Two headline articles published in close proximity to each other on The Guardian’s digital homepage earlier this week perfectly encapsulated my skepticism toward political will in dealing with urgent environmental crises.
COP26 is being hyped as the environmental event of the year, but let’s not pretend that it is the only event unfolding this year.
The first presents a very up-beat John Kerry, special envoy for climate to President Biden, sharing their optimism (and teasing a bit of insider knowledge) for the meaningful commitments and actions to be announced at the up-coming COP26 in Glasgow, which is opening at the end of the month.
COP26 is the five-year follow-up (although delayed one year due to COVID) to the 2015 Paris Agreement which was intended to keep climate warming to “well under” 2C and closer to 1.5C. Nations did not strike sufficiently ambitious, nor concrete, plans within the Paris Agreement itself to meet these objectives (in fact, current national plans to reduce emissions actually lead to a 16% increase in emissions). Now, the follow-up COP26 (that is, the Conference of the Parties--being all those nations that have signed on to the agreement to begin with) is being framed as a last effort to rise to the occasion to meaningfully hold climate change in check and avoid some of the worst consequences for decades to come.
To read the article is to imagine that nations around the world are finally ready to overcome obstacles and prioritize global cooperation ahead of national self-interest, to finally act on climate change in a manner consistent with what the scientific community and countless activists and stakeholders have been saying for decades. The exclusive summary of a discussion with John Kerry is the teaser piece that a better world is about to be unveiled...stay tuned for details to be released at the COP26.
The second article presents a much more dire situation. It is about the FSO Safer, a single-hulled oil tanker which has been drifting abandoned since 2017 off the coast of Yemen, and which is now in immediate risk of explosion, leaking, or collapse. The tanker is holding oil equivalent to four-times the volume spilled by the Exxon Valdez off the coast of Alaska in 1989.
I encourage you to read the article itself for a more detailed discussion of the impending impacts of such an oil spill, but suffice to say that it is a ticking time-bomb of sufficient ecological, humanitarian, and economic magnitude to go down in history as a ‘global event’. Collapsed fisheries, blocked ports, decimated coral reefs and marine ecosystems, starvation, shuttered power generators, off-line water desalination, stalled humanitarian aid, delayed global trade, and, to compound the impacts, challenges, and misery, all within the region of a failed state.
The challenge is clear and the consequences are known, but local governance is locked in a power battle with the United Nations while action is delayed and the risks grow by the minute.
At its core, it is a delay centered on money. Financial considerations fueled the poor maintenance of the ship. Financial considerations made the abandonment of the ship a viable alternative. Financial considerations are leveraging the temporary power this situation provides to local governments. Financial considerations are leading the only international agency yet to be interested in acting for the common good to be unable to actually do so.
FSO Safer & COP26
Yet the global community could come together and prevent this catastrophe for what would likely amount to less than the cost of simply hosting the COP26 in Glasgow at the end of the month. Yes, there are a few diplomatic considerations at play as well as a few details to be worked out in the actual salvage operation, but these considerations are minor and easily addressed by willing partners.
You want me to believe that the world’s nations are on the brink of historic agreement to avert the worst consequences of climate change after decades of failed initiatives and empty rhetoric, yet at the same time these same nations can’t come together to address a clear and present danger.
The ecological and humanitarian catastrophe barreling down on the coast of Yemen is clearly understood, unfolding in a manageable timeframe, and potentially resolved at a meagre, if not outright negligible, cost. Step up and get it done.
If not, then cancel the COP26. Because if we can’t get it right on this then why should we believe we can get it right on climate change which is much less clearly understood, unfolding in timeframes beyond our personal perspectives, and requiring drastic and immeasurable changes to the global economy--a budget we can model but never truly know.
Earn Our Trust
I do hope for positive outcomes from COP26. We need leadership and commitment on climate change. We needed it 40 years ago, but later this month could work as well if we must wait a few more weeks. But what we don’t need are more empty promises and political grandstanding. This is about the fate of the world, not a campaign event.
COP26 is being hyped as the environmental event of the year, but let’s not pretend that it is the only event unfolding this year. Everyday is an opportunity for elected officials to demonstrate the leadership we need. Don’t tell me what you are going to do, show me what you are doing.
Promises of future actions emanating from the COP26 aren’t going to be worth the fancy letterhead they are printed on if the Yemen is slicked with oil while we all watch yet another entirely foreseeable and preventable environmental and humanitarian catastrophe unfold.
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