- Since the first COP talks took place in 1995, the climate crisis has evolved from a future threat to an everyday reality.
- Climate change caused 3-times more extreme weather events last decade than occurred in the 1970s.
- Greenwashing and the failure of major polluters to act has exacerbated the climate crisis.
- Several policy options are available that could hold polluters accountable for their actions.
As the UK prepares to host the make-or-break COP26 climate talks, the burgeoning impact of climate change is a stark warning that urgent action is needed.
As the planet warms, the number of storms, floods, droughts, wildfires and other climate extremes increases. The planet has seen a three-fold rise in extreme weather events since the 1970s, reaching 2105 incidents between 2010 and 2019, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
Radio Davos looks back to the first COP meeting held in 1995 in Berlin, a quarter of a century in which climate change has gone from a future threat to a growing reality.
Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, was at the inaugural COP talks and has attended every meeting since. Here she gives her take on what has changed since the early days of COP climate discussions and what needs to happen to make the current talks a success. (This interview had been lightly edited.)
Q. What has happened since your first COP meeting?
What's happened is those who don't want the world to deal with climate change, the oil and fossil fuel companies, the large industrial agriculture corporations, have managed to sow doubt, block progress and make it very difficult for the world to move forward in addressing this climate chaos.
That's part of the story. From a technological perspective, we’ve seen fast progress in renewable energy. Wind and solar are taking off and becoming economically viable. Efforts are increasing to shut down coal around the world — not fast enough and not in enough places yet, but that’s moving.
Q. What hasn’t changed since COP1?
What hasn't changed is the combination of opposition and greenwashing from the global elites and corporates, which has now created climate anxiety among our youth.
We are in a situation where the emission reductions that should have happened haven't. And we are approaching the worst edge of what climate scientists told us could happen. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is both stunning and scary because of the intensity of things that are already happening around the world.
Q. Are climate warnings any more stark now that they were in the 1990s?
The warnings have always been stark. Had we listened to the scientists back in the 1960s when Lyndon B. Johnson got the first climate science report on his desk, we would be in a different situation.
What has changed is the impacts themselves are happening. Forests are going up in flames around the world. We are seeing immense storms wash away homes in developed countries like the US and Germany, but developing countries have been experiencing this for some time.
What was seen as a faraway problem is now here affecting me, you, all of us. That panic, that anxiety is much more tangible than it was and we can no longer ignore it.
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Q. Do you think the world will deliver on the Paris Agreement?
The Paris Agreement contains this long term goal that countries have signed up to and a ratchet mechanism built in for every country to increase its ambitions. What the coming COP meeting is about is will they do it, and will they do it at scale?
But the other thing is people’s support for climate action. There is so much urgency to act, from youths to grandparents all around the world. And I continue to hope that our leaders are going to listen to that in a much more direct way than they have in the past.
Q. How do the global politics of economies like the US and China impact the Paris Agreement’s chances of success?
The United States has not been a stable ally in tackling the climate crisis - ever. It is vital the Biden administration and US Congress deliver something that has legal character, that gives the world confidence that the US will reduce its emissions at the scale that's required.
Clearly what China does is also very important. China has made good progress in building clean and renewable energy capacity, but progress has stalled in industrial processes and the continued dependence on coal as the dominant energy source. President Xi Jinping has indicated that efforts to decarbonize are in China’s self-interest. But like every other country, China has to step up. Its emissions need to peak earlier, by 2025 at the latest.
Q. What would be the ideal outcome of the COP26 meeting?
It's important to remember that COPs don't magically solve the problem. Every country, particularly the G20 nations, must be more ambitious with their nationally determined contributions, committing to targets that keep 1.5 degrees in sight. Currently, we’re on course for 2.7 degrees. And there's a set of countries that haven't come forward with anything yet. Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, China and the developed countries need to act.
A solidarity pact is also fundamental. COVID has highlighted the inequalities around the world and how that creates gaps between rich and poor countries. The vaccine equity problem needs to be sorted so poor countries can vaccinate their people.
Climate finance has an important role to play here. Wealthy countries need to look at what they're going to do to support countries already suffering loss and damage.
Finally, we have to wipe out the opportunity for greenwashing from corporations. Many of the net-zero pledges by companies, particularly from the fossil fuel industry, depend on unregulated offset schemes like planting trees to continue business as usual. Glasgow needs to expose greenwashing and create an accountability mechanism to bring offset practices in line with climate science.
Q. What major changes in this decade can help us stay within 1.5℃?
We need to shift the entire dynamic so the short-term interests of a few don't dominate the long-term interests of people or the planet. It means a different mindset, putting the climate emergency and social issues at the top table.
Policies need to reduce emissions, but also protect the most vulnerable and the poorest. So people in developing countries no longer have to deforest their land to export wood to Europe or the US, for example, instead adopting local models will benefit local communities. That's totally possible, but companies need to pay for these transitions, not taxpayers.
Governments need to stop exploring for new fossil fuels and switch their investments and subsidies from fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy.
We have all of the policy solutions we need, that's not the issue anymore. We have the technology to move things quickly. But what is lacking is the courage to stand up to those that want to keep things as they are, and that requires focus, ingenuity and absolute determination.
Q. What short-term actions can policy-makers take to address the long-term threat of climate change?
Leaders need to address the root causes of climate change head-on and make space for the solutions to work.
Policy-makers can refuse to accept any more fossil fuel money, shut down corruption and be transparent about how things work.
Laws can be enforced that bind all corporations to reduce their emissions to zero, complete with an accountability system. And if they don't, they can't pay out shareholder dividends.
Financial regulations can be used to integrate risks from the impacts of climate change and potentially stranded assets, straight into our economies.
What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?
Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.
To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The World Economic Forum's Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.
This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.
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These types of system changes are all possible and could be put in place within a few months. The greatest risk is actually failing to act.
Leaders need to hold liable the companies that caused this problem. Polluting companies could be made to pay into a fund to support the loss and damage faced by millions of people around the world. And while that may sound far-fetched, it’s already happening as a number of legal cases and climate damage litigation is surfacing.