My History with the COPs
My first COP was number 15, in the dark Copenhagen December of 2009.
A sense of urgency pervaded the weeks and months before the conference. The questionably-effective Kyoto Protocol was set to expire in a few short years. “The time is short!” was the rallying cry. “We need climate action now!”
All these years later, it sounds quaint and naive. Or maybe it just rings hollow.
I arrived at the Bella Center early on the second day. I presented my credentials, eager to get started.
It soon felt like I’d missed the “hope and promise” part. By Monday evening, the consensus was the thing had already gone off the rails. We still had two weeks to go. An inauspicious start to my first COP. There’s always next time, right?
The next time for me was six years later and a lesson in contrast.
COP 21 and the World We Hoped Was Possible
I arrived in Paris in 2015 on the eve of a historic gathering of heads of state to launch COP21. Unlike Copenhagen, the halls at Le Bourget buzzed with excitement, possibility, and hope. The Eiffel Tower shone bathed in blue light.
While many unresolved challenges remained on the table, the failed promise of climate finance chief among them, an aspirational agreement was adopted. The Paris Accord was signed by 192 countries plus the EU, showing the world that consensus is possible.
The Paris Accord expressed aspiration when we needed it. Symbolism inspires and informs action.
Everyone went home, knowing that it was only a start. A late start, at that. Ensuing COPs would hammer out the details, determine mechanisms, and “rachet up ambitions.” We had an agreement signed by nearly every nation on the planet.
Is It COP27 Already? This is All We Have to Show For It?
With COP27 fading in the rearview mirror, I am disillusioned that after nearly 30 years of high-level, ostensibly sincere negotiations, there remains so much unrealized aspiration.
After decades of pleas and promises, it took until 2022 for the COP process to as much as formally address loss and damage compensation–it was a “step toward justice.”
But it wasn’t easy. Unsurprisingly, various negotiating alliances dug in their heels into the wee final hours of COP27, culminating in bleary-eyed negotiators canceling their weekend flights home to hash it out.
By the early hours of Sunday morning, November 20, leaders snatched provisional victory from utter failure with an agreement establishing a loss and damage fund. Another aspirational win. Rack it up with all rest of the unrealized goals, targets, and promises that, seven years on from Paris, hung heavy.
COP27 was hailed as a success. Funding for loss and damage is on the books, but it is an empty bucket. The money, mechanisms, and parameters are all unsettled details. Something for COP28 to hammer out.
But COP27 is, in too many ways, a failure. No progress on emissions, waffling on the language of fossil fuels–phase down vs. phase out–and a weakening commitment to warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the century’s end. Indeed, on our current trajectory, we are almost sure to barrel past that target by the decade’s end. We’ve been through a lot these past few years, and the future for many of us feels uncertain. Another year passes, more promises are made, and the signs of a shifting climate become starker.
It’s fair to question if we’re fighting a losing battle.
Naming the Monster
We don’t like to think about the end of the world or our part, collectively and individually, in bringing it about. But not thinking about it only hastens its arrival.
In her article “How to Live in a Catastrophe—In search of a way to think about the planetary crisis,” Elizabeth Weil posits that we must “name the monster” before we can slay it—referring to Dr. Susan Kassouf’s paper Thinking Catastrophic Thoughts: A Traumatized Sensibility on a Hotter Planet.
Kassouf argues that catastrophizing “does not turn molehills into mountains.” Instead, says Kassouf, “Developing our capacity to think catastrophic thoughts,” Kassouf writes, is what will allow us to “translate thought into long-overdue action and make change in the world.”
Weil writes that reading Kassouf “validated the idea that naming the monster was not only emotionally healthy; naming the monster was the real means to keep that monster from unleashing its full destructive power. So let’s start there: Yes, it’s a catastrophe. We need to catastrophize. And no, you would not be better off if you continued to tell yourself otherwise.”
The Age of Catastrophe
Existential philosopher Günther Anders fled Nazi Germany in 1933 for New York and eventually Hollywood. Weil describes him as an “A-plus” catastrophic thinker.
A student of Martin Heidegger and married to Hannah Arendt, Anders suggested that the horrors of the Second World War–particularly the Holocaust and the Atom Bomb–destabilized our human sensibilities so much that we no longer knew what time it was.
With the mushroom cloud rising above Hiroshima in August of 1945, the terms of humanity’s planetary tenure forever changed. Our tendency to our inhumanity towards humans now transformed into the potential extinction of an entire species (and other species in its wake). The common era slipped into a New Age. Welcome to Year 77 in the Age of Catastrophe.
Anders’ thinking is prescient for us today as we grapple with how to think about planetary change. In her article, Weil recounts how Anders cast the story of Noah and the Flood to illustrate how we can respond to forces larger than ourselves, forces that we have unleashed.
In his telling, Noah goes to the village dressed in mourning cloth. When the villagers ask who in his clan had died, Noah tells them it is they who have died. Confused and obviously alive, they ask, “here we are; when did we die?”
“Tomorrow,” Noah replies. “The day after tomorrow, the flood will be something that has been. And when the flood will have been, everything that is will never have existed.”
Noah says that waiting until the day after tomorrow to accept this reality will be too late. “The flood will have carried off everything that is, everything that will have been.” The Age of Calamity will come to an end.
“If I have come before you,” says Noah, “it is to reverse time, to mourn tomorrow’s dead today.”
Noah returns to his workshop outside the village. Later that evening, a villager arrives at Noah’s door: “Let me help you build an ark so that it may become false.”
Where Does This Leave Us?
We must name the monster, believe it is real, and coming for all of us.In the Age of Calamity, we must imagine our demise as if it were true and work back from there to make it false. In other words, hope is when we stop fooling ourselves.
Is it possible to put the Genie back in the bottle? That remains a gaping question. It is difficult to see it happening at a COP. Maybe COP28, 29, or 30? Despite our heretofore best efforts, we steamroll in the wrong direction.
It may feel like we’re just moving deckchairs on the Titanic. In the Age of Catastrophe, there is yet time to begin building lifeboats.