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COP26 – Are the wisest wise enough?

29 October 2021

Source: Shutterstock

Now the time has arrived, the day has come, the arrangements are complete, the rooms are ready, and the world is waiting. COP26 begins on 1st November. The Heads of State from all over the world are landing in Glasgow. The most powerful men and women on Earth are gathering. They are bringing their most trusted and knowledgeable advisors. They come with the benefit of months of collective preparation. The event itself has been delayed by a year, owing to the pandemic. These people do not control a part of the world, a percentage of the population, or a specific landmass. Collectively, they control the whole world. They are the globe’s representatives, bringing all those who are considered wisest in human counsel to debate and decide one topic: Climate Change.

But are they wise enough to make the right decisions for our world?

It is an enormous problem. Should we restate it here? Perhaps it is worth reminding all who read this. The problem is now profound. The hottest temperatures on record have been reached in multiple locations: 39 degrees in the UK, 49 degrees in Sicily, and the highest in the world anywhere, 56 degrees in Death Valley, California. Modelling the consequences of the rising temperatures show entire countries ceasing to exist, such as Zambia. Already, rain has been reported for the first time in history on the highest peak in Greenland. Our world is now being transformed by Climate Change, and it is being turned into a planet on which human, animal and plant life will no longer be possible in many areas.

To restate the obvious, human civilisation, as we know it, has depended on a predictable climate which has consistently provided the conditions and the resources for supporting human life, most basically food, water, air and energy. The climate on Earth was our friend. It has been the result of a constant temperature range which has applied for the last 10,000 years, known by geologists as the Holocene period. The temperature is directly linked to the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. CO2 concentration has fluctuated marginally above and below 300 particles per million throughout that period, and this has helped provide a period of critical stability.

In the last 50 years, the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere has risen first to 350 ppm, and then in the last 30 years, it has risen above 400 to 420 ppm. Now, there’s certainty that it will reach 450 ppm within the next decade. We are close to 50% higher than at any other time in the history of the human race, insofar as we understand it. The accompanying temperature rise has already reached a global average of +1.1 degrees above pre-Industrial revolution levels. There is a similar certainty that +1.5 degrees is inevitable within the current decade, at which level all are agreed the consequences will be very bad indeed, and +2 degrees is highly likely within the next two decades, whatever we do now.

Carbon dioxide decays in the atmosphere, but slowly. If no further carbon is emitted on Earth, this concentration will start to decline over a period of centuries, long after it has done the damage in terms of global warming and the consequent changes to our climate, rendering whole swathes of the planet uninhabitable for most current life forms by the time it returns to levels which have characterised the last 10,000 years.

This is the problem that our World Leaders face in Glasgow in the course of the coming two weeks. It is a problem the magnitude of which is intimidating to the most powerful minds. There are no easy solutions. We can talk of technology, geo-engineering, adaptation. We can introduce policies for Net Zero and set targets for emission reduction. But, as we speak, while everything planned, approved and in train does indeed add up to a significant ambition involving huge change, the current plan nevertheless falls far short of what is needed.

This gives you an idea of the scale of the problem. Our world’s leaders, our wisest minds, cannot make the equation balance. Here, now, at COP26, what chance do they have of putting it right for us all, and sorting out the problem?

The answer is also depressingly obvious. COP26 is, as its name suggests, the 26th conference convened for the purpose of solving this climate change problem. 25 times before November 2021, the world’s leaders or their representatives have gathered to discuss the same problem. The first COP was held in Berlin in 1995, 26 years ago. Yet here we are, in 2021, and not only have we seen in these 26 years the failure to arrest carbon and other Greenhouse Gas emissions, we have actually seen the determining levels of carbon in the atmosphere rise even further. In fact, dramatically.


This is a record of almost complete failure. The single most important trend that the COPs needed to stop in 1995 has not been stopped at all, but continued to grow steadily at roughly the same pace as it did before the COPs.

We can reliably say, the world leaders and their representatives have made no difference at all to the enormous problem they were tasked with avoiding. In their duty to care for and protect the populations they lead, they have done nothing but expose all of us to ever deeper harm.

There are two different theories of failure that apply here. The first is the competence scale. By any standards, these leaders of ours through the last 26 years can be seen to be incompetent in finding solutions to this problem. But the competence scale acknowledges the potential we all have to choose. Was this unknowing incompetence or was it deliberate? The scale runs from Ignorant to Corrupt, or, in even less scientific language, Stupid to Bent.

