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COP26 – at last!

By Jonathon Porritt, founder-director of Forum for the Future
COP26 – at last!

This article first appeared in our COP26 issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 05 November 2021. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Frankly, it’s ridiculous that so much should depend on the brief coming together of an uncertain number of world leaders to ‘sort out’, once and for all, a climate emergency that another bunch of world leaders first agreed to sort out, once and for all, nearly 30 years ago at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

I was there. In my naivety, I genuinely thought that this was the turning point – rather than the preamble to 30 years of ‘blah, blah, blah’, in Greta Thunberg’s memorable and wholly appropriate words.

It’s not that nothing has happened during that time. It’s wonderful to be sharing this space with Christiana Figueres, the stubbornest optimist of all and architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement that so inspirationally got us back on track after 23 of those blah-blah-blah-filled years. Her take on COP26 on the following pages says it all.

From rhetoric to action

If rhetorical foreplay were anything to go by, the COP26 climax should be formidable. What would once have been dismissed as the fevered ranting of green extremists now trips effortlessly off the tongues of Boris Johnson and a host of world leaders heading to Glasgow.

We have to take heart from that: whatever the still massive gap between rhetoric and action, getting to grips with the full gut-wrenching reality of the climate emergency does not come easily for any of us.

A word of praise, therefore, for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), set up by governments back in 1988. Without a doubt, it represents the single-most important collective scientific endeavour the world’s ever seen.

It was the work of the IPCC that shaped the Earth Summit’s most important output: the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change. And it will be the work of the IPCC, through its latest Assessment Report published just a few weeks ago (described by António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, as ‘code red for humanity’), that will have the biggest influence on those world leaders as they gather together in Glasgow.

Irreversible impacts

If there’s one single word in that report that I would like to see emblazoned over the podium of every pontificating politician, it is this: ‘irreversible’.

With specific reference both to ocean acidification (of which we hear far too little) and to rising sea levels (of which – challengingly – we’re hearing more and more), the Assessment Report talks of irreversible impacts ‘over hundreds or even thousands of years’, with a minimum of a metre average sea level rise now projected by 2100, and possibly as much as two metres.

These impacts flow from a 1.1°C average temperature increase since the start of the Industrial Revolution, alongside all the other accelerating and intensifying climate disasters.

We must therefore be very nervous indeed when we contemplate the potentially irreversible impacts of a 2°C average temperature increase – let alone of what may lie beyond.

It’s not too late

In case the mind-numbing science of the IPCC isn’t sufficient (God help us!), we should be thankful that the ‘politics’ of COP26 will be shaped as much by the voice of progressive companies (louder, more authentic and more impactful than ever before), by the more and more powerful presence of young people, demanding substantive outcomes that free us of the pernicious, life-crushing poison of blah, blah, blah and by the timely reminder that the number of people prepared to take direct action (to force the ditherers, the hypocrites and the ‘predatory delayers’ – intent only on slowing everything down – to step up) is growing all the time.

Such tactics may not command universal approval or respect, but widespread civil disobedience is very much a sign of things to come.

As Christiana says in Radical Change is Possible, it’s not too late. But we also know that it won’t be ‘not too late’ for very much longer. Which really does make COP26 a very big deal indeed.

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