Why COP26 means that public engagement matters more than ever before
The goal of keeping warming to 1.5C is still alive, but it’s on life support. And going forwards requires hope. So where is hope to be found? It has to be in the rising tide of concern about climate change around the world, and people’s desire to show up and be part of the solution, writes Robin Webster.
The media loves drama, and over the years many of the 26 COPs have delivered. The Glasgow talks fulfilled the brief, encompassing last minute negotiations, deadlines, tears and arguments over the exact textual meaning of ‘requests’ vs ‘urges’.
But Glasgow was different to many previous COPs in one key way: we are now in the era of delivery and not promises. Arguments over targets and negotiation texts can only get us so far. You can hear it in the restlessness of protestors outside the conference fence, you can hear it in the determination of young climate justice campaigners to make their voices heard, you can hear it in the words of delegates from the global south where rising temperatures are already hitting livelihoods and lives. There is an increasing impatience pressing at the gates. The question they are asking: ‘but what are we actually doing?’
1.5C, Glasgow and public engagement
Research released during the conference shows that the plans countries have laid out so far for reducing emissions (known as Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs) still add up to a terrifying 2.4C of temperature rise by the end of the century.
We are now at 1.1 degrees of warming. Crossing the 2 degrees threshold is enough to put over 1 billion people under extreme heat stress; bleach over 99% of coral reefs; double the extinction of plant species and intensify the melting of sea ice in summer by 10 times, fueling up to 6 metres of sea level rise in vulnerable parts of the world. The Maldives Environment Minister, Aminath Shauna stated it baldly in the final plenary, “The difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees, for us, really is a death sentence”.
Theoretically at least, ‘1.5 is still alive’ after the negotiations. An agreement made in Glasgow – known as the Glasgow Climate Pact – requests that countries “revisit and strengthen” their climate pledges by the end of 2022. This may seem like a thin victory, but it wasn’t a given before the conference started, and it puts diplomatic pressure on governments to strengthen their plans over the next year.
As the Secretary-General of the United Nations put it during the negotiations, if 1.5 is still alive, it’s on life support. Changing the political, social and economic priorities of governments around the world to refocus on new, ambitious plans for COP27 to reduce emissions as fast as possible would be – will be – a momentous task.
But going forwards requires hope. So where is hope to be found? It has to be in the rising tide of concern about climate change around the world, and people’s desire to show up and take part. At this point in history, people who are willing to be central to societal transformation are needed around the world, to build a mandate for unstoppable change and hold governments to account.
This doesn’t just mean taking action on the streets – though that really matters, in countries where it is possible. The evidence shows that people are deeply influenced by those around us – what we see them doing, and the conversations we have in our lives. Public consent and public pressure go together in driving politicians to make change. The change we make, the change we ask for in our communities – even down to the conversations over the dinner table – all have to be part of that story.
In short: whole-society, meaningful ongoing engagement is needed to deliver the social change that will stir politicians to deliver better and stronger pledges. And in 2022, it matters as never before.
Placing people at the heart of climate action
In November 2022, COP will take place in Egypt, which is situated in one of the most vulnerable regions in the world, particularly impacted by water and food insecurity which is already being exacerbated by climate change. 2 degrees of temperature rise could have devastating consequences for people’s lives and livelihoods, in a country where nearly 30% of people rely on agriculture and desertification is rapidly spreading.
So governments will return to the table in a country whose citizens face an existential threat to their survival, and answer the question: have you done enough? Are you willing to do enough? COPs aren’t just about the drama of the negotiators inside the halls any more. The answer to that question will only be yes if people around the world participate in making it so.
Robin Webster is Climate Outreach’s Senior Programme Lead in Advocacy Communications. You can follow Robin on Twitter @RobinWebs.
A version of this blog first appeared on the Climate Outreach website.