There is another scale which is much more scientific and biological. The Darwinian scale, which refers to the pace of evolution. All human, animal and plant life on the planet has evolved in response to the prevailing climatic conditions. Organic life evolves in a circular manner, with dominant interdependencies between the different forms of life. In the West, we made a foolish error when we uncoupled ourselves from the interdependencies in the period misguidedly called the Enlightenment, and started to treat human history and natural history as two separate and unrelated processes. I stress unrelated. This was the folly. Human history has in fact always been related to natural history. It has depended on natural history. We are now finally waking up to that reality, when it is already almost too late to do anything about it.

The Darwinian scale of evolution therefore places changes in the environment – the air, the sun, the temperature, the geological and oceanic foundation – as preceding organic changes in evolution. The former happen quickly. The latter happen slowly. Earth has seen the former stabilise for the last 10,000 years, during which the forms of life we now know and experience have evolved, some slowly, some very slowly. Evolution of organisms does not happen quickly. And here is the conclusion of this scale. The climate on the planet is changing quickly at the moment, as a result of the rapid rise in the temperature caused by the speed with which carbon concentrations have increased in the atmosphere. These changes require nearly all forms of life to evolve in order to survive. But almost none of them can evolve quickly enough, and that is why we might be facing the 6th Mass Extinction event that we know about, the first for 65 million years.

Unless our world leaders can put it right.

Would it be useful for them to remember what went wrong in previous COPs? We can, after all, learn from our mistakes. The problems have nearly always been the same. Hesitation and disagreement caused by national vested interests in maintaining the status quo, rather than making the changes necessary for common action against a common threat. These, most obviously, have related to preserving the Oil & Gas industry at the heart of the global economy.

The US was instrumental in torpedoing the first attempt at a Climate Change Treaty at Nordwijk in The Netherlands, precursor to the COPs, the first ever international climate change conference in 1989. George Bush senior had just become President, and under his direction, the US delegation vetoed the treaty. George Bush had co-founded and helped develop Zapata Petroleum Corporation in 1953 until 1966, when he started his political career, during which his involvement and intervention in support of the expansion of the US industry helped shape today’s energy landscape. He aligned his private, political and commercial interests alongside an Oil & Gas sector which had done much to define the US.

This sad image shows the American party excluded from the talks, which had been campaigning for change in recognition of the harm done by OIl & Gas, and the threats it represented then. They saw the harm coming, they thought the US delegation shared their vision, and expected success in originating the first global treaty to take action to protect us all from these dangers. When the picture was taken, they were still happy people. It was not to last much longer. Rafe Pomerance, who led this campaign initially from his role as head of Friends of the Earth, never gave up, spent the 90s as an advisor to Bill Clinton’s administration, and is still campaigning today.

Bill Clinton did sign up the US to the adoption of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which gave birth to the COPs in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit. However, five years later the Kyoto Protocol, drafted at the third COP and designed to execute the Framework Convention, was once again torpedoed by the US, when George W. Bush, now the newly elected President, refused to ratify it in 2001. It is, predictably, relevant to note here that George W. Bush had spent the 80s and 90s prior to his election, as Director and Chairman respectively of a variety of Oil & Gas companies. As with his father in 1989, it would be fair to say that the US decision by the new President was not motivated by ignorance, but we can place it at the corrupt end of the scale. Bush was protecting the interests of his own family, and others of his like. It was undoubtedly made in full knowledge of the dangers facing the world as a result of the increase in carbon emissions.

The world looked on in disbelief, nowhere more so than drought and famine ridden parts of Africa.

Global agreement and coordinated action is, of course, extraordinarily difficult to achieve. But it is possible. It depends on the shared understanding of the common problem and perceptions of its urgency. Ironically, the 80s were witness to an extraordinary example of it. The Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987 just two years before the failure at Nordwijk, united the world’s leaders in a global regulation designed to address the growing hole in the ozone layer: phasing out and banning the production of CFCs, the propellant in aerosol sprays. It has been completely successful.

We have another example of rapid action taken globally in the face of an urgent problem with the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, this has not been the same exactly. Nation states have all taken separate measures to combat Covid. There has been limited cooperation between countries, and no global measures have been adopted at all. In fact, at the outset of the crisis, Donald Trump (the US, yet again) actually withdrew from the World Health Organisation in a flurry of accusation and counter-accusation. More recently, unseemly arguments over vaccination stocks have been notable in delaying the ending of the pandemic. But the speed of movement is worth considering. When we have to act quickly, our leaders can take action with uncharacteristic speed.

So what can we expect in the coming weeks? Is this problem now urgent enough for our leaders to set aside the vested interests that prop up their own administrations? Is it clear enough that their own populations are going to suffer severely as a result of the problem, and are already suffering?

We must hope for the best. There is still time to do what we need. But we need our wisest to finally act with the impartial wisdom they should have been applying from the start.