an hour for crowds like this to pass a single point.
(roughly 1/5 of the population of Glasgow)

Lies, Damn Lies, and Polar Bears

Young Protester on way to march via the train. Nice public transportation in Glasgow BTW.

Delightful couple I met at the train station on the way to the protest.

David Attenborough's cogent summary on this street poster:
"It is important, it is true, it is happening, and it is an impending disaster."

Street Protest: The wrong Amazon is burning

Strike Back Against Capitalism

Street Protest Signs

Saturday March (sometimes in the rain): 'How many COPS to arrest Climate Change?

Stop Killing US

On the way back home I was forced by the airports to wander through the 'Duty Free' zone of
excessive consumption. It was a strange to see a UN display of the Sustainable Development Goals right
in the middle of BVGARI, Armani, Hermes, and other overpriced non-essentials.
Is it just me or is this obscene?

The following images are photos I took of a cartoon display inside the Blue Zone.
I was somewhat surprised as to how cynical many of these cartoons are about our collective response to this global challenge.