"Get in Line or Get Out of the Way!"
At COP26, the global elite are fiddling while the developing world burns.
Historian Michael Franczak is back with his second piece from the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. If you haven’t already seen his first report please check it out! And please sign up today for a free or paid subscription to Foreign Exchanges and get more news and analysis of international affairs and US foreign policy:
by Michael Franczak
Entering the Scottish Convention Center to observe the COP26 proceedings is no minor achievement. The attendee is obliged to navigate long lines, security, and more long lines, showing passports, official UNFCCC invitations, and of course the results of that morning’s (hopefully!) negative coronavirus test. Having run that gauntlet I found myself in the conference’s “Blue Zone,” where speeches are made and negotiations resolved—or not.
The significant presence of observers from non-governmental organizations makes COP26 unique for a multilateral negotiating body, though representatives of NGOs have often had a hard time accessing negotiations. As a member of a RINGO (Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organization) I am part of that class, a fact made apparent on the first two days of the conference. Due to a combination of security concerns and COVID protocols (we were told in an official UNFCCC email after the fact), access to negotiations for Observers would be extremely restricted for the first two days. For NGOs (including RINGOs), there were just four passes for a hundred-plus delegations. The situation improved today (Wednesday), when foreign leaders departed and ministers began their work, but most of the damage was in fact done before the conference. Visa requirements, quarantine protocols, and expensive housing made attendance for many global South observers impossible.
I’ll start with a note on the plenaries. Monday and Tuesday were for foreign leaders and dignitaries—Biden, the Queen, David Attenborough—meaning lots of rhetoric (and, for the rest of us, security and long lines). As I write this (on Wednesday) these addresses have been reprinted and excerpted in all the usual places, so I’ll skip them here. Instead, some less-covered highlights from Sunday’s plenaries, from the UNFCCC Secretariat.
There was first a ceremonial baton passing from the President of COP25, Chile’s Carolina Schmidt, to COP26’s president, the UK’s Alok Sharma. Unlike, say, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, international organizations where a European (IMF) and American (World Bank) are always in charge, the COP presidency rotates around 5 recognized regions: Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Central and Eastern Europe, and Western Europe and Others. Schmidt and Sharma said all the right—and mostly the same—things: we need more ambition for NDCs (“nationally determined contributions,” basically long-term climate targets); more money for finance (meeting the $100 billion pledge); and more transparency from emitters (and rules to enforce violations, aka the “Paris rulebook”).
Monitoring a country’s carbon emissions is a monumental task, only recently made (somewhat) possible through satellite imaging. Naturally, countries will try to minimize, legally or illegally, their emissions visibility to meet their NDCs. Monitoring carbon exchange markets is challenging as well, since they are un- or self-regulated, and it’s not unreasonable to suspect shenanigans and short-term dealings there, either. But these are problems with practicable solutions, and I suspect all in the room agreed with Schmidt and Sharma in principle.
The same is true for the “missing” $20 billion in aid, the difference between the $100 billion per year wealthy nations have agreed to provide to fund clean energy transitions in the developing world, and what those nations actually provided in 2020. The US came to Glasgow with a promise to contribute $11 billion per year toward the $100 billion goal, plus a surprise $3 billion adaptation fund announced on Tuesday (more on that in my next piece). But the US Department of Defense’s budget for FY 2021 is $705.4 billion, which puts its refusal to make up the $20 billion shortfall into stark relief. Abdulla Shahid, the Maldivian president of the UN General Assembly, stated: “We have the science, we have the resources, we agree on the urgency. So what’s holding us back? Us.”
But it’s not really “us,” is it? No, it is specific countries (the richest, most powerful, and most wasteful emitting countries) and specific people (the rich and powerful who stand to lose, or not gain as much) who are holding “the rest of us”—and especially the poorest peoples and nations in particular—hostage, by resisting the full enforcement of an agreement (Paris) they claim to support.
One speaker dared to point this out—and even named names. You probably haven’t heard of her (I hadn’t), but you should. India Logan-Riley is a young Māori climate activist. She spoke last—apparently added to the docket at the last minute—but appropriately, since this year’s buzzwords (as each prior speaker emphasized) are “youth” and “inclusion,” and Logan-Riley checks both boxes. Her speech, which you can watch here, was a barnstormer, making clear that although “we” are all “in this together,” it’s the world’s poor and powerless who suffer first and most. The climate crisis began 252 years ago, Logan-Riley charged, when British colonists declared a false “doctrine of discovery” to steal indigenous Māori lands, displace Māori and other tribes, and exploit the fossil fuels buried in Māori land.
In recent years, the New Zealand government claimed Maori lands for offshore drilling (though Jacinda Arden’s government declared an end to the practice in 2018). Six years ago, Logan-Riley told the same story at Paris. “I was applauded, I was awarded, and yet: sea level rise, biodiversity loss, wildfires, suffering; sea level rise, biodiversity loss, wildfires, more suffering.” At 26, she is the same age as the negotiations. She has “graduated, fallen in and out of love, all while the Global North colonial governments and corporations fudge with our future.” While the COP parties fiddled, Logan-Riley argued, indigenous communities stepped up. “In the US and Canada alone, indigenous resistance has stopped or delayed GHG pollution equivalent to at least one quarter of annual emissions. What we do works. In the face of mediocre leadership, indigenous communities shine through.”
If her statistic is indeed correct, that is very significant. But she closed with additional demands that went beyond those of the earlier speakers. First, she argued for enforcing the Paris Agreement’s human rights framework, which is violated not only by climate inaction but direct government action (like offshore drilling via eminent domain). Also significant was her call to end “war games in the Pacific,” i.e, between the US and China, which waste money that would be better spent on badly needed loss and damage funds for poor communities whose lives and environments are transforming now, not in ten years. Third, rich countries must commit to steep reductions this decade (rather than 2050 or 2060), instead of relying on future carbon markets and technologies to solve the problem. (We already did this, in the 1990s, and it didn’t work.) “Finally,” Logan-Riley ended, “decolonization means giving our oceans back. So learn our histories, learn our stories, and get in line or get out of the way!”
Another word that came up in every plenary was “trust.” Under Kyoto, developed countries agreed to legally-binding limits set at an international level. Under Paris, all countries, developed and developing, are required to make commitments, with the provision that each country determine its own (“voluntary”) national emissions reduction plan (its NDC). In addition to monitoring, Paris’ Article 6 also provides frameworks for trading between countries and other “flexible” mechanisms, including “non-market” mechanisms like an international carbon tax. So trust is important, both on the mitigation side and financial side.
This is why the US exit from Paris under Trump was so damaging. But it also wasn’t the first time the United States had upended global climate plans. It’s been said (by Matt Christman, I think), that Americans have goldfish memories. Gore Vidal called it the United States of Amnesia. But it’s really true. You will not hear a single mention this week in the US press of the Senate’s historic rejection (95 to 0!) of Kyoto in the 1997 Byrd-Hagel Resolution—this, despite the fact that it included virtually every concession the US demanded. A law professor from Tanzania stressed to me this point: “We [the developing countries] accept that the US is the most important player, and that accommodating them is necessary. And so at Kyoto, we did.” Then, the US signed the protocol but never sent it to Congress. It was a “work in progress,” for the US only.
In the 2000s, the US still attended all COPs and made (some) commitments, despite the rest of the Bush Administration’s energy policies, including its fossil-fueled wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The most important of these commitments was the Bali Action plan, adopted at COP13 in 2007 and formalized at COP15 in Copenhagen. Again, the US Senate and US President—Barack Obama—sought the lowest common denominator, and the result was a nonbinding treaty widely acknowledged as a failure. Nor is there any mechanism, or even consideration, to hold rich countries to task for failing to meet their financial commitments to poor countries. “What happened to the plan at Bali to hold donors responsible? Nothing.” And then again at Paris, where the US was again first among equals. “To get harmony, yes, we’ll do it [i.e., make comprises],” he insisted to me. “But you [the US] need to deliver.”
As I explained in my first piece, the US has offered just $1.2 billion for the multilateral Green Climate Fund, after delivering a fraction of US pledges during the Obama years and nothing under Trump. Poor countries (and people), of course, are extended no such grace when they fail to meet their commitments owed in the form of loans and interest. Perhaps, even more than the dollar, this is the true “exorbitant privilege” in global finance.
Michael Franczak is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Global Order at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House. Before that, Michael was a Postdoctoral Fellow in International Security Studies at Yale, where he also taught in the History department.
Michael’s first book, Global Inequality and American Foreign Policy in the 1970s, is forthcoming in June 2022 from Cornell University Press. He is now at work on a history of US foreign policy and global climate change negotiations.